In the ring: lessons learned from my first Jiu Jitsu tournament

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I get this text from my roommate Jessica, it’s meant to be simply informative. She knows it’s my first jiu jitsu tournament and I am not clear on how it all works.

“Pit times is like being on deck, where they’ll get the people in your division together first and then take you to your ring.”

Simple, right? Merely factual. Yet the words “take you to your ring” sent a thrill of powerful fear and excitement up my spine. For someone who never intended to train in grappling arts, the idea of being in the ring with anybody seemed so foreign – maybe even insane. Life is hard enough, filled at times with complications and difficult people…why voluntarily step into the ring for a fight I didn’t actually have to engage in? Why not stay home and watch Netflix?

The choice to compete in the AGF tournament at Millsaps College was a last-minute decision, based in part on the assumption that competing is an efficient way to identify important holes in my game. Thus, a way to make my training more effective. I was also curious. Maybe I would hate it…maybe I would love it. There’s only one way to find out. As one of my teachers says, “you can’t learn to swim if you won’t get wet.”

So, I signed up and showed up. As I packed my stuff to head out, my well-worn yoga mat beckoned me from the basket I keep it in. “Bring me,” it seemed to say. I thought, hmm, I may be the only person there with a yoga mat. The only person doing yoga prior to a meet. But that did not dissuade me. Over the course of my life it happens more and more that I’m the only one doing a particular thing. If I let that stop me I would miss out on a lot of fun and also not be able to achieve excellence. Think about it – excellence is often defined by innovation. And innovators by the very definition do something no one else does.

I signed in at the tournament, and weighed in. That part was strange because I’ve lost so much weight. I was slightly terrified that the weight I had used to register was a bad reading from the scale at the gym. I feared getting on the scale on tournament day and some huge number popping up that would delay my match and create the need for a reshuffle of weight classes. None of that happened. The number on the scale was a little less than one pound off what I had used to register. Mischief managed.

The fear that had been getting to me in the week leading up to the tournament was my nervousness about the take down. I’ve always been able to have that experience in the controlled environment of a class with a training partner I know. This match would be different. I feared getting thrown hard or slammed to the ground and then having some kind of mental or emotional freak out that would be unpleasant, negatively affect my game, and cause me to not have a good experience.

So far, one of the best lessons jiu jitsu has taught me is to take action – to move – rather than to wait passively to see what happens. Or to wait for someone else to take charge. As I debated how to handle my fear on tournament day, I realized that I could think of some proactive options. Rather than being afraid of how I would get taken down, I thought of a way to initiate a take-down that would help me to avoid the situation I feared, namely, getting slammed to the ground too hard.

I asked one of my coaches if I could do a level change, drop down to one knee, and take my partner down by the legs.  He thought that would be fine. In this way, I would already be on the ground, and so not stuck in my intense fear of getting slammed down from standing. In my match, I applied this technique and it felt so great both to have faced my fear and also to find a reasonable solution or strategy.

I didn’t win my match but I did get the take down. That was fun!

The other key for me was that well-worn yoga mat. While I did take an hour to cheer other teammates on and talk to some friends, in the period right before my match something inside me said, do some yoga, do it now. While most of the students were still chatting, I rolled out the mat. At first I was a bit self-conscious, but yoga, my faithful practice, never ever disappoints me. After a few minutes my focus shifted to my breathing, my balance, and the familiar poses. I allowed my mind to still. And when they called me to the pit I felt ready and at peace. As I stood in line, I felt excitement but almost no nervousness. Even when my opponent came towards me, I had a calm feeling –  a happy excitement I could almost call joy.

The lessons learned from this day are this: when facing fears in an unfamiliar setting, it’s possible to take control by assessing options and picking one that suits my needs. I don’t have to wait for someone else to help me do that; I can initiate the process and thus gain confidence. And, I can prepare mentally for any challenge by going back to what always works for me. For some folks, it might be talking to classmates or to their coach. For me, it’s the practice of yoga which inevitably calms and centers me. Even if I was the only person with a yoga mat, it was what I needed and I’m happy I did it.

As I said, I didn’t win my match. The day felt like a personal win however. I tried something new. I faced my fear.  I gave it my best shot. I enjoyed doing jiu jitsu with a stranger, and I found out some of the areas of defense I need to study up on. Are you wondering, is she going to try tournament competing again? If you are, well, I’m wondering the same thing! Stay tuned….

 

 

 

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