Winning Is In The Struggle

“Get a quick drink of water, put your belts back on, and come back to the mats,” my son’s jiu-jitsu coach says.

From the bench off to the side—far enough to give the appearance that I am not hovering— I glance up and watch as my son struggles to tie his belt. His little arms cannot quite reach all the way around his back, he drops one side, and he looks frustrated.  Is it just me, or is he about to cry?!?  With every ounce of my being, I fight the urge to get up and help him as I have a million times before.


You see, I tend to hover. And, truthfully, I do not just hover. I enable.  Over the years, I have loved being a mother to my two boys, and I have loved caring for them. So, it has been an adjustment (to say the least) for me to learn to step back, watch them struggle, and allow them to more independently do for themselves … for me to be needed less … or at least, needed differently.  Add to it the fact that I have one child who is a little lazy and would be more than happy to allow me to do everything for him, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, my son’s coaches are amazing. They are supportive, yet firm.  They get that the struggle is important.  And, some days, I swear they do not even recognize that he is six … or generally the youngest … or my baby.  They treat him just like they treat the other kids.  And, do you know what?  He tends to rise to the occasion.  It truly does take a village.

He has been practicing jiu-jitsu multiple times per week for over one year. And, he has struggled.  He has struggled to learn multi-step submissions, and how to get his uncoordinated six year old body to move in the way that he wants it to.  He has struggled to learn that there is a time for practicing new skills and a time for going hard.  He has struggled to learn to control his body and his mind, to accept defeat with class, to be more adaptable, to be flexible in his thinking, and to keep going even when something does not come easily.

And tying his belt has been no exception. In the beginning, I would tie his belt for him because I truly did not think he was able to get it tight enough to stay on during class.  But over time, it just became easier and quicker for me to do it for him.  Sometimes, I would suggest he give it a try, which was often met with him asking me to do it.  And truthfully, I enjoyed doing it for him.  So I did.

Those who know martial arts understand that the white belt can be very frustrating; you are often reminded that everyone around you knows more than you do, and that can be particularly challenging if you are a competitive person, as most children are.  Therefore, one of the most important things at that stage is learning to have the right mindset.  So, as we have driven home together after every class, every struggle, I have reminded him often of a quote by Carlson Gracie that hangs on the wall of the gym: “There is no losing in jiu-jitsu. You either win or you learn.”

The first time I shared this quote with him as we were driving home one night after a particularly difficult practice several months ago, he said, “that’s true for everything, right? Not just jiu-jitsu?  You’re either winning or learning?”  Yes! That is true for everything in life.  And we talked at length over the next several weeks about how his job at six is not necessarily to win.  His job is to learn; to grow; to believe in his ability to achieve greatness; and to be happy where he is while always striving to be and do better with each class.

And, after thinking about it for some time, with all his infinite childhood wisdom he recently evolved to, “… because people who think they know everything don’t really, right? I mean, you can’t know EVERYTHING.  So, you should always be learning.  So … maybe … learning is winning?!?”

I paused to catch my breath and collect my thoughts. Images of the past year flooded my mind.  With great struggle has come tremendous growth.  And even when it has not, his attitude has always remained positive.  Not once has he asked to skip a class or stop going.  Not once has he become discouraged by his struggles.  He just keeps trying.

So, this past week, when he earned his third stripe, I knew in my heart that it was time.  My enabling had gone on for too long (as it often does).  If he is able to understand all that his belt stands for then he can certainly put in on himself … No matter how challenging it is … No matter how loose it may be at first … No matter how poorly tied.

Even if it takes him weeks to figure it out.

Even if he becomes so frustrated that he cries.

Even if it falls right off the first, second, third … fiftieth time he does it.

And even if it kills me to watch him struggle until he gets it right.  


But on that day, as I waited for what felt like hours for him to tie his belt, he managed to get it tied. And it was fine.

So, yes, learning is winning. And, it appears that he has known that for a while now, even if it took me some time to catch up.  It appears that with every struggle, with every “loss,” he has actually been winning all along.

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