Wisdom of a Black Belt

Wisdom of a Black Belt

So, there I was  ...

Surrounded by dozens of bloodthirsty strangers, all screaming their freaking heads off...

Sweat dripped down my forehead ...

Time was running out ...

The stakes couldn't have been higher ...

And everything was on the line ...

Before you ask, yes, this IS another one of those Spike Scarberry articles where I rave about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And somehow, some way, tie it into life lessons and writing advice by the very end.

What's that? You're sick of these? Well too bad, I'm not! Now give me thirty sprawls all the way down the mat while I finish my story!

Anyway, I was attending a martial arts tournament a few of my friends were competing in back in February. And at this particular moment, I was watching my teammate, Kimberly, getting mauled in a match. She was stuck in ... actually, let's back up a bit so I can explain how this works to the uninitiated (which I assume is most of you, lol).

The first question you probably have is “What the hell are you even talking about, Spike??” Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a grappling martial art; one where the goal is to fold your opponent's clothes ... while they're still wearing them. It's a blast, and easily the most fun I’ve ever had while exercising. Seriously, everyone should try it.

But back to the point, there are two ways to win an official match in this sport. The first is by submission ... you isolate an opponent's body part (neck, arm, leg, etc.) and twist it in such a way that it makes them give up. Not enough to actually injure them (on purpose, anyway) ... just enough that they surrender.

The other way to win via points. Which, often, is how matches with newer competitors (like me!) are finished. In your first few years, your technique is not good ... you don't have the skill yet to make your opponent scream uncle. Therefore, a referee is always on site to judge and distribute points for working and advancing position. If you pass someone's guard, that's three points. Moving from side control to mount ... four points. The key to scoring though is holding the position. If you don't keep it for at least three seconds, it doesn't count. (Keep this little tidbit in mind, it comes back later).

Anyway, back to the fight. Because at this very moment, my friend Kimberly was stuck in bottom side control and winning by the slimmest of margins ... three points to two.

Talk about pressure, am I right?

And to make matters worse, there was literally less than ten seconds on the clock! Both competitors were beyond exhausted, their energy ran out several minutes ago. And Kim's opponent had top position. Not ideal, but it looked like my friend was gonna pull this one out. If she could only hold on!

The struggle continued. 10...... 9...... 8......

The ladies kept grappling. 7...... 6...... 5......

And that's when Kim's opponent tried to advance and take mount. 4...... 3......

And she secured it right at 2...... 1...... BUZZ!!!!

The clock hit zero. I jumped in the air! Kim's adversary had failed to hold the position for three seconds. No points! MY FRIEND WON!!!!

Except ... wait, what's this?? ... the ref is at the back of the mat speaking to some other officials. What could they ever be talking about ...?

HUH?? NO!! They just awarded the other girl four points for passing!! Now they're saying Kim LOST?? What the absolute fucking-fuck!!!

I was irate at this call! So were some of my teammates. She did NOT hold the position for three full seconds. The points should NOT have counted!!

I stared daggers at the referee as he raised the wrong woman's hand in victory. While I was not the type to boo someone who had just worked their ass off, I did wait for the opportune moment to say, "You got that wrong, dude!" before storming away. Loud enough so that I knew he could hear me. Hell, I WANTED him to hear me.

I went back to my team's camp area to cool off. I even checked a video I had filmed on my iPhone to make sure I was right (and I was). While this should have made me feel better, it didn't. It just made me angrier. My friend had been robbed of a hard-fought victory.

It wasn't even two minutes later when one of my black belts walked over while I was still seething.

Now let’s be clear: it's freaking hard to get a black belt in martial arts (thank you, Captain Obvious). But especially in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It takes, on average, 10 - 15 years to master this sport. You take endless bumps and bruises. Get humbled countless times. And throughout all those years, you gain a little bit of wisdom along the way.

And this man with a curly grey beard was about to transfer some of that knowledge to me.

"Hey Spike," my black belt said, "I just talked to the referee."

"Did you tell him how he completely fucked up just now??" I yelled, still hoping he could hear me, "How he just stole Kimberly's victory out from under her nose??"

"Actually, no," Ethan replied (that's his real name, by the way ... 'black belt' isn't written on his birth certificate), "I asked him why he came to that decision. And he explained that in this tournament's ruleset, if you gain position and time runs out, it’s assumed that you would have held it for long enough to score. That's why he talked to the officials immediately after the match ended. He was confirming that stipulation."

"Well ... well ... That's stupid!" I stammered, even more annoyed. Now my friend lost AND I was wrong about it. Talk about an Uno reverse card.

"That may be," Ethan said, "but it's also not the point. The ref was doing his job, and he did it well. Agree or not, he was correct."

I crossed my arms and looked away like a petulant child, unwilling to concede an inch.

"Listen," he continued, "I know you're upset. I didn't like the outcome either. But I need you to do me a favor ... The next time this happens, and I promise you it will, I want you to seek understanding, rather than react emotionally. Okay?"

We sat down on some nearby bleachers, and he put an arm around my shoulder, ready to impart some sagely insight.

"You're wearing our colors now," he said, pointing down to my school's T-shirt I had on. "When you react negatively to a bad call, it reflects on all of us. Our coaches. Our school. And our competitors. What happens if there's another match later today with a close decision? If our team lambasts a ref now, they're going to remember that, and might make us pay for it later. Not to mention how bad it looks to all the spectators and other gyms here today."

I sighed deeply and hung my head. I hated to admit it ... but he was absolutely right. I was a selfish jerk just then.

Ethan wrapped up with, "I love your passion, man, and your teammates appreciate the support. But never forget the message you're spreading with your actions."

I nodded and thanked him for the advice. Later in the day, I found that ref, shook his hand, and apologized for my snide comment. He laughed it off and said it was fine. Hell, he even admitted that he had made a couple mistakes in some of the children's matches earlier that morning. He wasn’t perfect, but he was going to use this experience to become a better referee in the aftermath.

I learned something that day. Genuinely. And it's a lesson I want you all to apply to your writing, too.

Because there are a whole hell of a lot of you who make complete asses of yourselves on social media and the internet at large.

Look, I get it. When something doesn't go your way, someone you don't like gets a job you want, says something you don't like, or even if you get critical coverage back on a script you sunk months of time and effort into, it feels good to take to X or Reddit and vent your feelings. "This reader doesn't know what they're talking about!" "They clearly didn't read the whole thing!" "They have no taste!" "They don't see my vision or what I'm going for!"

Trust me, I've been reading for 12 years now, I've seen and heard it all ...

But how do you think this makes you appear? To producers? To executives? To managers and agents? To showrunners who might be able to hire you? And to other writers who you might want to collaborate with? Especially if you‘re someone who makes a habit of putting negative vibes out into the world?

Who would want to work with someone like that?

Who wants to sit in a writer’s room with them for ten hours a day for months on end???

Sure, you might have a point. Maybe the reader you got was a little newer and didn’t have much experience. Maybe they didn't read every single word of your third act.

But guess what? Complaining about it online isn't going to help you. It's just going to bring negative attention your way and reflect poorly on you.

This industry is all about relationships. Who you know is far, far more important than what you know. And sending that much negativity out into the world will come back to you in a powerful way. Maybe not immediately, but eventually assuredly. This much I know.

So, the next time you get a note you don't like, I want you to be like a black belt. Seek understanding. Don't react emotionally.

Ask, "Why didn't my second act hold your attention?" Not, "You clearly didn't read the whole thing!"

Or, "Why wasn't my script chosen as a semi-finalist in this competition?" Not, "Y'all are scammers and morons! This contest is a farce!"

And finally, "I understand you don't want to sign me right now. What can I do to improve my chances in the future?" Not, "Fuck (insert company name here) and their tiny ass-boutique management firm!!!"

Because everyone remembers the guy/gal who ripped them a new one for no reason, right?

You don't have to agree with everything someone says about your work (just like I don't agree with this tournament's rules). But getting visibly mad and upset about it doesn't lead to anything good. In fact, the only person who it reflects poorly on is you.

So, take it from me ... actually, screw what I have to say ... take it from Ethan. "I love your passion, man. But never forget the message you're spreading with your actions."

Trust me, I'll try to be better, too. 😊

Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.

*Feature image by Zoran Zeremski (Adobe)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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