How to Impact the Sport Without a Gold Medal

I was going back through the Inverted Gear blog archives looking at some of the more popular posts, and I came across Nelson’s “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu goals that do not involve becoming a world champion.” I think part of why this article resonates with so many people is that it speaks to an unspoken fear in a sport that heaps admiration onto competitors: By not competing (or not competing well) we are somehow not doing “it” right.

Competition is an important facet of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but it’s not the only facet. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but I can understand how the intensity and prowess of fulltime competitors can leave your own jiu-jitsu journey feeling unimpressive and inconsequential. I can understand because I’ve been there (and might be there presently, depending on when you read this).

Based on a recent Reddit thread where a brown belt whom I respect very much admitted to tapping to a highly competitive blue belt, I suspect that this feeling is far more pervasive than many would admit.

My theory is that our community equates championships and big competition victories with impact. It’s an easy and clear way to identify the people who are pushing the technical envelope and taking the sport to new and even more nuanced heights. Deep down, I know that my own desire to be competitive—despite my inability to do so—is driven by a passion for making a difference. A gold medal can signify a meaningful contribution to the sport we care so much about, but what if that gold medal is out of reach for any number of reasons?

You can still make a difference in the sport. And in many cases, I would argue that the impact you can have is far more important than the impact of hitting the top of a podium, even if it doesn’t come with the glitz and the fame.

Here are 5 ways that you could leave your mark on the sport without ever earning a gold medal:

1. Be an excellent teacher. I’ve lamented before about the fact that instructors don’t get a lot of press coverage, but that doesn’t mean that their impact is any less significant. Whether you are training future world champions or leading a great self-defense class, teaching is perhaps the most important and productive thing you could do to build jiu-jitsu up. You don’t have to run an academy either. You could informally mentor other students, pick up a class to help out at your gym, or start to teach on YouTube once you have the chops to do so.

2. Use the sport to do good. This is different from my suggestion to teach in the sense that you use jiu-jitsu as a conduit to address a problem or to serve an underserved population. Tap Cancer Out is a great example of this idea executed to the extreme, and Groundswell Grappling Concepts is an example of this idea executed with a balance of business and social responsibility. You don’t have to start your own organization, though, to do good with BJJ. You could help fundraise as part of a Tap Cancer Out event, or perhaps you could volunteer for youth programs, maybe mobilizing your training partners to join you in the process. There are also roll-a-thons and whatnot. With some thinking, I bet you could channel your BJJ into something positive.

3. Be a positive voice on the mat. Again, there is not a lot of glamor to this suggestion, but there is always a need for people who are outgoing, welcoming, and supportive on the mat. You might not end up in the jiu-jitsu history books for being the first person at your gym to welcome a new student or to be the one that doesn’t let someone else experience the awkwardness of “last picked” when people pair off to train, but I promise you the person you help will remember and will be thankful. Taking on this role is actually more difficult than it sounds to do consistently, but it’s powerful in its own way.

4. Contribute to the discussion. Jiu-jitsu is always in need of more thoughtful people contributing to the growing discussions around the problems and opportunities in our art. Start a blog. Start a podcast. Be an active and constructive contributor in online discussions. Film some videos. The media scene around BJJ is busy and disorganized, but there are still openings for people to do new and interesting things. Your audience won’t be massive, especially when you first start, but if you stick with it your voice can help to guide at least part of the sport. Pro tips: Consider starting local, covering your immediate jiu-jitsu scene and the people in it, and also go easy on yourself as far as production value is concerned. I got my start with a hand-me-down laptop, a bootleg of MSWord, and a $100 BestBuy camera (before smartphones).

5. You don’t have to run a BJJ business. Making an impact is hard, and sometimes our passions can get the better of us, leading us into commitments that we aren’t ready for. I’ve seen a lot of people start t-shirt companies or open gyms long before they were really ready (guilty on this front, myself), so try starting small with one of the previous suggestions before you empty out your savings on a new project. It’s okay if BJJ is your passionate hobby and not your entire life. In many respects, those people are the most important parts of BJJ even if their names never end up in lights.

I hope that eases some of the pressure you put on yourself as far as competition goes, and at best I hope to see your contributions making a difference in the future.