All serious practitioners of BJJ – or any martial art – appreciate the mental, spiritual and philosophical aspects of their chosen endeavor, and the life lessons it provides. As we all know, life on the mats in BJJ is a microcosm of life outside of the academy.

One of my favorite lessons is encapsulated in the following quote, which I have adopted as a motto of sorts: “Control your emotions and react to things that are actually happening, not what you fear is going to happen.” This quote comes from a blog post by John Thompson, which dealt with overcoming the anxiety of having to face an intimidating opponent in sparring.

Thompson’s post focuses on the initial mental preparation for a sparring match. As both an older (45) and smaller (155 lbs) grappler, I am not ashamed to admit to feeling anxiety in facing off with certain training partners that are larger and/or more skilled than me. But I look at each of these sparring rounds as an opportunity to get mentally stronger by confronting fear and controlling anxiety – valuable life skills that one is never beyond needing to develop, regardless of age. The battle to be won is with one’s self, not with his or her sparring partner.

This past week I was reminded by one of the advanced ranks that it is one thing to overcome the initial anxiety of beginning a challenging round of sparring, but quite another to remain calm and relaxed throughout the round. He called attention to my lack of breathing, and to the rigidity and tension in my grips and, really, my whole body, and explained that I needed to relax and feel what was happening. I was holding my breath, squeezing my grips for dear life, wasting energy and just not moving with any fluidity whatsoever. I explained (or, perhaps more accurately, made the excuse) that it was all the result of feeling that something bad could happen at any moment. His response: “Worry about it when it happens.”

That made perfect sense and is a logical extension of the motto I claim to follow but had clearly forgotten once the round began. My rigidity, tension and lack of breathing were signs I was turning Thompson’s quote on its head: I was reacting to what I feared was going to happen. I might have successfully faced my fear in initially squaring off with him in the first place, but that was not enough. I was not relaxed – not effectively controlling my emotions – during the round.

In life, people waste far too much energy worrying. I once heard a priest in a sermon at church talk about how the body’s physiological response to ruminating upon an imagined negative event is no different than its response to an actual negative event. In my sparring round, this type of physical response manifested itself in holding my breath and being tense and rigid, wasting energy and in fact making it more likely that something would go wrong for me.

It is not just the mental preparation for the round, or the overall outcome of the round, that is a microcosm of life. Every single moment in the round is a microcosm in its own right: a call to live only in the present, control your emotions, and avoid reacting out of fear for what may happen. Yes, bad things can and do happen on the mat, and in life. Worry about it when it happens.