What Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Kick-Ass Writing, & This Bright Green Van Have in Common

monkeywagon1This bright green, 12-passenger van with the gorilla decorating the side of it has got to be one of the best marketing strategies I’ve ever seen.

Affectionately known as “the Monkey Wagon”, it belongs to my older sister and brother-in-law, fearless leaders of Straight Blast Gym International in Kalispell, Montana. When my sister picks me up from the airport or the train station, it’s not all that hard to find her.

For the last six years, Kisa (pronounced KEE-sa) and Travis have trained adults and children in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts. Traveling to competitions with their athletes is a big part of their business. So it made sense for them to invest in the Monkey Wagon.

The Monkey Wagon and competitions provide great visibility for the gym, but there is scant profit. Competitors pay their own entry fees, and the Gorilla Booster Club, a nonprofit offshoot of SBGi, covers traveling and hotel expenses. The only reward for athletes, who place in the top third of their class, is a trophy or a medal.

But after a conversation with Kisa on a recent visit, I learned that the competitions were less about financial gain and more about the personal development of their fighters.

Driving hundreds of miles out of state to grapple on a mat for a few minutes is a lot to demand for the sake of personal development, but after hearing about it, I took away some valuable lessons that I wanted to share with you.

1. Embrace the challenge. The athletes gain their skills through endless hours of practice, but it’s only through competition that they can take those skills to the next level. The athletes practice until they are good at their skills but not necessarily perfect. Competitions put them to the test.

There comes a point in writing when you need to stop learning and start doing. No amount of how-to guides with their ten incredible secrets are going to make you a better writer. Only writing is going to make you a better writer.

2. Getting out of your comfort zone. Practicing at the gym against the same peers makes it too easy for athletes to get comfortable. By going up against the same peers they risk losing their edge. And an athlete may be the best in their gym, but by grappling with unfamiliar opponents, they can learn something new.

If you want to take your work to the next level, you have to get out of your comfort zone. I’m not saying that you have to do that thing you absolutely hate. But it may help to do that thing that makes you uncomfortable, something that gives you goosebumps or makes your stomach twist into knots. It may be experimenting with new a new form, sharing something personal, or being bold enough to speak out against popular belief.

3. Learn to fail, and you learn persistence. Kisa told me about a young girl who competed in – and lost – every competition for a year. But she kept going. She kept training and competing until she started to win. For the kids, it’s a valuable lesson in performing under pressure, but it also shows them that they can fail and know that they will come out of it okay. An athlete may lose a competition, but letting go of the loss and moving on gives them the strength and courage to fight another day.

The fear of failure has often prevented moving forward with a project, because I’m afraid of finishing something that’s less than perfect. And that hasn’t helped me at all. It means that I’ve missed out on lessons in failure, lessons that may have shown me that I can fail and not only be okay but also be stronger for it. Do not miss out on these lessons as I have done. Take those lessons and accept them with grace.

Visit the SBGi gym in Kalispell, and you’ll see a wall filled with medals and trophies, celebrating the hard work and dedication of the gym’s athletes. They’re emblems of countless hours of practicing a difficult move until they got it right; of grappling against an opponent who was stronger than them; and of losing and losing and losing and finally winning.

Our “competitions” in writing are a lot more subtle than those of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. For us it’s more about standing out in a very noisy world and simply getting people to pay attention to us. But I think the lessons are very much the same. I have never regretted taking risks with my work, never regretted trying something I wasn’t all that great at.

I’ve only regretted letting certain opportunities pass me by. I’ve only regretted not writing more. Don’t live another day with those same regrets.

This investment in their athletes is what makes their team spirit indomitable. The Monkey Wagon is more than a marketing tool but a symbol of what the gym stands for. When talking to my sister about this blog post, she mentioned that they bring home bags of trophies and medals, which makes them quite popular on the regional grappling scene. Once one of the tournament directors told her that he overheard a couple kids when they saw the Monkey Wagon pull into the parking lot.

“They’re here,” the kids groaned and complained. “Oh great.”