Mike Tousignant: Purpose in Jiu Jitsu
It’s been many years since Professor Mike Tousignant has spent the night inside a jail cell, but that era of his life is never far from his memory. He frequently reflects on his recklessness as a teen and young adult, and how close he came to living an entirely different life. Today he’s the General Manager of Easton Training Center – Boulder, a respected black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, an instructor and role model for Boulder’s teen Jiu Jitsu practitioners, and most recently, a father! But fifteen years ago, a younger Mike could never have imagined where he’d be today, and it’s with great gratitude that he spreads the knowledge of the martial art that saved his life.
Mike grew up outside of Boston, and by the time he reached second grade, he’d been in three different elementary schools. He struggled to pay attention in class, and was forever labeled as disruptive, a frequent visitor to the principal’s office. He played sports–all kinds–but for a long time, nothing stuck. He was picked last for every playground game, and would sit bored in the outfield, picking flowers. When he was nine, he begged his parents to let him play football, which they disliked for its violence, and eventually wore them down enough to allow him to play on a pop warner team.
By the time he reached high school, football had become his primary outlet, but he was still plagued by behavioral issues that often got him into trouble. Though his teachers liked him and he had many friends, he railed against authority. His pugilistic tendencies and partying with the football team brought him into conflict with the law more than once during these years. His football coaches were usually able to keep him out of more serious trouble, but in his words, “I had lots of work to do.”
Football earned him a college scholarship, but it was a brief stint. Near the end of his first semester, when football season was over, he was arrested, and soon left school. He moved to Florida briefly to live with a relative, but with no friends in the area and a garage for a bedroom, it was a lonely, difficult time. His sister Jaime was living in Boulder at the time, and encouraged him to move out west, and sleep on her couch until he got settled. There was nothing worth staying in Florida for, so he was soon making sandwiches on the Hill and attending CU. For the first year or so, he was still partying heavily. But he eventually tired of this lifestyle. “After a couple more arrests and fights at some shabby dives, I had one hard night, and made an important decision. I had to get my life together. I never wanted to spend a night in jail again. I wasn’t a bad guy. I had people who loved me, and I was tired of being a disappointment, but more importantly, I had hit the bottom, and there was only one way to go.”
Around this time, Mike met Ian Lieberman. Ian and Mike had a former roommate in common, and one day Ian walked into Abo’s, where Mike was working at the time, to introduce himself. They became quick friends. At the time Ian was sober, along with his other friends, James and Ben. And through them, Mike says, “I discovered a life where I didn’t need to drink to fit in. Where I could be myself, and be completely accepted.” Ian was already involved in Jiu Jitsu at the time, and mentioned it to Mike. He took Mike to the CU Rec Center to show him some moves. They trained, white belt Ian tapped no-belt Mike a few times, and so began a lifetime passion.
Mike attended his first Jiu Jitsu class, taught by Professor Nick Kline. Mike joined the academy that day. He was a full-time student at CU, making $7.50 an hour at his job, but he knew that this was his path, and that he would do anything to make it work. Back in these days, a three-stripe white belt was required for live training, and Mike recalls Professor Amal Easton pulling him aside on his second day as a three stripe to beat him up for an hour. As an instructor, “Amal taught me the importance of control, technique, posture, and not quitting, no matter how miserable you are.” In the years to follow, his instructors, including Professors Eliot Marshall and Matt Jubera, would reinforce these lessons many times over. With several successful runs on the national competition stage–as a blue belt he was IBJJF No-Gi World Champion and took 2nd place in Pan Ams, and at brown belt he was Masters World Champion at his weight and absolute, and 3rd place at Worlds–Mike is known as a formidable player, but these days he prioritizes teaching over competing.
Ten years after that first class, Mike, James, and Ian are black belts. Ian is the manager of Easton Training Center – Denver, Mike of Boulder, and James heads Boulder’s kids’ martial arts program. Because of the incredible changes that Jiu Jitsu brought to his life, Mike has always wanted nothing more than to give back to the community. He says, “I’m not the best teacher. I don’t have the best technique, not even close. But I know being a good teacher means really caring about your students.” And boy, does Mike care. He is possessed of a deep sense of commitment to the academy and its students, and spends the majority of his time in the school. When he isn’t taking care of day-to-day operations and big-picture improvements, he’s taking care of the students, doing everything he can to help each of them be their best. “You can learn martial arts anywhere, but there aren’t many places like Easton, where the teachers don’t just care about your technique, but about you.” He strives to cultivate for others the support system that turned his life around.
Looking back, Mike says this past decade has been the best of his life. “There were still some ups and downs, but from where I am sitting right now, it has all been perfect. Everyone I have met along the way has helped me grow into a better person. My wife-to-be, my best friends, my kid, it’s all because of Easton.”
“Selfishly,” he says, “I do this because I enjoy the people. The time when you are teaching goes by like a flash. You can walk onto the mat in a bad mood, but when that class is over, and you see the smiles on peoples’ faces, everything is easier. I guess at the end of the day, if I can have the tiniest effect on just one person, and positively influence their life, then I’ve been successful.” Mike knows that every student comes into the academy for different reasons, but he wants each person to find growth in their training, building not only physical strength, but mental fortitude. Everyone has days when they are not at their best, but Mike hopes that Jiu Jitsu and our unique community will provide guidance to others just as they did for him. “We all fall off course. Steering the boat back in the right direction is the only way to improve. We need people around us to help redirect our path. That is a big part of what makes Easton great–we can be the compass. That’s what it was for me. I don’t think I would have ever found shore if I didn’t find Easton.” He sees Jiu Jitsu as a tool for creating balance: something that can make the insecure feel empowered and something that gives the arrogant self-awareness and perspective. It gives people the tools to be their best selves, and in turn, to have a positive impact on others. As he enters the next chapter of his life, where he’ll take on the role of father and husband, he is grateful for Jiu Jitsu’s lessons, and looks forward to giving his family the patience and love he’s learned on the mat.