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.


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.