What keeps them coming back?
For years, I’d been racking my brain. I just couldn’t figure it out. Then, a revelation.
It was a rough night of training, and only a few of us were left. Drenched in sweat and radiating heat like an old Chevy, I looked up through beads of sweat to see one of our white belts heading out. He had a tough night. He always did.
“What keeps guys like that coming back,” I asked. It was directed at no one in particular; a question so tired it was all but rhetorical.
Against the wall behind me sat Big Al, a moat of sweat trickling out around him. He sat quietly as the guys all chimed in, listening to the debate unfold.
Like the other disheveled, exhausted heaps left scattered around the mat, Al was an OG: one of our original students. A pillar of the school. Nights like this- when the original dirty dozen gets together- are the roughest. And the best. In Jiu Jitsu, trust, love, and loyalty are the magical ingredients for epic training sessions.
We got after it, and it showed.
I know why these guys come back. In part, well, because they’re insane. But mostly because Jiu Jitsu isn’t so much of a struggle for them- they’ve been athletes all their lives.
Everyone tossed in their two cents. As usual, they all started listing the benefits of hard training. And as usual, they were missing the point. It was all coming from the wrong perspective.
Then a voice boomed from behind the group, “I’ll tell you what it is.” We all turned to see Big Al, head tilted back against the wall. “They know they belong.”
He meant the unlikely ones, the underdogs, the ones who struggle most. Those who experience the least amount of success (if any at all), who pinball between rocks and hard places each night- yet keep coming back.
What a brutish environment, you might be thinking. I assure you, it’s not. Ruffians! Elitists! Bullies! Nope.
In fact, I’ve dedicated my life to making Jiu Jitsu more accessible: more welcoming, less adversarial, less intimidating. I’m of a new generation of Jiu Jitsu ambassadors who fight feverishly to beat and batter down the once monolithic barrier of entry to Jiu Jitsu; a generation who understand that the Law of the Jungle is archaic. And my top guys are the same.
It’s no longer Survival of the Fittest, but Survival of the Willing. Still, Jiu Jitsu is hard. It’s a crucible, a forge.
No matter how intuitive the curriculum, how engaging and articulate the instruction, how pristine the culture, Jiu Jitsu will always be hard. It will always have underpinnings of competitiveness; there will always be a hierarchy, both physically and socially- and certain people will always struggle far more than others.
It’s so damned hard that it would make all the sense in the world for someone who’s been only the nail to not come back.
But they do.
They do come back, sporting triumphant grins directly proportionate to the amount they’d struggled in the previous class.
I’ve been the nail, trust me. I’ve been smashed, strangled, and suffocated. I’ve been the nail, but never for too long. I’ve never been so deep in the woods that I lost sight of the trail, never so far adrift I could no longer see the shore.
In all honesty, I’ve never ridden the bench in my life. Even when my lacrosse coach proclaimed so eloquently that I ran like old people screwing- slow and sloppy- we both knew he was lying.
Leadership is about perspective. and I needed to view Jiu Jitsu through the lens of someone with more chips stacked against them.
“They walk in, and they feel the community here,” Al said. “They see that even if someone’s no good yet, the Varsity takes them in. They’re right there with them.” Varsity is the advanced crew, the most naturally gifted and experienced students, the top of the food chain. The OGs.
What Al was saying is that in Jiu Jitsu, nobody rides the bench- no matter what. And for some, it’s the first time in their lives.
It was simple, but it resonated. Heads nodded. The insight was made more profound, perhaps, by Big Al’s resemblance to Ving Rhames. What does Marsellus Wallace look like? Al. He looks like Big Al.
The next morning, I woke up thinking about the conversation we had. I appreciated his perspective. When I asked him to elaborate, he wrote back:
The validation you feel for still being wanted in a place where you’re not the most important person, or the “best,” goes far beyond what we get from any other aspect of life. When you truly feel you’re part of something, and needed, is what drives you to do what most would deem as “crazy”, day in and day out…-Big Al
He articulated perfectly something we all feel: everyone plays a role in the academy, and no one part is more valuable than another.
What’s beautiful about Jiu Jitsu, what makes it so impactful, so important, what makes this beautiful art so transformative- is that everyone’s journey matters.
It’s palpable, and undeniable.
You’d think that given enough time, only the strongest would remain. The naturals, the “alphas.” But it simply isn’t the case. In fact, those who struggle most make up the majority of the academy. The truth is, they aren’t really the underdogs, not in Jiu Jitsu. They’re the ones who get the most out of it.
In almost every other arena in life, if you aren’t dripping with talent or toughness, you’re cast off as benchwarmer or equipment manager, the mascot, comic relief.
Not on the mats. Here, you’re the hero of the damn movie.
And that white belt? Well, he’s a blue belt now. And although he isn’t setting the world on fire, he’s much better than he used to be. And that’s a beautiful thing.