Written by: Sueann Tan (Photo by: Daniel Chaney)
A lesson in winning
This was the word used by my coach and teammates to describe my attitude towards training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). What started out as a mere hobby and means of weight loss turned into a rabid competitive streak after my very first tournament last year.
After starting out as a slow and clumsy amateur with no hand-and-eye coordination, I was encouraged to compete in a small tournament in 2014. Even though I almost lost all my fights, I realised that the consistent practice during competition training had helped me improve by leaps and bounds.
I started to like how I had made fine progress from only five weeks of non-stop training. Thus, I decided to keep on going. I tried out for another tournament, tasted my first match win, and won a bronze medal at the end of the day. One tournament later, I got a gold medal.
The voice in my head told me that if I could keep this streak going, perhaps I could finally be somebody. In doing so, I could redeem myself from being the “failure” that I felt like I had been before in all the other areas of my life.
I started to build a legacy. Little did I know that God was going to reveal something completely different to me.
In an effort to establish a name for myself, I made many selfish choices. Every other commitment in my life became second priority to BJJ training. I had learnt that athletic competitors trained almost every day, and for many hours. My coaches and teammates reminded me that for every day I ‘rested’, my opponents were out there training harder.
Fearing to lose out, I clocked in as many hours as I could, which meant saying no to social and family gatherings. I felt irritated whenever I had to go for compulsory meetings in the evening, to the point that my day job was last in terms of priority.
I would show up for work the day after a gruelling training session feeling absolutely grumpy and exhausted. I used to take extended lunch breaks to go for lunchtime strength training. Relationships with my colleagues lulled to a bare minimum, as I didn’t want to spend that much time at office functions (they clashed with evening training).
I also left my first BJJ team in pursuit of “better” training elsewhere. This destroyed my relationship with my former coach and teammates, who had become my close friends.
At this point, God started to reveal the “ugliness” behind this hunger. My new coach encouraged me to start thinking about how to defeat a particular opponent whom I had previously lost to. Ever so fixated on that legacy, I believed that this was a good idea, in spite of a nagging voice in my head that told me otherwise.
This “rivalry” between me and the opponent eventually turned into a full-blown dramatic event —one I wish I had not gotten myself involved in. My opponent was just as hungry for a legacy as I was; she created a slew of social media posts that were riddled with trash-talk.
At the same time, my coach told me not to back off, and continue fixing my eyes on the goal. “This is how sports competitions will be,” I was told, “And you just have to keep chasing your nemesis till you win.”
Winning didn’t really happen. I lost the next two tournaments to her. What more, I had grown distant from my friends, my reputation worsened as my opponent continued to taunt me on her Facebook page (with my angry ex-teammates spurring her on), and I started to trust less in my coach for continually wanting me to get up and pursue her. I was bitter with myself for getting into this mess.
With nothing good left in me, I cried out to God for help.
It was at this point that God revealed that I had let these achievements get the better of me. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) All this time, my only treasure was my own legacy; I was so focussed on building it that I had forgotten to give God first place in my life.
Whether in the sporting world or in any other community, no one wants to taste loss and have their reputation publicly torn down. But looking back, I’m glad that I had experienced this early into my martial arts journey.
God wanted me to learn something urgently: I needed to stop being hungry to “redeem” myself. He reminded me that I had been already been redeemed because of the work on the cross. When I sought for love and acceptance within a community, God shifted my focus to His unfailing love and acceptance.
Romans 8:38 assures us, “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” In spite of my past, my shortcomings, and even the small achievements I had made along the way, I am loved.
Since then, I have surrendered the desire to build my own legacy, trusting in God to pave the path for me. I took a step back from competitive BJJ in order to find rest in His truth. Even though there are days where I feel like I am “losing out” to the rest who continue to charge ahead and make swift progress, I constantly remind myself that I am already more than a conqueror in Him (Romans 8:37).
In every competitive sport, you will face the pressure to strive in order to clinch the top spot. While regular and strategic training is still important for any athlete, I now understand that an obsession and to win can be toxic, to the point that there is only room for oneself.
Worldly achievements are fleeting and if we place too much focus on them we will find ourselves consistently looking over our shoulder, insecure and overprotective about what can essentially be taken away from us at any time.
As I learnt the infallibility of God’s love for me, I no longer worry about whether I win or lose in life. I can rest in His promise of a future and a hope. If my God says so, who can ever take it away?