Competition: Redefining success, failure and rite of passage
Learn how competing 5 times in 7 months helped me understand competition in a new way, leading to an unusual exploration of rites of passage and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
Over the last 7 months I’ve competed 5 times. I ran an 8km obstacle course in May and also competed in my very first Brazilian Jiu-jitsu competition as a white belt in the Masters 3 division, followed by 3 more BJJ competitions. I’ve written about my first Brazilian Jiu-jitsu class and my reflections on being a 48 year old white belt.
How many competitions had I competed in previously as an adult? Zero, goose egg, nada, not a single one. My entire adult life I’ve avoided competition, often saying stuff like “Well, I’m just not that competitive” or “winning and losing is not so important”.
Where does this sudden change of heart come from? Part of it is a desire for initiation and to test myself, to grow and to develop. Part of it comes from my own near death experience, 18 months ago. This left me with a sense of calm but also a lot less complacency. Our time here is short.
In 18 months I’ll also be turning 50. Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis. I already have a younger girlfriend and am planning on getting a motorcycle license! However I don’t feel like I’m in a crisis, instead I feel much clearer, stable, grounded and comfortable in my own skin, and more so than ever.
The uninitiated man
In indigenous tribal cultures, boys become men through a rite of passage. A challenge that they need to overcome in order to enter manhood, often organised by elders in the tribe. In modern secular society we have no tribe and no elders. The closest thing we have to a rite of passage is military service.
What we do have are several pseudo rites of passage - like getting a driver's license, marriage, or moving away from home or graduation from school or college, but these milestones and achievements don’t test our manhood, or our resilience in any real way.
Since my second divorce I’ve actively started seeking out ways to challenge and test myself, increase my resilience and self-reliance. One such initiation was an adventure in the Scottish Highlands, a 5 day survival course.
Other examples of challenges that I choose are winter cold water immersions and starting Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, getting up early and both running and taking part in 21 day accountability group challenges.
Competition as a rite of passage
I also see competing as a rite of passage. When it comes to Jiu-jitsu, there’s the preparation stage: training for the competition, working out some kind of game plan. Practicing and honing strategy and techniques with my training partners.
Then there’s the competition itself, where we step out of our normal world and literally cross the threshold into a liminal space on the mat. If you’ve wondering what liminal space is then check out my post: What are rites of passage and why are they important?
After the match is the integration process: Reflecting on what went well and more importantly where did I make mistakes and why. Then trying to work on the weaknesses in my game so that I can improve.
Finding your tribe
In modern society, the task of creating a tribe and finding elders is optional and down to the individual. I moved to Sweden when I was 40 leaving my friends and community behind. I’ve struggled to connect with people here for several reasons, language, culture and time being the main ones. Everyone I meet is very busy living their lives. There just doesn’t seem to be much space for new friendships. Saying that I’ve cultivated some amazing friendships along the road.
Over the last 3 years the Jiu-jitsu club has become my community. But I’ve also been actively involved in men’s work: leading 21 day accountability groups and running events for men. This has been so rewarding and healing for me on my own journey.
Creating community and deepening relationships has become more important to me over the years, especially with other men. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I think a lot has to do with moving to Sweden and becoming a father. In my own life, I also know that I’ve sought the validation of women too much and this has had a negative effect on my relationships. Men need validation from other men in order to define our masculinity.
Divorce as a rite of passage
My second divorce was a huge turning point in my life. This deep wounding led to deep healing especially in terms of my relationship to the feminine. I’ve written about the dance of the masculine and feminine and also on masculinity. Looking back, my second divorce was the best thing that could have happened to me. In fact I’m not sure I would have made the changes I needed, without it. But back to the topic of competition.
Competing at Brazilian Jiu-jitsu
There are lots of reasons to train jiu-jitsu and training to compete is one of them. I found that when I decided I was going to compete it had a marvelous focusing effect on my training.
Instead of just rolling around on the mat, sweating and trying (unsuccessfully) not to get choked out, I began to focus my training around the competition - so starting from standing and beginning to work out a kernel of some kind of game plan. Starting with: am I going to draw guard, or go for a take down? and what happens if they draw guard first?
It’s one thing to have a regular training partner, who you get to know inside and out. It’s quite something else to meet a stranger on the mat for 5 minutes and try to do your best jiu-jitsu. I’m always struck by this momentary sense of aloneness when stepping onto the competition mat, knowing it’s just me and my opponent. My training partner disappears, my club disappears. I have to deal with everything that my opponent throws at me. I have to just work it out, win or lose.
Losing is learning
I’ve only ever won one match so far. So, I don’t have so much to say about winning yet. But when it comes to losing, I can really see my mistakes clearly (in hindsight) which has helped me work on focusing on improving my weaknesses. Each time I’ve lost I’ve gained new insights from the experience and it’s helped me focus my training. Then when I compete again I get to test what I’ve been working on and see if I can actually do the thing under pressure.
But losing or winning in competition isn’t an absolute measure either. It just means on a given day, against a certain opponent I got a certain result. Let’s be clear: I don’t like losing and I don’t compete with the goal of losing either. But losing is definitely part of the process of learning and improving.
Each of us gets to decide what’s important to us in our lives and how much attention and energy we put into our activities and relationships. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is not an easy thing to learn. In the beginning (and I’m still in the beginning after 3 years) it takes a lot of energy and effort. It’s also very easy to get obsessive about. Have you noticed how people who are into BJJ are REALLY into it???
It’s a beautiful complex art best described as playing chess with human bodies or involuntary yoga. It’s a real challenge that’s for sure and there’s something delicious about challenges - but it’s also hard to measure progress. It often feels like I’m not making any progress at all which can be disheartening. Of course it’s not a binary decision BJJ or life. Ideally it’s BJJ and life. Or BJJ for living a better life.
When I focus too much on any one activity, be it work or BJJ, I lose my balance and also my grip on what’s important. I tend to zoom in too much but have also learned to zoom out again. When it comes to BJJ I have to keep practicing this zooming back out to remind myself that everything is perfect as it is, at this moment. I’m reminded by the Radiohead song: “Everything in Its Right Place”. If you’re wondering what the hell I’m going on about you may want to check out my post Tantra for personal development, where I explore non-dualism.
Winning medals is a very narrow form of success and doesn’t mean as much as it may feel at first. It is of course a nice shiny affirmation of a small victory in a moment in time. For most of us, most of the time there are no medals in life. So it’s important we learn to acknowledge our successes and failures internally.
When I find myself feeling like it’s groundhog day (again) I try to remind myself that the journey is the prize, not winning in a competition and not getting my blue belt. I’d like to be good at jiu-jitsu (I’m still not sure how I objectively measure that) but I’m mindful not to sacrifice my health and relationships on the altar of BJJ.
So far I’ve loved the sense of brotherhood and community that Brazilian Jiu-jitsu has given me and the anchoring effect regular training has on my life. It’s also been a revelation how much fun competition can be - win or lose.