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What I Learned From the Toughest Grappling Tournament of My Life
What a wild weekend.
I’ve been competing in grappling for a really long time.
I did my first wrestling tournament in the 7th grade when my team's 112-pound starting wrestler couldn’t make it to weekend competitions because of “previously scheduled commitments”.
His reason for not showing up didn’t matter to me because, after my first wrestling tournament, I was hooked. I didn’t even like wrestling and I lost my first match at my first tournament by more than 10 points, but I knew that wrestling/grappling was something that had to get better at.
A little over 12 years later, here we are. Grappling is my job, and I just competed in the toughest tournament of my life — the 2022 ADCC West Coast Trials.
For those who don’t know much about grappling, ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) is the most prestigious grappling tournament in the world, and the “Trials” are qualifying events that happen all over the world in the lead up to the tournament.
The North American Trials (particularly the West Coast Trials) are generally considered to be the most challenging trials because of both the popularity and competitive level of grappling in North America. In other words, 256 people signed up to compete in my division last weekend, and most of them were really good.
I went out and competed against world-class black belts, Jiu-Jitsu world champions, and some of the toughest people you’ve never heard of. After 8 matches, I came away with 4th place.
This is what I learned.
Clout does not equal success.
I’ve had some success in Jiu-Jitsu/grappling, but I’m not famous.
On Saturday morning, I had around 950 Instagram followers. By the end of the weekend, I still didn’t have 1100. I am not Jiu-Jitsu famous.
I still beat 3 of the top 16 seeds and 2 guys who are ranked in the top 20 in the world, but I didn’t “blow up”.
As I said, I didn’t win the whole thing, but I did pretty well for a random brown belt from Chicago. I beat a bunch of people who have way more social media clout than I do. I had more success than people who are more successful than me.
If I had a dollar for the number of times over the past few days that someone has said to me “I’m surprised you didn’t get more media coverage this weekend”, I’d probably have enough dollars to pay rent — something that it is kind of hard to do as a “pro grappler”.
However, apart from the fact that more followers might help me make a little bit more money, I’ve realized that your “clout” in a particular field does very little for your chances of success.
I think that very often, people create stories in their heads based on stuff they read in the news or watch online, and I guess my point here is that the reality of a situation is usually very different from the story. Don’t get caught up in what other people are saying and doing. Focus on your own improvement.
Be nice and work hard, you’ll go far.
Savor the moment. you’re probably not doing it enough.
This sounds corny and cliché, but it’s still true.
Before the semifinals of the tournament on Sunday night, the organization put on this big show for the walkouts for the competitors. Each competitor got to pick their walkout song and have it blast through the speakers for the semifinal and final matches. Basically, the tournament turned into an MMA show for the final 2 rounds.
As I and my friends stood in the warm-up area anxiously waiting for my song to begin playing, I became so dialed in on the match, I almost forgot where I was. Not in like an “I’m so awesome” kind of way either. I was basically dissociating because I was trying to control an uncontrollable experience. There were probably several thousand people watching that match.
I don’t get super nervous before competing, but for this one, I was a little bit nervous.
Once my walkout song started playing, I robotically made my way toward the stairs. My cornerman Jack shouted at me.
“Slow down,” he shouted, “let it play. This is your moment. You’re about to make history. Enjoy it.”
I’m pretty sure that moment is on video somewhere (there was a cameraman right in front of me), but we will probably never see it. It was a great moment for me and a great reminder to be more present. You perform better in everything you do when you’re as present as possible.
Don’t allow yourself to get stuck on autopilot. This is the enemy of progress.
Be mindful — each moment only lasts a second.
Do not allow results to dictate your happiness.
So, out of 256 participants, I got 4th.
No one trains for 4th place.
If this were the Olympics, I wouldn’t have gotten a medal. No one is remembered for 4th place. They don’t make movies about the guy who gets 4th place.
Still, my mind was spinning for days after the tournament.
After fighting through a bracket with 256 people for 2 full days straight, it wasn’t just that there was a lot of stuff to celebrate or a lot of stuff to improve upon, there was just a lot of stuff. Period.
I was emotionally overwhelmed for about 3 days straight. In terms of celebration, I beat a few of the top-ranked guys in the world at my weight. No one expected me to do that — not even me. I know what I’m capable of, but I still struggle with doubts. This made the wins surprising for me.
In terms of improvement, there’s a lot I could have fixed. My weight cut could have gone better — I hate always having to do jumping jacks and spit into cups to make weight.
Each match could have gone better — even the ones I won. There are moments during matches where you make small mistakes, and sometimes these mistakes cost you everything. Sometimes they don’t. I was “lucky” that my micro mistakes were not exposed until the semifinals… in front of all the thousands of people watching in-person and on the internet.
Losing in front of everyone sucks.
That’s why I’m thankful that I’ve been pretty happy lately, regardless of my competition results.
Earlier this year, I competed in South Carolina and got my leg almost broken in half by a dude who is built like a superhero. A few weeks later, I competed in a tournament in Milwaukee and I made a nice handful of cash and submitted 8 of my 9 opponents. I was equally happy after both of these events because my happiness and my internal perception of my journey are no longer required to be corroborated by my results.
I think that’s an important sentence.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that true intrinsic motivation will change your fucking life.
It takes time to process big stuff, so I’m sure there will be more thoughts and observations that I have based on last weekend, but for now, this is all I’ve got.
The longer I do this, the more important the competitions become on paper. However, at the same time, as I do more competitions, the magnitude of each competition weighs less and less on my head and heart.
I think this is true with life too.
When you’re young, everything seems so damn important all the time. Life is stressful when you’re young because you haven’t done that much stuff. As you grow and gain experience, the significant stuff becomes less significant because you’ve done more stuff.
For me, right now, everything last weekend feels very significant. In the future, it will feel less so. There will be bigger fish to fry and more to experience.
All I can do is give my best effort to make sure that my own cognitive distortions impact the way that I view my experience as little as possible.
This pursuit of mindfulness is very motivating for me.
I’ve been slacking on content this last week due to travel, exhaustion, and the excitement that’s come from the weekend. It sounds silly, but it’s hard to sit still and write when you’re reliving the ADCC Trials semifinals over and over again. I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days.
Honestly, I’m really hoping this Jiu-Jitsu/writing thing works out because the other day (2 days before the Trials) I quit my job running social media for about 6 different businesses.
Talk to you soon!