Next week will be my one-year anniversary of training jiu-jitsu. What a journey it’s been.
I’ve been a “fitness person” most of my adult life—beginning after college, I started working out to counteract all the sugary drinks and pastries I’d been consuming as a Starbucks barista. Though I originally got into fitness for appearance reasons, working out didn’t become part of my identity until years later, when I discovered that I loved setting—and working toward—challenging athletic goals. That realization got me into high-intensity interval training, calisthenics, hand balancing, boxing, and martial arts. I’ve loved each of these pursuits in its own way, and each has added a layer of complexity to help me become a more well-rounded athlete.
As much as I’ve enjoyed learning many different athletic skills, for the past few years, I’ve had a desire to devote myself completely to a single sport—to make it my craft. I’ve wanted to go all in on one thing and see how far I can go with it if I stopped with the usual excuses (things like I’m starting too late, I have adult responsibilities, it’s pointless, I don’t have time, etc.) and put everything I have into it. So I sampled several different athletic pursuits to see if each might be the right fit. I briefly entertained a life as a boxer, considered performing in the circus, and tried sprint training, triathlons, and karate. But nothing felt quite right.
I started jiu-jitsu at the recommendation of a friend, and when I first started, I didn’t have high expectations. Like many people (including my parents, who still have no idea what I spend hours doing every day), I didn’t really understand what jiu-jitsu was. Although I had done other martial arts before, I didn’t grow up wrestling and had no ground game to speak of. But I liked the encouraging, supportive community, and I loved the belt system that signified progress. I liked that people of all ages compete—and how common it is for people stick with the sport for decades or more. It didn’t take long before I began enjoying the training itself, too—especially the combination of mental and physical prowess it requires. I decided that jiu-jitsu ticked enough of the boxes and would go all in on it. And what a year it’s been.
I set out on this journey hoping to grow as a person and an athlete—and I can say with one hundred percent confidence that I’ve grown a lot in both areas. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed so far is that I’ve had a chance to practice many of the psychological skills that I’ve spent so much of my past few years learning about. It’s one thing to read about these tactics in books or even to learn about them in therapy; another to practice them in real-time. And jiu-jitsu gets you to do just that. For example, I used to have a lot of panic attacks. But being anxious while stuck underneath someone bigger and stronger than you on the mat leads to hyperventilating, which only leads to more anxiety. The solution? Don’t freak out. Stay calm and take deep, slow breaths. Staying calm allows you to think more clearly, which gives you a fighting chance of getting out of the bad position (maybe not so coincidently, I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year now).
I’ve become more patient, and—I think—have finally accepted that learning challenging things takes time. That rushing the process early on will only slow it down later. This is something I’ve written about for years—but could never internalize before now. Maybe this is also a maturity thing—understanding that things take the time they take (one of my favorite writers, Oliver Burkeman, writes about this a lot). Yes, we can approach challenges more efficiently—to aim to work smarter and not just harder—but trying to fast forward through the basics will only slow down our progress later.
Aside from becoming a much better overall athlete, I’ve also become kinder, more compassionate, more community-minded, more present, and more at ease in my daily life—none of which I set out to achieve a year ago—or would have predicted when I first started this journey. Some of it ties directly to jiu-jitsu, yes, but much of it, I credit simply to fully going all in on one thing for the first time in my life. And this, I believe, is a journey everyone can have—even if you have zero interest in jiu-jitsu.
Going “all in” on something might mean different things to different people. Personally, I won’t rest until I know I’ve given everything I have to jiu-jitsu—to see just how far I can take it. More than anything, I see it as a test of myself as a person, especially a person who decided at one point in my mid-twenties that I want to be the type of person that does hard things. For you, it might mean something entirely different. The only way to figure that out is to do some deep introspection—spend some time reflecting, journaling, and getting really honest with yourself about your dreams and how you want to spend your life.
Whatever your personal definition, we can learn a lot about ourselves by immersing ourselves in a craft. In fact, in many ways, I believe it’s the only way to truly grow and test ourselves. So many people read self-help and psychology books and yet never put the concepts in practice in any real way—immersing yourself in a craft is one concrete way to do so. For example, all those nervous system regulation techniques I learned working with a DBT (a form of CBT therapy) therapist? I use them during every jiu-jitsu competition.
Too many adults dismiss hobbies or dreams as kids play and don’t take them seriously. But if your goal is to grow and change—and I hope it is—there’s no better way to do so than to devote yourself to a craft. It can be anything—a sport, music, learning to cook, garden, paint, design clothes, etc. Follow your curiosities and see where they take you. What matters most is that you learn to stop listening to the voice in your head that says that it’s pointless, that it’s too late, or that it’s a luxury, and not something you should allow yourself to spend time on.
I believe there’s no better time spent.