First of all, what is jiu-jitsu? It’s a bit like wrestling. You’re grappling with an opponent and trying to get the better of them. But on top of that, you’re trying to choke each other out and break each other's arms. It’s terrifying. And that’s why I did it.
I spent the last several weeks trying to learn jiu-jitsu. This is what I learned from getting my ass kicked:
- Don’t be afraid to tap out. Nobody likes to be a quitter. You look weak. It’s lame. You want to win! But a lot of the times, progress means knowing when to quit. And when your arm is on the brink of getting snapped in half, it’s ten times better to just tap. Quit. Give your partner a handshake and say, “Damn, that was good”. You “lost,” but you get to go another round and you still learned something. Which is the point of life anyway right? Progress! There’s nothing wrong with admitting defeat. In other words, “Tap early, tap often”.
- Define your own success. When you enter the dojo, you will for sure get your ass kicked. There will never be a time when you will defeat every single person. Because there will always be someone better than you. In that sense, it can be easy to be disappointed. I’ve been snuffed more times than I’d like to admit, but I made it a point to define my terms of success every time I began my training. Today, I’m learning arm guards, or today, I’m practicing chokes, or today, I’m practicing how to shrimp out of side control. And if I can just do that. Then I’m happy. I’ve succeeded. Success doesn’t always have to be about getting to the very top. It can be something as simple as not get arm barred.
- Bigger problems = Bigger incentives. When we start training, the most terrifying thing is when we have to start “rolling”. Basically, rolling is when you go at it with another person and try to get the other person to submit. Choke them out, put them in an armbar, crush their chest until they can’t breathe. Whatever it is, it’s terrifying, and I’m normally not a violent person, so I always found it very difficult to just get started. So what would usually happen is I’d often be the first one to be thrown to the ground. But that is when I’d fling into action. Because all of the sudden, there’s a 200-pound guy trying to choke the shit out of me. Sometimes in life, pain is good. It is precisely because we have a giant problem breathing down our necks that spurs us into taking action and making real moves to making lasting changes to our lives.
- Learn by doing. The one thing I love the most about jiu-jitsu is that we started the very first day learning how to choke each other out. It was terrifying. We even played a game to see who can choke each other out faster. I saw a 6-foot tall man collapse right beside me. It was terrifying. In an age full of youtube videos it’s become easier and easier to just be lazy and watch for hours on end and THINK that you know how to do something. But you never know until you get thrown into the deep end and you have to fight for your life. Experience is the ultimate teacher.
- Keep your brain in check. We always end our classes by retying our belts and adjusting our uniforms. Then lining up in a straight line, putting our feet together, hands to our sides, and bowing at the waist. Why? Part of it is tradition, but the other part is to keep our brains in check. Jiu-jitsu can be a very physical sport, and strength plays a large role, but none of that matters if you can’t control your mind. Throughout the weeks I realized how much jiu-jitsu is more of a mental game than it is a physical one. Though, I admit there have been times when I got too physical and immediately got pinned to the ground. Your brain controls all your actions which lead to real changes in your life. Keep your brain in check by doing little things like “tying your belt”. AKA brushing your teeth, making your bed, washing the dishes. Because when you don’t, you can get hurt, and potentially in many more ways than just getting choked out.
- Prove yourself wrong and do what you can’t. Every time I stepped into the dojo I was terrified. In fact, every morning I woke up knowing I’d have to put on my uniform and go to jiu-jitsu class, I was terrified. I never wanted to go. Though, I always went because I wanted to prove myself wrong. I wanted to prove to myself that I can do what I can’t. That I was stronger than I believe. And I can choke someone out if I needed to! (Not that I ever would - totally not my style - can we just hug it out?). But after every practice, as I’m dripping with sweat and limping back home, I always felt great. Because I proved to myself that I am capable. And that means I must also be capable of doing a ton of other things I may have never thought possible. It’s incredibly powerful. If there’s ever been anything you thought you can’t do, it’s more likely that you are more than capable. Prove it to yourself by doing what you “can’t” and prove yourself wrong.
- Seek out challengers. Purposely train with those you know will kick your ass. When I first started class, I admit, I would choose the people I knew were also newbies like me. But then I realized, it wasn’t much of a challenge. And more importantly, I never learned anything. So towards the second half, I welcomed those who were better than me. I sought them out. Because I knew they were going to go hard on me, and by doing so, they would also bring out the best in me. I normally had to tap out, but I never thought myself a failure. Instead, I succeeded, because I put myself in a situation where I had to rise up to the highest version of myself. That’s a part of myself that I rarely ever see. In fact, it is a gift when better people challenge you. Because technically, they don’t need to waste their time. You suck. I sucked. I still sucked. But they honored me with their time and energy to show me what they got. The more I got choked out, the more I learned, and the better I got. If you’ve been trying to get better at something and you feel like you’ve been plateauing, it might be because you haven’t had a real challenger come out to bring out the best in you. Seek them out. They’re probably looking for a challenger as well.
- Sometimes progress doesn't look like progress. Our teacher reminded us of something pretty profound at about week 3 into our training. It was the end of class. Half the students have already dropped out and we were hunched over huffing and puffing after having to survive several weeks of beating. Morale was low. But he quickly reminded us that we are all learning really fast, “It just doesn’t seem that way because you’re all progressing together”. Light bulb moment. That was right. I forgot the analogy, but it goes something like how a fish moving along a fast flowing river doesn’t know how fast it’s going. So it’s the same with progress. Sometimes, progress looks like standing still. It’s really all about perspective.
- “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face” - Mike Tyson. Alright, the rules of jiu-jitsu do not allow striking, but I still think this is relevant. When I first started I always had to have some sort of plan of attack. After all, I was a newbie, I needed to prove myself! But my plans always got thrown out the window because people would come at me with things I’ve never encountered. Wait, did you just do a 360 spin on the ground?! In situations, like these, the only thing I could do was to adapt to the current situation. I could not be too precious with my initial plans because they would no longer work. I think I may have held myself back more than I’ve liked due to an inability to let go of early drafts of what I wanted to do vs accepting the reality of what is. I mean, no point in trying to go for the classic behind the back choke hold if both your arms are tied. It’s probably better to reassess.
- Just don’t get defeated. Instead of trying to win all the time, play not to lose. It's better to not do something stupid than to try and do something brilliant. The ego is the enemy. Our teacher always reminded us to not enter the dojo with the mindset that you will win. While I didn’t have this thought because I was new, this was still immensely helpful. When I entered a “roll” with someone with the mindset of “I’m going to win,” I realized I get burnt out much easier. It gets frustrating because I’m trying so damn hard to get results and I end up getting nothing. I realized how useless it is to try and win all the time and how it actually held me back more than it propelled me forward. Instead, I switched my mindset to “Don’t get defeated”. When I entered a roll with that mindset I was much calmer. My goal no longer was to choke someone out. My goal was simply to stay in the game. Most often I discovered that then the OTHER person will get tired. And surprisingly, opportunities will present itself to me where I can then get them into an armbar or a choke. It is a very subtle shift in mindset, but more and more I’m realizing true success is sometimes the ability to just be the last one standing. Often times, that doesn’t mean having to win all the time.
by Jason Lam