What Training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Taught Me About Healthy Self-Destruction
How to become someone you don’t recognize — in all the best ways.
When I was 17 years old, I was obnoxious.
I was anxious all the time, painfully insecure, and I based my self-esteem solely on my perceived spot in the social hierarchy. As a wrestler throughout my youth, I thought that my place in the social hierarchy was determined by my ability to win fights, smash people, and be obnoxiously aggressive — all things that I didn’t even really want to do. My only real goal in life as a 17-year-old kid was to prove that I was tough, strong, and athletic.
That was until my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class made me like a bag of soup.
Even as a lifelong wrestler, I couldn’t hang in the Jiu-Jitsu training room. I was 17, and I was grappling with grown men. My training partners threw me around, choked me (using my own clothes), and I was forced to tap out seconds before I went unconscious. It’s a miracle I didn’t get severely injured.
In the time since those early days, I’ve gone from total newb in Jiu-Jitsu to purple belt world champion to one of the top brown belts in the world. At each belt, I’ve been forced to completely reinvent the way I approach the sport, my strategies, and ultimately, my life.
This article is an exploration into how each belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has taught me the art of self-improvement through micro self-destruction.
White Belt: How to Suck
Being a white belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an objectively painful experience.
You spend each and every day in the training room getting slammed around, beat up, and tapped out by far more experienced and dedicated practitioners. Basically, you’re a human grappling dummy.
But for me, the experience was a bit more painful than it is for most.
When I was a white belt, I was an 18-year-old freshman living in Eugene, Oregon, attending college with the dream of becoming a UFC fighter. I went to class during the day and then rode my bike through the Oregon rain to train at the gym every night. I never missed a day, and I always got my ass kicked. I loved every second of it.
But because of my stubborn, irrational competitive drive acquired from years of wrestling, I encountered a lot of upper belts who were on a mission to “humble me”. Looking back, I see this more as a sign of a toxic training environment than actual “life lessons”, but that’s for another day. Nonetheless, I took my beatings and pressed forward. Slowly but surely, I got tougher, learned some moves, and began to shake the bad habits that I had begun my career with.
I learned how to push myself without breaking myself.
White belt taught me this valuable lesson: you have limits, and if you don’t acknowledge them, someone else will show you that they exist.
Blue Belt: Gi is Love, Gi is Life
When I got my blue belt in 2016, I decided that I wanted to become a professional Jiu-Jitsu competitor. I had learned that the journey to becoming a professional UFC fighter was long, painful, and inevitably going to lead to brain damage, so I switched my course.
There was just one problem: to become a professional Jiu-Jitsu competitor at the time, you had to compete in the gi. I was horrible at gi Jiu-Jitsu. This meant that in order to achieve my goal of becoming a high-level competitor, I was going to have to completely reinvent my training routine to prepare for gi tournaments. Basically, I had to learn an entirely new sport.
In the Jiu-Jitsu world, gi (the kimono) and no-gi (sans kimono) are two very different styles of grappling, and for me to become a gi competitor I was going to have to go against the style (no-gi) that came naturally to me. I was going to have to learn how to play a completely different game.
Once I set this goal for myself, I went all in right away. I moved back home from Eugene to my parent's basement just North of Chicago and began to train in the gi twice per day, every day. I started going to community college and trained like a mad man. I felt like a loser, living in my mom’s basement, going to community college, and doing nothing else but training, but that was all I did for 2 years straight. I put my head down and worked hard for 2 years, hardly doing anything besides school, training, and whatever part-time job I had during time away from school.
Nothing I’ve done in my life has been as difficult as those 2 years of grinding away like a mad man at my goal of becoming a high-level Jiu-Jitsu competitor.
And the result?
My hard work paid off. I went from losing in the first round of every single tournament I competed at to becoming one of the top 10 ranked IBJJF blue belts in the world (a relatively small achievement, but huge for my confidence), along with a bronze medal in the Pan American Championships (I’ve written about that experience here) — the second-largest gi tournament in the world — and several bronze medals and the World No-Gi Championships.
I went from being known as a stubborn, wrestler-guy who had zero technique to someone who people actually wanted to learn from.
Blue belt taught me this: it takes an obnoxious amount of time, hard work, and perseverance to build credibility.
Purple Belt: From Knee Surgery to World Champ
In October of 2018, I had knee surgery to remove a torn meniscus that had left me unable to train properly for more than 7 months.
Prior to the diagnosis, I had thought my athletic career was over. But 3 weeks after the procedure, my knee was nearly fully operational. 2 months after surgery, I was nearly 100% again. 3 months after surgery, I was back on the competition mats getting ready for my first tournament in nearly 8 months. That tournament itself is a story for another day, but today let’s just talk about what the return meant for me.
This was an obscenely long break from competition. I was just 21 at the time, and I had nearly moved on with my life. I tried doing stand-up comedy (bad choice—I’m not funny), I was dating a girl, and I had nearly dropped out of college to become a bank teller (a story for another day).
I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue trying to do Jiu-Jitsu or if I wanted to quit and focus on school, start a business, or become a writer. I had to make a choice, so I did. Before my first tournament back from injury, I told myself that for the next 10 months, I would go all-in on Jiu-Jitsu, and then if I wanted to quit, I could be done and move on with my life.
I lept head first into hard training and competition and I never looked back.
My friend Jack and I traveled the entire country competing in tournaments. I went to school and trained and taught privates during the week, and we fought in competitions on the weekends. We went to Atlanta, California, Houston, New York, Las Vegas, and a few other cities as well for competitions. We traveled, made amazing memories, and quickly became familiar faces on the competition scene. It was an incredible year, but the best was yet to come.
At the end of 2019, I strung together 6 wins in an obscenely tough bracket at the No-Gi World Championships and became a world champion. That was the day that I finally decided I wasn’t going to quit Jiu-Jitsu. This was my life, and I had to stick with it.
Purple belt taught me this: mental health is just as important to physical health in creating athletic success. A strong body is nothing without a resilient mind.
Brown Belt: The “Growing Up” Belt
Through all of the early lower belts in my Jiu-Jitsu experience, I was an amateur.
A passionate, enthusiastic amateur no doubt, but during this time, Jiu-Jitsu was never close to paying my bills. I had money saved from teaching privates, working summer jobs, and working for my dad, but I was not a real person. I lived with my parents, and I felt like a bum who was living a lie. I was embarrassed to date, scared to talk about money, and absolutely lost when it came to figuring out how to make money in a sport that is notorious for being difficult to make money in.
Then in 2020, I graduated college in the middle of a global pandemic, where even just training Jiu-Jitsu was both illegal and socially frowned upon (me and some friends still trained together in an apartment, but that’s another great story for another day). Making money from Jiu-Jitsu had gone from challenging to damn near impossible.
At around that time, I got my brown belt. I also started writing on the internet, freelancing, and DMing business owners practically begging to write content for their businesses.
Instead of trying to become a professional athlete, I was writing in the morning, training at noon, lifting in the afternoon, and delivering DoorDash at night. I was hustling.
Success didn’t happen overnight. There were many sleepless nights spent browsing and applying for work on UpWork and other freelance sites while my girlfriend at the time slept next to me. Slowly, I started to make my own luck with the support of the incredible people and mentors I’ve surrounded myself with.
I began getting requests to teach private lessons, small group classes, and I even had the chance to run a friend’s gym while he was away for the summer. Suddenly, between writing and Jiu-Jitsu, I wasn’t just making little side cash anymore, I was making a living while still competing at some of the toughest tournaments in the world. In July, I was the number 2 ranked brown belt in the world in my division.
Brown belt still isn’t over yet, but this is the most valuable lesson it has taught me so far: in any long relationship, there are periods of beauty, periods of pain, and periods of numbness. “Love” is not just something you feel, it’s something you do. Love is the ability to stick through something for an extended period of time not just for an end goal, but for the thing itself.
Through each belt in Jiu-Jitsu, I’ve met people, lost people, and changed immensely myself. I mean, even my physical appearance has changed a lot in the last year alone. I used to have short brown hair, square glasses, and absolutely zero fashion sense.
Now, I have stunning bleach blonde (and sometimes pink) hair, round glasses, and still absolutely zero fashion sense.
On my journey to black belt, I’ve grown a lot, changed a lot, and become a person that I never knew I could be. I’ve become someone that I’m proud to be by unbecoming all of the things that made me ashamed of myself. The day-to-day self-examination that is required to progressing toward becoming a high-quality grappler is almost identical to the self-examination that is required to becoming a high-quality human.
If you have the awareness to notice your flaws and the courage to shed skin, the world is your oyster.
If you don’t have that awareness or courage, Jiu-Jitsu is your ticket to getting it.
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