Peter Straub | Building Confidence through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

“Shifting your focus from the outcome to what you’re doing to affect that outcome — that’s where your power comes from.”

Photo by Rebecca Slaughter

Photo by Rebecca Slaughter

Peter Straub is a former professional MMA fighter who decided to open a martial arts training center in Littleton, Colorado. He teaches Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and other martial arts, which are proven to be powerful forces for building confidence and discipline.

Today Peter shares his story of how he got involved in martial arts and why he decided to open up his own training center. Peter also talks about his perspective on taking action, and how he’s seen Jiu Jitsu improve the lives of individuals who have trained with him.


How did you find your way to martial arts?

This is kind of a cliché story about a kid who gets bullied who then grows up to become a fighter, but that’s what happened. When I was about 10, my parents got divorced. My mom left my dad and she didn’t have much money or a full time job, and we were very poor. Because of that, when I started in public school in sixth grade, I ate free lunch and I got picked on a lot. I didn’t have any tools to protect myself, and I learned how to deal with that from a very “weak” standpoint. I put up some very high emotional walls. I was overly aggressive and a jerk, and I’m not proud of who I was. In retrospect, those walls were to protect myself from feeling like that hurt little 10-year old that kept getting picked on.

I ended up becoming a bouncer when I was in college at CU Boulder, and I thought I was super tough so I actually took a martial arts fight without joining an academy or learning from a coach. I was driven in a little crappy limousine up to Casper, Wyoming, I found some guy to tape my hands in the back, and I went out and just fought. I was 20-21-years old. I won – but it was a very sloppy, messy fight.

I came back to Boulder and was so proud of myself. I happened to be bouncing at a bar where one of the bartenders, Eliot Marshall, was getting back from The Ultimate Fighter, which is a reality TV show about fighters getting into the UFC. I told him about the fight, and he told me I was an idiot for not training. He brought me into Easton Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Boulder in December 2008. My goal was to fight, so he laid out plans for how to do it the right way and how to actually become an MMA fighter.

After 15 fights, 5 of those professional, you decided to open up your own center. Tell us about your business and what you do.

One of the hard things that fighters face is what life looks like after fighting. My career ended much before I thought it would and well before I wanted it to. Even though I would win fights, I would walk away with a lot of damage, specifically my last fight where I sustained pretty bad concussion symptoms. I ultimately had fighting taken away from me, but I’m grateful to the Easton community, specifically Eliot and Amal (the founder of Easton Jiu Jitsu). They laid out other ideas for me as to what I could do after fighting. It took a lot of meetings and through a lot of tough conversations, Eliot, Amal, and Mike (the President of Easton Training Centers), decided that I would open Easton Training Center at Littleton. I’m the General Manager, the head instructor, the kids instructor, for awhile I was the front desk person, the janitor — I was everything. We’re growing into a well-established academy, I have a lot of help, and I’m grateful for it.

Aside from the motivation being that you were injured and couldn’t continue your professional career, what were your personal reasons for wanting to start Easton Littleton?

Having a fight career did a lot for me to develop confidence, and to learn how to approach life and how to show up to my problems. But fighting is ultimately a pretty selfish sport, and I felt like I’d been accruing this debt towards society or the universe, and that it was time to start repaying some of that and helping other people enrich their lives. If they become professional fighters, that’s great, but that’s not my goal. I coach on the Elevation Fight Team, so I coach people who are in the UFC, but my work with Easton Training Center in Littleton is much more about everyday people who have a desire to learn martial arts and enrich their life through that, and I want to help them on that journey.

How is Jiu Jitsu different than other martial arts?

They call Jiu Jitsu “the gentle art.” There’s no punching, there’s no kicking. It all comes down to figuring out how to subdue somebody. The goal of other martial arts is to get on top and knock somebody out —basically to bully them in some form or another. Either you’re picking them up and taking them down, or you’re punching or kicking them. In Jiu Jitsu, you don’t have to do that. You can be smaller, a little bit weaker. You don’t have to be as physically imposing, and you can still protect yourself from the bottom by learning how to use your legs and attack from underneath, and use your body to manipulate space to get yourself to a dominant position. But it takes a very long time. It’s not like you can just come in and be good in a month or two. It takes a lifetime to really dedicate yourself, but the benefits start accruing much before you’re a master. I saw benefits long before I got my black belt.

Do you find that you see a lot of your students building up their confidence as they learn Jiu Jitsu?

One of my favorite things about Jiu Jitsu is that no matter where you’re starting, it offers something. For me, I was over-the-top aggressive and had an out-of-control ego, and Jiu Jitsu helped tame that for me, ultimately making me much calmer and kinder. And it built up my confidence so I didn’t feel like I had to be a bully. But I have some people who come in and can’t look me in the eye. Their heads are down, their shoulders are slumped and they have no confidence. After a couple weeks of being able to do something as physically and mentally hard as Jiu Jitsu, you see how it starts to change who they are and how they present themselves.

Ultimately I want people to feel like they do have power and that they’re able to stand up to a bad situation. At the same time, I need it to be real. I don’t want to give a false sense of confidence. You can go try to beat up anybody. But my perspective is if you train with me, you’re going to learn how to protect yourself and how to keep yourself safe so that you’re not getting hurt, but you don’t have to beat somebody up else too.

It’s an interesting idea, that learning how to fight makes you a kinder person. Can you explain that more?

For me, it came down to a couple things. One, when I was in the training room sparring, I knew exactly where I stood in the social pecking order — who’s better than me, and who’s worse than me. Everyday, I would be reminded that I’m at the bottom. There are so many people that I’m bigger and stronger than, but it doesn’t matter. They would be able to submit me. That takes a lot out of your ego. You can’t lie when you’re on the mat. If you show up, and tell everyone how tough you are and then get submitted by a bunch of people – guess you’re not that tough. So learning where I stood and what I need to do to get better exposes everything. It’s very uncomfortable but it makes you kinder.

Second, the last thing I would feel like doing after I got done training would be to go fight anybody. There would be times I would come home and I would just want to sit on the couch and not move. It can be really physically and mentally overwhelming, so you just don’t feel like going out and getting into any trouble!

 
Photo by Rebecca Slaughter

Photo by Rebecca Slaughter

 

When you’re fighting, and those literal fight or flight instincts kick in, how do you stay focused and disciplined and not completely freak out?

You have to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Especially from a self-defense perspective, you don’t want the first time that somebody grabs you and intends to do you harm to be a life or death situation. Hopefully it never happens, but if it does, you want to have a plan and it’s easier when you’ve already felt what it’s like to have someone grab you. So when you learn how to defend that —over and over, in a controlled environment with people that you’re friends with — you’re going to start learning exactly what to do in your mind, almost to the point where it shuts off and your body does it automatically. And that’s what you want to get to, that muscle memory. Because if you panic, it’s over.

How do you see Jiu Jitsu helping both kids and adults alike? Do you have any stories that you might be able to share?

Obviously I’ll keep names out of it, but I have some really incredible stories. Easton Littleton has been open for about 13 months, and in that short time I feel I’ve made a tangible impact, and I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to do that.

I had one girl who was maybe 13 or 14-years old, somewhere around there. About a year ago, she had missed a third of her classes that semester with crippling anxiety about being kidnapped and sold into sex trafficking. I don’t know that she had any specific experience with that, but for whatever reason, that was a huge issue for her and she was never able to deal with it in an impactful way. Her dad had trained before and brought her in, and she was very apprehensive at first. It took some work and I had to take a lot of individual time with her, lay out a plan, and then get her to trust me enough to follow it. Roughly 3 months into the semester, her dad showed up in my office in tears, thanking me. She had missed like 3 classes in that whole year. And he said, “She’s just a totally different person. She has confidence, she looks me in the eyes when she talks…I see my little girl that I wanted.” I still get emotional about it because it was an incredible thing to see somebody’s life change for the better.

I also had a woman who was in a physically abusive relationship. She and her two sons were still living with the man, and he choked her completely unconscious in front of their kids. I have no idea what it would be like to go through that and my heart just breaks for them. She brought herself and her two kids in, and told me that they wanted to learn to defend themselves. None of them were excited about it, but you could tell that they had the intention of being there and learning something. Her youngest son was also getting in fights at school and lashing out, so I had some separate talks with him and taught him how to protect himself without feeling the need to punch people. We would drill before and after class, I would throw punches at him and let him defend, and then figure out how to hold me down and keep me down. His eyes would light up every time we drilled and he had so much fun. I hope that they never have to deal with that again, but I know that they have a lot more confidence.

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of doing over being. Can you talk more about what that means to you?  

I definitely stole this, but I love it: you can either choose to be somebody, or you can choose to do something. For the first part of my career, I was focused on being somebody. I was trying to be a professional fighter, I was trying to get my brand out there, I was selling tickets to my fights and t-shirts and I was all about building up who I was. Be somebody big. That was my impact. 

I’m very grateful in retrospect that I shifted off that path because there were some times where even though I felt successful, I also felt empty. I’m grateful that I moved into this role of trying to do something. At Littleton, I’m building a martial arts culture and a community, and I’m trying to change the way that people view martial arts. It’s not just douchebags in Affliction t-shirts and it’s not nerds breaking boards in Karate. That’s the stereotype. Most people fall somewhere in the middle and my goal is to make those people understand how much they can get from martial arts, too. We’ll support you if you do compete, but if you don’t, that’s fine. What I’m trying to do is develop you as a person, give you more confidence, and empower you to do things that are important to you.

Photo by Rebecca Slaughter

Photo by Rebecca Slaughter

When it comes to taking action, what’s one piece of advice you’d give people?

Again, I steal everything, so this is also not mine. I’ve been under the guidance and tutelage of my professor (that’s what we call our teachers) Eliot for a long time and I’m very grateful to him. But he would explain it as: you have events in your life that you have no control over. The weather, traffic, some big meeting that you have. You don’t control most of the things that happen in your life — they’re just events. And then you have these different outcomes, and those outcomes have a spectrum. There are things that are much more desirable, and much less. You can always think of the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario, and the spectrum in between. Sometimes it’s binary, but usually there’s some gray.

But the outcome is out of your control. That was something that took me a long time to understand, because during fighting, my desired outcome was to win, which meant that I wasn’t necessarily focused on how I fought. What I mean is: all the events, who I was fighting, what they did, the venue – I have a response to each of them. The way that I respond to the event is going to dictate the outcome. If I focus on the event, and I focus on the outcome, I’m not focused on my response. The more attention I can give to the things that I control, the better my outcome will be. But shifting your focus from the outcome to what you’re doing to affect that outcome — that’s where your power comes from. It’s how you respond to things that are out of your control. I’ve had some really hard talks with people who are just trying to change an event in their life, which is impossible. What you can do is figure out how you’re going to react, and your response is either going to make the outcome better or worse for you. If you focus on things you can control, you’ll show up to your problems in a different way, hopefully a better way. I learned a lot of that through martial arts because it’s such an event-response-outcome. It’s very clearly laid out.

What’s your favorite book?

I have two. The first one that changed my life the most was The Alchemist. That was the book that gave me the courage to go on this martial arts journey. Every time I feel like I need some inspiration, that’s one of my go-to books. The second is Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. That book changed how I see myself. It talks about what he calls a “roommate” – this voice in your mind that’s often negative, just constant chatter. He talks about learning to understand that that voice isn’t you, and that you don’t have to be your thoughts. And once you understand that those thoughts aren’t you, it takes their power away. So when you learn how to not pay attention to that voice, you get to decide what it is and who it is that you are, rather than letting that incessant chatter guide you. That voice was the most prominent when I was fighting — fear of losing, or getting beat up, or not being good enough — just constantly. I learned how to turn that off and I’m really proud of that. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but also one of the most rewarding to overcome that challenge.

How would you say that you move the needle?

That’s such a hard question. I’ve never been good about giving myself credit for things that I do well. I’m good at taking away credit and that’s something that’s always been a battle for me. But I know that I move the needle in people’s lives. I do a lot of work with childhood cancer research and fundraising, and I’m a mentor for at-risk Colorado youth. And then obviously through the individual connections that I make as people’s martial arts instructor, I know that I’m positively impacting their life. I think the most important thing that I do to people is that I empower them. I don’t necessarily think that I’m some great person, but I think that I help people learn how to be great in their own way, and they can go out and do it.


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ABOUT

Professor Peter Straub is from a small town on the western slope of Colorado called Paonia. He attended college in Boulder, where he first met Professor Eliot Marshall while working at the Foundry. He invited Peter to come in and train. After graduating with degrees in political science and economics, Peter got a job at a law firm and moved to Denver. In 2011, he quit his job to pursue his MMA career and train and coach full-time.

Peter got his start in MMA when he met a personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness who fought MMA. Peter started training with him, and after a few months, he took his first MMA fight in Casper, WY. Although he won, the fight helped him realize how much he still had to learn. At the time, Eliot had just returned from The Ultimate Fighter.  When Peter told him about the fight, Eliot invited him to come to Easton.

Peter has always felt that he had natural leadership ability, and he enjoys being able to help people, so teaching was a great fit for him. He tries to emulate his instructors with his teaching style. Professor Amal Easton taught many of his fundamentals Jiu Jitsu classes, Professor Chaun Sims taught most of his intermediate, and Professor Eliot Marshall taught him most of his advanced classes. As an instructor, Peter tries to use their approaches and methods, as well as mixing in a little of his own style and flavor.

Peter’s ultimate goal as an instructor is to see one of his white belts students eventually earn a black belt.