Children who are involved in competitive sports are often in a challenging place, mentally speaking. They’re doing what kids should be doing — playing, that is — but in an environment that often puts a lot of pressure on them. Most of the time, this is done in a healthy way. The child learns discipline and self-motivation, ultimately growing to understand that if they want success, they have to work for it. They learn the value of being humble in victory and gracious in defeat. And, of course, they grow up accustomed to incorporating physical activity into their lifestyle.
Nowadays, kids in jiu-jitsu (and other youth sports) are getting opportunities that reach far beyond local tournament medals. They and their coaches are aiming higher, and the expectations placed on their shoulders grow heavier to match. The pressure that is put on them to win a single tournament is exponentially magnified, and for the few that are able to rise to the challenge, the chance to earn glory on a global stage awaits.
Such is the case for the kids who competed at the UAEJJF World Pro over the past couple of days. Teens and young children ranging in age from 10 to 17 and hailing from 54 countries stepped into the massive Mubadala Arena to test the results of their hard work, and understandably, emotions were running high.
Watching these matches, it immediately becomes clear that even the youngest kids are absorbing the environments they train in and taking after their role models in the sport. Twelve-year-olds keep their tough faces on and have the “one-two chest pound, then point to the heavens” routine down pat after they win their matches, looking like miniaturized versions of their favorite ADCC competitors. In an environment as competitive as this, it’s easy to forget — if only for a moment — that these kids are kids. Their skill level and technique knowledge already matches that of many adult BJJ practitioners, and when they’re out there competing, they are athletes first and children second.
The second the buzzer ends the match, though, the illusion shatters. There are tears — lots of tears. The frustration of coming so far, literally and figuratively, only to come up short would crush the spirit of any adult, and for younger athletes, it’s often too much to handle.
Here, too, even the youngest competitors become a reflection of how they are raised and coached. Victors put arms of comfort around the opponent they were trying to viciously choke just moments before. They sit with their opponents on the mats, leaning down to murmur words of encouragement into the ears of the defeated competitors who try to hide their sobs in their hands.
It takes an incredible amount of heart and courage for even the most mature, experienced adult practitioners to test their skills in one of the world’s most elite jiu-jitsu competitions. The significance of taking on such a challenge before you’re even old enough to drive a car is huge. It’s a testament to both the influence of their adult role models and the power of jiu-jitsu that these kids can keep their composure under pressure and understand that compassion towards their peers takes priority over their own personal excitement.
Beneath this growth, however, an event of this magnitude reminds us that even composed, mature, competitive children are still children. They are impressionable and emotional and more intelligent than we often give them credit for. Jiu-jitsu provides them with a unique environment to observe how the adults in their lives react in times of triumph and disappointment, and you can bet that they will mirror that behavior throughout both their jiu-jitsu careers and the rest of their lives.