Becoming the Conscious Competitor: Master’s Seniors Worlds 2018
By: Emily Kwok
“The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” – Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
Fully in, let it go. Fully in, let it go. Fully in, let it go. Fully in, let it go. Fully in, let it go.
I had time to tell myself to breathe deeply five times before the start of the match. As I walked from my corner to meet the referee and shake my opponent’s hand, I told myself to breathe and adapt, just as I had two weeks earlier, sitting neck deep in a tub of ice. If I could sit in ice for 10 minutes without flinching, if I could embrace and override the sensation of the searing cold in under a minute, I could surely fight with conviction against another warm human body. The opponent I had really prepared to overcome in this moment was my own cloud of self doubt. That darkness that hung over me, I tried to beat it out of my consciousness for years but couldn’t quite do it. Three months of intense preparation was boiling down to me inhaling and exhaling that dry desert air before, “COMBATE.”
After being away from competition for six years, the task of returning was daunting. As events approached, people would ask me, “Why don’t you just jump in?” The answer was always clear to me. I knew what I used to put myself through in order to fight at an elite level and doing anything less would feel disrespectful. Disrespectful to my opponents because they should expect a competitor who is well groomed and prepared to fight them at their best, and disrespectful to myself because I deserved to fight with intention and focus.
Knowing that I couldn’t make training a priority because I had two little gremlins running around, a burgeoning school to direct and a rewarding and exciting consulting career was a welcome and perfectly acceptable reality. Many people are unaware that I’ve always maintained a working career outside of BJJ full time. For the last five years I’ve had the privilege of working very closely with Josh Waitzkin, who is well known for his ideas and writing on principle-based learning and peak performance. Our work together has had an immense impact on how I’ve come to reshape my thoughts on learning and sports psychology. Sharing this transitional experience with you has been a direct result of the profound internal shift I’ve experienced and I genuinely feel that though we may be spending countless hours training as fighters on the mats, we could all truly spend more time training our minds.
My self-doubt wasn’t a physical thing I could prepare for, it was a lingering ghost in my mind that cast a dullness to every aspect of my personal relationship to the mats.
When I stopped competing in 2012, I had been a very conflicted fighter. I had spent 12 years of my life in a physical and mental grind and I was burnt out — though I wasn’t willing to admit it. There was a real struggle deprioritizing competition because fighting had generally given me passion and purpose, but by the time I let go, I had subconsciously started looking for it everywhere else but on the mats.
I used to be an uninhibited and confident athlete; I blindly followed my passion, barely keeping track of my growth in blissful ignorance. Then, at a pivotal time in my competitive career, my naive ambition and heart were greatly sabotaged by a cancerous force within the team I represented.
My fall from grace occured in the years following my win at the 2007 Mundials (brown/black division). At a time when I should have been peaking, I was being berated by certain individuals on my team. I was one of the few high-level females and had a very strong competitive record. In weekly closed-door meetings, I was being told that my teammates hated me, that no one wanted to train with me and that I was a deeply flawed person. The emotional and mental abuse I subjected myself to for the next year resulted in the biggest losing streak of my life. I lost every match I fought, but worst of all, I lost my heart. The innocent freedom and joy I used to experience during competition turned into doubt, insecurity and lameness.
“Anger. Fear. Desperation. Excitement. Happiness, Despair. Hope. Emotions are part of our lives. We would be fools to deny such a rich element of the human experience. But, when our emotions overwhelm us, we can get sloppy.”
Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
I hit bottom in the winter of 2008. On the precipice of being promoted to black belt, I had spent an entire year losing every match as the reigning World Champion. Some Champion I was. I had contemplated quitting BJJ because it made me miserable. It was only through the encouragement and advice of old friends who had long crossed the finish line and made it as black belts who told me to go and get mine. They argued that the belt would give me stature and opportunity to move more independently through the BJJ world. I felt shame and grief collecting a promotion from people who had tried to break me, but having trained in three countries over seven years and consistently proving myself on the battle ground meant that I had earned my keep. The last couple of years were not a reflection of all the efforts and good people who had contributed to my success.
After receiving my black belt and parting ways with the toxicity in my life, I spent the next few years trying to find myself again. I felt lost as an athlete and had no mentors or true teachers for a period until I found myself at the Marcelo Garcia Academy. Marcelo’s wife, Tati (Tatianna), had invited me to train on numerous occasions after seeing me compete at local tournaments. I took her up on the offer in late 2009.
Training at their brand new academy on 36th Street in Manhattan was invigorating. BJJ became fun and exciting again. I was 29 and felt like I still had more gas in my athletic tank, so I set out to get back on the tournament circuit. I worked very hard the next two years to win. I forced myself to fight because deep down I needed to prove to myself that I wasn’t the loser I had come to believe I was. I experienced mixed success. I could easily work hard and put energy into preparing for the fight, but my problem was that the fight was much bigger than my opponent in each tournament. My self-doubt wasn’t a physical thing I could prepare for, it was a lingering ghost in my mind that cast a dullness onto every aspect of my personal relationship to the mats.
In 2012, I took a step back from the stresses of competing and decided to focus on enjoying my life a little more. I was reluctant to tell anyone I had retired from fighting since I am an inherently competitive person and didn’t want pigeonhole myself. All these years I’ve always been a little hungry to fight. Every tournament I’d coach I would always ask myself why I wasn’t out there. There was always a little spark, but deep down I knew there was no fire. I may have had the relative skill, but my desire and motivation were an empty well. When facing off against the best, it is so much more of a mental game than anything else and I knew that if I ever planned to fight again I’d have to find something to fill it with.
“At the highest levels of any kind of competitive discipline, everyone is great. At this point the decisive factor is rarely who knows more, but who dictates the tone of the battle. For this reason, almost without exception, champions are specialists whose styles emerge from profound awareness of their unique strengths, and who are exceedingly skilled at guiding the battle in that direction.”
Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
Making the decision to fight again was inspired by appreciating the hard work that I and my friend and business partner Art Keintz put into building our school. I may have taken a six-year hiatus from competing, but Art and I fought to build, survive and thrive in a different way. For some time, having the privilege of sitting back and watching the successes of our students was enough.
Every day, I got to see people experience these little triumphs on our mats in training. For some people it was finishing a warm up without stopping or executing a new move they’d been toiling away on. For others, it was making it to class because they’d been traveling for weeks for work, or battling it out to find childcare so they could train.
To some, these observations may seem trivial, but they meant everything to me. Everyone sacrifices so much to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Art and I had been able to cultivate a healthy culture within our school, and this was a powerful gift. Knowing that our staff and students brought their best selves to class and could trust their teachers and training partners made me feel more liberated than any competitive success I had ever achieved. We had created a team and foundation of our own that had been missing from my life. To have the freedom to shape our environment the way we needed to was vital to my heart. Sensing this made me feel like I could concentrate my efforts to building my fighter back up again.
Embracing the Moment
“A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.”
Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
A lot can happen in six years. Beginners can feasibly achieve the rank of purple belt, children are conceived and born, and relationships can be forged, broken, and reinforced. I have jokingly said to friends socially that, “My dance card is full.” Meaning, that I have such high quality people around me that it would be difficult for me to make sure I get to dance with everyone! I have little tolerance for bullshit or disingenuous behavior so I am quick to ward it off. I am supremely honored and proud of my friends and training partners and consider it a privilege to work or socialize with them.
My training camp for this competition was out of this world. I had incredible resources for every need — literally the best in the world. Here I had amassed these relationships with people who had all wanted to contribute to my success and I was profoundly grateful. I’m not sure that my former self would have had the awareness to fully absorb what I had at my disposal. Taking the break allowed me to recalibrate what fighting meant. It established a strong base from which I could take all the work ethic I had built previously and tactically approach what I would need to to do be at my best.
Being a fully conscious fighter made me feel like an indestructible machine. My motivations and mental game had drastically matured. They were so strong that even when I suffered a debilitating ankle injury two weeks before the tournament, I kept going. I had worked so hard to prepare that I wasn’t going to let an injury stop me. I literally threw every therapist, doctor and piece of karma at it so that I would be in fighting shape. I reconfigured my strategy to eliminate risky positions. I was ready.
I woke up the morning of my division with a hurricane of butterflies in my stomach. The nerves never disappear, but they always tell me that I’m taking myself and the battles ahead very seriously. I spent some time in bed trying to do some Wim Hof breathing, which helped some, but I still felt anxious afterward. I then recalled a very insightful conversation that I’d had with Josh a few days before. He was super pumped up for me and could feel my inner confidence too. He left me with two thoughts that really pulled my psychology together for me that morning.
- Don’t be afraid to create the moment — no need to maintain.
- At my core, I am dynamic quality. I am at my best when I am in the mix. I can feel things and navigate through complexities in an incredible way. I just have to let myself be.
Recalling these two pieces of advice, I got up and got stimulated!
I wasn’t serving myself well trying to maintain peace and quiet when I was a bundle of nerves. I decided I might feel better if I allowed myself to feel the energy of the world around me so I could just practice filtering the stimuli.
Be What You Are
“Much ofwhat separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.”
Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
The rest of the story in short is that I advanced in my first match because my opponent did not report, then won my final in a decisive 9-0 sub. I had fought with clarity and presence of mind. Something that I never had done before. Who knew that a six-year hiatus would result in this much growth as a human and as an athlete?
In the past, I dared not ever say to myself that I was a good black belt. I felt so awful about myself for the last decade. The fear I had about my own abilities/inabilities pushed me to work harder. I know I have excellent work ethic; thank god for that. By stepping up to this challenge aware of my shortcomings, being fully present, accountable and driven, I was able to become the athlete I was searching for all these years.
If you are struggling with your mental game, I strongly urge you to pick up and read Josh’s book, The Art of Learning. Quotes from the book have been thoughtfully inserted throughout this post. I’ve read it dozens of times and each time I get a little more out of it. Rereading it as I was training for this tournament gave it a certain vitality and real-time relevance that I hadn’t previously felt. Until this most recent dive, I feel like I hadn’t been able to follow the entire book because I denied myself the journey of becoming the conscious competitor. I could appreciate it in its entirety this time.
To be an elite performer in sport, work or life, you must unlock the ability to embrace your true nature. All of it. In this time where we are obsessed with filtering our reality, we create pressure trying to be what we think we should be to everyone else. It’s better and much easier to just be who you are — to not hide yourself from truly feeling all your highs and lows, to find comfort in knowing that you have a community of people who care about you and will want to help you achieve your goals. To know thyself on an intimate level and to not change or fight your natural quirks and gifts, but rather to channel them into your power zone so you can optimize yourself in a truly unique way. Looking back, I don’t regret any of the hardships that I’ve endured because the depths of the pain, hurt and shame have allowed me to have a greater capacity to feel love, joy and gratitude. I have many responsibilities and life goals on my horizon so I’m not sure when my next tournament will be, but I am sure of one thing — I am good enough for myself now.
“In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory.”
Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is available in multiple formats on Amazon: here. This is a convenience link for you to be able to find the book, there are no affiliate kickbacks or commissions through this link. It is absolutely a recommended read if even just one of these quotes resonated with you.