#14: Becoming an Iconic Champion. Lessons From Rickson Gracie’s Autobiography “Breathe”

Breathe by Rickson Gracie

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is one of the most popular martial arts of modern times. It was developed in the 1920s by Brazilian brothers Carlos, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., George, and Hélio Gracie.

In 1958, Hélio Gracie fathered Rickson. Rickson went on to become the greatest BJJ practitioner of all time and an icon of this discipline.

In his autobiography Breathe: A Life in Flow (written with Peter Maguire) Rickson Gracie recounts his childhood growing up in a clan of fighters and his rise to martial arts mastery. He also shares how he dealt with terrible life blows and how he rebuilt his life afterward.

As you’ll learn from today’s article, Rickson Gracie is a huge believer in the power of voluntary discomfort. By always pushing his limits, he became an iconic world-class athlete. Outside of sports, the hardships he suffered in his life have taught him important spiritual lessons applicable to every man.

Don’t Get Carried Away by Desires and Weaknesses

Emotions are contagious. Hélio used to say that you had to break the emotional wave before it broke on you. Take a car salesman for example. When you walk onto the lot, he intercepts you and comes with a pitch: “You can drive off this lot in this new car today! No money down!” Of course, you want a new car and naturally you don’t want to put any money down, but if you let the salesman gain momentum, he’ll get you to agree to anything he wants. You can’t allow yourself to be swept away by a wave without knowing where it is going to take you. Instead, when the salesman approaches, you say, “No, thank you,” which breaks his momentum. Now he has to regroup. My dad believed that if your mind and will are not strong, you’ll spend your entire life getting carried away by your desires and weaknesses. You’ll spend your whole life paying for things you don’t want.

As we’ve already explored when discussing Stoicism and Donald Robertson’s book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, nothing good comes out of letting your emotions dictate your life.

Just as the pushy salesman can sell you a car you don’t even want, a strong desire can also lead you to decisions you’ll later regret. A strong mind and will aren’t optional: if you don’t cultivate them, your temptations will win against you.

Rickson’s father suggested breaking the emotional wave before it breaks on you. I interpret it as interrupting the thought before it turns into a spiraling, overpowering emotion.

Imagine that you notice a desire to spend the evening drinking beer instead of going on a run. You start imagining the beer’s taste and the buzz it will give you. You’re making plans where to drive to buy a six-pack (or two). You’re deciding between your favorite brands. Before you know it, you’re out the door on the way to get beer, not get your training in.

How could you prevent this from happening the next time? Break the wave before it breaks on you. Interrupt the thought and refocus your attention elsewhere.

Once you let the strong emotions flow, it’s hard to stop them. But if you do it the moment you see them coming, you’ll be able to redirect your attention and take control over the situation.

Finding Comfort in Hell

At thirteen, a big guy got me in a tight headlock. Instead of calmly defending my neck, I panicked, struggled, and eventually tapped out. I was embarrassed that I tapped while Rolls [Rickson’s brother] had watched. I got home and asked him to roll me up in the carpet for ten minutes and not to let me out no matter how loud I screamed or begged. It was summertime and very hot in Rio. The rug stank. During the first few minutes inside the carpet cocoon, I thought I might suffocate and die. Once I resigned myself to my fate and embraced the discomfort, my breathing slowed and I lost all sense of time. The next day my brother rolled me up for fifteen minutes, and by the end of the week I had conquered my fear.

This experience taught me an important lesson about Jiu Jitsu: sometimes it’s not about escaping but about finding whatever comfort you can in hell. Something as small as turning my rib cage slightly so I can breathe a little easier can be the difference between victory and defeat. This was less a technical revelation to me than it was a mental one.

Rickson was barely thirteen when he already understood how he could translate an uncomfortable experience from one area to another. When he learned to relax rolled up in the carpet, he learned to relax when rolling in uncomfortable positions.

Believe it or not, you don’t have to find the nearest carpet to get yourself accustomed to discomfort. I see two lessons we can learn from this. And yes, we can practice them without a carpet (feel free to do that, though, if that’s your thing; no judgments here).

The first lesson is that we make our discomfort worse by struggling against it. The moment we accept it as it is instead of trying to wriggle out of it, the discomfort gets more manageable.

When I first started practicing MMA, I was fearful when practicing combinations with my coach. After each combination, he attacked me for a moment before I performed another combination.

Even though he was hitting me with Thai pads, I was still stressed out. I leaned my body forward. I covered my face with my hands and couldn’t see what was going on. My footwork was gone. I was running away from the discomfort instead of taking it on the chin.

My coach, having noticed my unease, told me to stand against a wall and keep my guard up. Then he proceeded to attack me with the pads. Since I had nowhere to go, the only option was to protect myself as best as I could and withstand the attack. Every few seconds he gave me a moment to perform a combination only to follow it immediately with another round of attacks.

Since then, and with more practice, I learned to relax a little more while training with the pads. But it was that specific moment of having my back against the wall and embracing the discomfort when I realized I could calm myself down.

Finding comfort in hell is of course easy to read about but harder to practice. Yet, this is why you’re reading this article, aren’t you?

The second lesson from Rickson’s story is that if you want to feel more comfortable in one uncomfortable situation, you can practice with an easier alternative to help you get there.

For example, freedivers practice so-called “dry” breath holds (holding your breath while not in the water). They do it to get more comfortable not breathing for prolonged periods of time. While it doesn’t translate perfectly into diving, it does help you get more used to the feelings accompanying a breath hold.

When I first started freediving, I was deathly afraid of diaphragm contractions. The mere word “contractions” uttered by my instructor sent my heart rate through the roof. My first static breath holds in the water (static meaning you hold your breath without swimming) always ended with the first strong urge to breathe I had.

I started training dry breath holds regularly, at least a few times a week. At first, I couldn’t go past the discomfort. There was no way to withstand the contractions. But with time, I slowly relaxed. I was able to count a few contractions before ending my breath hold. Then I was able to reach ten contractions. After several months I could withstand about 30-35 contractions before I couldn’t go on any longer.

When I’m diving now, I’m still afraid of contractions. But unlike before, I now know exactly when they happen, how they feel, and how many I can withstand without panicking.

If you can’t for the life of you relax in an uncomfortable situation, find an alternative that’s similar but easier and with lower stakes. Learn to relax in it. Then translate that experience into the harder situation.

The Harder You Train, the Easier You Fight

My dad believed that suffering was part of the growth process, and we were programmed to believe that this theory was normal. We trained so hard in the academy that tournaments seemed easy. Hélio believed that the harder you trained, the easier you fought. We learned at a very young age that there was no point in chickening out, because it wouldn’t get you out of anything. My dad would simply say, “Get back out there and do it again.” You also realized that if you followed the Gracie protocols on training, diet, and fighting, they worked.

This concept is similar to what Ross Edgley calls wintering. As I wrote in that issue, “You can never be too prepared. The harder you train under voluntary adverse conditions, the more capable you’ll be under involuntary adverse conditions.”

Don’t underestimate even the tiniest opportunities to push your limits. The more seriously you treat every opportunity to voluntarily train pain, the more prepared you’ll be to handle it under pressure.

Rickson’s father knew that if he pushed his sons beyond their limits while training, the tournaments would feel easy in comparison. The more voluntary suffering in a controllable environment his trainees endured, the easier it was for them to endure suffering in an uncontrollable environment.

It may be tempting to leave something in the tank for the big event. But let’s not forget that in life, it’s not the events that count but the process. Doing your absolute best every day is more rewarding that reaching 90% of your potential and leaving the 100% only for rare occasions.

Of course, training hard in preparation for an event means training hard sustainably. If you burn yourself out or injure yourself, you won’t reach peak performance. This leads us to the final sentence of the quote that says: “You also realized that if you followed the Gracie protocols on training, diet, and fighting, they worked.”

When we work with coaches, how often do we trust—really, really trust—their protocol? Most people have a tendency to think that they know everything best. And paradoxically, this even includes thinking you know more than your coach does.

Rickson learned at a young age that obediently following his father’s protocol worked. How about you? Are you able to push aside your preconceived notions and trust the judgment of your coach?

Build Your Confidence First

In the old days, my father made students take forty private lessons before they ever set foot in an open group class. Hélio believed that Jiu Jitsu was as much about building a student’s confidence as it was about learning how to fight. The frustration, injuries, and egos that today’s students encounter when they attempt to learn Jiu Jitsu will scare most people away. Even worse, it filters out those who need it most—the weak and insecure.

Hélio prepared his new students with private classes so they could focus on the discipline without having to worry about anything else.

He didn’t want them to struggle against strong opponents when they had non-existent foundations. He didn’t want them to compare themselves to others or engage in ego-fueled fights. He knew it would be too much for most students, and particularly for those who needed Jiu Jitsu in their lives the most—the weak and insecure.

It would be easy to discount building self-confidence and say “suck it up.” Yet, Hélio’s legacy is a clan of the best fighters on the planet and hundreds, if not thousands of world-class students. The man knew what he was doing.

To learn to practice voluntary discomfort is also to learn to be humble and build your confidence first. Otherwise, sooner or later, your mind will turn against you. It’ll uncover your weaknesses, limiting beliefs, insecurities, and other crap—anything to make you stop.

Whenever possible, try to find a way to build your confidence step by step.

If you go to a MMA gym, the mind may say, “Look at all these strong, tough guys. You’re nothing compared to them. Why are you even here? They’ll crush you. Go home and stay on the couch where you belong.” Taking a few private classes first will help you accustom to a new environment before you put yourself in more uncomfortable situations.

When you go for a run, the mind may say, “Who are you fooling? You look like a fucking pretender. Come on man, everyone can see through your shit.” Running somewhere in nature, away from other people, will help you build your running confidence before you join a race or run in a more populated area.

When you study a foreign language, the mind may say, “Are you for real? You’re even dumber than I thought you were if you think you can pull it off. You can barely speak English.” Hiring a patient private tutor to help you build some confidence would lower the risk of quitting.

Learn to Control Your Breathing

By far the most important thing that Orlando Cani taught me was how to control my breathing. You can go weeks without food and days without water, but five minutes without air and you’re dead. Think about that for a minute. These breathing techniques would become especially important in the coming years, because they made it much easier for me to gauge and control fear, adrenaline, panic, and claustrophobia. For example, if I want to control my adrenaline when I’m nervous, I breathe at a slower pace until I get my emotions under control. If I want to increase my pace, I don’t use my mind to tell my body to speed up; I just breathe deeper and faster. During high exertion, exhaling becomes more important than inhaling. To enjoy a good deep breath, you must consciously empty your lungs.

When I breathe with my belly, I get more oxygen and expel more carbon dioxide. Not knowing how to breathe is like having a hand and not knowing how to use your fingers! Most people are chest breathers, meaning that their stomach does not move when they breathe because they don’t use their diaphragm, only the upper part of their lungs. If you breathe from your chest, the breaths are short and panicky.

One of the most important muscles for high-performance athletes to develop in order to breathe more efficiently is the diaphragm. Cani realized that a person breathing normally uses less than 50 percent of the lungs’ capacity, so he applied Pranayama techniques to athletics and was able to utilize 80 percent of the lungs’ capacity. This conscious approach to breathing is just like using the different gears of a car’s transmission. Flutists, opera singers, snipers, divers, and big-wave surfers all understand the importance of breathing. Today, you hear the top tennis pros screaming “Ahh” when they hit the ball, because they know that the forceful exhalation gives them speed and more explosive power.

Everything I have earned today was at least partially a result of breathing—my best performance, my emotional control, my ability to endure. Breathing gave me all of this.

There’s a reason why Rickson’s autobiography is titled Breathe.

Learning how to control your breathing will help you calm down in a stressful situation or tap into more power when you want to speed up. Both of these skills are useful when we’re exposed to discomfort.

When you’re taking a cold shower, shallow rapid breaths will make it worse, if not make you turn on the hot water right away. Conversely, breathing deeply will make a cold shower bearable, if not enjoyable.

Studying a difficult subject may generate stress and frustration. Knowing how to calm yourself down with a relaxing breathing pattern may prevent you from giving up.

Pushing yourself hard during an interval training requires emptying your lungs quickly so that you can take another deep breath and keep going.

For most of my life, I paid little attention to my breathing. It was only when I started surfing and later freediving when I realized how important controlling your breathing is.

In surfing, you spend most of the time paddling around instead of catching waves. For this reason, mastering how to paddle efficiently is one of the fundamental skills.

I once hired a coach to help me improve my paddling. One of the important topics we discussed was lengthening the time spent exhaling. When you lengthen your exhale, your heart rate drops and you conserve your energy. A good rule of thumb is to exhale for twice as long as you inhale. That one tip alone helped me conserve my energy and be able to surf longer each session.

In freediving I learned the huge difference between breathing through your chest and breathing through your diaphragm. When you take your last breath before a dive, you first fill up your diaphragm and then move on to your chest. This way, you get the deepest breath possible that will allow you to stay longer underwater.

In MMA when punching or kicking, forceful exhalations help generate more power. The ability to control your breathing can make the difference between finishing each training round while still in control or bent down, unable to catch a breath.

Keep the Taste of Defeat in Your Mouth

After I learned to empty my mind, I had the confidence to be humble, and humility played a big role in my progress. Just because I won the first Japan Open, I didn’t rest on my laurels. Instead, I focused on my weaknesses, which allowed me to examine and appreciate minute details that I would have overlooked if I’d had no humility. In order to push myself, I needed to feel stress, disappointment, and frustration on a daily basis.

I always tried to work from a place of discomfort and would often line up all my students and tell them that I was going to have a match with each of them. If anyone could survive three minutes, they were the winner. The only submission I was allowed was an armlock on their left arm. If I beat nineteen of them, but one guy lasted longer than three minutes, I’d go home feeling sick. That gave me the taste of defeat, and I kept that taste in my mouth at all times by constantly creating challenges that kept me connected with defeat.

Some people train and train but never get any better because they practice only what they’re good at against people they can beat. Because they never address their weaknesses, they stop growing, and the competition catches them.

Out of all the quotes from the book, this is one of the greatest examples of how Rickson’s champion mind works. He never allowed himself to lose the taste of defeat. This kept him from getting complacent and losing the hunger to become better.

Rickson’s creativity to create uncomfortable situations is admirable. Even when he was one of the best fighters in the world, he could still find a way to be humbled. Granted, for a mere mortal the thought of feeling defeated after beating twenty men with only a left-arm armlock is ludicrous. But for Rickson it was a way of addressing his weaknesses, even as a world-class champion.

Many men have a habit of avoiding what they’re bad at. If, for example, they have strong upper bodies but weak legs, instead of doing squats or hill sprints they’ll double down on their chests or biceps.

When you’re already uncommonly strong in something, it sucks to do something you’re bad at and feel the taste of defeat. But this is exactly what Rickson Gracie did to stay on top. He sought discomfort because he knew that it would help him grow.

If you’re good at something, how often do you put yourself in situations where the odds are stacked against you? Pay attention when you say, “Oh I’m not good at it. Let’s do something else” (with that something else always being something at what you excel).

Are you a great grappler but don’t like stand-up fighting? Then go learn striking.

Are you great at weightlifting but your stamina is terrible? Then go practice an endurance sport.

Are you great at math and physics but terrible with foreign languages? Then go learn one.

We’re in a lifetime game of discomfort. To be the top players, we need to constantly hone our abilities—and that includes addressing our weaknesses and staying connected with the feeling of defeat.

Your Capacity to Accept Death Is the Key to Your Growth

I eventually learned that the capacity to accept anything, especially death, was the key to my physical, mental, and spiritual growth. All three of these elements must be balanced, because sometimes you don’t break physically but emotionally. Sometimes you have the physicality and the emotional control but are spiritually unprepared. Without a spiritual connection to both life and death, you can’t reach the next level of performance.

Rickson took his mission to represent his family as the best fighter ever so seriously that he was ready to die for it. As he recounted this period of his life:

I was willing to fight anyone under any rules. I didn’t care if he was two hundred pounds heavier than me. It was a particular kind of suicide, but I was willing to sacrifice my body to achieve my larger mission. Now I visualized my worst nightmares with spiritual comfort, not fear. If I had to die in the process, well fuck, then die I had to.

He also practiced getting comfortable with death as he exposed himself to extreme cold. Here’s how he describes how he prepared for his important fights in Japan:

A couple of times a week, I would take a snorkel and submerge my entire body in a frozen river. First came the shock of the cold, followed by searing pain and anxiety, but I got to a point where I was ready to surrender and die. If you can control your breathing, you can get past this point to where the cold disappears and the pain turns to pleasure. In order to go into water that cold, I had to control myself mentally and physically. After I emerged from the water and began to breathe, I was warm despite the freezing temperature. I didn’t even have goosebumps.

In today’s world, we rarely think about or discuss death. It’s uncomfortable, if not taboo, to mention the topic. Yet, if we want to become better men, we can’t forget that death will get us all. Those who learn how to accept it are the ones who live the most fulfilling lives.

Do you have a huge mission in your life for which you are ready to die? If not a mission, are there any values you wouldn’t betray no matter what and would rather choose death? For most men, protecting their families is one such value. Do you have any other?

Every Day May Be Your Last

One day I remembered something that my dad always used to say: “Nothing can be a hundred percent positive or a hundred percent negative.” I spent a long time trying to find something positive that I could take away from this tragedy. After much meditation, I realized that I had never really valued time. I thought that I controlled time and could put things off, like talking to my son, until later. After Rockson’s departure, I understood that there is no tomorrow, because life can change forever in the blink of an eye. I needed to do my best every day because it might be my last. I no longer had the luxury of wasted time!

Rickson’s life was dramatically altered by death twice. The first time was when his brother and teacher Rolls died in a hang-gliding accident when he was just 31. The second time was when his son, Rockson, was murdered at the age of 19 (the official cause of death was a drug overdose but Rickson shares in the book that it was a murder).

Such traumatic events change a person forever. Rickson was no different. After the death of his son he decided to stop fighting and retire. It took him several years to recover from the blow of losing his son enough to be able to function again.

As he describes in the quote above, the capacity to accept whatever happens helped him excel in life. No, nobody should ever bury his brother at the age of 31, let alone bury his son at the age of 19. Yet, this is what happened in Rickson’s life. The only thing under his control was to find a way to learn from the tragedies as best as he could.

His takeaway was that he stopped taking tomorrow for granted. Neither for him, nor for anyone else in his family or anyone else in the world for that matter, life was guaranteed to go on the next day.

Is it an uncomfortable thought? You bet it is. And this is exactly why we, as men who pursue excellence, need to contemplate it every day. Death brings urgency. Urgency reminds us to focus on what is meaningful to us.

After several years struggling with grief, Rickson found peace. He observed:

For the first time in many years, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Now I wanted everything in my life—a conversation with a stranger, a new project, or a Jiu Jitsu seminar—to have meaning. I refused to waste time on things that I did not value, and I left other people’s expectations behind.

In this way, the contemplation of uncomfortable things makes our lives richer.

With the understanding that we’re getting closer to death each day, we stop investing our time and effort into things that are insignificant. Death, if we let it, can become the greatest inspiration in our lives.

Rickson’s newfound philosophy transformed how he approached every moment in life:

The Japanese have an expression, ichi-go ichi-e, which roughly translates to “once in a lifetime.” It could refer to a gathering of friends, a special meal, an epic day of surf, but the idea is to savor that occasion, because it will never come again. I share this view and believe that if you see every moment in life as a unique opportunity, you live with much more intensity and precision because you are using 100 percent of your energy, your voice, and your senses. It is always important to remember that. For example, if I were driving to the airport to fly to Japan and my daughter Kauan called and said, “Dad! I need to talk to you!” the old Rickson would have said, “Honey, I’ll call you once I land in Japan.” Today, I would pull over, park the car, and give her as much time as she needed. What if I miss the plane? Fuck the plane! There is always another flight, but I don’t want to ever regret not taking my daughter’s call.

How about you? Do you see every moment as a unique opportunity? What are the things you never ever want to regret not doing?

Questions to Ponder

1. When you feel a strong desire to do something you may later regret, are you able to tune it out and shift your attention?

2. Do you remember to relax when in an uncomfortable situation? What easier, but still uncomfortable activities you can practice to learn how to stay comfortable in uncomfortable situations with higher stakes?

3. When you train pain voluntarily, do you train as hard as you sustainably can or do you always leave something in the tank?

4. When putting yourself in new uncomfortable situations, do you build your confidence first? How can you reduce distractions and lower the difficulty level so you can build solid foundations first?

5. Do you know how to control your diaphragm? Do you train how to control your breath?

6. Do you seek the taste of defeat no matter how good you are so that you never get complacent?

7. How comfortable are you with death? Would you be willing to die for your most important mission or values in life?

8. How often do you remind yourself that tomorrow isn’t a given, neither for you nor for your loved ones?

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