178 pounds – thank goodness. I step off the scale and look at the clock. Three hours before my competition so I can actually eat something. My first experience cutting weight has been a comedy of errors. First, I didn’t account for the weight of my Gi (5 pounds I had to make up). Then, I discovered, a week before the event that my scale was off by two pounds. 14 pounds in total I’ve lost in 3 weeks to make the middleweight limit – 12 to make weight, and 2 out of inexperience and paranoia.
I’ve been constantly thinking about food. I actually searched on the Internet for how many calories were in a head of cauliflower. Every time I walk by the pantry I felt like the peanut butter jar was screaming my name. I find myself on the Internet searching for reviews of where to find the best burgers and poutine in the city. While running on my treadmill I couldn’t stop watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and contemplating how wonderful a big stack of BBQ would be, or something deep-fried, I don’t even care what it is, as long as it is deep fried.
With a week to go I was munching on a little bag of carrots and I walked into our kitchen to grab a drink of water. I saw on the table a large birthday cake, missing a couple of pieces. My wife and daughter had participated in a “mommy-daughter” bake off the night before at our church, and they had left their entry on the table. Just like the peanut butter, that cake was sweetly whispering my name. It was like a Siren call. The most sweet and tempting sound I’ve ever felt – “just a nibble, just a taste of the icing, take the edge off those carrots”. I felt hypnotized like an automaton moving mindlessly towards a vice.
I grab a fork and think to myself, just a nibble, so I take a bite. Oh my goodness, the most magical taste I have ever, I mean ever, experienced in my life. But I can’t stop at one. I take another, and another and another, and before I know it I have eaten the equivalent of about 5 full pieces of cake. I feel horrible, like a wimpy little man, who can’t even deal with the temptation of cake. I immediately go and put a hoodie on, with a garbage bag over top, and proceed to run 8 miles on my treadmill downstairs. Then, as soon as my wife gets home, I confess my sins, like a penitent sinner seeking forgiveness from a Priest.
Until the day before my match my thoughts were pre-occupied by food, and my weight. The afternoon before the competition I was at the local pool sitting in the sauna, trying to sweat away that last pound. I’m watching the beads of sweat appear out of nowhere, and then fall down to the floor. My mind turns to Jiu-Jitsu. How do I do that single leg takedown again? What are my main submissions when I get a mount? What if he gets me in side control, how do I re-guard? How are the scored points again? My mind starts to flood like the sweat dripping off my face. I’m alone so I start to talk to myself, “Ok this is how I’m going to start, I’m going to go aggressively for the takedown and if that doesn’t work I’ll pull guard and look for an immediate sweep”. I think of my strengths, my weaknesses, what I know, and the many areas that I am uncertain in. Do I know enough? Am I going to lose? Can I possibly win? All these thoughts are running through my mind, causing my anxieties and fear to rise.
The moment I walk into the gym, and see all the competitors, the feelings from the sauna come back to me. An experienced teammate walks by, smiles and tells me I need to just breathe and have fun. Man, I really must be giving off the nervous vibe. I ask another white belt if he’s thought about strategy. I look around to see if I can figure out who I’ll be fighting. The fear meter is rising. You haven’t really walked into your fear, and become acquainted with it, unless you feel it – real fear, the kind that stirs your stomach and makes you start to feel a tinge nauseous.
I see a couple guys who look like they are close to my weight. Will I fight one of them? How good are they? How good am I? What if they are better than me? What if they tap me? Can I really do this without embarrassing myself? What is it going to be like? Will it be like a training session in my academy? All these questions go swirling through my head. My nervousness grows. Why did I sign up for this in the first place?
I get called to the bullpen and meet my competitor. I act cool. Introduce myself and make a couple jokes about being starving. Before I know it I’m called to the mat. It’s the main mat, right in front of all my teammates. Truthfully I was hoping I’d be in the back corner of the gym where no one would see me. My Professor and coaches give me some advice but I hardly hear anything because my heart is beating too fast. I try to take deep breaths to slow it down, but it doesn’t work. I get called and step to the mat.
What follows is a blur. I feel stiff and unnatural when we are on our feet, and before I know it I’m on the ground. All strategy goes out the window and I’m in 5 minutes of pure reaction. I don’t get submitted but my guard gets repeatedly passed, and I get mounted. My competitor is very aggressive, and the pace and intensity is dramatically higher than anything I have previously experienced. The points pile up against me, and before I know it I’m standing, facing my kids, and my teammates, with my competitor’s hand raised. My second match is a lot of the same. My head isn’t right, I can’t get a feel, and I get choked out.
My first thought after losing was that I let down my team. I know they don’t feel this way – they are all nothing but supportive – but as anyone who does Jiu Jitsu knows, you want to do your best for your team and your school. I have a tremendous respect for people, who are good at Jiu-Jitsu, particularly those at my school. You don’t realize how difficult it is unless you do it. It tests far more than your physical ability; it brutally tests your mental and emotional fortitude. It tests your ability to perform with anxiety, fear and pressure. Those who master this have my respect.
I’m sitting by myself in the bullpen after my fight. I’m stalling a little bit before I talk to my wife and kids. I know they love me and they are proud of me despite my result, but I want to gather myself because I don’t want them to see how disappointed I am at my performance.
My mind, all of the sudden, recalls an experience from my youth that I had buried deep. I’m about 8 years old. We are at a county fair. There is an arm wrestling tournament for kids. I don’t want to enter because I’m scared. I’m skinny and I’m not that strong. But my friends enter so I enter too. My competitor is an older boy who is much stronger. I’m defeated before our hands are even clasped. He defeats me easily. I don’t think I could have won, even if I put up a good fight, but my emotions, anxiety and fears make the victory easy for him.
Then I realize the answer to the question I’ve repeatedly asked myself over and over again: why is Jiu-Jitsu so compelling to me? Why do I keep coming when I’m not that good at it?
The answer comes plainly – I’m trying to redeem that little boy.
I’m trying to conquer that fear, and the performance anxiety that exists inside of my head when it comes to physical challenges against another person.
People, like the champions in my school, who rise when the pressure is high, and the fear is real, inspire me.
That’s what Jiu-Jitsu is about for me. I could care less about the belts, and even winning championships, because I’m only really fighting myself anyway, and if I can conquer my own fears than I will achieve a much more empowering victory.
I drive home. I’m with my five-year-old son Seth. I say, “Hey Buddy I lost”. He says back to me “Ya but you did good Dad”. Thanks buddy, that means a lot to me. Then I say, “next time I’m going to do better”. He smiles and says, “I know”.