An Unusual Answered Prayer

Martial arts provided a way for her—and her son—to battle their fears.

Posted in , Apr 3, 2013

Jessica Cargill with her children Collin and Keelie

The closer we got to the gym entrance, the tighter my six-year-old son, Brayden, clutched my hand. The sign by the door read “Pride Mixed Martial Arts.”

“Are you excited, B?” I asked.

Brayden edged behind me, not saying a word. He was a happy kid with a big long as he was with people and in places he knew. But put him in a new situation and he’d totally clam up and withdraw.

My husband, John, and I had been looking for something to help Brayden overcome his shyness. We hoped martial arts would build his confidence and channel his energy. (He had plenty of that!)

“The teachers here will help you. You’re going to have so much fun!” I told him, trying to be positive. But the second the words left my lips it occurred to me that my son wasn’t the only one who got anxious being out of his comfort zone.

Lately I wasn’t sure what to do with myself either. I’d been running a home day care for the last five years. At first it seemed like the perfect job. I’d always liked working with kids (I’d done a lot of babysitting and nannying growing up).

And it was a huge blessing to be able to spend time with Brayden and his four-year-old sister, Keelie, while earning an income.

Now, with both of them in school, the day care didn’t seem like the right place for me anymore. What I was feeling was more than restlessness. I was downright unsettled.

Often I would ask God for guidance and direction.

Lord, I’d pray, what is my gift? My purpose? I talked it over with John too. “Jesse, God has a plan for everyone,” he said, pulling me close. “You just have to wait and see what he has in mind for you. You’ll know when it’s right.”

But I was afraid I’d never know.

Probably the only thing I worried about more was my son’s shyness. First we’d tried T-ball. What a disaster! It wasn’t active enough to hold Brayden’s attention.

Worse, there were some ultracompetitive, overbearing parents who yelled at the kids. That made all of us recoil. And it definitely wasn’t helpful for building confidence in anyone.

“There’s got to be a sport that’s right for Brayden,” I said to John at the end of the T-ball season. “Something that’ll get him out of his shell.”

“What about martial arts?” John suggested. “I loved Tae Kwon Do when I was a kid. It taught me confidence and discipline.”

“Martial arts? I like the sound of that,” I said. Maybe John was right. I wasn’t worried about it being dangerous. I was no wimp—I’d been an equestrian and competitive show jumper as a teenager. And the idea of Brayden getting into something that he could call his own, instead of a team sport, felt right.

“It’s actually very safe, compared with a lot of other sports,” John said. “And the instructors make it fun.”

I was sold. John researched the martial arts gyms in our area and narrowed it down to three. We visited the first two but Brayden just ducked his head and refused to look at anyone, let alone speak.

Pride Mixed Martial Arts was the last one on our list. We had barely stepped through the door when a man in a belted black uniform strode up. He bent down so he could look Brayden straight in the eye.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Coach Josh.”

Brayden stood stock still.

Uh-oh, another no go, I thought.

“A lot of people here call me by my nickname, Yoshi,” he continued.

Was that a giggle from Brayden?

“Are you laughing at my name?” Coach Josh joked.

Brayden laughed again, his eyes lighting up.

Coach Josh told us about their Little Champs class. It was structured like a game, with each child progressing at his or her own pace.

“You can try it now if you want,” he said to Brayden.

With that, Brayden let go of my hand, took Coach Josh’s and headed off to class. I felt like cheering. Even more so when class ended and Brayden walked out, beaming. He was chatting with the other kids as if they were best buddies.

He had such a great time at Pride that Keelie asked to start martial arts classes too. She took to it like a little ninja. Soon our family was spending almost all our free time at the gym.

The transformation in Brayden was amazing. It was hard to believe this strong, confident kid striding to the center of the mat to try a new move had ever been a shy, scared little boy. What an incredible answer to prayer! At least God was looking out for my family.

One day while we were watching the kids practice, John said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should sign up for a class too.”

“You think?” The idea made me nervous and excited all at once.

“It’ll be fun. And who knows... maybe it’ll help you focus on what you really want to do.”

John had a point. Martial arts had helped the kids focus their energies better—and not just at the gym but also at school.

We spoke with Mr. Epps, the owner of Pride. He explained that the adult classes included Muay Thai, Brazilian Jujitsu and Krav Maga, and combined cardio, resistance and interval training.

Having fun while learning self-defense sure sounded a lot more exciting than walking on a treadmill. We both signed up.

First came the basics—jabs, uppercuts, roundhouse kicks. I loved learning the moves. Then came sparring —using those moves against an opponent. Even though I’d picked up everything pretty fast, I was nervous. Really nervous.

Was I ready? I’d never hit anyone or been hit before. I stood there on the mat, facing my instructor, feeling sick to my stomach. Then I heard the signal to start.

I threw punches and kicks, and I was punched and kicked—a lot. But I kept going.

It was as if my fight weren’t coming from my fists but from the depths of my soul. As if I were fighting my way past everything that had been unsettling me lately—my worries about my future, my fears of the unknown, my doubts about myself. I forgot all those and began really enjoying myself out there!

We finished the match and bowed to each other. I’d never felt so exhilarated. I couldn’t wait for the next class.

Away from martial arts, though, my attitude turned more despondent as I tried several different jobs—equine-therapy director at a boys’ ranch, coordinator of a cancer treatment center. They were all worthwhile, but for one reason or another, none of them eased my restlessness. I couldn’t seem to make a career out of anything. Something was missing.

One day about three years after I’d started training at the Pride gym, Mr. Epps took me aside.

“I’ve noticed how well you’re doing, and I think you’d make a great coach here,” he said.

“A coach? I’m not sure,” I said.

“Think it over,” he insisted. “You have a gift. Why not share it?” A gift. Was this the guidance I’d been looking for, that I’d been praying to find? I loved martial arts, that was for sure. But did I have the confidence to teach them to others?

I had never looked at my ability to work with people as a gift before. And I was anxious about making another change.

Then I thought back to the day Brayden and I had first walked in the door here at Pride. He had been so nervous, but he had overcome his shyness. He hadn’t given up. He hadn’t let his doubts win. “I’ll do it,” I said.

Today I’m a full-time self-defense instructor at Pride Mixed Martial Arts. I’m Coach Jesse now. And proud of it!

Teaching kids and adults, watching them fight through their fears, get out of their comfort zones and develop the confidence and strength my son, daughter, John and I have...I never imagined there could be work this fulfilling. That’s what happens when you find your gift!

I’ve been competing too. Over the last few years I’ve gone up against much younger opponents, most less than half my age. At 38 years old I fought in the 2012 International Kickboxing Federation World Classic Championships Women’s Super Lightweight Division.

Guess what? I won. Now you can call me Champ.

Though I prefer Coach Jesse.


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