Your Best Competition––You

Who needs truth when you have an incredible tale to tell? Alexander the Great, one of the most successful conquerors of all time, was purported to have wept when he surveyed the size of his kingdom and realized there were no more lands to subdue. This makes for a great analogy even if I believe it is not entirely historically accurate.

I have realized as a martial artist and competitor that when I had to wrestle younger, more athletic opponents, I was not always on top or the best. In spite of this, the real victory for me is knowing that I am overcoming my own hurdles, my own adversities. Being better today than I was yesterday is what I have to look back at as well as look forward to.

I have many medals, but one lone trophy sits on a shelf at my gym. It’s a first place (my only first place actually). It’s plastic. It is no indication of where I am heading, but merely where I have been.

Some individuals have more trophies than others, certainly more than me. A trophy can be any number of things from a piece of plastic to your dream job or a time when you were in your physical prime. We look back to those items or times and remember how we felt in those moments, perhaps what it was like to be on top. This sense of pride overwhelms us and we smile.

Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but generally, these things also indicate that we beat someone in a game or a match of some sort. Or perhaps we got a job over someone else, or through a genetic lottery, we naturally looked better than other individuals around us. They all mean that we were in some way at odds with or in competition against other people.

There have been great athletes who certainly know the feeling of besting an opponent. Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend known as “the greatest,” even wrote a rhyme about how great he was: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

The question in the minds of any champion, even the greatest, is when will my reign end? What happens when the game is over? What happens when there is no one else to conquer or award to win?

Truly there is only one person that you can consistently try to overcome. That person is you. By making your fight against who you were yesterday, you will never lack for an opponent and you will also not have to worry about younger, stronger competition.

The opportunity to vie against others will come and go, but according to Confucius, “he who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” The person you will always have to compete against will be facing you in the mirror each morning. While there is no trophy or monetary gain from a victory over personal adversity, it certainly has a sense of satisfaction. Make it a point to be a better you every morning.

 

 

 

High Expectations and T-Rex Arms

I had a wise friend once tell me, “Aim low and achieve your goals. Don’t be disappointed. Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.” While I found his wisdom hilarious, I also thought about the weasel getting a shotgun shoved up his nose by the farmer when he caught it in the hen house.

All joking aside, the reality of disappointment can shake us and throw us off course, sometimes derailing us indefinitely. I believe much of this distress comes because we have overreached in our hopes, or overextended our expectations.

Disappointment is something we all have felt and will continue to feel. The Bible guarantees it when Jesus says, “In this world, you will have trouble” (John 16:33). In Buddhism, suffering because of desire or craving is one of the four Noble Truths. If it is universal, how can we combat the frustration of disappointment? I am not asking how to deal with it after the fact, but how to avoid it altogether.

When I started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, my coach, Mr. Ken Hudson, would often tell us, “T-Rex arms.” This was his way of teaching us not to extend our arms carelessly. The result of doing so was almost always an armbar of some sort. For those who might be new to BJJ and Judo, or hope to try it someday, when you are in a bad position, keep your arms bent, elbows at your side. This is the definition of “T-Rex” arms. It will prevent having a sore elbow the next day.

In grappling arts, we often get overzealous escaping mount or doing a guard pass. We forget the “T-Rex” mantra and extend those arms just a little too much. Our opponent capitalizes on it and we are forced to submit. Sounds like life when we get our hopes up. Having high expectations can set us up for failure and instead of an aching arm, we are left with broken hearts and injured minds.

Just like “T-Rex arms” can keep me safe in a grappling situation, not overreaching in what I expect of other people, life events, or any even myself can save me from an immense amount grief. Setting smaller goals also enables me to more efficiently measure my outcomes against my original expectations because the change is minor in the short run. But through the consistent conquering of small obstacles, I build a habit and over the long term, the effects are enormous.

I am not suggesting that we neglect positive thinking entirely, but that we keep it in check with reality. Set attainable goals. Strive for achievable dreams. If you go further than expected, your joy will be that much greater.

Shakespeare wrote, “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises.” If he could have written a modern day interpretation, he might have said, “Don’t expect too much and keepeth thine arms bent and at thy side.”

 

Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.

On vacation at the beach with my family, we decided to take a stroll through an antique store. We do this ritual every year around the fourth of July, so I have seen most of the items in this shop over the last several years. Nothing new to me, but I indulge my curiosity just the same.

Browsing the same cubbies I always do hoping to score a relic of the past that I can’t live without, I stumbled upon a bronze plaque. It looked like it came off of a memorial or a grave of some sort. It had Chinese characters and the words, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think” etched onto it.

The words of this Chinese proverb turned international hit song struck me. I am in my mid-thirties now, young by some standards, but nearing elderly if you ask an adolescent. Surely though, I have many more years ahead than behind, so why should I be concerned? Ah, but it is later than I think.

In the last month, I lost a friend who was 31 to cancer. Another young friend, 18 and getting ready to do a triathlon, was hit while cycling with her mother. The sad reality is that we only get this one shot at life and it is a short one.

Seneca, one of the big three Stoics, wrote on the brevity of life. He said, “You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.” A stream that will not always flow. That is a certainty we often fear facing.

The question is what are we to do with our time while it is yet in our hands? A longtime training partner and friend of mine was diagnosed with ALS last year. At one point in our lives, we talked about how to fight human opponents. Now, he is teaching me how to fight the frailty of a fleeting life. In a recent post, he offered a reflection on things we can do to make the best of our time:

  1. Take that walk on the beach. Wheelchairs don’t roll well in the sand!
  2. Hug your family. When your arms don’t work anymore, take advantage of lifting your hands and worship! I really miss this.
  3. Eat that extra piece of cheesecake. Nobody really cared what you looked like anyway… lol
  4. Keep your words sweet. And forgive often.
  5. Call in sick to work every once in a while. When you’re laying on your deathbed, nobody ever says they wish they’d spent more time at work!
  6. Go outside and pet your dog. I think you appreciate that.
  7. Visit someone in the hospital or the nursing home. Even the shut-ins. This is a big one for me
  8. Don’t make a big deal about small things.
  9. Don’t waste time! It’s something you cannot buy back.
  10. Do good things people will remember you for. Not problems you caused.

I often get asked why I continue to put my body through hell in the martial arts arena. It’s because I enjoy it and I may not make it to retirement age. I don’t want to get old and have nothing to look back on with a sense of accomplishment. There is no sense in having wrinkles without a few scars to prove you lived. I will leave you with another of Seneca’s thoughts on the matter: “Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.” Remember to enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Be Prepared for Bad Days That Kick You in the Face

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One night after class, I had a conversation with a student who rarely misses. I mentioned to him about having to cut back on his training in the future if he gets married and has kids. His reply was, “I won’t get married if she won’t let me train three or four times a week.”

While this sentiment displays his determination and passion for our arts, it does not deal with the reality that bad things, and even good things, can take us away from what we love to do. Too often, when these setbacks occur, we are heartbroken and cannot overcome it. Are you equipped to cope with life when it kicks you in the face?

There is a way to prepare for such events. In Stoicism, there is a practice known as premeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of evils. This exercise involves negative visualization. You think about the worst possible outcomes for your day, your week, or any time in the future. By dwelling even in the least bit on the bad things that could happen, you inoculate yourself from the sting should those things occur.

As the story goes, a Buddhist teacher was once known for saying, “This cup is already broken.” He loved the cup, but knew that one day it would shatter, whether by his hand dropping it or it tumbling from the table to the floor. By accepting its fate, he was free to drink without the anxiety of losing the cup.

In my training, I often think of what I will do when I need surgery again (two knee operations and shoulder reconstruction since I began training). I even think about the day I can no longer grip efficiently due to arthritic fingers. What if an illness robs me of my abilities for good? These are just a few scenarios in my life.

Some may think it morbid or depressing to dwell on these things. I find it liberating. It also encourages me to train while I can, to live my life with reckless abandon, because tomorrow is not promised and if it is, it will not be like today.

 

Letting go improves your grappling… and your life.

A couple of months ago, I broke the ring finger on my left hand. Unable to use that hand effectively, I gripped harder with my right. This ended up with me breaking my pointer finger on my right hand. With two bum hands, I had to figure out a way to train safely to let my hands heal.

To keep from gripping and reinjuring my hands, I started grappling with a soft neoprene ball in each hand. This led to a revelation in my training. By not gripping, what I call detaching from my opponent, I was freer to move and more able to defend while in inferior positions.

During the past month of adopting the practice of grappling without grips, I have only been submitted once. I have also noticed my submissions without using the gi have increased. This means more kimuras, more straight ankle locks, and more guillotines. All of these were performed sans grips.

In the grappling world, you cannot do your Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Wrestling or whatever your art is without having a grip at some point, but it should be done on your terms and not in desperation. We often hold onto a grip foolishly because we don’t think we have another option. This ties us to our opponent, for better or worse.

The ancient Greco-Roman philosophy known as Stoicism has the concept of detachment within its practices. This is not to say it takes an absolute approach. It does allow for attachment, but it should be in moderation.

Epictetus, one of Stoicism’s prominent three philosophers, wrote in his Discourses, “It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another… where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.” He was referring to money and fame, leisure and learning, all things that are good in moderation, but can lead to a wasted life if unchecked or overindulged.

In grappling, that external thing Epictetus speaks of can be keeping a grip we don’t need, or worse, one that can be used against us by a knowledgeable opponent. There are many fundamental movements such as shrimping, tactical standups, and bridging that work better and with less risk if you do not use a grip.

At a seminar with half-guard legend, Roberto “Gordo” Correa, he demonstrated a technique and emphasized using “no grips and no strength.” This concept has become my motto lately and has allowed my training to flourish. I find I don’t muscle my opponents and I don’t get stuck in positions near as bad as I did before practicing detachment.

Give it a try in your art and see how it works. You might also try applying it to your life. If something is weighing you down, or even a person dragging you under with his or her negativity, try detaching from it or them. In the words of Elsa on Frozen, “Let it gooooo.”

To drill, or not to drill?

aikido-362954_1920Early in my martial arts career, we would drill the same techniques repeatedly throughout the class. This might mean doing armbars for thirty minutes or having to rep fifty on each side before we could do anything else. At the time, I disliked this style of training because I became distracted or bored. Looking back, I should have relished the time and applied myself better.

William Durant, in summation of Aristotle’s Ethics, once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” For us as martial artists, we must drill a technique numerous times to make it second nature.

When you watch the most exceptional athletes in your art, whether it’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Karate, Boxing, etc., their technique can often seem perfectly timed and precisely placed. That intuition most likely comes from repetition and countless hours of drilling.

It is not enough for us to just know all of the required techniques in our art. Knowledge of a thing does not always equate to proper application. When I tested for Ikkyu (brown belt) in Judo, I knew all of the necessary techniques. But when it came time to display them against an opponent in competition, I was behind the curve.

We train so that we are prepared for when the need to use our techniques arise, whether in competition or self-defense. This makes repetition critical.

Always one to speak his mind, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter and teacher, Carlson Gracie, reportedly once said, “You know a thousand techniques and you suck at every one of them.” I never met him, but I have felt like he had me in mind when he said this a few times in my career.

In your training, make it a point not just to have a breadth of knowledge, but to have a depth of the techniques you study. It is better to be a master of a few things than to attempt to be decent at everything. As you train, the number of techniques you can perform well will grow naturally due to repetition.

Stay on the grind. Don’t get discouraged or frustrated. Drill, drill, drill. It will pay off for you in the long run.