I won the Abu Dhabi trials.
It wasn’t planned. It was full of variables. It was last minute. It was a risk. I was terrified.
In 2015 the course of my life as well as my career took a big change in direction. This hard left turn came in the form of: hitting a glass ceiling at work.
I responded by leaving my job/team/boyfriend/friends/team mates/life/country/financial security/safety net in every form, emptying every bank account I owned, applying for every loan I could, selling everything I had and booked the flights to leave for just over a year of international (and local) travel for training, coaching and development in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The dream? Seek and train with the very best athletes and coaches in the world. All day, without distraction. The focus? Registering for, committing to and preparing for 10 major international competitions (on 4 different continents). The goal? Dominate at brown belt, earn and prove (in my estimation) the right to retire my brown belt, and graduate to black. And to do so solo.
2 weeks into my trip I was in Las Vegas, at my fittest and strongest.
I was also in a sling.
Ever stop to do a risk analysis before making a leap like this? I had but I balanced risk over reward and took the plunge. At the time, logic came second to healing my heavy heart. I had to leave as staying was too painful. I had to start focusing my energy on my own pursuits before I had energy left to offer to others. In the case of an emergency, affix first your oxygen mask, then help others…
2 weeks into my trip I was in Las Vegas, at my fittest and strongest. I was also in a sling. Grade 2 tear of the left long head biceps tendon, major SLAP tear in the labrum of my left shoulder. Massive pain, limited function, fear. And all just 2 weeks our from the Pan Ams 2016.
5 months later and the injury, though rehabbed and handled with utmost care, had not healed. The biceps then went on to fully rupture, which came with it the choice for me to either surgically reattach (time off, expense, pain) or allow the biceps to ‘fly’ and leave the disfigured, weakened arm as is.
After careful consideration I opted for the latter. More about making this decision in a later post.
Fast forward a year. I am back in Australia, working, happy, busy, healed, settled.
My training is consistent but soft and playful. My body is aging (I am now 38). I’m slowing down. Rest is now legitimately a goal for me each week, rather than an after thought. I eat burgers almost daily. I am in the role of coach. Recovery is slow after training sessions.
The year I planned away did not pan out the way I thought it would, yet it was the most amazing and enlightening year of my life, I earned a black belt; the most valuable achievement of my life to date. I dealt with the underlying hurt that prompted me to leave.
The year was extremely valuable and not a loss in any way.
What I hadn’t, until now, quantified was how much the injury would destroy my confidence and how long lasting that feeling would be. Though I am back to a level of rolling that I would consider safe (one where I am no longer modifying my roles around that area) I am not at all as strong and fit as I was prior to the injury. This is more obvious in my physicality, the mental was harder to identify until quite recently & is effecting every moment I spend on the mats.
I discovered this, within the raw emotions leading up to competition and very recently.
Over the past year, several competitions came and went that I absolutely should have entered. Competitions I definitely would have entered prior to this specific injury. I went to the registration pages for each event and I simply could not bring myself to hit enter.
I was beaten well before the first round matches. I was tapping before even trying.
This is for sure a worse outcome than a first round loss.
Self reflection is a valuable but confronting tool. Learning to meditate on my actions and motivations more regularly, I uncovered this repeated pattern and decided, last minute, to face the fear head on.
Abu Dhabi Pro trial entry form: I took a breath & pressed enter. Monday entry. Sunday fight. The dates here are important. This means that every single day prior to that Monday, I was too unsure of myself to enter. It also meant I was not physically or mentally prepared. You can leap of the hightower into water, but that does not make you a proficient diver.
Cue panic attacks for the rest of the week, but that fun comes second to the immediate run to the bathroom as soon as my credit card payment was approved.
TMI? I don’t care, its just what adrenaline does.
My next step was to messenger all my competitor girlfriends “I’m totally freaking out. Help!”. Bless them for their patience with me and my drama.
I didn’t train this hard and come this far to retire at black belt.
I spoke to my coach at training about making the decision to compete. He was even less convinced than me that this was a good idea.
“Jess”, he said with genuine concern “I can, and have, helped you prepare and win any competition you choose. Anything. But you’ve given me 5 days notice.”
I cried. For me, of course I didn’t want to lose on the day, but if I didn’t even enter, I had already lost so much. To me, if I don’t enter the next comp, just the next one, that is the definition of being retired.
I didn’t train this hard and come this far to retire at black belt.
It was madness, but it was necessary.
So amongst panic attacks, one that grounded me at the airport and made me miss my Friday flights, I tried to be kind to myself. Yes, I was unprepared, yes I didn’t have enough gas to face these athletes and yes, this could potentially go very, very badly.
My thoughts were: worst case scenario is injury, not loss. If I get smashed, maybe it will light a fire under me to climb to the top again? By rights, these girls deserve to beat me. They’re prepared and they are worthy, they’re good and they are just as deserving.
Maybe it won’t be a complete disaster? Surely I can find a silver lining in amongst whatever outcome we get? End of the day, someone gets to go to Abu Dhabi and rock the Aussie flag and there is NOTHING bad about that.
Sigh, but I’m still freaking out! Help!
Socially the event was hard for me. I have a lot of people to talk to and can’t seperate myself from AGIG (Australian Girls in Gi) easily, or choose to intermittently turn off that responsibility when attending any jiu jitsu event. These people are my people and I love and respect them all. Without them I have no career. I never forget that fact.
I had to respect that but I also had to sit and try to reflect quietly to try to calm my nerves.
I had only competed once in 2 years, almost a year prior, so I was completely unsure of what my performance would be. I was untested, which is an understanding I have never gone into a competition with before.
My confidence was gone.
What I knew was that I did not have enough gas for 10 matches and if I lost the first open weight (there was two I had entered that day, hedging my bets), I would for sure be needing to be prepared for that many matches.
I needed three main things to get through: maintain gas/be efficient, avoid injuries, win the first open. I was fighting purely for these 3 things.
I accomplished all three, which is just as impressive to me as it might be to you. I played very differently than I usually do; much more reactive, slower and calmer than ever before. I did so because I had to out of necessity. It was everything I had.
I kept hearing my coaches words in my head ‘You don’t need to annihilate the matches, you need exactly the opposite, you need to protect your gas as much as you need to protect yourself from points or subs. Just win the matches. Not the wars.’
I am now to be the first ever female black belt from Australia to compete at the Abu Dhabi Pro held in Abu Dhabi.
What happens next?
Next I need to improve. Holistically improve.
What does that mean?
As soon as the celebrations died down I began planning. I am treating this opportunity with the respect and dedication it deserve. I have put together the support team that I believe are the best and are able to draw the best out of me.
Mind: I have started seeing a sports psychologist. This is obviously going to be essential. I believe this will see the biggest leaps forward for me for performance and health.
Body: JT of Grapple Fitness has agreed to take me on as an athlete. We have 7 weeks to make me the strongest and fittest human that I have ever been. He is an expert in strength, mobility and rehab and not only works on building my overall power out-put but is also working to develop the areas that are weak and make them functional again.
He is also hugely supportive and helpful to my overall confidence. He is absolutely certain of my ability and excited about turning potential into performance. His certainty is addicting.
Health: Dr Hannah Pickford (The Modern Amazon) has designed and guided me in my personalised dietary program. We have done weight cuts before to great success. I have 6 kilos to lose in 7 weeks and she is the best person to guide me to a comfortable and healthy weigh in.
I am currently 66kg sans gi and need to be 62kg in a gi.
Technique: My team at Vanguard BJJ have designed the next 6 weeks around my training. The entire team comes together to help competitors when they choose to prepare.
Specifc days are set aside for mental reps, others are the shark tank. We cycle through judo, passing and guard to round out my game. Very often the sessions are built on building grit and determination. I trust them implicitly with every aspect of this training.
Rest and recovery: I have made the decision to not take on full time work in during this preparation time. It is a huge sacrifice and makes me financially vulnerable for 3 months but the increased downtime that comes of tapering off work, for me, is more valuable than money at this time. Without rest, none of the rest of my plan is possible.
This includes maintaining a normal social life. Essential for my sanity.
Today is day one. My first hard session with JT of Grapple Fitness. During our session that involved sleds, deads and dragon flys, JT shared with me an insight that will for sure be a mantra for me during this camp. Strength is confidence.
Strength. Is. Confidence.
As is confidence, strength.
The statement almost floored me and was exactly what I needed to hear at this time.
I truly believe that all of the people involved in lead up to this lifetime goal of mine, they are all here helping me get strong again, mentally and physically.
I know, when I feel confident once more, I WILL be stronger than I have ever been before.
I know, when I feel strong once more, I WILL be more confident than I ever have before.
And I will be ready. I will be ready to compete, at the highest level.
Black belt competition: Here. We. Come.