What Struggle Teaches
I have been involved in this sport of MMA for the past 18 years. Early in my career, I have made a lot of
poor decisions in my training and recovery that are clear to me now. I was in the sport before money
was ever really being offered to fighters who were not Tito Ortiz or Chuck Liddell. Our training was very
abusive in that every training session was sparring and our sparring resembled a professional fight.
Around 2004, I became a training partner to the soon to be Middleweight Champion, the late, great
Evan Tanner (RIP).
In one week, my nose was pushed around my face 3 times. It has now settled
somewhere in the middle left section of my face. I moved around a lot, going wherever the next training opportunity arose. I found my way to American Top Team Head Quarters where I was not just training with one champion, but many, every day. My mentality was still to never say no to sparring and training 2x daily. I left myself no room for recovery from nagging injuries. One day, I injured my neck and lost most use of my left arm and needed surgery. I had post-surgery complications that kept me in pain for years and then lost use of my right arm, requiring a second surgery. Note to the people I train: I am talking about professional MMA, not Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai student classes. And again, this was when I was a
lot younger and before I got smart and began considering my long-term health. As a coach, having
experienced extensive injuries, I have resolved that my fighters will not.
Yet, here is the paradox. Every time I came back from an injury, I was better than before. Not physically
stronger, not faster, but I had improved my overall skills. How? I was fearful. I was fearful that others
would surpass me in skill level, fearful that I wouldn’t be ready to take an opportunity after I had healed.
So what did those hard times motivate me to do? While I couldn’t work my physical game, I could work
on my brain game. I studied hours of tape, making hours of notes. I visualized every position and
technique before sleep. I was working more on my training than when I was putting in 5+ hours a day
sparring and physically training.
Now when I am hit with a major obstacle, I know I can overcome it. I wrote a 1,500 page business plan
during one injury downtime. Today, I own a gym in my hometown. During another downtime, I wrote 3
years of curriculum. Another time, I focused on a UFC fighter who was fighting an opponent with a
mastery of a particular technique. I worked so hard on this position, I entirely deconstructed the
position and created a foolproof escape sequence that was published on DVD and distributed by major
online Jiu-Jitsu video publishers.
When coaching, I became injured during training. I thought, okay what are you trying to teach me now. I
felt Struggle was telling me: Old friend, you can be a mat monster but teach terribly because you are only
concerned with your own satisfaction, or you can be the person who makes mat monsters. Make
champions. Fuel the passion, and when you are well again, be better than before.
And I was. I learned to adapt my game to my limitations, making them an attribute. Struggle forced me
to educate myself, and once again refocus on my own unique skill-set, my teaching and my academy.
Real growth is rarely paired with complacency. No, more often its partner is struggle.
Although I still curse struggle when it visits unannounced, it has given as much as it has taken. I would
say to the students and athletes that I train that you will struggle too, but ask yourself what is this trying
teach me, and know you are well-prepared to confront it. It’s what we do.