How Brazilian jiu-jitsu has given Hong Kong professional Alex Lin a new perspective
When you are facing an opponent who is trying to rip your limbs off or choke you into unconsciousness, problems at work don’t look so difficult, says retail chain chairman, who trains almost every day wherever in the world he is
Like many busy Hong Kong professionals, Alex Lin spends more days of the month outside of the city than in it. He’s used to packing light, yet there’s one item he’s never without: his gi.
The white uniform, used for practising Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), is a staple for Lin, 43, no matter the destination.
“I have trained all over the world – in Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. Every time I go abroad, I like to see if there is a good BJJ academy and see if I can fit it in my schedule,” he says.
But the best of the bunch, he claims, is still at home, right across the street from his office: Epic, in Central. “The facilities are world-class and the instructors are top-notch.”
Since taking up the sport five years ago, he’s trained almost every day. It’s been a natural fit to his background in taekwondo, kendo, boxing and muay thai.
The benefits, he says, transcend pure physical fitness. “BJJ creates a very balanced nuance to how you approach life – when you are regularly sparring and facing an opponent who is trying to rip your limbs off or choke you into unconsciousness, suddenly everything else that seems difficult or confrontational in either a personal or work situation becomes a little less so.”
There are risks, of course, for the chairman of Les Enphants, a children’s retail chain with more than 2,000 points of sale across Asia.
“I have walked into business meetings with black eyes, stitches on my face, and bruises on my forearms. A small explanation typically deals with those issues, and in general, I think people tend to give you more respect if you show you are willing to commit yourself to a sport or hobby where you have to take the occasional knock or blow which will leave its mark.”
What does practising BJJ bring to your work?
Work can be frustrating; for any industry in the world, frustration and challenges are an inherent part of what people deal with no matter how much a person loves their jobs. I find that BJJ gives me a break and gives me a more engaging attitude to problems and challenges. I can’t remember the last time I lost my temper or got angry at work. Like a complicated grappling match. Most problems are issues that can be dealt with systematically and methodically.
What are you thinking about when you’re grappling for your life?
I try to keep my mind and my body separate, almost like I am observing my actions from outside myself as I am in a fight. I want my body to react instinctively while I can think about strategy and a few moves down either offensively or defensively.
You also compete. What does it bring to your life?
Competition gives your training a strong sense of purpose; it creates a short-term goal to focus your drilling and movement. A sense of purpose also helps to hone your technique. But I don’t think competition is mandatory for everybody. As for life, I think that some competition is good to sharpen the mind and the body.
There is a lot of philosophy from combat sports. For example, if you try too hard, and your opponent becomes overly defensive, it becomes harder to win as you force a stalemate. If you loosen your game up, varying the pace of the match to be both high pressure and occasionally open, you open the engagement up to the possibility of your opponent overextending themselves and giving you an opening. So trying too hard sometimes has the counter effect you want, giving your opponent room to manoeuvre also gives you a chance to open your game and find a chance to win. That’s not so different from life, right?
Do you ever worry about getting hurt?
All the time. I’ve learned to not let my ego get the better of me and to yield early and to yield often. Some people just don’t want to admit that someone got the better of them, and they put themselves in positions where they can more easily get hurt. That is doing themselves a disservice in the long run, as the best way to slow down your progress is to not train. Injury prevents training, and keeping yourself in shape to train regularly is more important than training too hard and hurting yourself. To prevent injury, besides checking your ego when you get on the mat, the two other more practical rules I try to follow are to always stretch and train my flexibility, as that really helps maintain your joints and muscles, and also to be careful about who I train with.
Does the global nature of BJJ surprise you?
I think that the barriers to getting involved in BJJ are both low and high. You don’t need very much, just some mat space, a few gis, and some people to train with. Finding the right people to train with, as well as the right environment to progress in, however, is difficult. It is also a very physical and hard sport, and to be frank, a lot of people drop out after a while because it is simply too hard and too uncomfortable. So staying in the game is hard. The reason I’m a little surprised by its global popularity are that despite the high barriers, people have found reasons to continue at something difficult and to bring it to a competition level where they can put themselves in high-pressure situations for the sake of their craft. I guess the rewards I get from practising BJJ are felt by a lot of other people out there as well.