The ballad of humility

image of a sign with humility and arrogance written on it

Years ago, when I started my journey to find a martial art for self-defense reasons, jiu-jitsu was at the top of my list. At the time, I was dating a guy that we’ll call Todd (yes, the same Todd I mention on my about page). Now Todd had attended a few jiu-jitsu classes before we met, at the school that would later become my home away from home. He portrayed the sport as violent, aggressive, and students were chronically prone to injuries. The negative imagery he described steered me away from the sport for several years out of concern for my own safety.

Skip ahead a few years and I meet my husband who (at the time), had been training for 9 years at the same school Todd had attended. Early in our relationship, I told him about my interest in martial arts, and he jumped at the chance to tell me about jiu-jitsu and how it could help me project myself and my family. When I expressed my concerns about safety and relayed the information given to me by Todd he gave me a quizzical look before asking me to describe Todd. Here’s where it gets interesting. My husband remembered Todd. In fact, he had been his training partner on numerous occasions throughout Todd’s short jiujitsu career. His version of how Todd presented himself went something like this…

Todd would arrive dressed in military-style camouflage cargo pants and matching duffle bag (of which I knew contained a concealed firearm) and imitation army-style tactical t-shirt (if there is such a thing) and combat boots, before changing into the same white gi as everyone else. Even though Todd had never served in the military it was important to him that everyone know how intense he was and talked about survivalist mumbo-jumbo and conspiracy theories incessantly. (Boy can I pick-em!)

Due to an accidental indoctrination by the UFC and other similar MMA fighting originations, like so many newcomers are, Todd was led to believe that winning mattered most off all to the point where he always went one hundred and ten percent, one hundred and ten percent of the time, especially when he thought he was losing. My husband recalls Todd being aggressive and becoming upset even when he couldn’t submit someone. And the more Todd failed, the more aggressive he became.

Needless to say, Todd didn’t last long and after only a few classes, he quit altogether. His dissatisfaction with the sport due to his own inadequacies as well as his injuries (of which I wholeheartedly believe he caused to himself) finally did him in. In Todd’s mind, he quit because he believed the other students were violent, but now, as a seasoned blue belt, I realize it was due to a very large ego. Winning was more important to him than growth. And that Todd lacked humility.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people (men and women both) enter the gym overconfident in their abilities, only to be humbled by a tiny white belt, half their size, with only a few months of experience. I’ve seen people hurt themselves because they thought they could muscle their way out of something or hurt others because they couldn’t accept that they didn’t have the submission. Yes we are in a combat sport that’s ultimate goal is to exert your will on someone by potentially “hurting” them, but if you think that that’s all it’s about you’re missing the point.

Jiu-jitsu is about helping yourself and others become the best versions of themselves. Jiu-jitsu is about growth. And humility breeds growth! It’s not the only ingredient necessary. But it’s like water when you are planting your field. Absolutely essential if you want your corn to grow tall.

My experience with humility

Some practitioners enter the sport with an ego, however, and unfortunate, that others develop it as their skills increase.

Early on in my jiu-jitsu career, my main training partner was a teenage girl who had been training since she was 4. We’ll call her Mary. She was really talented and knew what she was doing, yet due to her talent, she had this sense of superiority and wanted everyone to know it.

Now, I have 15+ years on her, and I remember being a cocky teen myself, so I didn’t take it personally. It’s just a phase in everyone’s life. What irked me was my inability to practice what we had learned that day because Mary “had to win” at all costs.

Along the way of Mary’s jiu-jitsu journey, she had developed a series of moves that worked for her that she had refined to perfection, and my entire first year was spent flat on my back being submitted by armbar after armbar. Believe me, it was humbling however as a white belt it was also incredibly annoying because I wasn’t given the opportunity to try things. Over and over and over again. I remember getting in the car and going home in tears out of sheer frustration. I was discouraged and started to resent going to practice.

It wasn’t until I went into private lessons and a different class schedule that I was finally able to learn how to move and what actions I should take to prevent being locked down when I’m on my back. I began to actively seek out other partners, male and female, to keep the forward progress I was making.

When I finally circled back to Mary, while still frustrating, she wasn’t able to dominate me as she had before. And what I realized is that her need to “win” had led her to stick with what had worked in the past, and then to perfect it and perfect it further, all the time neglecting everything else. She had stunted herself and her growth. She never trained outside her bubble of safety and therefore wasn’t the jack of all trades she needed to be in order to keep up. I found that when we ventured out of her preprogrammed series of moves she had very little idea what she should be doing. And believe me, I did my best to capitalize on this.

I never did catch Mary and she has since moved out of state, and even though my first year of training was extremely difficult, I’m thankful to her for the experience. She led me to focus on my technique, to think outside the box, discovered my strengths and how to leverage them. I’m sure Mary’s grown since then. It’s not fair to judge a child, gifted as she may be, in an adult world. However, she did teach me what type of training partner I didn’t want to be, but most importantly I learned humility.

Benefits of being humble

If you want to keep training partners, you need to learn humility. You don’t ever want to be the person others dread to roll with because you can’t lose, or worse, that they worry might hurt them. I certainly don’t. I want it to be fun, enjoyable, and to encourage people to try new things. I want people to seek me out because I am a safe haven.

Nobody wants to grapple with the gun-toting, ego the size of the universe, can’t be humbled, military wannabe, unless it’s to stomp him into the mat and try to teach him some humility. Because honestly if he had a little he’d be a likable person. And the same thing goes for the wet behind the ears, “I’m gifted and I want you to know it,” teenager.

Don’t be Todd. Don’t be Mary.

Most importantly though humility leads to self-growth. Makes you receptive to new ideas. Makes you admit weakness and therefore areas of improvement which leads to new goals and more self-discovery.

Quitting because you’re not winning doesn’t make you better, it just makes you a quitter.

“The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself,”
Baz Luhrmann


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