This article was published in Jiu-Jitsu Style – Europe’s premier BJJ magazine which is available in both print and digital format. Check out Jiu-Jitsu Style for future Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood articles.
When I meet people and the topic of my training and teaching in BJJ comes up, very often I’m asked why I chose to devote so much of my life to it, both as a passion and a career. Up until about a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give a decent answer; but in an effort to understand my personal motivations for becoming involved with the gentle art of BJJ, I began to think about it more and more and the answers, in time revealed themselves to me.
I could say that “sure, most of the time it’s a lot of fun” – but there are a lot of things that are just as fun and that don’t involve me being strangled by sweaty guys. The simple answer of ‘I enjoy it’ isn’t enough, because in all honesty, there have been periods when I’ve hated jiu-jitsu. Why? Well, when I decided to make it my career it suddenly became really hard; or perhaps rather, I made it really hard on myself. The pressure I put on myself started to drain all the joy out of it.
What was once something that represented absolute freedom to me suddenly started to feel stifling and became a chore. Ironically, I became burned out on the art of BJJ by my burning desire to perfect it. There were also times when I lost momentum. A couple of months after I had received my black belt and after the initial elation had worn off, I lost the remaining motivation that had fuelled me up until that point. There was a moment when I seriously considered turning my back on BJJ entirely. But as all of you reading this know, once Jiu-Jitsu is in your bones, it’s in them forever. The gentle art called me back, as it always has and always will.
That young kid who thought that the Gracies were gods, or that getting a black belt would solve all of his problems, is gone. In his place is a man who will never forget that Jiu-Jitsu was, in a large way, the making of him. I know that I’ll be playing this crazy game of white cloth and tangled bodies for a long time yet, and at least now I think I know why:
“Everything connected with war and warlike exploits is interesting to a boy.”
Ever since I was I kid I’ve loved fighting and combat. I’m not sure when it started, and I’m not sure where it came from – maybe it’s just wired into me. Some of my earliest and strongest memories are of conducting grand battles across the living room using my Masters of the Universe action figures, or re-enacting ‘Hulk Hogan versus Ultimate Warrior Battles’ with my brother on my parents’ bed. The testing of the strength of one entity (be it man, animal or army) against another has always been an fascination of mine. I’ve just always wanted to know. I can’t remember how many times I’ve asked my friends questions such as: “who would win in a fight, a tiger or a gorilla?”
Human beings are a war-like species. It’s something that has taken me long time to accept. War, and on a micro level, combat between individuals, has defined our species throughout our history on this planet. Grappling, in one form or another, can ultimately be traced back to our origins. Wrestling is the oldest sport known to man. It began as ritual in which males competed over mating rights for the females of the tribe. Somewhere in your bloodline, one of your ancestors beat another man in a wrestling match, or survived a battle and earned the right to procreate and survive. This has happened many, many times over thousands of years – grappling and fighting has been bred into you.
That’s why combat sports like Wrestling, Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai call to you, they are simply reminding you of something that’s always been there, something that’s encoded into your very DNA. If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend “the Last Wrestlers” by Marcus Trower.
“You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s.”
Applying Robert Frost’s wisdom to my own life was a big revelation for me. Understanding that at the root of a lot my behavior – in particular my path as a Jiu-Jitsu fighter – was the fact that I was trying to win the pride and approval of my father. However, this isn’t a trait exclusive to me, I’ve noticed is that if you trace back the family history of many fighters you can find the common thread is either an absent father or a poor relationship between that fighter and his father.
Perhaps then it will come as no surprise that my dad is a martial artist too, and so the drive to emulate him must have been imprinted on my psyche when I was very young. Don’t get me wrong, my old man’s great and I love him, but we didn’t always see eye to eye and for whatever reason, there were many times that I felt that I didn’t live up to his expectations. It’s hard to quantify how much of my motivation to face other men in combat was ultimately attributable to the little kid inside me saying “Dad look at me! I’m strong!” Whilst it doesn’t constitute my entire motivation, it’s definitely a factor.
Understanding this issue has allowed me to move beyond it. However, having peeled away that layer of understanding, I am faced with the even scarier prospect that perhaps this journey into Jiu-Jitsu was essentially about me trying to prove something to myself.
“I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming.”
Personal development has long been an subject I have given priority to in my life and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training has been a catalyst for my own growth on so many levels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked across at an adversary before a match and thought “I really don’t want to do this” only to shake his hand afterwards, energized by new understandings of my psyche. Nor how many times I’ve dreaded an upcoming class in which I knew that a younger, stronger and faster brown-belt was waiting to tear my head off in front of my students. Yet walking home later that night, battered and spent, I’ve always derived satisfaction from knowing I was a stronger person for having faced my fears.
Human beings are emotional creatures: to feel is a big part of being human. Some of the experiences I have had in Jiu-Jitsu have taken me to the limits of my emotional consciousness – to my highest highs and lowest lows. On the mat I’ve known fear, elation, anger, doubt, pride, and despair. Jiu-Jitsu takes me to my ‘edge’ – beyond the limits of my comfort zone into uncharted territory. As a man, I always want to know where that edge is, and to stay as close to it as possible because it’s there that I know I will experience the most growth and feel the most alive.
Jiu-Jitsu not only builds physical strength, but strength of character. When some guy cuts me off in traffic and I want to get off my bike and pull him out of his car and lay a beating down on him, Jiu-Jitsu is what stops me. Not because Jiu-Jitsu necessarily builds some kind of mystical self-control, many times in my life I’ve had absolutely no control. Rather, Jiu-Jitsu has enabled me to recognize my emotions and rationalize them, to understand that certain feelings will pass. I can recognize these feelings because they are not strangers but old friends – friends that I’ve met in the dojo and the ring many times before. Jiu-Jitsu has reinforced the importance of not repressing them, the recognition that to do so will only lead to inadvertently strengthening them. Instead, Jiu-Jitsu is a medium through which I can learn to understand these feelings and allow them to dissipate.
“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real”
For the first few years Jiu-Jitsu was easy for me. I had already done Judo for most of my childhood and I was always a reasonably strong guy so I picked it up pretty quickly. There was a period where I couldn’t find many sparring partners to challenge me: I was a big fish in a small pond. A couple of years later everything changed. I was exposed to a level of opponents that forced me to face my shortcomings as both an athlete and a person.
Nobody is really humbled when they’re a chump in a white belt. Sure, your ego might take a little bruising when you’re a complete beginner as the more advanced students rough you up a little. But the real lesson is going to come when you get really good. When you’re shit-hot and you’re beating most of the guys in the academy, that’s when your ego is going to feel it.
No matter how tough you are or how skilled you become, it’s a truism that there’s always going to be somebody stronger and better. And it’s when you’ve put your heart and soul into it, when you’ve spent years on the mat ‘honing the blade’, only to be bettered by another man, that’s when it’s really going to hurt.
Sparring in Jiu-Jitsu and submission grappling is a very ‘real’ experience. There are no teammates, no coaches, no bats, no balls. The only thing you have to rely on is your own ability. When you spar with someone you are putting yourself on the line. You are making the statement: “This is me, this is what I am capable of. This is my strength.”
Sooner or later this strength will fail you and you will stare your vulnerabilities in the face. The beautiful thing is that this cannot help but engender a spirit of humility in you – and if you haven’t yet learned that humility is the essence of the martial artist’s journey….well then train a little longer my friend.