Achieving the Proper Mindset

Early in our grappling lives, whether we do jiu-jitsu, wrestling or submission grappling, we begin to recognize obstacles that prevent us from achieving greatness: inconsistent training, a lackadaisical attitude. To improve, we do the opposite. Often relying on willpower and perseverance, we pay attention in class and train hard. we practice techniques, seeing them as a means to dominance and submission. After training for so long, we improve ourselves, and strive closer toward mastery. The key driving force seems to be willpower--to show up, learn, train and never quit.

To become a champion, the level of commitment can look borderline obsessive. Consider one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Dan Gable. An Olympic gold medalist at the 1972 games in Munich, he did not give up a single point to his opponents, and he later became one of the most successful coaches of all time, winning 15 collegiate championships as coach of the University of Iowa. The man was said to have been so focused on wrestling in every waking moment of life that he could never even remember how to drive to the university--his son had to drive him every day.

The extraordinary dedication to become a champion seems a byproduct of the extraordinary individual, as evidenced by the sheer willpower of championship athletes in the face of life's challenges outside of sport. Rulon Gardner, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and the only person to defeat Russian wrestling legend Alexander Karelin in competition, survived 17 hours stranded in one metre deep snow in the mountains of Wyoming, after plunging his snow mobile into water. Interviewed following the ordeal, he credited his survival to his mental strength. Mark Schultz, another Olympic medalist, persevered through a staph infection that almost claimed his arm. Dan Henderson, a lifelong wrestler and one of the most successful crossovers into the MMA realm, simply epitomizes toughness and ruggedness. While fighting in Japan, Hendo was billed as the ultimate American athlete, not just a wrestler and fighter, but a rancher, too. Highlight videos showed him struggling, man against beast, as he rode horses and roped cattle. Said one UFC commentator, Hendo is so tough, "if you put him in a movie, people would think he'd be an unrealistic character."

The lesson seems to be: if you want to be champion, you must have an unbending will, relentless determination, and a toughness in life that most people never have.

A broader perspective, however, shows that these individuals' success should not obscure other paths to success. Several weeks ago, when Fabio Leopoldo came to Evolve's world headquarters in Singapore, he shared his thoughts on attaining MMA success, at one point emphasizing "the art of jiu jitsu." There was wisdom not only in the words he spoke, but in the words he did not speak. He did not say the "sport of jiu jitsu." Jiu-jitsu is both a sport and an art, but this emphasis on art, I think, differentiates it so much from wrestling.

It is not just semantics. Think about how jiu-jitsu champions are characterized. Nino Schembri, a world champion jiu-jitsu artist (both in gi and no-gi) sought out by the world's best MMA fighters for his amazing technical skill, simply looks like the anti-Dan Henderson--see if you would disagree after watching the first minute of his 2003 fight against Sakuraba. Marcelo Garcia is the ultimate jiu-jitsu professor--if jiu-jitsu were a study topic at university, Marcelo would be the Nobel prize winning faculty. Mario Sperry, nicknamed the "Zen Master," was at one point the authoritative source for adapting jiu-jitsu technique to MMA.

While these jiu-jitsu champions probably all possess world-class strength of mind, we pay greater attention as fans to their technical mastery--their emphasis on technique reinforces a perspective that respects the beauty of jiu-jitsu as art. Importantly, their success also reveals a complementary path to success for all of us. The next time you find yourself slogging through technique, forcing yourself to endure, struggle instead to consider the beauty of what you are doing. Technique is not just the means to submission and dominance. As many champions have realized, it is an art in itself.

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