Jiu-Jitsu Taught Me How To Try

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Image Source: Giulliana Fonseca Photography

All my life, I’ve operated under the unspoken (and often unrecognized) rule for myself that if I’m not immediately good at something, I just don’t do it.

When I was younger, I was considered “very smart.” I got straight A’s without ever having to study. I was in the gifted program at school. I read well above my grade level. But as I entered high school and encountered tougher subjects like physics and calculus, I started to struggle. I wasn’t immediately good at these subjects, and I didn’t know how to study because, well, I never had to learn how to study. My teachers would pull me aside about my declining grades, telling me, “I know you’re smarter than this,” and I didn’t know what to tell them.

The feeling of disappointing people who expected more from me over the years got to me. I felt like I was being asked, “Why aren’t you taller?” and I was terrified to walk on stilts and fall on my face anyway. So instead of learning to try, I just accepted what I was good at and rejected what I was bad at.

This pattern continued into my career — I’m not a writer because I studied hard and pushed myself in college. In fact, I dropped out of college after a year. I’m a writer because I’ve always been good at it.

But jiu-jitsu… well, I’m not good at jiu-jitsu.

Techniques go in one ear and then leave out the other the moment I walk out of the gym. I half-joke that my greatest struggle is figuring out the difference between my left arm and my right arm. And just like in school, my instincts are good, but my knowledge is lacking — I regularly find myself landing cool submissions or escaping from tight spaces, and when someone asks how I did it, I can’t give them an answer.

That said, six years after I started jiu-jitsu, I’m still here, and more importantly, I’m still trying. Of course, it’s not easy, and the struggles I endure during every class are just as much mental as they are physical. My poor (but wonderful) coach has to regularly reassure me that I’m doing fine when that voice in my head tells me, “You’re a purple belt. You should already know this,” whenever I struggle with a new (or old) technique. And as much as I have tried to kill my ego, it still rises from the dead when I get clobbered by someone I “should” be able to dominate.

The emotional and physical struggles I encounter every time I train should have pushed me to just quit and try something easier, given my track record. But instead, they’ve taught me how to keep going. The small daily challenges that arise in each class have prepared me for larger challenges, like matches in sub-only tournaments that have gone on for over an hour straight or, more significantly, my intense desire to quit when I was a blue belt. Jiu-jitsu has essentially trained my brain to let go of my need to be immediately good at something and find fulfillment in the success of continuing even when it’s easier to give up.

I don’t know why jiu-jitsu has helped me push past this. Maybe it’s because the satisfaction of small improvements adding up over time is greater than the disappointment of repeated failure. Maybe it’s because I see so many other “nerds” like me struggle and then succeed in the sport. Maybe it’s because, for whatever reason, I just love it so much that I can’t let it go. I don’t know the “why” of it all, but I sure am grateful for it.

This personal battle I fight with myself hasn’t abated completely. I still rely heavily on my guard (which I’m good at) and want to throw a tantrum when I have to drill takedowns (which I suck at). I still have a small existential crisis every time an editor offers polite, constructive criticism on something I write. And if someone handed me a physics worksheet, I’d probably just vomit all over it instead of actually attempting to do it. But I’m trying to be better about trying, and in this case, jiu-jitsu is the teacher I never knew I needed.

Featured image by Giulliana Fonseca Photography

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