Our eyes met, two perfect strangers face-to-face under the eyes of a few dozen onlookers, and at the same exact second, we charged. He was a wrestler—you could read it in his posturing and his movements—and I knew from the get-go that it would be a challenge just staying on my feet. We wrapped each other up, battling for position and leverage, both already gassed from the massive adrenaline dump of waiting all day to beat each other up. I remember thinking that I was holding my own—that for a wrestler he was having a hell of a time putting me on my back. Pride cometh before a fall. He wrapped up my left leg and drove forward and the next thing I knew I was staring up at the gymnasium lights. But the fight had only just begun.
My first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition had approached as most things of any importance do; it took forever to arrive but once I was within the window of two weeks it thundered towards me like a freight train. What is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu you might ask? Let’s see if I can nail this down in two sentences: Jiu Jitsu is a combat sport which combines wrestling and grappling in a battle to dominate your opponent through takedowns, pressure, chokes, and joint locks. Perhaps the best nickname I’ve ever heard it given is “Involuntary Yoga”. That’s it, in a nutshell. Long story short, I started my Jiu Jitsu career at 28 and within a year I decided I was ready to face live competition.
I trained my butt off, working out at the gym and sparring sometimes twice a day. I’ll never forget my coach’s advice after one particularly rough roll with a bigger fellow; “If you aren’t at least a little bit hurt going into a tournament, then you aren’t training hard enough.” Duly noted. I trained, and I trained, and I trained some more. The day of the competition arrived and after fasting in order to make weight, my wife and I headed for the sports arena where the tournament was being held.
What I wasn’t ready for was the waiting game. I had no idea that my weight class was slotted for the end of the day and though (I thought) I was physically prepared for anything I found that the mental aspect of the tournament was what would kill me. I paced around aimlessly, watching the other fights until an injury or a rather gruesome submission would send me back to our seats with my head bowed. I must’ve read the same page of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ seventy times while I waited.
By the time my name was finally called my wife had nodded off in her seat. I shook her awake, stole a kiss, and jogged over to the scorer’s table.
You already know the first part of what happened. After battling for standing position for a minute and a half, the other fella put me square on my back. ‘ Okay,’ I thought to myself. ‘Your ground game is your strength. You’re tired already, but it’s time to take control.’ It was a battle. He countered every move I made, slipped out of every triangle choke and arm bar I shot for. While we were both sucking for air the remaining time in the five minute bout flew by. With thirty seconds left I managed to scramble to his back and scoop in a sloppy rear-naked choke. I squeezed and I writhed, trying to get him to tap out—to throw in the towel. The buzzer rang and we were separated.
I can’t explain to you the level of heartbreak I experienced when the referee raised the other guy’s hand over mine. I’d come close, but he had defeated me fair and square on the judge’s scoring. It was a blur after that. I was sapped of strength, dizzy and breathless as they awarded me with a bronze medal—a consolation prize—little more than a participation trophy. The drive home was mostly silent, save for my hurried order at the Wendy’s drive-thru. We got home and I slept, the bronze medal mostly forgotten.
Just yesterday, my three year old daughter was digging around in one of my drawers while I was working at my desk. “What’s this Daddy?” she asked, and I turned to see her holding the medal from my first competition.
“Oh, that’s just a medal from one of Daddy’s jiu jitsu tournaments.”
She eyed it up, admiring its sheen and the surprising weight of it. To her, it might as well have been Olympic gold. “So you won?” she asked finally.
I laughed. “No, baby. I didn't win. I lost. They gave me that medal because I showed up.”
But something struck me as she retreated downstairs, already shouting about whatever terror she was going to raise next. I was damned proud of that bronze hunk of metal. Had I won? No. But I’d worked hard in preparation for the fight. I had put the hours in on the mats at my gym. I had picked my coach’s brain for any sliver of an advantage I might find depending who my opponent was. I had learned. I had grown.
It also struck me that showing up, learning, and evolving are absolutely essential for any growth in the world of business. Like it or not, so is losing. For every blockbuster sale, for every unprecedented win, for every deal of a lifetime, there are usually a thousand losses—some big, others small. But in order to win or to lose, you’ve gotta step into that ring to begin with. And on that day when things don’t go so well, your growth depends on what you do with that negative experience. Are you learning from it? Are you figuring out where your game was weak or where you should’ve used your strengths differently?
For leaders, this concept is even more important. It’s easy to praise your team for a win or to express displeasure after a loss. But a true leader will pull a teammate aside after their hearts have been broken, and they’ll manage to cultivate the positive aspects of the experience. At the gym the day after my big loss, my coach, Marcelo Garcia Black Belt Chris Civello, asked me to stick around after class. He ran through a handful of situations he’d seen in the fight in which I could’ve turned the tables. “The whole time you were worried about him passing your guard, his arm was wide open for a triangle choke. You weren’t even looking for it. You were stuck in your own head.” Boom. It’s those lessons that have stuck with me. It’s those lessons that are responsible for the gold medal with my name on it that now hangs in the window at Sakura Jiu Jitsu.
Don’t get me wrong here—I cringe at the thought of kids getting participation trophies just for the hell of it, or even worse—employees scoring quarterly bonuses just because they made it to work. Winning and losing are a vital part of growing up and indeed, adult life. One person’s hand must be raised at the end of any battle, and someone else should know the heartbreak of defeat. My bronze medal fully acknowledges the fact that I lost. But when I look at it now, I realize that it doesn’t just symbolize the fact that I lost that particular day. It tells the story of the man who showed up and who pulled a mental win out of a loss.
And for what it’s worth, with just ten more seconds I would’ve beaten that guy.