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For the last year, I have been putting myself through a lot of pain. I have had countless black eyes, a broken rib, a broken finger and spent most of the time covered in bruises. I have been suffering from the sort of violence people spend their entire lives trying to avoid.

Except the weird thing is, I’m loving it. For the last year, I have been training a martial art known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).

If you’ve never heard of it, BJJ is a grappling focused martial art. When you watch the UFC and you see them rolling around on the floor trying to break each other’s arms… that’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

To give you a better idea, here’s a video of me getting smashed in my first week. My girlfriend describes it as ‘competitive snuggling’.

I have spent 262 hours on the mat, competed in two tournaments, trained in four countries and been tapped about a gazillion times more than I have tapped anyone.

Trust me, it is a lot more fun than it sounds!

Apart from learning a lot about BJJ, the year has also really impacted and changed how I feel and approach learning. In this post, I have tried to put into words that change. They make sense to me and hopefully they’ll make sense to you.

The importance of perseverance

Martial arts are known for teaching you discipline. Well, I don’t think I have learnt much discipline from BJJ, but I have learnt a lot about perseverance.

BJJ is the only sport I have ever come across where the community takes real pride in how long it takes to get any good. No one turns up on their first day and can tap a higher belt. No matter how talented you are it is going to take you years to get a black belt. And not even a few years, more like 10 years.

It takes hard work and lots of perseverance.

On the wall of my gym is this quote:

“A black belt is just a white belt who never gave up”

This is not the first time I have tried to learn a new sport from scratch. In 2014, I spent the year playing table tennis. Every. Single. Day. It was tough, got me a lot of weird looks and was oddly inspiring.

That taught me a bit about perseverance. For the year I worked hard, putting in the hours and seeing myself improve. But it was with an end in sight, just one year.

BJJ has scaled perseverance up to a whole new level. When you start BJJ and say you want a black belt, you are setting a target that will probably take you over a decade to achieve.

Let me echo a quote someone posted on my table tennis blog post.

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” – Bill Gates

10 years is so long that it might as well be indefinite. 10 years ago I was still at school, I wouldn’t possibly have been able to guess what my life would be like now.

BJJ has helped me see that working on something that could take years, is still worthwhile.

It has been 18 months since I started writing this blog and it only just starting to get traction. It took a year before anyone really started reading it. BJJ has helped give me the perseverance to keep working on it and see it through.

It is never too late to start

When I was learning table tennis I went to a few different training camps where I was the only adult training. Everyone who was training seriously was already awesome, or a kid. There were very few people taking up table tennis seriously as an adult.

There are plenty of very knowledgeable table tennis players who believe that if you don’t start when you’re a kid or early teenager, you’ll never be able to learn correct technique and get good. Why do they believe that? Because the examples of adult starters are few and far between.

In BJJ, I had the opposite experience. Most people at my gym were my age or older and I have met loads of people who started as an adult. There is an attitude that jiu-jitsu is for life, so even if it take ten years to get good you still have the rest of your life ahead of you.

What a refreshing approach. I recently started learning Spanish, a lot of people say there is no point trying to learn a new language, you need to start as a kid. Well, it might take me a long time to get fluent, but so what? The journey will be great and relative to the rest of my life I’ll be chatting away before I know it.

bjj inglorious grapplers

The journey needs to be fun

I have a confession to make. Since finishing the table tennis challenge I have totally stopped learning table tennis. I still play the occasional match and messed around with friends, but I stopped trying to improve. I am now worse at table tennis than I was when the challenge finished.

Despite always talking about never stopping learning, that’s exactly what I did.

I had spent over 500 hours on the table, played something like 110 matches in tournaments against people much better than me and managed to win only six. I set massive targets and heaped loads of pressure on myself.

I had crammed so much into that year that I was burnt out.

But I didn’t realise that was what was going on and set myself another massive target for BJJ. I wanted to train every day and get awesome in just one year. I wanted to game the system.

But you just can’t do that with a full contact martial art. Within a week, I had broken a finger, and after a month, I broke a rib. Training every day just wasn’t possible.

It forced me to slow down and find a routine. A level that I was comfortable at and wouldn’t keep getting injured.

Taking the pressure off led to something amazing and unexpected happening. I started to really enjoy it!

As the year went on I just enjoyed it more and more.

My year is now up. I am not as good at BJJ as I was at table tennis. Nowhere near – I have done about half the amount of hours.

But there is a massive difference in my current attitude. Rather than looking forward to the year ending and getting a break, the opposite has happened. I want to do more BJJ. I want to up the pace.

There is a quote in BJJ which I think is attributed to Chris Haueter:

“It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left.”

The most optimal way to learn BJJ may be to cram in as many efficient hours as possible and always compete and compare yourself with the best. But seriously, that isn’t fun.

Losing 104 out of 110 table tennis matches was pretty damn demoralising – even though I was pitting myself against the best players in the country and wasn’t expected to win.

If I’m not enjoying training I will look for excuses to skip it, I don’t participate as much and I look for excuses to quit.

Enjoying the process is even more important when approaching something that could take a decade to learn. If you don’t enjoy the journey, then really what’s the point?

I’ve taken a similar approach to learning Spanish. Instead of trying to learn it as quickly as possible, I am trying to enjoy the process as much as possible. In lessons, I annoy my teachers by trying to divert the class with stupid jokes. In taxis, I try and make the driver laugh while saying silly things. And it’s working, after only a few weeks of learning Spanish I am already better than I ever was at German, which I ‘studied’ and hated for four years at school.

I may not be training BJJ in the most optimal way, but check back in five years and then tell me it hasn’t worked.

In fact, I am enjoying BJJ so much that rather than quitting, I booked a month long trip to Brazil. I arrived in Rio de Janeiro two weeks ago, the mecca of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and have been training most days. But more importantly, I have been trying to have as much fun as possible.

bjj in rio

A big shout out to Jude Samuels, Ashleigh Grimshaw, Viking Wong, Max Bickerton and all the team at Inglorious Grapplers for making the year so much fun and teaching me so much. I’m looking forward to getting back and showing you what I’ve learnt. Also to Luciano Cristovam for the awesome one-to-one tuition over the last week here in Rio.