Returning to Competition: Finding My Heart Again

Returning to Competition: Finding my heart again

By: Emily Kwok

I recently made the decision and announcement that I would compete at this year’s IBJJF Master’s Seniors Worlds.

It’s been 6 years since I have competed and in the typical timeframe that a purple belt is born, I opened a school, birthed 2 children, concentrated on building my BJJ community and invested energy into my professional career outside of Jiu Jitsu. The competitive itch never went away, coaching students on the sidelines always made me feel like I wanted to jump back in, but the time wasn’t right. I wasn’t fully invested.

From the day I began studying BJJ, the next decade and then some was spent focused on all things jiu jitsu. This obsession meant little time for anything else. I loved the challenge, worked hard and became relatively successful in applying my BJJ skills on the tournament circuit. The rest of my life wasn’t as developed because of my dedication, so the break I took was needed even though I didn’t know it at the time. When I stopped competing in 2012, the energy I had for sport was labored and scarce. I was competing for desperate reasons, none of them any good. I was going head to head with my own demons, trying to prove to myself that I didn’t suck by attempting to collect medals at competitions. I had parted ways with my last team on a bad note feeling dejected, worthless and just plain sad. There was hardness all around me but I had learned to push through boundaries like a boss. I was numb to pain and instinct and I failed to feel myself. During that time nothing in my life felt generous. It felt as if everything I wanted or needed had to be mined out of an unforgiving wall of stone. There was no grace in my game.Returning to Competition: Finding My Heart Again

I stopped competing when Marcelo perceived that I was too busy concentrating on other things in life, and he was right. Looking back I was burnt out and had no love for what I did anymore. I gladly accepted distraction so that I wouldn’t have to face myself. In the 2 years I spent on the tournament scene under him I managed to adequately meet my goal by placing and winning a few medals. I was satisfied.

I should be clear that the strain in my BJJ was not spurned by my team at MGA. My training partners and coaches were all very helpful and supportive but they didn’t have a window into what was going on inside of me. One world class peer said to me post training, ‘Emily, I’ve trained with all the best girls out there and you’re better than all of them, but you have to believe in yourself.’ He was 100% right, but I just didn’t have the heart to openly admit it.

Being at Marcelo’s was somewhat therapeutic for me. The energy at his school was purely oriented towards love of BJJ. It was good to be surrounded by a bunch of other people who were so passionate about the sport. While I was there I had the opportunity to forge some new friendships and one of the individuals I was introduced to was Josh Waitzkin. Josh is the founder of MGInAction, co-founder of the school and author of ‘The Art of Learning’. Prior to focusing on BJJ, he also had a very impressive and extensive career in Chess and Push Hands Tai Chi. Josh and I spent a lot of hours together on and off the mats. As our friendship grew I also had the privilege of becoming better acquainted with his work.

Many of the principles he discusses in his book were themes that I was struggling with in my practice: Losing to Win, Two Approaches to Learning, Loving the Game, The Downward Spiral, Investment in Loss, just to name a few. Ever patient and willing to help if needed, he always gave me the space to process at my own pace.

Much of what he’s written and spoken about has allowed me to redefine my relationship to training and competition. With a healthier mindset towards the pressure I had once put on myself, a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. I could begin to enjoy BJJ again. It didn’t have to be so heavy and hard.

Recently, one of the newer themes I was exposed to sparked the desire to compete: abundance vs. scarcity. When I reflect on me at my best, it’s always been at a time when what I was doing was full of love. Love of sport, love of family, love of community…

From the feeling of abundance comes motivation, trust, opportunity, solidarity, generosity and a whole host of other wonderful things. Abundance reminds us that there is more where ‘it’ comes from so there is always more to give. In the last 6 years I was able to see that by giving myself the freedom to live life on different terms, I was feeding my soul to find love for myself and my passions again.

Coming back to competition and unafraid of self exploration, my students have inspired me to invest in myself. I see how committed they are to working together to improve and it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s necessary to switch modes or tracks if you find yourself burnt out or unmotivated. Pushing through lack of love can only put you in a place where there is brittleness and hardship.

Imagine if the energy you put into everything in life was always coming from a place of abundance?

How many of your actions are based on force or scarcity?

It’s difficult to listen to yourself that deeply. Most people, including myself are scared to confront our insecurities because we may not know what to do with them once they are uncovered.

I’m incredibly thankful to have the community I have around me to give me everything I need to succeed. At this time in my life, I really, truly feel so proud to look at my circle of support. I am surrounded by nothing but quality and heart.

It took me a long time to find this place of abundance again. Though there is no guarantee that it will last, I cherish this space and will do whatever I need to do to maintain it.

In the coming months I will periodically explore some of the principles in Josh’s book. I’d encourage you to pick it up if you haven’t read it yet. It is not only timeless and relevant for competition, but may give you some helpful framework for how to view the work you do in life.

In closing I think some thank yous are in store, because without these entities, I wouldn’t have the courage to get out there again:

I thank…

My darkness, because without knowing how awful I could feel about myself, I’d never know how big my greatness could ever be.

Marcelo and Tati for giving me a safe, world class place to train and faith that I could belong on greatest team in the world.

Josh, for your friendship and confidence. You also gave me the tools to rehabilitate my soul for the love of competition.

Art, for your patience and understanding. As my business partner you have allowed me to make my way as I needed to and believed it would bring value to what we do.

To my students, who inspire me everyday with their enthusiasm and pursuit of excellence. You fill our school with the good stuff and I couldn’t be happier with the community that we’ve created together.

And to my husband Gerry who gives me all the room to be who I need to be, big and small, without ever judging me for it.


I prepare for competition with a sense of joy and fulfillment and a great big smile.

It’s been a long while…


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