In the hours leading up to my first jiu-jitsu tournament, I was not surprised to find that the main emotion I carried with me at all times was anxiety and tension. Competition had never been my strong suit. I remember as a child, attending my first tennis tournament, and being filled with fear at the prospect of other people watching me play, watching me fail to serve or miss a volley, watching me lose. I competed a few more times throughout middle school and high school in a variety of things (debate, tennis, boxing), but win or lose, the fear never left me and I closed that chapter of my life when I graduated high school. In university, I focused more on my academics and allowed my extra curricular activities to be what they were intended to be: extra-curricular. But that isn’t to suggest I didn’t love those past times! Throughout my undergraduate and graduate careers, I played tennis weekly, I boxed multiple times a week, and I regularly attended my university’s debate club. But for 6 years following my high school graduation, I had never felt that particular ball of stressful emotions in my gut that only materialized when I was about to participate in direct competition with another human being in front of an audience. And now, that familiar clump of stress was back.
The Rise of Kano
To understand more about how exactly I came to be attending this tournament, you have to go back 130 years. In May of 1882, a 22-year old man, freshly graduated in economics and political science from the University of Tokyo (the most prestigious school in Japan), set up a place to practice his own hobby more extensively. His name was Jigoro Kano, and his hobby was war.
More specifically, his hobby was a mock practice of unarmed warfare that the japanese called jujutsu (or jiu-jitsu or ju-jitsu). Ju – meaning gentle, flexible or yielding, and jitsu – meaning art or technique. The name implies the basic and fundamental mantra of the entire activity: maximum effect through minimum effort. Jigoro Kano studied under different masters of this unarmed martial art until he felt confident enough to open his own jujutsu dojo in 1882. Kano believed that jujitsu was a tool that could be used to teach vital lessons to the youth – lessons of humility, courage and perseverance. To that effect, he emphasized free sparring and physically demanding conditioning over formalized and coordinated rituals.
In the decades following the opening, a time period in which Kano continued to practice his main profession as a professor in an elite Japanese school even as his dojo exploded in popularity, Jigoro decided that his style of jujutsu had altered enough from its roots to deserve a new name altogether. He decided that he would name it judo.
In the years to come, judo would travel around the world through warrior missionaries that spread from Japan to Russia (where it later became incorporated into an army combatives program known as SAMBO), Europe (where it mixed into the world of professional wrestling), and America (the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, received a brown belt in judo). The strongest influence it would have, however, was when a judoka by the name of Mitsuyo Maeda travelled to Brazil in 1914 and agreed to teach his martial art to two sons of a prominent business man by the name of Gracie.
The Gracie Family
Helio and Carlos Gracie were those two sons, and with them, judo would be transformed again. Just as Kano had put his own flair and ideals onto a more ancient system of unarmed fighting, the Gracie family changed the basic assumptions of judo by asking – why should the fight end when one of the combatants has been thrown? Of course, this was how matches were scored in traditional judo. If you throw your opponent so that their back touches the ground, you score ippon, meaning you achieve victory. But the Gracies believed that this gave an unfair advantage to the larger fighter. They began to perfect and innovate on the ground techniques of judo (those techniques that take place once one or both fighters have been taken down), until, just like Kano had done before, they changed the name of their art to reflect the transformation they had effected on what they had learned. Now, they would call it Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
The Gracies from the ‘30s onwards began to challenge anybody and everybody that dared dispute the superiority of their brand of judo and jujutsu; not only Helio and Carlos, but their many sons also eventually took up the mantle. Most famously, it was Royce Gracie (a son of Helio) that competed in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (the largest mixed martial arts organization in the world today) and took home gold after submitting much heavier and stronger opponents.
A Personal Tale
All this is meant to explain why, as I was walking down a small street in Montreal one cold day, my eye was instantly drawn to a neon sign that blinked ‘Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’. On the power of that legendary name alone, I was able to muster up the courage to walk into the dojo that I would spend almost every free evening I had for the next two years.
My own experience with the art was humbling. In the beginning, I would get submitted without even knowing the mechanics of what was submitting me. All I knew was that I lacked air to breathe or my arm was extended precariously, and I would tap quickly and loudly. But I had never expected to be good, and the pleasure of every small victory sustained me. I grew addicted within the first two months. For my lunch break at work, my coworkers grew used to the sight of me eating a meal as I watched analysis of a jiu jitsu match. I read every book I could find on the history of the art, and I would take pages and pages of notes so that I could remember key details of a technique. Most importantly though, I was in the dojo every chance I got.
Ultimately, what brought me back again and again, even after dislocating my shoulder or fracturing my nose or undergoing the stress of final exams, was the competitive spirit that jiu-jitsu fanned in me.
Lessons from Competition
In the last two years, I learned several lessons through the medium of martial arts. The first was how important competition is. This is true for a variety of reasons; it was through competition for example, that the world was able to discover how effective judo and jiu-jitsu were. It’s analagous to the invisible hand of Adam Smith; when everyone is allowed to compete freely and openly without artificial barriers, competition allows you to see what works and what doesn’t. This is important, not only in martial arts, but in every single aspect of human life. In science for example, when researchers innovate to compete for awards and grants, or in politics, when the competition of platforms and viewpoints allow a population to decide who to elect. In a more personal sense, competition makes clear the areas in which you are strong and (more importantly), the areas where you are weak.
Another lesson I learned was how much of a teachable and trainable skill competitiveness is. For a long time, I had simply assumed that I lacked the spirit to compete and that was a lack I could never make up for. But talking to my team mates that regularly competed and suceeded in jiu jitsu, I realized how much they actively worked towards honing a succesful mentality. They read philosophy books, they meditated, they listened to motivational speeches; competitive spirit was a skill that the worked on and improved at.
But more important than realizing how vital competition is on a micro and macro level, or understanding that it’s a skill to be trained and improved, was my comprehension of just how fulfilling competition is. Competing can become, if you allow it, a key part of a fully realized life. Outside the rigours of a 9 to 5 job or the daily challenges of academic life, competition can exist in a space where you want to win simply and only for yourself. Of course, most of us will never be in the top 1% of any given activity that we choose to actively compete in, but I believe the process can satisfy this vital part of the human condition that it is all too easy to ignore in modern life, where it’s simpler to be dictated by the whims and wishes of your boss or your parents or any other outside influence.
All these lessons, I believe, are true independent of whatever it is you want to compete in. For me, it was martial arts, but for others, it could be debate or music or math tournaments. The crucial thing is to find an environment that forces you to assume responsibility for yourself and deal with the consequences thereof. This can be an incredibly frightening experience, but it can also alter the entire way you approach other aspects of your life.
The End of a Beginning
An hour after my first jiu-jitsu tournament, I sat alone on the bleachers of a local high school gym, still dressed in my kimono uniform. I didn’t have any medals, I hadn’t even won a single match. In the first fight, I had panicked and clumsily allowed myself to be thrown, and then had tired myself out in my desperate attempts to gain points. Ultimately, the time had run out, and I had to watch as my opponents arm was raised instead of mine.
I remembered seeing similar sights before, I had lost in other tournaments in other sports when I was much younger. Back then, all I could think was how disappointed my parents must have been or how uncool I looked to my friends. This time was different. I was angry, I was sad, I was disappointed; but I was also strangely, almost unbearably ecstatic. I had lost, but for maybe the first time in my long history of competing, I had lost completely and totally on my own terms. And it would be on my own terms that I learned how to improve and come back.
Two months later, I would compete again. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop.