The most important responsibility we, as Coaches, assume while instructing our kids in the art of Jiu Jitsu, is not providing technical tips to promote flawless performances. The most important mission for us is to help our kids attain a level of emotional maturity and strength of character that will serve as a foundation that lead to a healthy and successful life. We believe the sport of Jiu Jitsu promotes mind, body, and emotional health. And at the academy, we provide a place for that in a safe and supportive environment. Our Kids’ Zoo-Jitsu program is intentionally designed to facilitate the growth of emotional and physical fitness and strong values. Working alongside our students, we help them grow from within and develop the abilities necessary to excel. Life promises to present challenges. So our program exposes students to constructive challenges, teaching them how to overcome them with the help and support of our coaches. This prepares the children for the time they when they must confront problems on their own.
Jiu Jitsu is both a strategic thinking game and a physical sport, which requires students to exert themselves both physically and mentally, mind and body working together in tandem, to succeed. Students must constantly learn and push themselves past their limits to achieve the desired outcome. At times, a child may be trying his or her best and is emotionally invested in the activity, but the efforts just aren’t yielding the results for which they are aiming. This can be emotionally frustrating for the student. But if he or she is able to persevere and crack the barrier that is holding him or her back through more intense learning and hard work, the result will be an unmatched satisfaction that builds confidence.
Now don’t get me wrong, our objective here at the academy is still to help kids learn how to effectively execute world-class Jiu Jitsu. This standard of excellence remains. But it is the child’s emotional development that is key to his or her success in Jiu Jitsu, and in life. If kids are unable to deal with their emotions on the mat, their progress will be stunted. People are perpetually faced with new challenges in life, and these challenges will become more complex and more competitive, just as they will as one progresses on the mats in Jiu Jitsu. Our children will need to be prepared to face them head on. The question, then, is: “Are we giving our young people opportunities to take part in activities that will prepare them physically and emotionally for life?”
This question is addressed by Clayton Christenson in his book (which I highly recommend, and which is available on Amazon here) How Will You Measure Your Life? He speaks about the value of allowing our kids, and ourselves, to engage in activities that present us with challenging experiences, to position us to be able to navigate and solve them before we are forced to face them in life. The author goes on to suggest that putting our kids in tight situations is like offering them a “course in life” where they will have the opportunity to hone their abilities to perform under pressure and develop leadership skills and accountability.
One of several ways we work with our students to help them develop emotionally is to give them room to explore escaping from a vulnerable position or to implement a technique. We don’t always immediately jump in to fix a technical error unless they are in a dangerous position. This allows the students to learn from their own mistakes and to face and overcome momentary defeat and the disappointment of not performing as well as they would have liked. This is not an easy approach in the moment as it often entails children dealing with hurt feelings and discouragement, where they may even cry. But it is part of the learning process and will help to make them stronger. Further, to immediately intervene and coach a child on what they need to do technically to win a match can reinforce a performance-based mindset. It is not helpful to the students if we communicate to them that the most valued component of the game is to come out on top, rather than to embrace the learning process.
This is a difficult route to take as a coach or parent because it is hard to see someone we love struggling as they wrestle through challenges. Our initial reaction may be that we become so focused on how the child is rolling and on what they need to do immediately to win the match, that we jump in and offer solutions the instant they are struggling, with the intent to be helpful or avoid hard feelings. However, we are not protecting our children by doing this. Instead, we may be forfeiting an opportunity to build their confidence and to increase their technical ability through leaning to deal with tough emotions. When we focus on the development of their emotions, integrity, and character, by default the techniques will come. We view this as an opportunity to teach them not only the mechanics of the sport of Jiu Jitsu but also to gain confidence and self-esteem through learning and hard work.
In speaking with students after defeats or poor performances, we praise them for trying their best, teach them that losing is part of the learning process and part of the game, encourage respect for their teammates and their coaches and encourage continued hard work and perseverence. From there we address the technical aspect. Christensen also mentions in his book that “when you aim to achieve great things, it is inevitable that sometimes you are not going to make it.” He councils us to urge our children to pick themselves up and try again, telling them that if they are not occasionally failing, then they are not aiming high enough. Christensen goes on to say that we should be celebrating failure just as much as we celebrate success, if it is the result of striving for an out-of-reach goal. Bouncing back from temporary setbacks is one of the biggest motivators I have seen to make students rise above themselves.
We measure the success of our Jiu Jitsu program by observing the degree of improvement from when the child first entered our academy. Some students have an abundance of knowledge about Jiu Jitsu and are more athletically endowed; therefore, they tend to be better at Jiu Jitsu. But the true measure of success is how willing they are to learn and put in the work to improve. I have seen many students overcome and become the top in the class through persistence on the mat.
That is why we say: “it’s not about Jiu Jitsu”. It is about the personal development and transformation of each student. Equipping our students with the experiences they need to learn to persevere through challenges, to have the ability to deal with pressure, and to be prepared to navigate tough moments in life is our mission. One of the most important jobs we have is how we raise our children, and by ours, I mean the entire generation that is coming up behind us. To miss investing in our children, our future, is to fail.
From the “it’s not about Jiu Jitsu” files, I heard an extraordinary (and for me, emotionally impactful) statement from a parent tonight – “on the mats, my child isn’t autistic.”
Over the years, we’ve had a lot of kids come through that carry the label ‘special needs’, in one way or another. As someone who has had my own challenges, I’ve always viewed the kids on the autism spectrum as My People. I can identify with a lot of the challenges they face and can see a lot of what’s coming at them, and I take a special interest in helping coach them.
I very much enjoy, and am energized by, hearing from the parents of all of our children about the positive changes they are seeing in their kids, whether it’s on the mats, at home, or at school (and that some of the kids report seeing in their parents who train, for the record – they are watching you!). Every person has room to grow, even the ones that look like they’ve got everything together, and seeing that growth is a source of joy and motivation. It’s especially rewarding to see it from the kids with unique challenges: knowing that we’ve constructed an environment where any child (or adult!) can succeed and realize growth within the same context, the same framework, and under the same expectations, regardless of the starting hand that they’ve been dealt, means that what we are doing is working, and that what we are doing is RIGHT.
So yeah. It hits me to hear “my child has goals now. My child is behaving in school now. We haven’t had a weekly meltdown in six months. My child sleeps through the night now. My child smiles now, tells jokes now.” This is the child that was there, the entire time, and Jiu Jitsu is simply providing the leverage to let them shine through.