Words by Rebecca Brown Wright
I was barely a teenager, and I’d already given up — on school, on happiness, on myself. Then I finally got the right diagnosis, and a second chance to success through jiu jitsu. Here’s how the right sport at the right time can turn a life around.
18-year-old Margaret Muncy of Virginia, recent gold-medal jiu jitsu winner, has felt “off” since middle school. “I just felt like my brain was deteriorating,” she said. Not knowing she had ADHD, and with a poor working memory, Muncy felt humiliated when she couldn’t remember her teachers’ lessons from day to day, or when she forgot her homework — again.
When high school hit, people began to tell Muncy she should be more organized; that she shouldn’t be so lazy; that she should learn to prioritize. She fell into a negative rhythm, sluggishly heading to classes, feeling miserable while there, returning home where she fought with her family, and then going to bed.
The Lowest Point
“There was a morning when I woke up, and it dawned on me that I’m going to get out of bed and do the exact same thing I did yesterday and the day before and the day before,” she said. “As soon as I was conscious of it, I burst into tears. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was so tired.”
Yet she somehow managed to give it another try — and another. That’s tenacity for you.
Finding Strength in Jiu Jitsu
Before Muncy was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, her doctors thought she had depression. Hoping to help treat the symptoms through exercise, she became interested in and tried jiu jitsu.
Still undiagnosed, she found the mental challenges of jiu jitsu suited her brain perfectly. “Jiu jitsu is just as much mental as it is physical,” she explained. “There’s a huge emphasis on technique over brute strength. You have to learn the technique, and that makes both your body and mind occupied by the activity. You exercise both equally.”
After a year of training, Muncy headed to her first competition – and lost every match.
Undeterred, she competed in two more competitions – and lost both. But she continued to train, and even saw benefits from losing. “Competing made me more aware of my weak spots, so it helped improve my technique and sparring in class,” she said.
On her fourth competition, she won a match, and was elated.
In April of 2016, Muncy headed to the New York Spring International Open, her sixth competition and the biggest competition of its kind, and came away with the gold medal in her division – the highest possible award for her belt level in that competition. “I couldn’t believe it when I won,” she said. “I had never won anything this big before. It almost didn’t feel real.”
She had always intended to keep training in jiu jitsu, and now with a gold medal under her belt, the rewards are even more motivating.
What She’s Learned
Muncy learned about her ADHD 9 months into her jiu jitsu training. The diagnosis brought a mixed bag of emotions, but she discovered jiu jitsu was an effective part of managing her ADHD. The sport certainly hasn’t cured every problem associated with ADHD, but it has brought Muncy to four truths that improve many aspects of her life:
1. Exercise is Non-negotiable
Medication has been life changing for Muncy, clearing the fog and the extra sensations from her brain. But jiu jitsu has taught her that exercise is just as critical. “If I’m doing one, but not the other, I don’t feel as good or as productive as when I’m exercising and taking medication,” she said.
2. Find the Right Sport
An athlete before jiu jitsu, Muncy never felt connected to swimming or track because the straight-line racing didn’t challenge or engage her brain. The amount of brain work required in jiu jitsu keeps her coming back for more.
3. Find the Right People
Muncy has been fortunate to find coaches and teammates who are incredibly supportive and encouraging. “They’re very good at knowing when I need a hug and when I need a kick in the pants,” she said. “Other people are either too harsh or they baby me. I don’t know how they do it, but my coaches are good at gauging what kind of help I need at what time.”
4. There’s Nothing Wrong with Hard Work
At just under 100 pounds, Muncy is often the smallest in any competition. This means she has to work harder than others to compensate for what she lacks in stature. But she doesn’t get down about it.
“I shouldn’t waste time complaining about how I have a disadvantage,” she said. “If I have to do more work than everybody else, that could end up being an advantage for me. Bitterness could hold me back.”
People often wonder how Muncy can face larger sparring opponents without fear. Recalling the time when she didn’t want to even get out of bed, and did it anyway, she thinks, “It doesn’t scare me because I’ve already done the hardest thing in my life.”