It was the end of a rewarding class. We were lined up in order of rank after an evening of learning, drilling, and rolling. As was the custom, we all awaited the instructor’s closing remarks. These words were interrupted by a gently spoken, yet somehow jolting, question.
My mind whirled and the room blurred as emotion and tears took center stage. There was a moment of hesitation before I willed my legs to take those few steps from the line of my teammates toward my instructor. I knew what came next, but was I ready for it?
It wasn’t my decision to make. This was not a moment for me to take charge or to control. If I had learned anything the past few months, I had learned that.
I hadn’t just learned to omoplata or triangle, I had learned to be a better person. No two journeys are alike, but we can find lessons in sharing our stories. It is my hope that writing about what I learned as a white belt will make somebody else’s path more clear.
You are where you need to be.
Jiu Jitsu is hard, so it is important that you are not hard on yourself. As I reflect back on ways I held up my own training, comparing myself to others is at the top of the list.
Each athlete is on their own path and their own timeline. What makes sense for one does not make sense for another.
This thing we do where we compare ourselves to others does nothing except inflate or deflate our egos. Either is equally harmful to our progress.
Recently, a new member joined our team. He is young, strong, and athletic. But even more importantly, he has eight years of wrestling experience under his belt.
I remember my internal monologue the first time I rolled with him. It went something like this:
“Why am I so uncomfortable? He just started, how come I can’t catch a submission? Oh no, maybe I actually suck at this.”
Looking back, a healthier attitude is to embrace this new challenge as a way to test and strengthen myself. I was being provided a partner with whom I could test knowledge and skill against youth and strength. More importantly, it was an opportunity to learn, and I was letting it pass by because I was caught up in self doubt and meaningless comparisons.
And I learn more from losing than from winning. I love winning! I love the medals of my accomplishments that adorn my walls. However, greater growth is found in my mistakes than in my triumphs.
My first tournament made a great impression on me. I took home silver and felt pretty good about my accomplishments.
In the days that followed, my coach picked apart every move that I had made when I lost, but what surprised me is that he pointed out more mistakes in the matches I had won.
I had this false notion in my head that I had won those matches, because I had been at my best. In this case, that simply wasn’t true. Yes, I had capitalized on the mistakes of my opponents, but I hadn’t fought any better than in the rounds I lost.
It is clear to me now that, win or lose, competition is a source of growth.
If you have ever rolled with that one person who has to win at any cost, you will understand what I mean by this.
Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way and think about your teammates. We grow the most when we grow together.
When someone less experienced gets paired with me, it is up to me to decide how I respond. I could see how many times I can tap him out in five minutes, or I can try to pick a pace that helps us both grow.
In pointing out a mistake my partner is about to make, I learn more about my own Jiu Jitsu. It may be more fun in the moment to take advantage of his lack of knowledge and catch that triangle, but that isn’t always where the learning is.
In the end, being patient and helpful with my teammates leads to more enjoyment of the process and higher skilled rolling partners.
Yes, it feels good to catch a triangle, but it feels even better to catch a triangle on someone who knows how to defend it.
Attitude is everything.
I train no matter what. Life can be hard and painful, but no matter what it dishes out, you can find me on the mats.
This is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned. You can take your pain out on the mats, but don’t take it out on your team.
Recently, I found myself in a world of hurt. I wasn’t able to see things clearly through my pain and the suffering my family was enduring.
That pain seeped into my training in an abhorrent way. I didn’t train away the loathing I was feeling for my situation, I brought the hatred into my Jiu Jitsu. I complained about the techniques. I berated my partners. I doubted everything and everyone, and I did it openly and without tact.
I was lashing out at the one thing that could save me from myself.
Yet somehow when I got through the training and to the rolling, my love for Jiu Jitsu took over. It was only in that time that I finally smiled and lost myself in the movement.
And through all of that, nobody left me behind. I’ll never forget the day my instructor pulled me into the office to talk before class. My walls were up. I was mad as hell that he wanted to talk to me.
He started listing what he was witnessing from me on the mats. As he did so, my vision started to clear.
“You are acting like you hate it here,” he asserted.
It was then that I realized that he was right. I was acting like that, because I was caught in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and striking out at what I held closest to my heart.
“You are holding yourself back.”
It was then that I realized he was talking to me out of concern. He was being more than a Jiu Jitsu coach in that moment. He was being a mentor… a teammate… a friend.
I needed to return the favor.
I knelt down with genuine interest and offered my thoughts. Another duo ushered me over and invited me to work in with them.
I was home.
Since that day, I have vowed to be a leader on the mats. I’m not claiming perfection; we all have our rough patches, but I know that I want to be the example, not the exception.
Sometimes that means sucking up my ego. Other times it means shutting up and listening. And it always means demonstrating my love of learning and asking questions, not to doubt, but to grow and learn.
Pass it on.
A year ago one of my best friends joined me on the mats. Watching her grow has been inspiring.
I spend a great deal of time promoting Jiu Jitsu to just about anyone who will listen. I do so without pretense.
My Jiu Jitsu journey has helped me to grow and learn so much. Sharing it with others makes sense. I am giving back to the art that has already given me so much.
The start of a journey.
All of these lessons are what caused the deep rooted emotions to surface on the night of my promotion. I had just undergone the most grueling five minute round with my instructor, tapping and diving in again and again in a manner of total abandon, losing myself in the Jiu Jitsu.
I lined up alongside my teammates, sweaty and content.
“Karen, could you step forward?”
My instructor tossed aside my well-worn white belt and wound the blue belt around my waist, securing it with a double knot and a hug.
My blue belt journey was about to begin.
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