The martial arts practice known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu is, in many ways, a balanced contradiction. On one hand, the lightning-quick moves of each opponent, deeply engrossed in a fight, exudes a degree of power and tenacity that only serious competition can evoke. On the other, this functional form of self-defense has earned the nickname of "human chess" due to a respect for technique that requires a self-centering, meditative-like focus to execute.
The ultimate result of this intense yin and yang of forces? Personal growth: both mentally and physically.
Former world champion MMA fighter and black belt Gregor Gracie embodies a similar contradiction. Not only is he a highly-seasoned fighter, growing up practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu with his brothers, but as a new father and owner of Gregor Gracie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, he teaches and mentors both children and adults alike. Gregor's career success suggests that purpose isn't something he struggles to find. These days, his focus is on his family and the goal of improving his students' lives through martial arts.
LM: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to focus on martial arts as a career, or was it something you naturally gravitated toward over time?
GG: I always knew I wanted to be a fighter. As a kid growing up in Brazil - where soccer is by far the most popular sport - all my friends' idols were the players and they dreamed of becoming soccer players. But not me. I always knew that one day I would be stepping in a ring.
LM: Is being a fierce competitor, committed to your craft, something you feel that people are born with? Can it be learned?
GG: It can definitely be learned; it's all about dedication to your training. When we start something new we have very little confidence in our abilities. Over time, as we start to improve in our training, our confidence also grows. Eventually this will allow us to step into an arena and test ourselves against different competitors.
LM: You emphasize that your training academy is “in the business of building confidence”. How do the skills learned through martial arts translate into other aspects of life?
GG: Jiu-Jitsu gives us two very important life skills. The first one is the confidence to stand up and try again. Nowadays, fear of failure is a major problem. In martial arts we must face victories and defeats everyday and, despite the outcome, we learn to stay humble and keep working toward improvement. The second one is the ability to stay calm under pressure. In Jiu-Jitsu we often find ourselves in vulnerable positions and the first thing we learn is that panicking will only make things worse. Our goal is to stay calm and try to find the best solution possible to reverse that situation.
LM: How has becoming a father changed the way you approach your training? Your business? Your lifestyle?
GG: Becoming a father definitely changed everything for me. We grow with every challenge, and being a father is the biggest challenge I’ve faced so far, knowing that my son's life is being molded by my wife and me. It's a huge responsibility, knowing that even at a young age, everything he does, hears, eats… can influence the kind of man he will become. A parent is their child's first role model. So, what kind of role model do we want to be?
LM: Do you envision your son being actively involved in martial arts and the training academy as he grows?
GG: I would definitely do everything I can for him to be involved. Whether he decides to pursue it as a career will be up to him. I truly believe that getting children involved in martial arts is extremely important -- it's a great way to build self-confidence. Millions of kids and adults face bullying every day. It's a lack of confidence, on both sides, that makes bullying one of the most significant issues our society faces today.
LM: How does your relationship with your father impact the way you are raising your son?
GG: It's important to learn and improve in life. In many cases, people complain about something bad that has happened to them in their past, but those experiences can often be the best teachers. My father wasn't very present while I was growing up. When my son was born, I made a promise to myself that I would always be there for him. Not just to give him a roof over his head and food on his plate, but to truly be present in his life.
LM: In what ways is fatherhood much like - and much different than - you imagined?
GG: Over the 16 years I've been teaching Jiu-Jitsu, I've often acted as a mentor or role model, which, in many ways, is a lot like fatherhood. So, that part came very naturally to me. But realizing that someone is fully dependent on me definitely took some adjustment.
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