Monday, 1 February 2010

A layman's journey into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Part 9

The learning curve

What makes a winner? My friends and I were discussing this one night in the pub after training. We concluded that you just seem to get those people that are born winners. It feels like in some way it was pre-determined by God or the stars that they would be brilliant at a given sport, and that is that. Then there are the rest of us (the majority), who fit into the average to good, but not brilliant category. We are all just trudging along looking for a spark or distinguishing moment in the long and over crowded road of sporting mediocrity. I have always been pretty decent at most sports. I was not necessarily picked first in the playground, but I was never made to do the demoralising walk of shame upon being picked last. Thankfully that is one childhood scar, among many, I do not bear.

At school I always admired those sportsmen who were consistently brilliant and always won. Those guys that fearlessly went into bat first at cricket and face the fast bowlers that played for the ‘county’ and would knock out a casual '50 not out'. They just seemed unfazed by anyone or any occasion.

Then there is the world of professional sports, men and women paid to perform and expected to excel. Look at Tiger Woods, that dude is a machine. Golf is not exactly my cup of tea, but mentally and technically it's a very tough and complex sport. However, Tiger Woods continues to dominate. Even after a serious knee surgery he came back and made his contemporaries look like weekend hobbyists. Usain Bolt is another of the winning breed. It is like he just rolls out of bed and breaks records at will. Then moonwalks over the finishing line and rubs our mediocre noses in it.

The apparent effortlessness of their brilliance is, however, deceiving. Whilst they are obviously born with a deep well of natural gifting, they work and train hard. Tiger Woods has hit millions of practice balls since he was a toddler and could hold a club. Usain Bolt has lifted thousands of weights and put in hours of training and strict dieting. They have taken their raw talent and honed it into brilliance. They have made themselves the best through hard work and dedication.

Sociologist and author Malcom Gladwell has come up with a theory that in order to reach "genius-level" in a specific discipline, you need to put in 10,000 hours of work. Be it in sport, arts or academia. Rebecca Adlington, the 19-year-old swimmer who won two gold medals at the Beijing Games, has put in an estimated 8,840 hours of training since the age of 12. According to this theory, that would make me a genius at Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega Mega Drive between 1993 and 1995 (a golden era).

What is the cost of sporting genius? 10,000 hours of your short life? I am not really after genius level; I just want to excel, win fights and medal at tournaments. I also have a job to go to, a marriage to work at, friendships to preserve and DVD box-sets to finish. Can I have my cake and eat it? In the last year I believe my jiu-jitsu has been developing steadily. I am certainly finding my feet, earning stripes, expanding my repertoire of skills and beginning to cause blue belts a few problems from time to time. I have performed decently at tournaments, but certainly not to the best of my ability. Yet I still lack that edge, unable to close that margin between good and great.

I feel like the David Ginola of white belt jiu-jitsu. Other than the long flowing Pantene hair, I have some natural flair, good athleticism and dashing good looks. Similarly to David Ginola, I am inconsistent at times and never quite win any trophies. Ginola will be forever remembered for his sublime flashes of skill, but he never quite reached the heady heights of success of, say, a Roy Keane. My gym is full of Roy Keanes and Tony Adams’; enforcers who make me look like a BJJ fairy.

I have always gravitated towards the more temperamental and extravagant competitors in most sports. The consistently brilliant individual sportsmen tend to come across as fairly dry individuals. Stephen Hendry, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Jonny Wilkinson, Pete Sampras. I am sure they are all great guys, but I cannot imagine them being a bundle of laughs if you got landed beside them on a long haul flight.

Does sporting success come at the price of your personality? I mean there are exceptions to every rule, Mohammad Ali looks like he would have been good craic and he was the man. Andre Agassi perhaps one of the greatest players of our generation stated in his recent auto-biography that he came to hate tennis. It was like he became a slave to his gifting. It is crazy how something you love can quickly become something you resent. Maybe I am wired to want to be good at everything I do and this can sometimes inhibit my enjoyment.

I think if we are completely honest with ourselves, we gravitate towards the things we are naturally good at. Very subtly, however, the balance of enjoyment and the need for success becomes blurred. We can find ourselves doing something religiously, but no longer really enjoying it. Our worth becomes wrapped up in what we are ‘achieving’ and who we have ‘tapped’, rather than in what we have learned and the enjoyment that simply comes from engaging in the ‘art’.

I recently competed in a tournament. I was really motivated to do well. I had been training for close to a year and believed I could win or, at least, place high. As the competition approached I began to heavily feel the pressure I was placing upon myself to succeed. I knew I had the skills and drive to do well but, like the next man, you begin to envisage the worst. Imagining silly mistakes or losing your first fight. There is no pressure quite like the mental pressure you place upon yourself. I think this is summed up well in the words of UFC fighter Forrest Griffin.

"That fear for me is always there. It's a scary feeling. You're alone in a cage and everybody's watching and the fear really comes from knowing that I owe this to myself. I've done this much work and this is the thing I want. It's that fear that the thing you want most in your life is within your grasp and it's up to you to take it."

I walked away from the tournament having won 4 fights and lost 2. I fought hard and learned a lot, but ultimately I walked away empty handed. I felt like I had not ‘taken it’. Why had I not just grabbed it and made victory mine? In the moment you cannot be objective. All you feel is disappointment and regret. The reality was my fitness was not up to par and I simply had not trained hard enough.

Now, weeks later, I can see with better clarity what I have learned from that experience and acknowledge what I lacked. I spent 2 minutes trying to escape from a triangle in one of my competition losses. When I did escape, time was up and I lost the fight on points. A few nights ago I found myself in a similar position in sparring and I smashed that triangle like it had called my mother a slag.

Failure is an obstacle on the road to success. There is definitely something in that 10,000 hour theory. The reality is you need to give more in order to achieve more. Natural ability, whilst necessary, can only take you so far. I can reflect and analyse all I want, but nothing can beat solid mat time. When I am training regularly and hard, I feel great and I fight with intelligence, stamina and strength.

I did an internet search on David Ginola, one website described him as a ‘stylish maverick’. I’d be happy with that title, as long as I am enjoying my jiu-jitsu, always learning, training hard and bringing the best me to the mat every time I roll.

By Juvenile

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