Facing down my fear of failure: 5 life lessons I learnt from a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition

Written by Dee Duffy

Last month I competed at the IBJJF Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu European Championships. For those who are not familiar, It is arguably the largest global competition for Jiu jitsu sports-persons to enter – a major calendar event. Where the who’s who and big names in this sport, mingle and compete in Lisbon, Portugal each January.

And then there was me. A contender who discovered this martial art just four years ago.

I’d been chipping away earning my stripes on a beginner’s white belt, swapping this for a blue belt after 18 months. And in November 2019 I received my final fourth stripe on my blue belt. Decision time. With 8 weeks to go until ‘The Euros’, was I willing to put myself out there and compete at an international level? 

To set some context. While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a rapidly growing sport in Ireland, the number of females participating are fewer. And as one ‘graduates’ to Masters level (i.e. anyone over 30 years old), the numbers dwindle even further. So to get a local match at Female Blue Belt Masters level is difficult. Yet to prepare for the European Championships after only ever competing at a parochial level, seemed like a giant leap (if the truth be known, I was still tying my belt wrong every week at training!).

Little did I know the physical training would be a walk in the park in comparison to the psychological preparation that lay ahead.

So what have I learnt from the experience of ‘putting my body on the line’ in the name of sport? Well, for a start I’ve learnt my ego is way more fragile than my body, that’s for sure. But let me put my ego-busting behaviours out into the ether in a nicely structured ‘5 Life Lessons’ format below:

1.    Imposter Syndrome

 A nasty little voice inside my head was determined to convince me the European Championships was no place for someone like me. That surely there would be way more experienced, ‘serious’ competitors on the mats and that I was wasting my time, money and energy to even consider signing up.

When I had to face this negative voice down, what I came to realise was, this was more about my fear of failure than of any significant incapacity to put in a good, solid performance. The bigger fear was, but what if I lose? 

2.    Fear of Failure

 So, now I had named it. I was self-sabotaging my opportunity to participate in the competition to shield my ego from possible failure. (Can I just add, this is not an easy pill to swallow. Life lessons in motion here, way before that flight landed in Lisbon!). I admitted this realisation to my coaches. Only to find they casually relayed similar stories of fear, failure, humiliation and loss! My fabulous black belt coaches knew exactly what I was talking about? Who knew? Well lots of people apparently, but it always feels like brand new information to you when a bit of self-realisation pops up and slaps you right across the face! But now, what to do with this fear? 

 3.    Mind over matter.- it actually works!

The academic in me first hit the books. Let’s see what the sports experts and mind gurus have to say about all this. From Ant Middleton’s ‘The Fear Bubble’, to ‘Peak Performance’ by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, and to Brain Solis’s ‘Lifescale’, there seemed to be a common thread emerging. Nothing too complex. And certainly not strenuous. Quite appealing actually. Simply, ‘Keep calm, and Meditate!’

(Note, this synopsis might not quite do these books full justice. Do feel free to read for yourself for further gems of self-learning).  

 So I set about collating a playlist of relevant meditations and motivating music for the pre-match nerves. I’d like to give a shout out to Niall Breslin’s (aka Bressie) ‘Where is my Mind’ podcast, Episode 6: The Pale Blue Dot. He interviews an astronaut who has viewed planet Earth from space. He recalls the seeming insignificance of the ‘pale blue dot’ from this vantage point.

With this heightened perspective, how important was it really if I should win or lose this match? It worked a treat. (And seeing as I am bearing all, I may as well reveal that The Greatest’s Showman’s This Is Me is a cracking anthem for pre-match nerves. There, I’ve said it). 

 4.    Peak Performance

 While a whole lot of self-awareness and self-growth was happening, I should not omit to acknowledge the physical training, energy and commitment that followed once I set myself this goal. I came to personally experience Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow in action.

 Csikszentmihalyi proposes the concept of flow as an optimal psychological state people experience when engaged in an activity that is appropriately challenging to one’s skill level. It is at this point one can experience deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction. And I experienced both in abundance. But not without sheer grit and determination.

 Life is busy. Life is full of distractions. It gets particularly chaotic when you are a full-time working ‘Masters Mama’, who is not a professional athlete but is trying to convince herself she is for eight weeks over the Christmas break! I spent New Year’s Eve on the mats. I trained every session I could fit in, weeknights and weekends. I travelled to other clubs to get extra rolls in with new bodies. And when I hit obstacles like no babysitter for the kids, I improvised…

5.    Yes, but are you really good enough?

 After all my reading, my meditations, all my soul-searching, my journaling, oh and of course, all my actual training, D-Day finally approached. I would love to say I kicked that menacing, self-doubting little voice to the curb and relished every moment of my first international championship experience. It didn’t go down quite like that. 

 But what I also didn’t do was let it hold me back. I sat with it. I accepted my fears. I acknowledged the self-doubts. I quelled the catastrophising. As calmly as I could, I assured that insecure self that no matter what happened, this ‘little blue dot’ would keep turning and tomorrow would come. And with it, I would have my version of events to tell.

 Renzo Gracie, of the Gracie Jiu Jitsu family dynasty, famously said, ‘Even if you don’t win you learn. So there’s no losing. You win the fight or you learn’. And although clichés are irritating, it kept playing over in my head. Because I had experienced it to be true. Past competitions I had lost, I could tell you exactly what I did wrong and I went away and worked on the error in my performance. So, I armoured myself with this win-win mantra.

And in the end, what did happen on the mats that day?

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Well, to the dulcet sounds of Bressie’s meditating tones, to the more shrill and rousing rebel pitches of The Greatest Showman’s finest, I stepped on to the mats at the terrifyingly vast sports stadium in Odivelas, Lisboa.

3, 2, 1, Combate! A respectful handshake and we’re off. I visualised the takedown I wanted, and gratefully, executed it just as I had envisioned it in my head. After 5 minutes of solid Jiu-Jitsu with a well-matched opponent, I won the match, 0-2. That was it, I was into the division’s semi-finals!

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 A twenty-minute interval and I was stepping out on to the mat again to face my next opponent. The visualisation technique didn’t quite work out this time around and I found myself in a more vulnerable position. But I didn’t let it overwhelm me. I practiced mind over matter. I did not panic. I just practised my Jiu Jitsu. At a halfway point in the match, my opponent reaped my knee. The referee paused the match, she received a penalty and we were instructed to continue. Despite significant knee pain, adrenaline kicked in and when the clock stopped, I had won the second match, 0-7.

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 This was it, I was into the finals of the IBJJF European Championships! It felt surreal. I knew I had secured my place on the podium. It was now down to the final match to see what place I would take. However, adrenaline had subsided and I was just left with a throbbing pain in my knee. It felt all too familiar. I had torn my meniscus two years ago in the same knee. Instinct told me this wasn’t good. But I also couldn’t hobble away from a chance to win gold, could I?

 Of course, I couldn’t. I decided to step up and see what would happen. Maybe I’d forget about the pain when the match kicked off? Or I’d luckily manage a quick submission at the onset? I gave it a shot.

I managed to hold my own for the first minute or so. I resisted my opponent’s takedown attempts and even managed to take her down to the mat. I just couldn’t scramble in time to hold the position. My knee ached. I knew then I had made a misjudgement. I won’t say I allowed her to armbar me to submission, but I was contented to end the match at this point and tap out.

So there it is. With just a seemingly insignificant sports competition, I faced down my fears, set purposeful goals, eliminated quests for perfection with just perfect practice, and learnt techniques to quell the self-doubting youngster within.

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 I can testify I learnt so much more about myself from this intense 8-week personal quest than I have in years. And I think all of us need to put ourselves ‘on the line’ more often. Maybe Jiu-Jitsu isn’t for everyone. But I do think us ‘Masters’ in particular are all too guilty of preaching, but not practising.

In this day and age, when we are crying out for more purpose and meaning in our lives, we need to challenge ourselves to grow. Try something tough, anything. Just do it!

 I can’t say I am fully there yet, but I’m journeying toward Carol Dweck’s growth mindset to ‘love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort and keep on learning’. 

Team KF gi and hoodie hanging in a wardrobe

This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Posted here with permission from the author.

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