Training through the years.

The Philosophical Fighter with Gustavo Machado, circa 2009.

Joshua Clements with Gustavo Machado in 2009.

This was me as a fresh white belt at my first seminar with Gustavo Machado, my head instructor. As I near ten years on the mat in Jiu Jitsu, plus the many more in Wrestling and Judo, I can’t help but think about this year and what it will be like. I have never tired of learning something new, and it seems the more I learn, the more the small details make the biggest changes in my game. It is not about adding to, but taking away, in the long run.

I started as a writer and progressed to being an editor. They are two different processes. In the former, I have a blank page and have to fill it up much as an artist does with a blank canvas. This is much the same as being a white belt. You grab techniques and put them in your arsenal. Before long, you have so much that the bag becomes too heavy to bear and you must dispense with something to keep going.

Being an editor is more like being a sculptor. You chip away at the inessential to get to the masterpiece underneath. This is where I like to think of my game. I want to unburden myself from the flashy and fancy techniques. Get back to the basics that make all grappling styles efficient. Just something I am dwelling on lately.

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.