Lessons from Losing


Many of the martial artists I’ve met over the years have dabbled in various forms of competition, and a pattern has seemed to emerge after picking their brains. They start out gung-ho when they are young, eventually realizing the mileage it’s putting on their body and start winding down as they age. It’s a smart way to train and maintain. For better or worse, I’ve been doing things in the opposite order. I am what you could call a late bloomer…for as long as I can remember I’ve defaulted to sitting back, observing, and moving when the time feels right. It has usually served me well. As a younger martial artist I didn’t feel much competitive drive. I did the occasional Freestyle and Kata contest, sure. I even competed in Judo and Sport Jujitsu here and there. But these contests were few and far between, with mixed results and mixed dedication. For whatever reason, it wasn’t until about the age of 30 (12 years into my martial arts journey) that I finally felt the itch to compete…the itch to pour everything I have into preparation and really put myself on the line to see what I’m made of. There are different ways of testing yourself of course, but what I desired was confirmation of how well I could (or couldn’t) defend myself against a fully resisting opponent. I wanted to truly trust in my skills without doubt and as the Buddhists believe, one’s enemy can often be their best teacher. 


In the year 2022, I had four opportunities to fight. Two of these in the format of Sport Jujitsu, one MMA fight, and one Muay Thai fight. Of the four, I came out with 2 wins and 2 losses. They say you learn more from your losses than your wins, which is true. You do however learn from your wins as well. What they don’t tell you is how difficult it can be to recognize and receive the correct messages from your losses, or how difficult it is to stomach the accompanying feelings that are part of the package. Please understand, I’m writing this largely for myself. It helps to have an emotional and mental outlet. I am, however, sharing this writing because I feel it’s my duty as a sensei of the Kodenkan system to transmit my knowledge and experience to help others. It’s what we do, and from what I’m told it’s an ancient tradition. If you plan to compete or fight in the future, or have students who wish to, I’ve no doubt that the technical aspects can be covered by the sensei-student relationship. What I wish to speak on are the things you may not have considered in order to avoid the seemingly unavoidable feelings of being blindsided by unforeseen circumstances. 



Lesson 1: Visualization Works


Before this year’s Ohana event, I decided Sport Jujitsu was a perfect format in which to start my competitive journey. The ruleset is awesome, allowing for the competitor to win in a variety of ways based on their personal strengths. If you’re a striker, grappler, or thrower your chances of victory are even. I prepared as well as I could; my nutrition was perfect, my cardio training was on point, I was adamant on my physical conditioning against damage. I intentionally worked on strength and flexibility every day. You name it, I did it. The only problem was that I was living in the middle of nowhere, with no gym or training partners within reach. How do you prepare for a fight without practice? I’m a big believer in the mind’s ability to influence physical outcome, so instead of drilling/sparring I trained internally by imagining the fight over and over and over. I did this several times a day, for several months. I didn’t know who my opponent would be, I didn’t know if they would be tall/short, southpaw or orthodox. I imagined every scenario I could as often as I could and felt every sensation along the way to imprint the feeling of success until the point where it was truly difficult to imagine myself losing. When the day finally arrived, I had two fights back to back with two previously unknown, but tough/skilled warriors. I performed well, composed, and won both matches. The interesting part though, is that the technical execution in both matches was nearly identical to the images I had continuously rehearsed in my head. I used the right techniques at the right times, defended the correct way and countered effortlessly just like I’d planned. It was an amazing experience, more like watching a movie play out than being in the fight myself. Visualization in place of physical practice had worked. The key to effective visualization in my mind is the realism of the images you rehearse, and more importantly the feelings you have when meditating on success. This may feel difficult initially, but like anything else gets easier with time and practice. The wonderful thing about visualization as opposed to physical training is that you can envision yourself having success 100% of the time. That continual mental success translates to confidence, and in the process makes your self-image (and capacity for success) grow. I believe Henry Ford said it best, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”



Lesson 2: Confidence/Arrogance are Sometimes Indistinguishable


After Ohana’s Sport Jujitsu tournament I had a bit of time to reflect and heal (a broken big toe from a knee block would slow me down, but not stop me) and the itch to test myself was more present than ever. About a month later I received an opportunity to take part in an MMA event. This would be the real deal…full contact, no pads/headgear, with an opponent looking to hurt me. I have religiously trained Jujitsu, Judo, and Muay Thai while using Tai Chi to train my mind and heal my body for many years. The time felt right and I was eager to tackle this new challenge. I’m not a huge fan of MMA to be honest with you, because from what I’ve seen the UFC is more about trash talking for money than the warrior code we martial artists embrace. There are better organizations by the way, but that’s another topic…if interested check out ONE FC. I’ve also seen many UFC fights over the years and from what I’d seen it was mid-level Jujitsu with mid-level Boxing, mid-level kicks and so on…I was rarely impressed. I, on the other hand, had trained with phenomenal Jujitsuka for many years, as well as some of the best Muay Thai fighters in the world. I felt like I didn’t have anything to worry about in the striking department or the grappling department, and if overwhelmed by a specialist I could easily switch gears to take them to where I’m strong and they’re weak (Jujitsu strategy 101). This is where confidence quietly shifts into the realm of arrogance. I can’t stress this next statement enough – when you watch the way they move, and the techniques they use (in another sport), they are doing so for a reason. They are doing what they do because this is what works in their world. They’ve tested it. Thinking you can come in from an outside world with outside knowledge and overcome them at their own game is dangerous and foolish. For example, on kickboxing night I usually beat these MMA fighters cleanly. On grappling night it was often the same. But MMA grappling is not the same as grappling alone. MMA striking is not the same as striking alone. It is completely different, please trust me on this. I could tell you all the reasons why, but that’s a topic for another time. 


With my confidence building in the gym through consistently good results against training partners in kickboxing and grappling, further compounded by the tried-and-true visualization drills, I felt unstoppable on fight night. I stepped into that cage as an MMA first timer, but a fairly seasoned Jujitsuka/Judoka/Nak Muay ready to put my skills to the test. Standing across from me was an opponent that was supposedly easy to beat despite a size advantage. Turns out he was seasoned too. While I excelled in a patchwork of different skill sets, he was seasoned in MMA purely. He had many fights (previously unknown to me) and used his experience to quickly turn me to stone with a head kick I didn’t ever see coming. He was confident, calm, kept his distance well to use his reach advantage, and threw my mind downward with distracting calf kicks before sending the kill shot upward. According to friends/training partners it appeared I was winning until that point, but to me that doesn’t matter. I approached the fight feeling like I could never be out-kicked by an MMA fighter (kicking is my specialty), but the reality was the veteran taught me about what it’s like to be in his home, the cage. Arrogance had been my downfall.



Lesson 3: A Failure Offers a Blueprint to Build Success


One of the only things more difficult in my experience than dealing with a hard hit to your personal belief system is when you receive a blindside hit to your belief system. They say it’s the hit you don’t see coming that takes you out…I can personally attest to the statement’s validity on both a physical and mental level. Picking up the pieces after something personally devastating is one of the hardest parts of human life. How you proceed after being knocked down is often one of the life instances that shapes you for the future. The ancient Stoics believed that perception was everything, and while I don’t personally think it’s everything it sure influences a lot. In order to avoid falling in a hole I can’t climb out of, I make it a personal habit to view every obstacle as opportunity, and every failure as feedback from the universe telling me what doesn’t work in order to avoid that trouble again down the road. But how, exactly, do you recognize the universal message behind a loss or failure if you don’t know how it happened? This is the trouble with being blindsided. Through personal reflection you can eventually find the answer, but after being blindsided the sulking period tends to be much longer (potentially permanent if you let it be) and the cuts to your heart much deeper. 


After my MMA debut loss, and after licking my wounds for what felt like an eternity (in reality only a few long weeks), my sadness/frustration left me chomping at the bit to get another chance to prove myself to myself. So I took the earliest fight available. This opportunity presented itself in the form of a Muay Thai fight, with headgear and shinpads, which seemed perfect to me considering I want to hang on to as many brain cells as possible. After a talk with my MMA striking coach we decided that pure boxing linear footwork/angles would be the missing link in my style, so we immediately began drilling this basic skill like it was my first day in the gym. I got a whopping 1.5 weeks of practice in before taking this fight, not much. Knowing how much of a blow the previous loss was to my ego (yeah I’ve got one despite my best efforts, willing to bet we all do to an extent) I was worried about that feeling recurring. At the same time, I was aware that to dwell on the thought of losing would be equivalent to shooting my potential success in the foot. Fight day came and went, and I chose to approach this first Muay Thai fight as an “experiment.” My goals included: putting the footwork drills to use in combat, maintaining defensive soundness at all times without my mind slacking (Zanshin) and actually listening for my coach’s advice during the midst of the chaos. Easier said than done for newbies considering adrenaline closes off your hearing to outside distractions. In all three of these regards I was successful. According to the judges these successes weren’t enough to win the fight, but upon video review/talk with spectators it seems clear I’d done enough to win. Who cares about that though, that’s beside the point and judges are human like the rest of us. I think the way I approached the Muay Thai fight as an experiment was the right way to go, because I learned a bit about what works. Taking/reviewing video footage was helpful as well, because I figured out what I did that was successful as well as what I did that was unsuccessful; both immensely helpful in developing my personal style moving forward in competing as well as coaching others. This long-winded description isn’t yet touching on the most important part of the experience however: the use of a “pre-mortem” mental exercise prior to the fight and its effect on my mindset afterward. 


You see, I wanted more than anything to avoid that devastating feeling that struck me and stuck with me from the MMA loss. In order to do this, I attempted to balance out the confidence-building aspects of visualization with the sad reality that things don’t always go the way you wish. With this in mind I performed a “pre-mortem” exercise (often employed by business managers) to imagine ahead of time that you or your project has failed, and figure out why as if looking through the lens of hindsight. How could I possibly lose? I went through each and every way. I also decided how I would best prevent this from happening. I even decided how I would proceed moving forward with my training/life even if the failure occurred despite my best efforts. I believe it was due to this activity that I am writing this one day after my loss as opposed to the weeks it would have taken had I been blindsided once again. 


The combination of goal-setting, visualization of success (not just in terms of results, but also success reaching my smaller goals), and the use of foresight to handle potential setbacks has allowed me to know exactly what I need to do moving forward in order to grow. I can only speak for myself, but I’m willing to bet that if you love and train DZR the way I do that personal growth is key to your quality of life and needs to be prioritized and optimized. On this note, I hope you or your students get something from my experiences. In Kokua, I feel it’s my duty to help our Ohana in any way I can.


On that note, in a logical sense I don’t find it wise to risk head injuries in violent competitions (much less the hard/dangerous training leading up to these fights) but I also understand that risks are occasionally necessary to find parts of yourself that can’t otherwise be acquired. If you or any students have the desire to compete in combat sports, or anything at all, please know I’m openly available to help in any way possible. I don’t begin to claim I know everything, in fact the more I learn the less I know for certain. A sensei, however, isn’t perfect. They’re simply one further down the path. In that spirit, I’d be happy to offer any of my knowledge/experience openly to any willing to seek it out. Jujitsu knowledge is readily available in the family we’ve placed ourselves in. But MMA, Judo, Tai Chi, Muay Thai, boxing, kickboxing, aerobic/anaerobic conditioning, body conditioning, nutrition, pre-fight weight gain/loss, mental preparation and so on are all paths I’ve devoted myself to so please reach out if you ever think I can be of help. 


In humility,

Austin Stahl