A Love Letter to Jiu-Jitsu
Weekly Newsletter 02
Originally published in my Medium publication, “e-motional” on April 21, 2021.
We’re well past the honeymoon phase, Jiu-Jitsu and I. In fact, it’s right around our 6th anniversary. We’re long past the honeymoon phase. I mean, you could say we’re basically married.
Like any relationship, there are good days, bad days, and days where I don’t really feel much of anything at all. Sometimes I think I’m going to do this forever, and some days I want to quit and ride off on my horseback into the sunset.
But I guess that’s love.
Today’s one of the especially good days, so I figured I’d write something to express the gratitude I have for the sport that’s given my life purpose for the past 6 years. I have mixed feelings about gratitude. Expressing it obsessively dulls the power of it, but in my experience, if you constantly shove down how you really feel, regret will consume you. Plus, apart from pity, there’s never a bad reason to show your gratitude.
The Early Years
It all really began when I was a senior in high school. At 17, I awkwardly stumbled into a Jiu-Jitsu academy desperate for something that resembled purpose just a few weeks after I had finished my underwhelming wrestling career. At first, all I really wanted was an outlet for my misplaced and overgrown teenage angst, but slowly I began to fall in love with the intricacies of Jiu-Jitsu. The “Jiu-Jitsu World” sucked me in.
Suddenly, I had something “bigger than myself” to commit to. I had something to help me find out who I really am. That really is what is Jiu-Jitsu is to me: a journey of exposure. Character exposure. You only need to dig a bit to find it.
Jiu-Jitsu is called a “martial art”, but I feel it’s far more intricate and goal-oriented than a medium of artistic physical expression. It’s a physical expression of controlled violence using a tested systematic approach. We call Jiu-Jitsu a “martial art”, but we learn the art using the scientific method. Really, it’s the intersection of art and science, a combination of dance and physics that leads to the overcoming of obstacles.
My experience in the early days of training wasn’t particularly unique, but it was probably more intense than most. I’m highly sensitive, and when I began training I was starving for purpose. The constant feeling of new stimuli and new opportunities was addictive. I’d never felt like I was “good” at anything before I started winning Jiu-Jitsu matches. It was ecstasy.
Like any relationship, the early days were beautiful because there was no pressure, no pain, and no expectations. It was just fun. Nowadays, I miss that childlike ignorance I had as a brand new white and blue belt.
Fun Dies, Love Lasts
Over time, the fun faded away. Reality set in. But I guess, that’s growing up.
For me, the fun died because Jiu-Jitsu became “who I am” instead of something I did. Sure, it wasn’t paying my bills when I was 19 years old, but I latched on to the dream of being a world champion like I was in a desert and it was the last puddle of water for miles. I needed a purpose, so I jumped on that train and never looked back.
That was a dumb thing to do.
An obsessive pursuit of gold medals and external validation is all you need to kill what was once “fun” and make it something that you dread. Relying on something for self-esteem that can be taken from you with just one wrong move or one bad twist of a knee is not the path to happiness, it’s a path to a sort of athletic codependency. My juvenile obsession with external validation has led to countless injuries, depression, anger, and finally, injury again.
It’s a painful groundhog day, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Destroying my body has made me realize that the sport doesn’t love me the way I thought it did. In fact, it’s indifferent to my existence.
That was a tougher pill to swallow than it should have been.
You can’t love things the way they do in the movies. Your sport, your job, or your relationships are not “who you are”, they’re just a part of your experience. I am not Jiu-Jitsu, I’m a person who does Jiu-Jitsu (albeit quite a lot of it). The opportunities from the sport may change your life — they have for me — and the people you meet may save your life, but nothing you get from the sport will give you what you can’t give yourself.
That’s why it’s complicated between Jiu-Jitsu and me.
What I’ve Learned
When you realize that you have to exist beyond what you do, you have to figure out what brought you to what you do in the first place. What did you need? It’s more difficult than you might think because, at the beginning of any pursuit, you probably didn’t really think about what you were looking for or what you were missing from your life.
This requires a deep amount of self-awareness.
In the end, you get from Jiu-Jitsu what you want to get from Jiu-Jitsu. If you’re an ego-maniac looking for a power trip, learning to fight will give that to you. Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t “make you a good person” or whatever other bullshit you’ll see in Instagram captions, Jiu-Jitsu makes you a more powerful version of what you are.
For me, it was about purpose. I’ve gone from having no purpose, resilience, or self-belief to having all of that and more. I needed something to give me a reason to wake up in the morning. I needed a reason to strive to be the best version of myself. But most of all, I needed a reason to see what I was really capable of.
As it turns out, I’m capable of more than I thought.
That’s why the gold medals are great, but it’s never been about them. Victories come and go. Teaching people to improve their skills is incredibly fulfilling, but it goes even deeper than that. For me, it’s been about learning that I’m far stronger than I can consciously feel, and I can apply that strength to any room that I walk into and help make it a better place.
I like to think that I always knew what it took to be the person I wanted to become, but Jiu-Jitsu gave me the strength to get up and do it. It didn’t “teach” me to do anything and it definitely didn’t “save my life”, but it exposed who I am and made me stronger.
The Future is Bright
“If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.” — Miyamoto Musashi
The most important lesson from these past 6 years isn’t a fancy move or how to optimally train for a tournament, it’s that whatever I’ve gotten out of this martial art is really inside of me, and it’s been there all along. I just needed a little help to find it.
I don’t know where Jiu-Jitsu and I will go from here, but I know that I won’t go anywhere soon. I’m free to quit whenever I want, but that’s exactly why I feel so compelled to stay and ride this wave as long as I can. Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t care if I train, compete, or retire young and open a diner in bumblefuck Colorado (one of my common fantasy retirements), but I do, and I want to see what happens next.
Through the ups, downs, twists, and turns, I love Jiu-Jitsu, and I’ll be forever grateful for what I’ve learned during these past 6 years and the years to come. I just hope that the future holds less back pain than the present, but only time will tell.
Other Articles Published in the Last 7 Days
I usually do a bulk of my writing on the weekend and I was in Houston competing last weekend, so that’s all I have for you this week!
What I’m Reading
Literally just last night I finished Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by psychologist Angela Duckworth. It’s a decent read offering some compelling studies and interesting stories to back up the idea that success comes from persisting through struggle. If you’re looking to learn more about grit as a concept but don’t want to invest in the book, check out Duckworth’s TED Talk, I highly recommend it.
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Wishing you the best,