Category Archives: Community

Governing Fear

Learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is one of the greatest lessons Jiu-Jitsu teaches us. During Rickson’s recent visit to Oregon he shared a story about overcoming a great discomfort, one that I’ve seen a lot of students struggle with – claustrophobia.

He’d been rolling for sometime already that day. Just before he left the mat, he decided he’d have one more match with a much larger opponent. And on that day, the bigger guy managed to hold Rickson down. He smothered him under his weight.

Feeling like he couldn’t move, feeling like he couldn’t breath – Rickson panicked.

Rickson tapped. And as he slowly stood up, he knew he never wanted to experience that again. He never wanted to feel like he couldn’t take in a breath. He never wanted to panic.

He needed to come up with a creative way to try and overcome this anxiety. At home that afternoon he saw a large carpet spread out in the back yard, and that’s when the idea made itself clear.

Rickson called his brother into the backyard, and explained his strategy. Arms by his side and legs straight, his brother rolled Rickson up tight inside the carpet. So tight and so wedged in, that unrolling himself would be impossible. Rickson gave his brother very specific instructions. Under no circumstances was he allowed to let him out, until 30 minutes had passed; no matter what Rickson yelled or said.

Following Rickson’s instructions, his brother left the backyard.

At first, he said, it was hell.

It was hot.

It was dark.

It was so tight, even wiggling his fingers was impossible.

He began to panic.

Then something interesting happened. Recognizing that his brother wasn’t going to return to let him out until a half hour had passed, his breathing slowed down, his chattering mind slowed down, his heart rate slowed down, he started to relax.

Like clockwork, 30 minutes later his brother returned, unrolled him from the carpet, and according to Rickson, he’s never panicked in a match since.

I’m not recommending this specific technique to you. Do not try this at home. Rickson is Rickson. But, there are a lot of lessons to pull from that short anecdote. *(note: real mental illness, beyond the normative fears we all deal with, is illness, and should always be treated with professional medical help). To begin with note that Rickson ran towards his fears, not away from them. He chose his own variation of what would now be called ‘exposure therapy’. Everyone I’ve known who has overcome a specific fear, has done so using that path.

Second, make note of the time restriction. Rickson took away his own ‘out’.

At first, taking away your own out seems like it would inspire more fear and panic, and in one sense there is no doubt that it does, for a moment. In fact, that’s part of its benefit; but there is another way to look at this. By taking away his ‘out’, Rickson took away his decision. Once his brother walked out of the backyard, Rickson knew he wouldn’t come back for at least a half hour. There was nothing he could do about that, and so, there was nothing for his mind to deliberate about. It was out of his hands. As a more religious person would say, it was now in ‘God’s hands’, or at the very least, his brothers hands.

One, non-religious, variation of this that some of our coaches’ say to their athletes is – the work is done. As in, there are no decisions left to make. It’s just time to do your thing. That’s a statement that, if believed, lends itself to surrender. And by surrender I don’t mean quitting. I don’t mean surrendering the objective. To the contrary, I mean surrendering the debate about the objective. I mean accepting what actually is – right now. It’s not if you are going to fight, or how you are going to fight, it’s just fight. The work is done.

The third piece that can be easily overlooked is trust. Rickson trusted his brother enough to be able to put himself in an extremely vulnerable position. After all, what if his brother wandered off, got drunk, forgot, and Rickson had been left there for a day or more? But Rickson isn’t dumb. He put himself in an extremely vulnerable position so that he could make himself stronger, but he did it with the help of someone he could really trust.

There’s a formula here. It’s one all of us in this sport, and field, use a lot.

The willingness to engage in competition and the willingness to be vulnerable, exist in equal measure, if the competition itself is a worthy one.

I was at a social event recently when someone brought up the subject of Conor MacGregor.

He just doesn’t seem to be frightened about anything”, they said.

In this particular case, they meant that as a compliment. What they were trying to point out is, who else out there has the balls to consistently step outside of their comfort zone the way Conor does? And they’re right, in that sense. But I’ve heard variations of the “he isn’t scared by anything.” – “he seems fearless” comment, about one fighter or another, for decades. And more often than not, the person making the statement is missing something huge.

Whether someone recognizes it or not, these ideas of ‘fear-less-ness’ are variations on the “why take this fight out of his weight class with Diaz?” Or, “why take a boxing match at all, it’s just about money.” While one set of statements may seem like a compliment (fearless), and the other set of comments more of an insult (bad judgment or cynical) – they all share something in common – they miss the same, in fact identical, huge piece.

What piece?

The reality that everyone, even a great fighter, gets scared.

That is in fact, the point.

That’s why we watch.

Conor doesn’t take these fights because he’s fearless, short sighted, or greedy. He takes them because they’re a challenge. He takes them for the same reason Rickson had himself rolled up in carpet.

It isn’t brave if you’re not scared. It isn’t scary if you’re not pushing your limits – if you’re not vulnerable to loss. If you’re not putting yourself in vulnerable positions, your choice of competition isn’t a worthy one. And if you are putting yourself in vulnerable positions, and you’re intelligent, than well – at some points you will be destined to feel ‘vulnerable’. You will experience fear. That’s a good thing. It means you’re doing your job.

Training grants confidence. But it doesn’t eliminate fear. Everyone feels fear. The difference is, some just refuse to let it diminish them.

Many years ago I asked Randy Couture how he stayed so calm. If you go back and watch his fights you’ll find him smiling, in the cage, before each battle begins. He told me it was always scary to hear that door latch shut – but he wasn’t going to let his opponent see that.

All athletes who’ve challenged themselves know this secret. You never eliminate fear. You learn to carry on in spite of it.

Marcus Aurelius said, “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

He didn’t say look away and pretend things were what you wished them to be. He said look them in the face and know them for what they are. That’s what combat athletes do to fear. That’s what all warriors throughout the Millennia have done to fear. They’ve looked it in the face and known it for what it really is. That’s what courage is.

Confront your anxiety. Look your fear in the face and know it for what it really is. Put yourself in vulnerable positions. Be willing to lose. That’s step one in the formula.

Step two is harder to name, and almost impossible to quantify. It’s what Rickson felt when he finally let go his fear and relaxed inside the carpet. It’s what focused athletes achieve when they are performing at their best. You can call it mindfulness. You can call it the zone. You can call it detached, or you can call it dialed in. It appears as a form of control. But control is the wrong word. I’ll quote again from Aurelius, because despite living over 1800 years ago, I’ve yet to hear a better contemporary version:

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

There is much to be said for Stoic philosophy. Yet distilled down, it’s little different from what the best of us do when the circumstances, the challenges, dictate it. Steel your mind to things that lay under your control, and let go of things that are not. Is there any doubt that our grandfathers who stormed the beaches on D-day knew, or quickly learned, that?

Is there a better word for the moment that Rickson resolved himself to the fact that there was no way for him to escape the carpet, than ‘surrender’?

I’ve not found one.

I know fighters who hate the word. They equate it to tapping out, to loss. But we could just as easily say ‘accept’. Accept what? Accept what you have no control over. In that acceptance there is great strength.

John Kavanagh told me once that despite being an open atheist, he had no problems using the phrase “it’s in God’s hands”, assuming that athlete was religious, as his final words before they stepped into the cage. It makes sense.

All the work has been done”, is another version of the same truism. The hours have been logged. The grueling sessions completed. The dieting over. The strategy considered. The technique refined. The movement polished.

Let it go now.

Get out of your way.

Let your body do its thing.

That act takes the anxiety that occurs when the brain is stuck in decision mode, should I do X or Y, and dissolves it. Fight or flight is replaced by doing. And that can take the human animal into one of its most graceful, and effective states.

One of the remarkably beautiful things about Jiu-Jitsu is that people of all ages, all backgrounds, all athletic abilities, from competitor to desk jockey, can experience that zone, that realm of perfect focus, that space of letting go – by rolling.

This is step two in our formula. First you confront your fear by putting yourself in a position where by definition you can, and in most circumstances will, repeatedly lose. Exposure – exposure to what? Exposure to failure, exposure to conflict, exposure to contact, exposure to stress – that’s the inoculation against denial that works. That’s what Aurelius meant by looking things in the face. And that’s found in every combat sport. Stepping onto the Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, Judo, or wrestling mat, and having to deal with another human being who is really trying to choke you, or put you in a position where they can break your limb; someone really fighting with you, while your peers watch, while your coach observes, while your mind does what it does, whether that self talk is positive or negative, whether that body is amped up or warming up – that practice – heals the human animal. It teaches you that being ashamed at how your body reacts is silly, and that ignoring the intentions of others because you don’t want them to be true is anything but helpful. It makes you stronger.

Tht leads to step two, once in the arena, whatever that arena is for you, be it a rolled up carpet, anxiety ridden confrontation, or physical fight, you focus only on what’s within your control, and let the rest, for that moment, go.

As Aurelius said: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

I want to stress, before moving onto our last piece of the puzzle, the variety of arenas people have. You never know what struggles other people are dealing with in their own lives. Suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, PTSD, financial stress, sick children, dying spouses, cancer, even eminent death. Everyone has his or her own battles. People have different strengths, and different failings. Giving a speech to a crowd might be a day at the office for one person, and a journey into sheer terror for another. You don’t know their wiring. You don’t know their history. You don’t know their battle. That alone should give us pause before we cast judgment. But it doesn’t change the formula.

I grew up an introverted book worm who was scared of physical contact. Martial Arts, and ultimately Jiu-Jitsu, changed that for me completely – through exposure.

My wife never had the safety and stability as a child that she and I now provide our children. The consequence of that is that she often wrestles with persistent anxiety in social circumstances. That’s very common. More common than many people may realize. The prescription for overcoming it is the same. Exposure. I nudge her into social situations that might require a bit of confrontation.

With our daughters we do the same. Though neither has any anxiety about talking to strangers, learning how to do it properly, meaning, with a demeanor that is both respectful, and politely assertive, is something I try and help instill in them. How? By having them engage in interactions with strangers while their mom and I observe. Every time we go out, they’re training.

This brings us to the last piece. The role Rickson’s brother played. The role a good father plays. The role a mentor plays. The role a good coach, or team, plays. What every successful fighter and trainer share. What exists between Conor and his coach, John Kavanagh, the last piece of our three part formula – trust.

When I first started teaching, more than 25 years ago, training consisted primarily of conditioning exercises, alive drilling, and lots and lots of sparring. We rolled, we did MMA, we boxed, we fought on old mats, we fought on concrete, we wore all forms of assorted safety gear that we would procure from other sports, and we hit each other, full power, with fists, feet, knees, elbows, rattan sticks, and wooden knives.

I did a lot of things wrong in those years. There was no such thing as an MMA gym at the time. We were the first in Oregon. But that doesn’t excuse it. The mistakes were no one’s fault but my own. I was still in my mid twenties. I was immature. And above all else, I was selfish. I wanted my students to be good fighters, yes. And I taught them everything I had learned up to that point to help make them so. But I wanted them to be good fighters mostly because I wanted them to be good sparring partners for me – to make ‘me’ better. The undeniable responsibility that comes along with being another human being’s coach was lost on me. Too often I used sarcasm and ridicule where positive support would have been better served. Too often the training was too rough, the strikes too hard, the rolls too brutal, the head trauma too pointless. Knockouts happened. Knees to skulls happened. People were weeded out, and like an idiot, I thought that meant progress.

As I look back on it now I cringe. We’ve learned so much in the two decades since. I’ve learned so much. We didn’t know then, half of what we know now about traumatic brain injuries. But there was enough science for me to have known better. Still, each year that went by we did improve. Little by little, step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson, we changed. We evolved. The workouts became more scientific, and by definition, safer and more efficient. The skill sets became more defined. The psychology of everyone involved grew healthier. And finally, after years, the message beat its way through my stubborn personality and thick skull – being a coach was a massive responsibility. You could say the smallest, and in your own mind most innocuous thing, and the athlete would end up feeling like a superhuman, or, hate you forever. Right or wrong, warranted or not, such was the power of a coaches words in our sport. I wasn’t ready for that as a young man. I work every day to live up to it as an older one.

What I wasn’t always doing then, and what I strive to do daily now, is maintain an earned trust between myself, and my students. They know that their safety is my prime concern. One of my biggest failures from years past was keeping guys on my mat, or in my organization, that didn’t feel the same way.

By way of example, one such person, who left my school as a purple belt, was the type who would ask you to “slow roll” in a passive aggressive/creepy way, and then moments later try and break your arm. We, meaning myself and the other coaches, didn’t bother too much with it because we could always beat him down. And when I was around, he was better behaved. It was only after he left my gym to teach in Texas that I fully realized how badly I had failed as a coach. Person after person, everywhere I would go, every seminar I would teach, would come up to tell me their own personal horror story of rolling with this guy. I never asked, or brought the subject up. They always volunteered the information. Now that he was gone, they wanted me to know. It was always some variation of the same thing – he’d approach asking to roll, in a very meek way. They’d let their defenses down. He’d go hard, slap a submission on, and hurt them. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve had dozens of people relay these kinds of encounters with him to me.

Why did I keep him around? There is no excuse. But by way of an explanation that may serve as a lesson, it was a combination of sympathy and apathy. Myself and the other coaches felt some empathy for him because it was clear he was somewhat emotionally disturbed, and somewhat socially awkward. I’ve always held out Jiu-Jitsu as a great healer for people like that, and part of me was always hoping Jiu-Jitsu would provide a vehicle by which he could change. The less exculpatory reason was that he was never a threat to myself and the other coaches. And therein is my greatest failing. I didn’t put the least skilled, the most vulnerable of my students first. By keeping someone like him on the mat, I put them all at risk.

I made a similar mistake, organization wide, by keeping on a stand up coach who was just as emotionally disturbed, and even more of a bully. Again, there was no excuse. If you’re a coach or leader within a gym or academy, you have to do two things. First, you have to lead by example. Second, you have to police your mat. You are responsible for your culture. As former Navy SEAL Leif Babin says, when it comes to leadership, it’s not what you preach it’s what you tolerate.

To be clear, neither of the people mentioned above have stepped foot in an SBG for at least a decade, and neither would survive in one now. Not because we would beat them up, but because they’d be walking into an environment that has zero tolerance for the kind of behavior they exhibited. That’s the kind of culture you want to build.

In today’s SBG, creating an environment where everyone can feel vulnerable, where people aren’t afraid to lose, where challenges can be met safely, and intelligently, is our chief mission. And our staff worldwide does a great job of making sure that’s true. As one of our mottos’ proclaims:

This is SBG – you’ll be okay.

This brings us full circle to our 3rd and final part of the overcoming fear formula. As a coach, leader, and gym owner, your #1 responsibility is the creation and maintenance of an environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable.

Let me repeat that.

Your most important job is maintaining a space where people feel okay being vulnerable.

Why?

Without that people will be afraid to lose. And if people are afraid to lose, they won’t take risks, they won’t step outside their comfort zone, they wont learn to govern their fear.

Part of the reason why Conor feels comfortable stepping outside his weight class to battle a phenomenal fighter like Nate Diaz, or outside his own sport to battle the number one boxer alive, is because he has a team and coach he trusts. He knows John will put his safety above all else. They’ve built a relationship – a bond. John has created an environment where his athletes and students feel safe losing. And that is the final, crucial piece to our three-step formula. Yes, you must be willing to let yourself be vulnerable, let yourself lose. And yes, once engaged, you have to get beyond fight or flight, let go of what you have no control over, and go right into do. But, to achieve that, you need to be in a place filled with people you trust.

You have to have a brother who you know, no matter what, will unroll you from the carpet.

Three Suicides

It was my mother in laws birthday. She took her own life just a few weeks before my wife was set to move to the states with me. And it reminded me of another, much older event.

When I was 15 years old I made a phone call. The summer had come and gone, and my loyal and trusted friend, Vernon King, had not yet returned. He had gone off to camp for the summer, and should have been home weeks earlier. I’d yet to hear from him. School was about to start. Still no word, I called his mom to check up. His sister answered. She was older and had already graduated.

“Is Vernon there”, I asked.

“Vernon’s dead”, she said.

Shamefully, idiotically, I did not believe her. In anger, I hung up.

She called back sometime later, and explained.

This was more than 34 years ago. I don’t remember my words, but I don’t believe I cried. Some days later I remember struggling to carry his coffin. The other pallbearers, all shorter, had me holding one corner of the casket higher than the rest. The dead are heavy.

We laid the coffin to rest, and his extensive family, filled with aunts and grandmothers, began screaming, wailing, and clawing at the open grave. I chose that moment to wander off. Up a hill at the center of the cemetery, I found an office where I called my father for a ride home.

Weeks past. I went back to school. I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of people’s sympathy. I still felt numb, and at no point did I cry. As I watched the reactions of others I began to question myself. Why wasn’t I responding that way?

One evening, after more time had passed, I was busy in my room ignoring whatever it was my father had asked me to do. Mad at my indifference, or the fact that I was probably smarting off (I don’t remember which), he came barging in. Angry, I lashed out, yelling something stupid and insulting. I remember him looking at me from the doorway, first with impatience, and then with something else. I was frozen motionless, sitting on the bed.

He sat down next to me, and hugged me. And at that moment I broke down. I cried for a long time.

I haven’t seen anywhere near the amount of death some have. But I’ve seen enough to know that people react differently to it. For me, there is no rational space for judgment when it comes to the variety of ways human beings grieve. Death is one of the ultimate shocks.

Last month I sat at one of my favorite outdoor restaurants in Portland. It was a beautiful, warm day. Summer had shown its face. It was also my deceased mother in law’s birthday. I met her once, when visiting my wife to be, Salome, in Iceland. I liked her. A few months later, just weeks before Salome’s ticketed date for arrival in the United States, she took her own life.

I was an intimate observer as to the effect that decision had on the woman I love. I know that like Vernon, that day he set about walking the Golden Gate bridge, looking for his spot to jump – rationality had nothing to do with it. But that knowledge doesn’t change the consequences of the action.

It’s misleading to say brain chemistry is a powerful thing. It’s closer to say brain chemistry is perhaps the most powerful thing. Brain chemistry can bring the strongest man to his knees in an instant. It can render anyone out of control. And even for those who hold onto a world view where individual free-will remains a thing, one solid dose of hallucinogenic helps elucidate the absolute power brain chemistry and its associated functions have, on the world we see ourselves inhabiting.

Over the last decade, as her mother’s birthdays have arrived, we’ve tried to turn them into something better. Salome’s sought to use those days as a time to celebrate her mother’s life, and to let our daughters in on a little bit of the goodness that her mother surely owned. That was our goal on this last birthday, as we sat outside at one of our favorite people watching restaurants, with our youngest daughter, Una. We were hoping to let a little darkness out, and bring a little light in, all the while making new, good, happy memories for our four year old.

As we sat there, seeing the sights, I noticed someone walking frantically across the street. This someone was in fact, my oldest friend. I’ve known him for decades. He was a best man at my wedding. He was the first person to ever give me a hallucinogenic. He is a good man. It took a fraction of a second more to realize he was in distress. Moving rapidly, he stopped directly across from us. After a heated conversation with someone else, he turned and looked in our direction. He began jay walking across the very busy four-lane road, demanding cars stop for him with the use of a defiant outstretched arm, as some do when they are either unbalanced, stupid, or have just been in an accident.

On most days I would have rushed across the street to greet him. On most days I would have engaged him. But that day was my wife’s mother’s birthday. That day I was with my 4 year old. That day I was trying to keep it all okay. That day I watched.

He reached the sidewalk on our side, just a few feet from where we sat, but he didn’t see us. He turned and began walking away. Out of instinct and concern, my wife called out his name.

My old friend, now realizing we were there, walked back and stood next to our table. No words left his mouth, no “hi”, no pleasant exchanges. It took me longer than it should have to realize he was in shock.

“Sit down”, I said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

I’ve known the man for a very long time, but I’ve never seen him look the way he did in that moment.

“I just found her”, he said.

He began to explain how, just a couple hours before, he discovered his girlfriend, the love of his life, the woman he had planned to propose to, dead, in the house they shared. She had taken her own life. He found her hanging. He cut her down. He called 911. He attempted CPR. But she had been dead for too long.

I had nothing to offer. No words came to me. As I was searching for something, anything to say, he stood up and left with the person he’d been in conversation with across the street. “I have to go get my things”, he said.

What are the odds? His girlfriend’s manner of death that morning wasn’t similar to my mother in laws. It was identical. I know that what some call synchronicity is more often than not one form or another of selection bias. We are pattern-seeking mammals. And I too find myself tuning out, and throwing up in my mouth, every time someone spouts the ever trite – everything happens for a reason. Tell that to the parents of a child dying of cancer, I think, as I immediately attempt to remove myself from said person’s range of communication. But, of all the days to run into my friend, that one, of all the places to run into my friend, that one, of all the ways people die – that one?

As he walked away, I turned my attention to my wife.

The statistical rarity of the event provided a buffer for Salome, who is every bit the skeptic and realist that I am. How could she, like me, not wonder, at least for a moment, at the coincidence of events? I watched her mind turn from her own loss, to our friends, whom she’d also known since she had moved to Portland ten years previously.

It’s been almost two months now, and I talk to my friend frequently, always through text, never in person. His choice. He says he’s embarrassed to see anyone who knows him. He blames himself for her death. Her family, her children, blame him too. He was in the house when it happened. In another room, ignoring her after an argument.

There is of course the suicide of those terminally ill; people in pain, slowly dying, people who choose their own time. It’s impossible to judge someone like that, if you’ve seen what a disease can do. But there is also the suicide of Vernon, of my friend’s girlfriend, and of my mother in law. That kind of suicide is never rational. That kind of suicide is always insane. I tell myself that no one able to see past a temporary moment would choose a permanent conclusion; that no one capable of seeing the pain suicide creates in those still living, would ‘choose’ to end their own life. Yet it happens.

Heartache. Irrational thought. Confusion. Depression. Mental illness. Brain chemistry. We can describe the symptom or we can describe the cause, but what we cannot do is blame someone else for the kind of suicide Vernon chose.

Human beings find uncertainty uncomfortable. X caused Y, brings comfort. Y happens and we don’t know why, anxiety. But we must resist the urge to judge those still living for the actions of those now dead. Because something is comforting doesn’t mean it is correct. And there is no time where we are more apt to draw inaccurate conclusions, and engage in hurtful, unproductive behavior, than when we are angry and in pain – no time.

There’s been more suicide recently – some unmentioned in this essay. More death. More blame. I’ve been disappointed by the blame. I too am far too quick to judge. It’s a habit I previously did mindlessly, habitually, and without much self-awareness. It’s a habit I’ve fought against by taking the path recommended by Marcus Aurelius. Be lenient with others and strict with yourself, he said. Easier said than done, so I remind myself daily. I have to.

There are still places where judgment is essential. When people continue to display the same abusive behaviors, those behaviors, brain chemistry driven or not, and in the end it’s all brain chemistry driven, become something we call ‘character’ – and only a degenerate or a fool allows people with low moral character around themselves, or those they love. Add to that the dangerous, the abusive, those who demean or emotionally target the weak, those who exploit children, those without shame and therefore without dignity, and the kind of parents who tear down rather than build up their own offspring – and there is still plenty for me to keep away from those I am charged with protecting. But suicide – with all the pain it inflicts on those still alive, suicide, in almost every case, is something we can only blame on those who perform it. And even then, we find ourselves left denouncing only the dead. In time we realize that the dead too, were not in right mind when they ‘choose’ death – and then, who is left to condemn?

I have no solution. I hug my children everyday. I hold my wife. I call and write my close friends. I want them to know I am here. I want them to know they can talk to me. But that’s all I’ve got. Because suicide happens, and blame after the fact just isn’t rational. We need to love and help the living. It’s all any of us have.