Stay Calm and Lose the White Belt

As I was “rolling” with my Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor, Ernest Mendez of Aspen MMA, it was a reminder of the power and necessity of humility. 

Ernest is a decorated black belt and fantastic instructor. As he effortlessly rolled me onto my back from my previously dominant position, I held on for dear life. His instruction was simple: “If you lose your position, let it go and start looking for the next best position based on where you are now. White belts hang on for dear life when they lose their position. Don’t act like a white belt.”

This is not a call, or an excuse, to give up and quit early. This is an acknowledgement that sometimes things don’t go our way and we need to move on from that point. As leaders, parents, coaches, friends, etc., sometimes we make decisions that don’t work out. If we ruminate and beat ourselves up for a decision that didn’t work out, we will never move forward in a meaningful way.

Jiu-jitsu is a beautiful metaphor for leadership and life. Have a plan but have contingencies. Don’t get hung up over something that didn’t work out quite right. Execute your contingency plan and move on. Review what went wrong and how you will improve next time.

In jiu-jitsu, as in leadership and life, the absence of ego and an abundance of humility are a prerequisite for success. My young son and daughter also train at Aspen MMA with Ernest. They are beginning to learn this approach to not only Jiu-Jitsu, but to life. Acknowledge a mistake and the undesirable place it will likely lead you, and then move on positively from that position.

We can’t undo what we have done, but we possess the ability to not make things worse. What is the one thing that prevents us from acting with humility when we find ourselves in a bad spot of our own making? Ego!

As I become more involved in my children’s activities, I see this scenario play out constantly. It makes perfect sense. If nothing engenders emotions, often negative emotions, it is the progress our children are making in an activity. Often, we tie their success or failure to our own ego and consequently act out inappropriately. 

It happens to all of us. It’s not a big deal. But whether we hold on to that position for dear life is a big deal. Let me give you a disturbing example: My children recently participated in a youth hockey tournament. As we pulled up to the ice rink, we noticed the presence of several police vehicles outside. We were obviously concerned but remained outside as instructed. And then the parents were brought outside by the police.

There was a heated argument about a youth hockey game that turned into a fist fight involving both mothers and fathers of the players. Not that I need to, but let’s break down what likely happened.

A parent made a snide comment or cheered a little too aggressively for their child, likely at the expense of another parent’s child. That parent glared over or returned the obnoxious comment in kind. Words were exchanged, and the rest is history. 

There were so many places in this scenario where a parent could have recognized putting themselves into a bad situation and not held on for dear life to that position. Instead, they could have exercised some humility, put their ego aside, and moved on positively from where they found themselves. Just like in the jiu-jitsu metaphor I lead with in this article. 

Can you imagine how ridiculous those parents must feel? Can you imagine how they are rolling around in their heads the number of opportunities they had to let go and find a new, better position to act from? Can you imagine having to tell your child they are no longer welcome in an activity they love because of your actions and ego?

The measure of real excellence, in any aspect of our lives, is not the mistake, but the immediate response to the mistake. So, don’t act like a white belt and hold on for dear life when you find yourself in a tough spot of your own making. Understand where you are now and take positive and thoughtful action from there.

Article published in the Aspen Daily News on April 8, 2023

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