Martial Arts & Mental Fortitude: An Interview with Sensei Mateo

Many of us can identify a person who has had a profound impact on our lives. For Eulices Mateo, a founding Martial Arts teacher at Brilla College Prep Elementary, that person was Grand Master Austin Wright Sr. This March, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sensei Mateo, as he is affectionately known to his students, and learn more about the tremendous impact that Master Wright had on his life and how, inspired by his mentor, Mateo is paying it forward at Brilla. 

Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Jersey City, New Jersey, in a single parent household, Mateo couldn’t afford expensive extracurricular activities such as Martial Arts. Grandmaster Wright ran an afterschool program where he would teach karate for free to at-risk kids. When Mateo was just nine years old, Grandmaster Wright took Mateo under his wing and allowed him to train at his Martial Arts school for free. Sensei Mateo explains: 

“When I started training Martial Arts at a young age I was nervous and intimidated at first because there were many kids who were very good at Martial Arts. However, I quickly realized that everyone wanted to help me and push me to be better. It was the welcoming environment that allowed me to push through many of the challenging Martial Arts training sessions. Everyone trained together, struggled together and succeeded together.”

From those first sessions when he was nine, a lifelong passion for martial arts was sparked, and Mateo continues to train with his Grandmaster to this day. Now, inspired by his mentor, Mateo is committed to being that supportive presence to his students at Brilla. “The dojo (Karate school) was a second home to me,” says Mateo. “I grew up living in an environment where there was a lot of gang violence and drugs,” remarks Mr. Mateo. “Being in Martial Arts influenced me in a positive way, and I want to do that for the kids in the Bronx.” 

Martial Arts gave Mateo a constructive outlet for his time and taught him much more than self-defense. “Martial Arts is more than just kicking and punching,” Mateo explains. “Martial Arts is about empowering an individual to be a better version of themselves.” More than just physical training, Martial Arts is about instilling discipline and mental fortitude in participants. “It’s teaching students to look at adversity and challenges and face them head on, with a ‘never give up’ mentality,” says Mateo. Students in his Martial Arts classes start in kindergarten with a white belt and work their way up to higher levels as they progress through the grades. “When you reach black belt, it is a testament to never giving up and showing that mental and physical fortitude,” Mateo instructs his students. 

The most important quality of a good Martial Artist may come as a surprise for some. It is not being physically the strongest or having the most natural athletic talent. Mr. Mateo explains that while physical training is important, “there is a lot more to Martial Arts that is mental and spiritual.” Humility is the most important virtue that a Martial Artist needs to succeed. “It is about taking rejection without feeling like you are a failure, and persevering regardless of how many rejections you get,” Mr. Mateo tells his students. “There will always be an opponent out there who is better than you.” But, he continues, “Your opponent is not the person across from you. Your opponent is the person in the mirror. The goal is to be better than that person in the mirror every day.”

One of the ways that Mr. Mateo encourages his scholars to pursue virtue is by choosing a Martial Artist of the week. These students get to wear a special red belt and be Sensei Mateo’s assistant throughout the week. The winner is chosen based on how they exhibit Brilla’s four cardinal virtues. Mateo also takes time in class to ask his students questions such as, “Who did you show kindness to today? What good deeds do you do when you’re not being watched? How can you show mercy?” Sensei Mateo’s message is clear: “I am instilling important character values to help them be better people in mind, body, and spirit, as Brilla’s mission states.”

Throughout his nine years at Brilla, Sensei Mateo has impacted the lives of numerous students. One of his students, Maliyah Nelson, started with him in kindergarten. Now she is a sixth grader at the middle school and continues to train with Sensei Mateo at his personal Martial Arts school in Manhattan, Mateo Mixed Martial Arts. Founded in honor of his own Sensei, Mr. Mateo offers free or reduced cost Martial Arts classes to students in addition to his full-time job as a Brilla teacher. Mr. Mateo has seen firsthand the transformative power of Martial Arts on Malia. “When Malia started Martial Arts, she was very shy, but Martial Arts helped her gain confidence in herself and helped her in ways she didn’t know was possible.” 

There are numerous students who make Sensei Mateo proud. Another one is Aiden Bostick, a fourth grader at BCPE. “He is a great Martial Artist,” Mr. Mateo explains, “because he is not afraid to make mistakes, but recognizes them and strives to learn from them.” For him, Mr. Mateo says, and for any person who is humble enough to admit their mistakes and learn from them, “the sky’s the limit.” Here at Brilla, we are incredibly proud and privileged to have Mr. Mateo on our faculty.

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