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Gi Real - Calvin Harbaugh

Gi Real, with Calvin Harbaugh.  The inspiring story of healing, growing, and giving back.

/Meeting Calvin Harbaugh

My first meeting with Calvin was an accident. He stopped in to train with an old friend, a friend that I was subleasing mat space from to start a gym. It was our first class at Deep Blue. He had gloves and mitts and was ready to bang. Instead, he lined up family in toe, and put his training aside for an hour and a half. This experience was instructive for who Calvin is. Family man. Fighter. Always ready to work. Pushing himself forward, but never at the expense of those around him.

I’ve kept tabs on Calvin’s journey as he has progressed in his MMA career, opened a gym, and built a team. This is a story with a rearview mirror, but at its core it’s about the future. I left this conversation inspired, and hopeful, for the Jiu Jitsu community. Calvin has the passion, energy, and vision to help transform the community.

Transformation begins with the self. Jiu Jitsu provides a tool for empowerment that begins the moment you step on the mat. It becomes so powerful that it leaps out of your gi, and infects all of your connections.

This is the story of Calvin Harbaugh.

/Healing Art

…it takes them out of their mind, it takes them out of their stress.

In a conversation that wanders through many topics, there is one clear message that is the backdrop of Calvin's drive and energy. Jiu Jitsu has the power to heal. Calvin's enthusiasm around this is personal. He sees a time when his life could have taken a wrong turn. When life's trauma impacted his outlook. He speaks as if there are two Calvins, but both are important to his story. One transcended the other. One drove the other. One provides perspective, the other provides the path.

In Jiu Jitsu you find an escape. It demands all of your attention. Physically, mentally, and sometimes emotionally. The physical exchange takes you to a new place and the door is shut behind you. What can you accomplish in a mental space with no pre-existing conditions? A fresh start. No distractions to pull you away, and no negativity to pull you down. Jiu Jitsu opens a corridor into your best self.

It's so healing because it gives your mind, it gives your mind a break, you know, a positive break.

Every person's story is unique, but there is a reality to the human experience that we all share. It’s hard. Trauma materializes in different forms for different people, but everyone needs a process for healing. Everyone needs a place to escape.

It really forces you to chase the best parts of yourself, you know, it impacts your diet, you want to feel better on the mat, so you start to eat better and it kind of infects every aspect of your life.

As you heal, you discover the power to build yourself up. Happiness is motivating. Good health builds momentum and pushes you forward. Moving forward takes some conscious effort, though You have to make consistent decisions that pull you away from your worst inclinations and towards a better version of yourself. In Jiu Jitsu you find a path. You find an experience that gives you guard rails. It gives you direction.

You know, before I found MMA and Jiu Jitsu I would just always felt like I was running somewhere. I never felt content with all this energy. I'd end up in the bars or end up getting in trouble, and it's like finding the mats and finding this just way to express myself and use some of the stuff that's going on inside of me…

The paths you choose can splinter into infinite possible directions. You have to choose wisely. Life will let you run. When you run aimlessly hoping life will land you somewhere palatable, it won’t.

Calvin takes this point to heart. For his story. For the story of his team, and his community. Healing is about the past, but also the future. It’s about your agency. It’s about recognizing your self-worth and controlling your fate.

At what moment do people steer off course? When do they make those decisions that write the narrative for the rest of their life?

These can be questions of coincidence. For Calvin, they are the foundation of his mission to provide healing and catch people at their turning points. These questions are about how he answered his life's challenges, how they empowered him, and how he plans to empower others.

/Power cycle

I remember when I first got into MMA and I got dropped, I mean, the kid was a national champion in boxing but I got in there, I put the headgear on, and I got dropped by like a 15 year old kid. At first, I was like, take the headgear off. I want to get out of this ring, you know. And then I was like, you know what, I want to learn what this kid knows.

It’s hard to explain the power of martial arts. You have to feel it. You have to experience the physical exchange where all your surface level observations give you confidence, but the art knocks you on your butt. This is real. You can’t hide behind words, a team, or whataboutism. You feel the power of knowledge and refined skill, and you make a decision. Do you want this? Do you want to learn what this kid knows?

Getting started is an acceptance of where you are now, and what you can become. Vulnerable, but ready to develop. The beauty in martial arts is that where you are now doesn’t matter to the art. The art will meet you. It will accept you. What matters is your engagement. Your desire to grow and your commitment to get there.

In listening to Calvin, there is a transformation buried in his story. Buried somewhere between talking about the past and the future. A transformation that represents his growth, from vulnerable to powerful. This transformation starts the moment you feel the power of Jiu Jitsu. It continues as you put hours of training behind you, and begin to see how your experience can be shared. You have learned and now you can teach. You can use your growth as a tool to build up the people around you.

I feel like it's really helped bring out leadership qualities in my boys that I didn't even know that they had because they feel strong. My wife, she feels strong. She knows she's a strong woman…
…just being able to do something together. That's hard. It just has brought us so close together, and being able to spend that time on the mats together, you know, it's different than watching a movie together, we're sitting here and we're suffering together. We're training together. It just brings people closer together.

For Calvin, building up the people around you begins with his family. With his entire family in the training room, his drive looks outward. He values his experience too much not to share it. To use it as a tool to raise his sons, and strengthen his relationship with his wife. Your relationship with Jiu Jitsu can be complicated. Your own progress can follow a rollercoaster ride of peaks and plateaus, but when your dedication turns outward you participate in the empowerment of the people closest to you. Their strength becomes your journey, and your connections become the point.

You know, some of the best kids competitively that I have come from the worst possible situations. If we can find more of these kids that have this talent, that really need this sport, that need this outlet, rather than you know, going and getting into God knows what, and not understanding how to deal with their trauma…
…I could have saved myself a lot of pain if I would have just found the right community of people earlier. So let's find these kids…

Looking outward requires internal confidence. You have to have walked the path and know its results. You have to be so confident in the process that you are willing to build a life around it. When the power of Jiu Jitsu establishes a healthy path for you and your family, your work can continue to expand.

Calvin knows what Jiu Jitsu can do. He knows that he can replicate this experience for his family, and then for his community. It begins with the self. That moment when you think the odds are stacked in your favor, and you feel the art for the first time. Do you want to learn what this kid knows? Can you be that kid, and teach those lessons to the people in your life?

The road from discovery to community is long. It’s a lot of work. Along the way you learn that bringing people into your growth creates a symbiotic relationship, and you owe your progress to everyone who showed up for you.

Who will you show up for?

Calvin answers this question clearly in his words and actions. The power gained in Jiu Jitsu cycles through your connections. It builds you up, builds up your family, and builds up your community. Then you can go find that kid. Find that kid that needs you, and give them the strength to build their own community.

/It’s A Gift

I have my freedom now because of the lessons that I learned and what I put myself through on the mat, and how it's helped me grow. Spiritually, it helped me realize I'm better than what I thought I was. That I'm more capable than I thought. That there's a better group of people out there in Jiu Jitsu.

Jiu Jitsu is given. It has been passed down by people who have dedicated their lives to learning something they can share. The longer you stay on the mat, the more you realize this. People come and go. They begin the work, and life pulls them away. Staying in the game year after year is challenging. The amount of time and energy that must be carved out for training is a significant commitment. As your life changes, the commitment must adapt. Jiu Jitsu must be integrated into your balance and placed at the center of your life's transitions. This is a long game.

…if you want to be a part of this community man it's gonna be, not that we don’t accept everyone, but we still expect something. You know, expect your hard work, we expect your focus, we expect you to be a good teammate and I think it kind of teaches people…

Calvin’s story has moved into the latter phases of the game. He can see the path he has taken. His growth, the impact he has made through Jiu Jitsu, and how to leverage this tool for other people. This is where Calvin expresses the most enthusiasm. He has found a way to give the gift of Jiu Jitsu, and he is honing his craft.

Giving Jiu Jitsu demands more than knowledge of the art. You have to understand why people show up and why they keep going. You have to build an environment that welcomes people in and creates that sense of discovery and excitement about Jiu Jitsu that sparked your love for the art. Keeping people on the path is difficult. Everyone must choose for themselves. Creating a team that people want to be a part of is part of the gift. It gives people a home. A safe place away from whatever else is in their life, where they can heal and grow.


Obviously, the biggest hurdle right now is transportation. I want to get a bus so I could start reaching out and develop a network with some of these locals, you know, get in touch with more people who work with at-risk youth and be able to offer kids free training, get them on the mats. We have a barn here that I want to build into a full-functioning gym.
You see a lot, like over in Brazil and overseas where they have these giant academies, where part of the education system is Jiiu Jitsu. You know, there is an education in the Jiu Jitsu programs

How many ways can you give the gift of Jiu Jitsu? Can Jiu Jitsu seep into all elements of society, and connect to the most marginalized communities? Calvin has dedicated himself to giving the gift, and he sees beyond what exists today in the martial arts community. He outlines a path to build Jiu Jitsu into a community institution. He recognizes the roadblocks and hurdles people face in their life, and is developing a plan to overcome them. This gift extends beyond Jiu Jitsu.

Jiu Jitsu is a metaphor. The more you learn in the gi, the more you see life play out in parallel. Challenges, failures, and growths. Relationships, conflicts, losses, and gains. Shared knowledge, progress, and sometimes pain. In all of this the most important lesson is that we do this together. You work hard for your team, and your team props you up. They sharpen their skills and force your adaptation. The more you give, the better you become. This is life and Jiu Jitsu.

As Calvin tells his story, he leans into this and carves out his role in building the future. Some details may change. Some may have not been parsed through. But he believes in himself and the impact Jiu Jitsu can have on people's lives. In looking forward he moves into the future with purpose. He was given a purpose, and he plans to give it back.

/Gi Real. From Then Till Now

The Gi Real series will revisit Calvins' story. Discussions about kids with special needs, building a stronger Jiu Jitsu community, and the push to become world class could all be their own features. The premise of this piece is to illustrate a transformation. A young man lost and finding trouble. A fork in the road, where he could have decided to go a different way. Finding the place to heal and the drive to pay it forward.

If you focus on the end of Calvin's story, it’s quite extraordinary. If you focus on the beginning, it is rather ordinary. Another young man seeking purpose as he navigates the early stages of adulthood. Following his path forward is a testament to the impact Jiu Jitsu can have on everyone's life. It gives you the outlet you need to heal, a process for growth, and a sense of purpose behind building a better self. He shares his Jiu Jitsu to pay it forward and has shared his story to do the same. It’s an inspiring story, and hopefully, it inspires you to discover the art.

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