Updated: Oct 14, 2020
I have been incredibly fortunate to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with the best in the world for the last half decade. The past five years or so have been the most enjoyable and growth filled of my life. I have met great friends, brilliant teachers and have been afforded the opportunity to be part of a community that only the martial arts can create.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach Jiu Jitsu as my profession and to use my understanding of this art to help guide others to new heights of self improvement. My position is one which I do not take lightly. Every day I work to be a man deserving of such an experience. I have learned much from my time on the mats, and I hope I can convey this knowledge to you in the following work. It is important to note that all of these lessons, though learned through jiu jitsu, have nothing to do with jiu jitsu.
These lessons transcend sport and are applicable to all areas of our lives. It is up to you to draw the connections with your own.
1. There are no shortcuts
We all know this deep down yet a subtle optimism bias secretly allows us to believe that we will find the easy way. There isn’t one. There are certainly efficient methodologies towards mastery but they are far from easy. The old adage “Nothing worth having comes easy” resounds eternally.
The journey through a martial art is a winding trail of hills and valleys. It will almost certainly bring you to a destination that was the farthest from your original goal, yet is exactly what you as a person need. It will be challenging, and you will doubt yourself. When you are not doubting yourself, you will have an over inflated sense of ego due to a transient training session or gold medal. You are never as good as you think you are. Nor are you as bad as you believe yourself to be. Your journey will be difficult, but I unflinchingly swear to you that it will be worth it.
2. Do not compare yourself to others
Each one of us will do this, and each one of us learns how painful a process this is. There will always be those better than you, and there will always be those worse than you. To base your self worth relative to others is to play a losing game. If you are at the bottom, you will be filled with self-loathing. If you are at the top, you will be filled with self-aggrandizement and ego. This will most certainly be one of your greatest obstacles to achieving whatever degree of mastery you are capable.
The only way to consistently perform at your potential is to ask: Am I better than I was yesterday?
This is the only relative value you must seek. We all eventually, or should I say hopefully, learn that throughout our journey we were running our own race. Victories relative to others are hollow and short lived leading to more pain and confusion than happiness. Competition with your highest self will ensure not only great gains in technical mastery, but a love of your sport that your ego could never know.
3. Competition is a game that does not define you
I have known both the heights and lows of competition. I have won MMA fights in front of all my loved ones, and I have waited hours upon hours on tournament bleachers to lose my first match. Admittedly, at that moment they felt like polar ends of the human condition. I have yet to find another activity that evokes such emotion on either end of the spectrum. However, after a few days that feeling fades, and a week later it’s as if it never happened. Winning and losing, it turns out, aren’t all that different. And assuming you put your best self out there with maximum effort, the result is insignificant.
I have often found it strange how we as competitive athletes grasp our sense of self from competing. We use one night of our lives, an event that last only minutes, to define who we are in the totality of being. In some cases people use how they performed in a fifteen minute window in one night of their lives to define their entire life. Its silly, and upon the slightest inspection absurd.
It is also worth noting that your true friends, family and teammates feel no differently towards you whether you win or lose. I can honestly say I cannot remember if my closest friends won or lost their last tournament, and I really don’t care. As long as they are striving towards a better version of themselves, the immediate result does not matter.
4. You do not have to compete
This is something that many martial artists struggle with, and a lesson few learn. Competing is simply a game. No more and no less. Competing does not make you honorable, and choosing not to compete does not make you cowardly. Who you are as a person far outweighs what you do in an athletic arena. I am more concerned with the way you treat others than how good your flying armbars are.
Competing does serve a serious purpose. I have found it to be an incredible tool for self-growth and discovery. You are never more honest with yourself than when you are in the arena, and it is one of the most beautiful experiences I have been fortunate enough to have. But, it is just a game and we lose sight of that. If someone has the desire to compete I believe they should do so as long as they are learning and growing from the experience. However, when an activity no longer serves your greater good… it is best to let go.
Many define their self worth from the trophies on their shelves and search their whole life in hopes of winning that one glorious prize. They feel that if they could just win that major tournament it would give their life purpose and all would be okay. They search for justification of their journey through tangible acknowledgements in sport. When in truth, whether you achieve that great goal or not your truest self remains unchanged.
In the words of John Candy from the film Cool Runnings, “If you are not good enough without it, you will not be good enough with it.”
To this day that is one of the truest maxims I have heard, and I remind myself of the lesson daily.
“If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
As a student, there is no greater way to learn than to teach. I have seen it in myself as well as my closest teammates. As soon as we began to teach, our skills increased dramatically. When teaching techniques you perform without thought, through thought, you are forced to examine the nuances of each technique and are aligned with the true reasoning as to why you do what you do.
Your conscious understanding of your craft is contingent upon the skill with which you can teach it.
As a human being, I know of no greater example of success than someone who uses their passion to become self sustaining in the service of others. We are afforded the opportunity to use our love as the vehicle with which we teach others far more than martial arts. As a teacher, I am always far more concerned with my students growth as a person than as a practitioner. The fates are not without irony as it seems the two are directly correlated, at least in most cases with proper guidance.
There is no higher calling than the service of your fellow man, and to do so through your own personal mastery of a craft is a gift enjoyed by few. Cultivate this gift, and give it away.
6. Your style will be a microcosm of you life
One of the most amazing aspects of jiu jitsu is to watch as we each cultivate our own “game”. It is equally amazing to see just how great a corollary our game is to the way we each live our lives.
If you examine your own style closely you will find that the strengths and weaknesses you have in sport are the very same you experience in life off the mats. Some of us play games where we analyze and minimize the variables, keeping the grappling in one specific mode. Some of us like to create scrambles, and embrace the chaos that ensues. Some of us try to regularly avoid the effort positional advancement requires for a gamble in a compromising submission attempt.
Odds are your game will reflect your life. It can be an incredible tool of introspection, especially for the experienced artist.
7. Learn one thing and You have learned all things
Devoting yourself to a particular art is invaluable. The art becomes our vehicle with which we drive down the road of life. We use this vehicle to learn about ourselves and this place, to conquer fears, to become more of what we already are. In my own life, I have found most valuable the transferable skills of learning from jiu jitsu to all other facets of day to day study. In devoting myself with such commitment to this art, in undertaking the task of understanding jiu jitsu to whatever degree by circumstance allows, I have unknowingly learned how to learn.
I use my understanding of jiu jitsu as a road map to learn other activities. I look for the similarities between the two, and use jiu jitsu as an allegory for whatever my new practice may be. I truly believe once you have learned one thing, you have learned all things because you have learned HOW TO LEARN. This is quite possibly the greatest ability one can cultivate.
The ancient proverb states: If you master one thing you have mastered all things because you have mastered yourself.
I believe this to be true. I use jiu jitsu as a way to navigate all other areas of study. This understanding has also motivated me to continue my study of BJJ as I now know the deeper I can dive into its well of understanding the more I will be capable of understanding all things.
8. Find the right teacher
Cultivating skill is a time proven simple process. There are only a few pieces to the puzzle, but these pieces are extremely hard to come by and rarely found in unison. Perhaps the most important piece is the teacher. There are a plethora of martial arts instructors all over the world, and your choices will be narrowed down by your geography and willingness to travel. Your choices will be limited even more by the quality of teaching each provides, by the knowledge they have and are willing to give away.
It is your responsibility as a serious student to seek out a great instructor.
No matter how dedicated or systemic your approach in learning, if you are not learning from a teacher with true understanding of your craft your results will be limited.
I was, to no credit of my own, incredibly lucky to find my instructor, Ricardo Almeida. When I decided I wanted to learn jiu jitsu, I simply picked the school closest to my home. It is worth noting again how lucky I am, as one of the greatest jiu jitsu minds in history happened to open up a school just minutes from my house. This seemingly arbitrary geographical luck of the draw is something I will be forever grateful.
9. Passion is overrated
Once you have found a teacher with a wealth of knowledge the rest is simple. Train, and train consistently for a very long time.
Albert Einstein said that the greatest force in the universe is compound interest. I would say the same for compounded learning. Train as often as possible, and your knowledge will continue to compound upon itself as you reach new levels of technical mastery. As I said earlier, there are no short cuts, and it is not always pretty.
We hear talks on YouTube say that you are supposed to want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe. I disagree. Though this may hold true for someone starting out, after you have been training multiple times a day, every day with no off season for years, that way of thinking will no longer push you forward. Motivation gets you started, it is not what keeps you going. When you are deep into your career of training, and you wake up day after day sore and tired, and you train anyway, it is no longer because you want to “succeed more than you want to breathe.” It is a beautiful human thing to feel this, but it is unrealistic to expect to live your entire life in that state, nor do I think you would want to.
It is no longer that child like motivation that gets you going. It is something deeper. It is an commitment to yourself. A commitment to consistency. A commitment to run the continuous marathons of day to day strife. An agreement you make with yourself because you love what it is you do, and you do it because it has become the right way to spend your time. And remember: You DO love what it is you do. We often forget that in the trenches of day to day experience. You do it because continuous effort is what shapes a great man.
Motivation gets you started, but something else must take its place in order to have longevity.
10. Mastery does not exist
The knowledge you acquire in an area of study is accompanied by an incalculable ignorance. The farther we get into anything, we learn that we have even farther to go.
I think of technical ability on an infinite continuum. There is no end. No matter how great your abilities become there will always be an infinite amount of growth in front of you, as well as decay behind you. In knowing that there is no end, that you can never truly master anything, we are afforded a rare freedom.
Simply strive to be better than you were yesterday.
I would more appropriately define mastery as: the technical ability possible within the constraints of your particular existence, and this is different for each of us.
In the words of my Professor, Ricardo Almeida, “If you’ve mastered it, you forgot it.”
I thank you for your time, and it is my sincere hope that these lessons will serve you in your individual pursuits. I wish you well.
If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.
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