A Jiu-Jitsu Journey Without Gold Medals

Many jiu-jiteiros begin training with aspirations of being a world champion, and I was no exception. So many of our heroes in the sport have incredible competition stories, and perhaps since we aspire to someday acquire their mythic abilities on the mat, we too begin to dream of gold medals and towering podiums. The reality, however, is ruthless. The vast majority of grapplers will never be world champions, and the numbers don’t even look that great for being the best grappler at your gym.

That can be hard to accept, and it’s certainly been difficult for me. In my case, the interest in being the best is less about who I can beat and more about how good I can become.

I first started realizing that I wasn’t world class material around the time that I got my blue belt. Urijah Faber was in Hilo, HI to train with BJ Penn. BJ and Urijah both had fights coming up with opponents whom each were familiar with, so they mixed some of their training camps together. For me, that meant the chance to train with Urijah when he dropped into regularly scheduled classes.

At the time, I was a lockdown fanatic. I was training 16 times a week, so my game was getting sharp enough that purple belts and some brown belts were hesitant to let me anywhere near lockdown. When it was my turn to roll with Urijah, I swooped in and laced his leg, establishing my beloved lockdown. And then something felt weird.

I felt like I had total control of the then WEC champion. I bumped a little at first to feel him out, and then I went for it. I whipped up to my side, shot my hand to his far foot, and started to pull and drive to get the old school sweep.

And it was working!

In that moment, my bright future flashed before my eyes. If I could so handedly dominate someone of Urijah’s caliber, then surely I could roll through the bums he had beat. After that, I could repeat this performance on the big stage and claim my MMA riches and glory. It would be beautiful. I’d be on PPVs. I’d have sponsors. I’d—

WHAP. The tightest, fastest D’arce choke in the world wrapped around my neck and nearly popped my eyeballs out of my skull.

I laughed. He laughed. And I recognized how easy it was to get carried away with big dreams.

While the realization that I probably won’t ever be a world champion hasn’t always been easy, it has helped me to approach my training with a healthier mindset and to be a better training partner. The idea of “winning the training” (as Val Worthington would put it) or the idea of measuring your worth based on who you can tap and who you can’t are slippery slopes to dangerous behaviors that will actually make you a worse grappler in the long run.

I am no guru, but here are the observations I’ve had that might be helpful to you:

  • Just because you don’t win gold medals or don’t become famous does not mean that your jiu-jitsu journey is any less meaningful or less important than someone else’s. If jiu-jitsu is a tool for you to relax and stay in shape, that’s incredible. If you are worried about your legacy, some of the most important people in my own jiu-jitsu journey have been the humblest, quietest people in the room, but they still made a difference in me.
  • The competitive spirit is part of what makes the sport compelling, but when you tap you aren’t “losing” in the traditional sense. The only things at stake in the gym are your enjoyment and your learning, and neither of those are hindered by tapping unless you let them.
  • Being the “best” is so relative that it’s not worth trying to nail down. If there are people at your gym that tap you out, that’s amazing. I’ve been in situations where I was the best grappler in the room (because I founded clubs or opened satellite locations where I was the best dude by default, not by any meaningful measure) and it’s not as awesome as you might think. It’s difficult to grow and improve when you don’t have people who can handily humble you.
  • A teammate’s improvement is a victory for you. Just because you don’t learn as fast or can train as much as someone you train with does not mean you have to get frustrated by it. You have different contexts and different life paths. Be happy that your friend is making progress, and recognize that their advancing does not diminish the progress you are also making.
  • The art was designed for the awkward non-athletes. Our competitive heroes are often genetic talent freaks whose abs have abs. They are great examples of what the art can do, but the art was originally designed for the everyman and everywoman, the scrawny nerd who probably ran home from the house because the super athlete freaks were chasing him or her (oh that hits too close home for me). Celebrate your own technical mastery without feeling like you are less than because of some perceived athletic shortcoming.
  • At the same time, there is nothing wrong with pursuing competitive glory, if that’s what you aspire to accomplish.
Jiu-jitsu is hard enough without our own self-assessments and ego challenges muddying the waters even more. The sport is for you and for your journey. You don’t have to be the best or the greatest or stack of accolades to make a difference or to have an impactful experience.