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I Got My Black Belt In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Here’s what it actually taught me about life.
When I was 18, I thought that getting my black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu would solve all my problems.
I thought that once I had a Jiu-Jitsu black belt, I could open a gym, and then a few years of hard work after that, I’d be “set”.
This was a dumb thought, but it sounded nice at the time.
I thought that shortly after had my black belt, I’d get some money, get myself married, have a kid, and then from there, I could just coast until death.
I was so anxious about my future at 18 that all I really wanted was a life that allowed me to coast until death. The thought of working some job I hated until I died made me furious. I just wanted to feel safe, so I entered an insanely unpredictable field and decided to make that my career.
At 18, I entered the unpredictable world of combat sports, and about 7 years later (I’ll be 25 this summer), I got my black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Here’s what I actually learned about life during these 7 years of constant training. It might not be what you expect.
Anxiety is like getting squished by a giant guy.
In Jiu-Jitsu, when you get your guard passed, get choked, or get put in any other bad situation, you’re forced to do something.
You’re forced to deal with the fact that you are in a crappy situation.
Anxiety is the same way. When you have an experience with anxiety, you have to deal with the fact that you are having a really uncomfortable experience at a really uncomfortable time. You have to deal with it. There’s nothing else you can do.
Sorry for the tough love. That’s going to be a theme in this one.
No matter what situation you’re in, however, whether it’s the anxiety attack at the train station, cutting those last few grams to get to 77 kilos, or getting squished by some giant dude at the gym, either way, you may be anxious, but the situation will pass.
It may (and probably does) feel horrible, but anxiety always goes away. It only seems to last forever at the moment.
No single thing will make your existence feel complete.
When I say that Jiu-Jitsu was my entire life from 18–22, most people don’t really understand what I mean by that.
Everything that I did was designed to make me a better grappler. My mindset was that everything I did either made me a better grappler or a worse one. There was no in-between.
Life was black and white. Life was simple.
I went to school and worked a few part-time jobs here or there, but in reality, Jiu-Jitsu was the center of everything. I picked my college based on where I was going to get the highest volume of quality training while keeping my living expenses low. I picked my major based on which major would minimize workload and allow me to train anymore. I made sure I was at every single major tournament.
Every single thing that I did was based on being the best possible grappler that I could be, and I was absolutely miserable.
I was incomplete until I started doing the writing thing.
When I started balancing writing with Jiu-Jitsu, I was able to scratch both my intellectual and physical itches, and I began to feel more mentally complete than I’d ever felt before. This was a sensation that no amount of training could give me.
If I only write, I feel like something is missing. If I only do Jiu-Jitsu, I’m incomplete as well. In order to be the most dynamic version of myself, I need to train, compete, write, teach, learn, explore, and do a bunch of other stuff besides just the things that I do well and want to be successful at.
Maybe other people can be happy by doing just one thing, but I can’t find happiness through one thing alone, whether that’s a relationship, sport, hobby, job, or activity.
I need balance.
Relationships are more personal than you think.
I haven’t gelled with every Jiu-Jitsu instructor that I’ve had the chance to work with.
Some instructors were too hardcore for me. Others were too laid back. Some just didn’t have the knowledge to help me reach my goals. Some were basically running cults where their students worshipped the ground they walked on.
For me to find a Jiu-Jitsu instructor that I actually wanted to learn from, I had to find someone who was incredibly good at Jiu-Jitsu, but also someone who was actually the kind of person who I didn’t mind being around.
This last part was a challenge, to say the least, but I’m glad I found Jeff.
Jeff has been doing Jiu-Jitsu for longer than I’ve been alive. He’s competed at some of the highest levels in the sport, and he’s also coached some really high-level athletes before me. I wasn’t an experimental project for him — he taught me how to be good, and that knowledge paired with my work ethic and ability has led to a pretty dynamic combination.
He’s also just a great guy.
That last part is really important for me because if I was in a situation where I was unhappy and unmotivated or bothered, I wouldn’t do the work to be the best that I can be. Just having a good coach isn’t enough. You need a coach who’s right for you.
This same dynamic is true for all relationships you have in life.
Happiness is not from winning, it’s from flow.
When I was coming up in the lower belts in Jiu-Jitsu, I felt a lot of pressure to be the best all the time.
This started off because I had a wrestling background and was told that wrestlers were the best grapplers, but eventually, I ended up establishing a reputation as someone who just had success in competition. I didn’t actually want to be good at first, I just thought that it was the expectation.
At first, I thought I was supposed to be the best in the gym. Then the best in the city, then, the state. It created a snowball effect that led to a lot of competition anxiety and lackluster performances.
Eventually, my only expectation for myself was to be the best in the world in Jiu-Jitsu. Anything else meant that was I inadequate.
This pressure to be the best nearly broke me until I was able to create a mindset that could handle any pressure that was thrown at me. It made me a lot tougher at 20 than most adults, and it made me seem a lot wiser and a lot older than most people my age.
But mental toughness alone does not win championships.
I wasn’t happy in Jiu-Jitsu until I learned to enjoy doing Jiu-Jitsu because I enjoyed doing Jiu-Jitsu, not because of the pleasure that I felt from winning.
Getting rid of the pressure I put on myself made me happier, and it also made me better at Jiu-Jitsu and more successful.
A little mental work goes a long way.
You will never “get there”.
Training is exhausting.
I’m currently taking the first vacation that I’ve paid for with my Jiu-Jitsu earnings, and I have complicated feelings about going home.
On one hand, I’m excited to head home and chase my next goals. On the other hand, training is hard, challenges me in every way, and destroys my ego over and over again.
No matter how hard I work and how much I give, I’m never “done”. I never get to relax and rest on my laurels, and if I do, the sport passes me by.
Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t love me, but I love Jiu-Jitsu. That’s why I give so much to this martial art, and that’s why I will continue to find new ways to give. I only have 5–10 more years of competing at the highest levels, and after that, I’ll have to find new things to look forward to in my life.
The fleeting attempts I make at significance in competitive sports make me realize that no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to have everything I want in exactly the way I want it. Even if I reach all my goals, I’ll never be the perfect athlete that I’ve created in my mind.
Fulfillment is found in the fact that perfection is impossible but improvement is always possible.
Getting the black belt means a lot to me, but simply getting my black belt was never my goal.
With my training regiment, it was never enough to just get that belt tied around my waist. In addition, I also have a responsibility to myself to do something with my black belt.
Now that I’m a black belt, I have to give back a bit. I have to teach more. I have to fight more to show that my moves and training concepts work. I have to collect more data, put myself out there, and grind more.
I have to do this because I want to do it.
The only thing holding me back is the fact that it’s hard.
I guess, however, that’s never stopped me before. Might as well keep going.