Start them young. It's a sage piece of advice repeated by parents and experts alike to help children thrive in everything from sports to academic pursuits.
So, when I was told by male friends and family members how my young son Adel would benefit from embracing the popular Brazilian martial art of jiu-jitsu, I signed him up at the tender age of 4.
As Adel approaches his fifth birthday, I found myself standing by the bleachers among hundreds of parents, shouting at my son to get up and finish his fight against a fellow competitor.
It was a far cry from what I had planned for him in his formative years.
As a mother of a young boy, the first on my side of the family, which has a long history of strong women, I was adamant about raising an empathetic, kind and gentle son.
Harnessing my son's boundless energy
What I didn't realise is bringing up a boy posed different challenges to how my sisters and I were raised, and his endless energy had to be harnessed in a more controlled and positive manner.
It was this goal in mind that our jiu-jitsu journey began.
It is a sport that has grown in prominence across the UAE in recent years. Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the UAE's National Security Adviser, is a known enthusiast who has obtained a black belt thanks to his expertise.
In August, President Sheikh Mohamed hosted Emirati winners of the jiu-jitsu competition at the World Games 2022, held in the United States.
“There is no better way to motivate youngsters,” Faisal Al Ketbi, the most decorated Emirati jiu-jitsu competitor and national team captain, told The National last month.
The UAE was home to around 10,000 Brazilians of whom 1,600 — an astonishing 16 per cent — are jiu-jitsu instructors, according to figures released in 2019. They have played a key role in helping the UAE become a global player in jiu-jitsu.
The gulf nation's fourth Challenge Jiu-Jitsu Championship, organised by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation, took place at Jiu-Jitsu Arena in October featuring competitions for athletes between the ages of 4 and 15.
Adel was one of hundreds of children competing in the under 17kg category, and I was unprepared for the myriad emotions that overtook me as I saw my little child wrestle with such determination and focus out on the vast mats set up for several competitions taking place simultaneously.
Discipline and confidence
“I have been a strong advocate of jiu-jitsu as a sport for all children of all ages since 2012 when I established Team Gladiators under the Primal Gym brand,” said Ammar Al Ahmed, head coach and gym owner.
Ammar built his gym around the practice of jiu-jitsu and slowly expanded to three branches that trains in the other martial arts of Muay Thai and MMA.
“In this day and age, our children need to be raised with self-defence skills and be surrounded by positive role models found in Jiu Jitsu coaches that give them the confidence to rise to challenges and the discipline to know when to stand down and not react with emotion.”
Grappling with my emotions
I couldn't say the same for myself.
Watching him in his first competition in Abu Dhabi's official Jiu-Jitsu Arena, I was hit by a wave of emotions.
At first, I observed the mothers and fathers yelling at the top of their lungs words of support and instructions throughout their children's fights with much amusement.
But once Adel stepped onto the mat, my heart was in my throat and I felt myself shake with both fear and pride all balled in the pit of my stomach and I stood in shock throughout his first fight.
To my amazement, he won and I survived my first experience of letting my child go into the pits of danger.
I reflected on how any mother would feel seeing her child go into what could be a dangerous situation, due to the sheer fact that a fight is indeed a very physical and aggressive act.
I'm proud to say that I bounced back quite quickly to join the chorus of parents screaming at the top of their lungs encouraging words during his second round.
I was right in starting him young.