Winning Jiu Jitsu
Without Actually Competing
I’ve been thinking about my goals in jiu jitsu lately, and relatedly, my notion of success in jiu jitsu. Success in life is tricky, but success in jiu jitsu is just plain weird. I’m at that point now where other achievements are meaningful for me that I don’t have to lay my entire value on winning in the objective sense, but still, my thinking often defaults to the basic idea that “shiny medals = good.”
Currently, the conventional definition of success in jiu jitsu is to win major titles and to win them while you’re still young. Going pro is not unusual for teenagers, and today, you have 12-year-olds talking about the value of humility in jiu jitsu and overcoming loss. (Insert the “I don’t know about you, but at age 12 I was [insert a basic anecdote likely related to Pokemon or middle school drama]).
With the rising groundswell of talented youngsters who simply have more time to achieve whatever they want to achieve, it can drive the Type A overachiever in me absolutely insane. The feeling comes from, oh, I don’t know, likely conditioning plus a little bit of insecurity and likely basic human impulses, blah blah blah…
However, as I’ve progressed more in my own journey, I’ve come to realize that I am starting to care less about what other people think my definition of success should be in jiu jitsu, or frankly, in life. With that realization I’ve found that I experience a new sort of freedom when it comes to my jiu jitsu practice, one that isn’t predicated on external events, but rather my individual, internal experience.
The reason why I avoided internal validation for so long is because I couldn’t be bothered to trust my own judgment of what was good for me, or what good I had done. The vast majority of my life was getting someone else to tell me, yes, you sure did a good job, and now carry on. After all, there was no shortage for external validation, particularly in the days when I had social media.
If you achieve something awesome and no one else likes it, is it still awesome?
Internal success is invisible to your followers, potential or current sponsors, your coaches, your rivals, your co-workers, your teammates, and your friends (jiu jitsu and non-jiu jitsu alike). It is, frankly, in our era of broadcasting everything, a little bit boring and old-fashioned.
Meaningful connections are great, yes, and so are celebrating your successes publicly.
The problem arises when the motivation and the value of the achievement is strongly dependent on the level of validation you receive in the process or at the endpoint. I would know — I’ve been there with countless achievements in my own life where I thought I would be happy. Yet even with the praise of others, the fact is, my victory felt hollow because it had not filled me up as a person.
In 2015, Tammi Muscemeci became the World No Gi champion, but what she says about her internal experience is worth noting.
This past weekend I competed at the 2015 No-Gi World Championships and was able to secure the gold medal in my division against some of the best competitors in the world. I am really thankful and happy for this, but for me personally, competing is more than chasing medals and winning.
It is about the fun I have doing it and overcoming my own obstacles and proving to myself that I can do what I set out to do. Every person has a set of unique limitations and hardships that can be detrimental in overcoming the various challenges that they are faced with in life. The problem however, is that only the person experiencing the pain knows what their obstacles are and only they can overcome them. I know my struggles and deal with them daily.
This is why this weekend was such a victory for me.
If a “world champion” understands that they have to look beyond the medal to find personal success and meaning, then it’s all the more crucial that plain ol’ hobbyists (multiple time bronze medalist!) like me can seek out other opportunities, too.
Developing your own sense of success and assurance into what you are doing is right for you is not easy. Nor is it a one-time process. For most of us, there is a lot of self-doubt for us to undo, and old habits to break. There are, probably, unconscious patterns that we are falling into that don’t have an easy way out with logic, much to my chagrin. I think it comes down to ultimately understanding where your own values are, and expressing them without reference to others and in the affirmation. Actually listening to your own emotions about what gets you excited and consciously taking steps to avoid places that only care to rain on parades.
The list I made for internal success in jiu jitsu includes:
Staying healthy and injury free (or recovering and rehabbing from injuries properly)
Using the struggles on the mat as inspiration to face those problems off the mat (e.g., confrontation, perfectionism, anxiety)
Taking time to reflect on my journey instead of just jumping to the next thing
Being open to failure and mistakes (defeating imposter syndrome)
Building a sustainable lifestyle that allows me to train jiu jitsu regularly
Having a REAL answer to when someone asks me the question “besides jiu jitsu, what else do you do to have fun?”
Reading books and collecting knowledge that will help me on the mats
Taking an interest/active role in developing special skills or techniques
Remembering that jiu jitsu can be a hobby, not just a career or lifestyle
Doing brave things/being brave
Sticking to one theme for a month or more for drilling practice (no shiny-move syndrome or “this is too hard so I give up” mindset)
Trusting my own independent study of techniques
My list focuses on the process and developing feelings of trust and independence with myself. Your list will probably be different. Perhaps it is a bit of smugness, but I think that if the majority of items on the list are essentially copy and paste renderings of awards and titles that others have already achieved in the past, then it’s not quite expansive in the way someone’s lifetime should be. Particularly for those of us with privilege to practice jiu jitsu regularly, I feel that putting in the creative time and energy to make such a list is the least I can do to honor the options that I have.
I’ve been told before by a former coach that I lack the will to win (ironically, his first name is a synonym of the word “winner”). In some ways, I’ve gotten over the statement, but in some other ways, I have not. It was hurtful at first but it now just strikes me at how reductive the thinking is.
As one training partner and friend pointed out to me, there are more frameworks to characterize your jiu jitsu experience than being a winner OR a loser. Even a small tweak in the phrase to be “winner and loser” is a vast improvement over the original. At least, this statement acknowledges the endless cycle of besting others in training but then being bested yourself. Sometimes in the same month, same class, same partner…same round, even. And, putting aside the lens of diametric opposites, what if the measurement in degrees? Perhaps, one person is more skilled in a certain technique, for sure, but could they be less effective when asked to do the same on their non-dominant side?
This is not about degrading other people’s awards or accomplishments. This isn’t about overly intellectualizing jiu jitsu competition, or advocating for participation awards, or trying to be the one who “doesn’t need to outrun the bear, just the person behind you.” This is not a race to the bottom or an endorsement of mediocrity.
This is about taking steps to deepen your experience in jiu jitsu; about a conscious rejection of selecting the most readily available goals; and about finding autonomy to re-evaluate your priorities when it feels right to do so.
“If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
― Audre Lorde