The Real Secret to Mastering a Skill

Upper Norish Creek

New Year’s eve is just around the corner, making this the traditional time for drawing up plans, making resolutions, and setting your goals for the upcoming year.

This year I’m gonna do this… I’m gonna stop doing that…

Goal setting is super important and I’m all for it. I hope that you have your goals for the year clearly written out and displayed in a prominent place. But the problem is that people want have their cake and eat it too.

In the popular new age Oprah conception of the world the only thing stopping you is your imagination or – alternately – your lack of belief in yourself.

We tell our kids, “Honey, you can be anything you want to be. You just have to believe in yourself…

We give each other calendars with motivational sayings like, “Conceive, Believe, Achieve.”

Well belief might be important, but it’s not the only thing you need. It’s necessary but not sufficient; those syrupy sayings don’t tell you the whole truth…

The truth is that you CAN be anything you want to be, but only if you’re willing to make the sacrifices that are required.

Anything worth achieving is going to require some kind of sacrifice.

Having goals without being clear about the required sacrifices is like going into Sak’s Fifth Avenue without thinking about how much money you have in your budget.

Sure, you can say, “I want everything in here.” But the reality is that you can’t have everything. Instead of everything you can probably have any one thing, which is a very different proposition.

In the real world you’ll have to make choices. You can either walk out of Sak’s with a brand new Versace blazer, or some high-end Bose speakers, or a big ass diamond for your wife or girlfriend. But you might not be able to have all three.

At some point you’ll have to reach into your wallet and hand over some cold hard cash.

Having one thing necessitates giving something else up.

Nontangible goals, like becoming fit, or losing weight, or being awarded your BJJ blue belt, are much the same way. You can almost certainly do it, but you have to be willing to pay the price.

Here are two examples from my own life where I had to make choices about my BJJ training. In one case BJJ won. In the second BJJ lost.

BJJ vs Whitewater Paddling


For 10 hardcore years I was an avid whitewater paddler. I ran waterfalls in special stubby kayaks called creek boats, and tackled ice-cold grade 5 whitewater in tricked out canoes with saddles, thigh straps and airbags.

This period of immersion in whitewater corresponded with the period of time when I was also immersing myself in BJJ. I was training and competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

It was a full, fun life.

But life is also what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. As time went on I became increasingly more busy with life, work, relationships, and – ultimately – fatherhood.

I found it harder to justify spending an entire day driving to some remote creek, setting up the shuttle so there was a vehicle waiting for us at the takeout, doing the actual paddling, and then returning home late at night.

I still enjoyed the experience of being out on the water, but I was doing it less and less often.

Paddling became more and more dangerous because I especially enjoyed the thrill and challenge of difficult whitewater. So even though I was on the water less often, when I did go creeking I kept on paddling the hard stuff.

Infrequent paddling wasn’t enough to keep my skills up. I started blowing moves I should have been able to do in my sleep. My braces became a little slower, a little less effective. I flipped more often, and when I did it took a little longer each time to roll up.

I got my big wakeup call on the Soo river north of Whistler, BC.

The Soo is a steep, cold, river that mixes boulder drops with sharp rocks created from blasting the adjacent roadbed. Several guidebooks warn you about these sharp rocks, and have pithy little bits of advice like “This is a run your best off running right side up.

Anyway, I’m running the Soo with a few friends, and despite not having paddled for a few months I’m doing OK at first. But then we come up to this big drop where the river pours over a series of 3 big boulder ledges and then pounds directly into a headwall.

I flipped right at the top of the rapid in a place where I should never have flipped had I been at the top of my game. But my blade was not sharp and my reflexes were slow, so my boat and I entered the worst part of the rapid upside down.

I blew my first roll – the water was frothy but getting back upright should have been a piece of cake if I’d been using correct technique.

I stayed in my kayak, still upside down, and got washed over a serious ledge just as I was attempting to roll a second time. Needless to say that roll failed too.

My head bouncing off the rocks and my lungs running out of air completely threw me off my game. I tried a third roll, but by then my technique had deteriorated so much that I looked like a complete novice in his boat for the very first time. My head broke the surface first (which is incorrect form) and I saw that I was about to go over the second ledge and into the headwall.

Somewhere between the second and third ledge I bailed out of my boat, slammed into the headwall, swam the remainder of the rapid, and was rescued by my friends at the bottom.

I had run half the rapid upside down, then swam the second separated from my boat. I portaged all the remaining serious drops on the river.

On the long drive home I had a lot of time to think.

Prior to that point I’d had both friends and family drown in whitewater accidents, but I’d never had a really close call myself. However running a series of small waterfalls upside down in a kayak certainly constituted a close call.

The worst thing was that the whole debacle was so easily preventable. There had been no freak accident like my paddle snapping in half which had caused me to flip and and then prevented me from recovering.

It was really simple. Because I hadn’t been practising enough my technique had gradually become sloppy…

…and because of sloppy technique I’d had a scary close call on the river.

My sloppy kayaking technique came, in part, because I had been spending more and more time on the mat training BJJ

I decided then and there that I would rather be good at one thing – BJJ – than half-ass at two things. Especially when the consequences of being half-ass at the second thing (paddling) were potentially life-threatening.

I hope to get back to the thrill of the paddle someday. But when that happens I’ll make sure I have sufficient time to devote to the art of paddling so that I won’t die on a river.

I had made the decision to sacrifice paddling on the altar of BJJ.

BJJ Competition vs My Kids

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with competition. I liked how it added focus and clarity to my training, and I certainly loved the thrill of victory. But my nerves before competing were awful. For weeks before a major competition I would find it difficult to sleep, and I’d be a grouchy sonofabitch to anyone in my social circle.

But then I finally found a way to beat the nerves competition and perform up to my potential.

Ironically, the secret to beating competition nerves was to compete more often.

In 2002 and 2003 I competed semi-frequently in BJJ and grappling tournaments in Canada and the USA. During the same time I was also competing in televised Firefighter Combat Challenge events throughout North America.

Both types of events were nerve-wracking, but as the year went on I became more comfortable with competition. Being in the spotlight started becoming more normal and less terrifying. Whether I was tying up my jiu-jitsu belt or putting on my firefighting gear, competitions felt more and more like another day at the office, which allowed me to perform up to my potential.

Stephan Kesting vs Chris Leben

Now there’s a big difference between a) being competent at your art and, b) having everything honed to a razor’s edge for competition. In high level competition your timing needs to be bang-on, your conditioning can’t be an issue, and your technique needs to be super sharp. All of which is achievable – it just takes time.

Even though I had finally cracked the competition code and learned what worked for me not to be a nervous wreck I was never really able to take advantage of this new knowledge. And that’s because I just didn’t have enough time to do all the training, drilling, conditioning, recovery and actual competition. Time ended up being the Achilles heel of my competition career, especially after the neutron bomb called ‘children’ dropped on my life…

In October 2003 my first child was born – a son. I entered into the blur of parenthood. And then in May 2006 my second child – a daughter – came along. That was busy enough, but a few years later we made the decision to homeschool our kids, which meant that most available hours of the day were now filled with reading, writing, arithmetic and other educational activities.

My days started careening from changing diapers, to working at the fire department, to continuing my various projects at Grapplearts. Forget Crossfit, MMA and Ultramarathoning: the most time and energy-intensive activity on the face of the planet is being a parent, especially if you want to be a conscientious parent and do things properly.

I’m not complaining: it was conscious decision to have kids, and it was another conscious decision to homeschool them. I love spending time with my children; my point is only that there was a price to be paid.

At first I raged, raged against the dying of the light. I tried to find ways to do it all; compete, and work, and parent. I didn’t want to give anything up. So when I was accepted into the 2006 Abu Dhabi trials I started training really hard.

I tried to make up those missing hours in the day by meeting with a few other maniacs at 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning. But unfortunately when you’re training hard on way too little sleep, night after night, injuries are inevitable. So it wasn’t surprising when I aggravated a pinched nerve in my neck so badly that it felt like someone was continuously stabbing a red hot knife into my left shoulder blade. My left arm had no strength at all, and I could barely close my left hand. I reluctantly pulled out of the Trials.

It took six months, but I eventually recovered from that injury. The injury forced me to admit something that I’d been ignoring for a long time; that the extra hours of training and recovery required to hone the blade for high level competition no longer existed in my life. No more tournaments and matches for me.

The important thing is that I was able to continue training, learning, and practising BJJ – I’m very grateful for that.

I’m not suggesting that having kids is necessarily the end of your competitive career, because everybody’s situation is unique. All I’m saying is that I couldn’t make the algebra work for me. I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices in the parenting department that would have been required.

But the constraints I was operating under might not apply to your life; maybe you have kids but are also independently wealthy, or have a nanny, or can get by on 4 hours sleep a night, or have easy babies that sleep all the time, or have grandparents living next door to raise your kids, or are married to one of those mythical understanding wives. If so, knock yourself out!

One door opens, and another door closes. In my case it was hello children, goodbye competition. I’m OK with that now, but it took me a long time become serene about it.

What Are You Willing to Give Up?

My BJJ competitive career took the backseat to parenting because I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices required to keep my skills and timing at that razor-sharp peak.

The word ‘Sacrifice’ rolls off the tongue pretty easily, but it’s a pretty serious word. By definition it involves the LOSS of something…

sac·ri·fice (skr-fs) n.1. a. The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage, especially the ritual slaughter of an animal or a person.
b. A victim offered in this way.2. a. Forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one considered to have a greater value or claim.
b. Something so forfeited.3. a. Relinquishment of something at less than its presumed value.
b. Something so relinquished.
c. A loss so sustained.

What are you willing to lose to achieve your goals in 2014?

Are you willing to give up your American Idol re-runs? Willing to make less money at your job? Willing to forgo buying that new car this year?

Anything worth having probably isn’t free. You can have it, but the truth is that it comes with a cost. The question is whether you’re willing to pay the price?

Want to make a million dollars in the next year? You can do it, but you might have to take 5 to 10 years off your life. You’ll have to make sacrifices. But it’s your choice…

What are you willing to NOT do?

What are you willing to give up?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
– From ‘The Road Not Taken’, by Robert Frost

I’m a BJJ black belt because of sacrifices.

While other guys were playing Halo on their XBox I was on the mat getting tapped out. When friends were sleeping in on Sunday morning I was dragging my tired carcass out of bed early to run laps at the track. While my peers were spending hundreds of dollars on Jäger bombs at the bar I was spending thousands of dollars flying around the continent to train with the best people in the world.

I don’t know how the unique algebra of your life works out, but the truth is that to get something worthwhile you’re going to have to sacrifice something valuable.

Give up something if you want to achieve a goal that will forever alter your life.

Are you willing to bleed through the eyes to get what you want?

Happy New Year,

Stephan Kesting

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