Progress and Purpose: Why do we Train?

By: Emily Kwok

If you asked me (almost) decades ago what I enjoyed about training BJJ and why I was doing it, I would have told you it was because it was different from anything I’d ever done and I liked the workout I got from it. Today, my reasons are largely the same, though I might add that I find the act of fighting meditative and the pursuit of excellence humbling. I never trained thinking I would amount to anything in the sport and I never trained because I wanted rank. I did it because it fed my soul.

Training BJJ is not for the faint of heart. It forces practitioners to fight with internal conviction, to stretch their capabilities, and to confront and acknowledge their egos. Many people never find the courage to try it and for those of us who do, few make it to black belt. The odds are always against you. You are always battling classmates who are more experienced, bigger, stronger, or accomplished. When you’re in the midst of an upswing, you feel invincible and you crave to fight every minute of the day. When you hit a plateau or a downswing, everything and everyone around you is better and someone else is to blame for your stagnancy. Your teachers will never have enough to teach you, enough adoration to make you feel needed, or enough stature to be in your presence.

So why do we train?

The recent commercialization of BJJ has led me to question this more and more. It feels in many ways that there is a movement toward placing value on external status and gratification vs. personal development and passion. In a sea of colored belts and strips of white tape, does anyone care about stretching themselves anymore? Or is it more important to be periodically and systematically rewarded for doing a good job?

Learning BJJ has become far more professional and tolerable than it used to be. I’m certain many older generation black belts would agree that it used to be a dog fight. Very little if any instruction, abhorrent gym cleanliness and ruthless training partners were the norms. Every class was a beating. Back then, if you didn’t LOVE fighting, if you weren’t passionate about getting more technical, expanding your skill set and outsmarting your partners, you’d be pushed out. Belt promotions? Who ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? Who needed it? None of us. Because regardless of whether there was a belt around our waist or not, we would all show up to train — because the fight would build character and the character would build the mental strength to supersede just about anything.

The fight would teach us to overcome discomfort. It would teach us to explore and know our limits, when we should strike and when we should hold still. It would teach us that there are consequences for all our actions and to never assume that you knew enough. It shows you that you’re always smaller, less experienced and less powerful than someone else. It leaves you in awe of how much you don’t know.

It would teach you to have no ego in the fight. Emotions would prove to be a distraction. It would also condition you to rely on your internal purpose and to not be caught in a reactionary position. Not concentrating on your own drive and purpose to win would result in failure.

Are these things apparent to us now?

I’m not sure. I try to teach my students to compare themselves to themselves and to not compare to others. It is a lesson on internal vs. external motivations. How much are we inspired to act on our personal goals and potential over being unhinged by someone else’s journey?

The only belt I ever felt great about accepting was my blue belt from Renzo Gracie. I vividly remember training back then between 2 gyms in Vancouver and then busting my ass all summer at his school in Manhattan. I would come visit over winter break just to train among his crew. The teachers I had in Vancouver weren’t black belts yet and weren’t eligible to promote me. It never deterred my dedication to training. I had come to NYC for a break and I recall many of the white belt friends I had there being promoted to blue belt already. Everyone would ask me why I wasn’t a blue belt yet and I would tell them, “Because I have no one to promote me.” But it never stopped me from training diligently. One day, while I was rolling with my favorite partner Teresa, Renzo creeped up behind me and slapped my back with a blue belt a handful of times. He would always call me, “Emily, tough as nails!” I felt good that day. I felt privileged to be awarded rank from him.

Every other belt I received I either tried to give back or had severe apprehensions about. What if I’m not that good? What if I shame my instructor with my terrible skills? What could I do to possibly earn this honor and do right by them?

If we are to accept this hierarchy, to earn a promotion, shouldn’t it feel good? Shouldn’t we feel like we did something to cross that finish line? Shouldn’t we look to our seniors and be honored to be included among their ranks? Feel like we worked hard to do something or learn something that we struggled to do on our own? These days it appears like some people treat it as a right and push back when you hold them to a higher standard.

My best teachers always believed in my ability to be more. They stretched the very notion of who I thought I was and what I was capable of doing. Through this tension, I grew as a person. Their belief was rooted in a place of love and optimism. It was never neglect or maliciousness.

My years of training and competition have taught me some of the deepest lessons about myself. No gold medal or belt rank takes the place of the self awareness and grit I’ve built up over time. But after all these years it still comes back to my purpose: I love to feel alive and I love to fight. Maybe too much. I want to know what I’m made of inside and out. I want to leave this earth with no regrets and know and feel who I am on all levels; fighting has given me that window. It’s not always pretty, but I know that I’m well equipped to grow from the struggles I encounter. Knowing this is more valuable than any rank or title because at the end of the day the only person we really have to answer to is the self — no one else really matters. I can only appreciate these lessons because of the people who cared about me. Without their commitment as teachers, training partners and friends, I would be many steps behind. I started on this path as an expression of the self and I’m still here for the same reason.



  • Marion

    Amazing, words and feelings that resonate to the core. THANK YOU EMILY KWOK for always being so insightful, clear, and inspiring!!!! Perfect for today.

  • Sandra

    Beautifully written. You give me lots to think about.

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