Everything hurts!

One of the primary rules of the bjj life is that if you are at all serious about the crazy, messed-up sport, you must train hurt. Because of the extremely physical, at times violent live-sparring component of jiu jitsu, the chances are that everyone will get at least a few bumps and bruises along the way.  For an  Ewok-sized dude who is less than two years away from AARP membership, the question is WHAT is hurting now, not when will something happen. This time, it is again the lower back/hip that is speaking to me with her evil twinges of pain, combined with the ever-pulsating spasms of more pain. I’m a good soldier, I continue to drag myself up the stairs into the gym and do my best.

If you do this enough, you will recognize the difference between an injury, and mere discomfort. Listen to your body, and do what it allows. Since my ailments are likely the result of periodic arthritic flair-ups, I just keep on grinding, just with more limitation to my mobility than usual. Who cares if I can’t bridge or shrimp much, the solution is to “just” try harder to pass my opponent’s guard more effectively and not end up on my back. Easier said than done. I suppose this is the moral of the story for training hurt, work on the stuff that you CAN do.  Perhaps this will force you to drill techniques that aren’t natural to you, which will hopefully pay dividends down the road.

Since I couldn’t bridge or shrimp much, I was forced to really try hard to avoid sweeps as I attempted to pass guard. A sweep means I’m flat on my back, and I really didn’t want to be there. Again, this is all good in principle — reality is a different thing.  I do my old fashioned  Toriando pass, getting heaving on the legs as I go by. Unfortunately,  my version of “heavy” isn’t heavy enough and my opponents feet often snag mine and I’m sent flying with a butterfly sweep or some such magic. I go flying through the air to land painfully on my back.  I’ll start drinking more milkshakes! Maybe that’ll make me heavier.  Though my week of pain was largely unsuccessful, I started to feel that I was at times able to increase my distance as I went around an opponent’s legs and secure some form of side control. There you have it, the fear of a painful flight forced me to work on something that needed to be drilled. Training hurt served it’s purpose.

Competing hurt is a totally different animal. I was supposed to enter the Good Fight tournament in Philadelphia this coming weekend but I think I will pull a sissy and not do it. I just don’t feel comfortable going into “battle” without the ability to bridge or shrimp as I normally do.  Under the best circumstances I usually go into these tournaments much older and lighter than my opponents and get destroyed. Imagine how glorious the defeat would be if I did this with a hinky back? I will bow out of the tournament, but continue to train and give white belts throughout South-Central Pennsylvania a burst of confidence.



Who are you?

The other day I read an outstanding blog post by BJJ black belt Valerie Worthington, where she wrote about what she calls the impostor syndrome. This post can be found HERE. In her case, the impostor syndrome applied to her wondering where she stood in relation to others at her level.  As such, this “syndrome” led to such things as feeling miserable,  having difficulty judging areas that need improvement, and other aspects of her BJJ life.  Having attended one of her seminars at Harrisburg BJJ and Judo, I know that whatever fears she had in regard to impostor syndrome are definitely unfounded.  But after reading her blog post, it got me thinking about my own journey.  As followers of my blog probably know, thinking is a dangerous game for me!

I figure that some form of impostor syndrome probably creeps into anyone’s mind if they stick with jiu jitsu long enough. Due to the live sparring aspect of the sport, there are just so many opportunities to fail, lose, get crushed, swept, be submitted, get tapped, say uncle, etc., that it is natural to question one’s existence in the universe of BJJ.  There is always going to be someone bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletic. You can choose to let this cause anxiety, or you can someone fix your thinking.  Valerie’s suggestions boiled down to first listening carefully to training partners, and secondly, accept that each person is different, and that’s alright.

To truly get a handle on your BJJ situation, the suggestion of listening to your training partners is a must.  Without feedback from those who have seen your skills progress, it is hard to see past the last double-tap.  The reality is BJJ is tough — techniques are tough to master, and against a live opponent, they seem impossible. This level of difficulty leads me to believe that I am not improving at all.  But my training partners can see (and feel) the baby steps that I am taking.  While I focus on the fact that I was swept and get pissed, they might tell me my side control pressure is a lot better, I now need to work on WHERE I’m keeping that pressure to avoid the sweep.

To Valerie’s second point of everyone being different, this corresponds with O’ Sensei Dave Brogan’s constant proclamation that everyone’s BJJ journey is their own.  When I first started my BJJ life at Harrisburg BJJ and Judo, Dave tried to make it clear that each student’s path at the school will be different.  Some come to BJJ from MMA or wrestling backgrounds. Some students are more athletic than others and might pick up technique quicker.  There are those students that can train seven days a week, and others with work and family commitments who are lucky to make it twice.  While some are gung ho tournament competitors, others are happy to just enjoy the fellowship and get a bit of exercise.  Because of all these variables, it is easy to see the failed-logic of comparing yourself to someone else.  In the heat of “battle” it is definitely frustrating to tap to a less experienced person, but if you really analyze it, each person’s experience is different, the belt color doesn’t tell the whole story.

Because of this hidden back-story everyone has, nobody can really be an impostor, for each person truly has something to bring with them when they train.  The competitors can bring knowledge about how I can better handle the pressures of tournaments, the athletic folks can help me refine my game to better suit my “style,” and the more cerebral students can teach me how not to sweat the small stuff!  We all got a place on the mats, maybe I’ll find mine someday.



Insignificant advances mean the world!

For us BJJ white belts, there are two unwritten rules:  1. Techniques gleaned from YouTube videos NEVER work in real life. and 2. Moves taught in class ALMOST never work during subsequent sparring sessions.  This may seem overstated, but the upper belts smile knowingly, and fellow white belts sympathetically shrug when I state this. The reason for this is simple, we are white belts. To be effective, BJJ must be drilled, re-drilled, and then drilled some more.  White belts simply don’t have the time on the mats to make any technique work as it should.  As practice makes perfect, a white belt hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient.

So, yesterday, when my upper-belt training partner shouts, “class move” as I successfully complete a sweep that had been taught in class earlier, I tried not to laugh too hard. As satisfying as the move was, I knew that Jim had let me have the sweep.  After all, an Ewok-sized, ratty white belt wearing, sliver of a person in reality doesn’t have a glimmer of hope against a purple belt the size of an NBA swing-man. But that’s the beauty of the sport. The ratty white eventually becomes a belt of another color who will no longer need a “nice” training partner to execute the class move. Belt colors change through time on the mats and repetition.

I am thankful that my white belt is ratty and the stripes are starting to fall off for I know this means my time on the mats is starting to add up, and as a result, I occasionally pull off a class move. You learn to live for these brief moments of validation and trust the void between these moments will shorten. Provably not all that different from the golfer who lives for that one perfect swing, — momentary excellence to stop him from wrapping his club around a tree in frustration. Learning to live for these insignificant advances is what separates the ratty white belt and the glittery white belt.  As a new white belt with a background in another martial art where belt advancements came relatively quickly, I was unprepared for the grind of BJJ.  I thought the cry of “CLASS MOVE” should come each time I stepped on the mats. When it didn’t, I became a very unhappy white belt.  Unhappy white belts have two choice: they can quit, or they can keep coming back. I chose to keep coming back.

What are the results of my coming back? Definitely NOT a significant increase in “class move” moments. In reality, they probably come further apart now as training partners increase their intensity as I improve my skill set. Perhaps my BJJ game now (at times) resembles Jiu Jitsu, though this depends on the intensity of the sparring partner as well.  Because of coming back night, after night, the result is  I am now comfortable being uncomfortable.  The possibility of failure doesn’t scare me as much anymore, both in BJJ and in life. I have accepted the beauty of the grind of Jiu Jitsu, and this has seeped into my life as a whole.  Life, like BJJ is a grind. I keep coming back!

Come so far, but hardly enough

It’s been quite a while since my last post, and for that I apologize. This is partly due to laziness, partly because of a busy schedule, but mostly due to my uncertainty.  Uncertainty of just where I stand in my BJJ journey and how I was a bit depressed over this lack of clarity.  Thankfully last night’s classes brought my place in the jiu jitsu world back into clarity.  Last night on the mats made me feel as if I have walked a 100 miles from where I started, but it also showed me that the journey is a million more before I reach my goal.   Such is the way with BJJ:  nothing given, everything earned!

Let’s first set the record straight.  “Beginner” class in BJJ is really not just for beginners.  Beginners class is really a fundamentals class where the students spend time drilling the basic foundations of what is the heart and soul of the art.  As this is a very technical martial art, the fundamentals are very exacting, and for many may never be truly perfected — only honed over the course of thousands of repetitions.

This beginners class began with the students executing a number of the basic BJJ movements.  Movements such as backward rolls, and the ever-present “shrimp.” The shrimping motion is done when your back is on the mat and your opponent has a dominant position.  With the shrimp you are hoping to create space for yourself and move your body into a better defensive position.  My 100 miles of progress is shown by my ability to do most of these movements with some resemblance to jiu jitsu.  At the start of my journey, the only thing that looked like BJJ was the shiny new gi  I wore, and the pearly white belt holding it in place.

A million more miles in my journey is shown in the fact that for each fundamental move attempted last night, the instructor showed me multiple modifications and tweaks that will make my jiu jitsu more effective.  This is the very embodiment of the BJJ journey; after fifteen months of dedicated practice, drilling, and rolling with my fellow classmates, I have just begun to scratch the surface of what jiu jitsu means.  Oh, by the way, I’m still a white belt.  But this white belt has a 100 miles on it now, and really isn’t white. It has become gray from all the dirt –with a chocolate stain suffered after eating a protein bar in-between practices — and a blood stain from a scratch on my head that happened at the New York Open a few weeks back.  I now say my white belt really isn’t white, I have a calico belt!  A 100 mile journey changes the color of a belt, while changing the heart of a man who chooses this path.

For several weeks I have been a bit out of sorts, feeling as if I’m treading water in a pool of BJJ sharks who are taking a bit of my progress a bite at a time.  Thankfully yesterday’s “beginners” class brought my journey back into focus.  The million mile path forward isn’t clear, but I can now see the 100 miles I’ve come, and for that I am grateful.  Tomorrow will be a few more steps forward!

My mind is a dangerous place . . .

I’ve often felt that my mind is a dangerous place to be. It is a jumble of confusion, joy, humor, and currently, the most devious emotion of all:  self-doubt!  In less than two weeks, I’ll be traveling with others from Harrisburg BJJ and Judo to compete at the IBJJF New York Spring International Open.  Normally when I sign-up for a competition there are no other old geezers competing; so I either fight against kids 20 years younger, or older dudes who outweigh me by 20-plus pounds. In these instances I have placed no pressure on myself to achieve victory.  For the New York Open there is actually somebody within my age/weight bracket to fight, so theoretically it will be technique against technique and the best man wins.  This changes my mindset completely.  To say that the loathing of self-doubt has permeated my thoughts would be an understatement.

So what do I do to combat the dark demons of my mind? The only thing I know to do: go train. Through the course of my BJJ journey, I have found a variety of benefits from constantly training, not the least of which is freeing my mind of all the crap that builds up in it.  For the 30 minutes of class, and during the five minute grappling sessions afterward, there is no room in my mind for anything else but surviving the moment.  For a relatively low monthly cost, I have an unlimited supply of therapy to help my mind get straight.  No room for self-doubt when I step on the mats!  This is the first reason to keep training.

The only way to get better is to keep training. Therefore, the only way to erase the self-doubt is to train as much as possible. If my BJJ journey is truly about getting good at this jiu jitsu thing, I have to spend lots of time at the gym.  When I hit the gym and cinch-up my white belt, I  do my very best to pay close attention to each technique being drilled and find a way to make it work for me.  At the start of my journey, I would get very frustrated at the long-legged, athletic instructors who would show flashy techniques that just weren’t suited for my stumpy Ewok body.  I would fruitlessly try and do some sort of crazy inverted leg-whip and look the fool for trying it. I’d pound my fist on the mat and get all pissed-off for my initial failure.  Over the months, I have adjusted my approach to class. If it is obvious that Ewok jiu jitsu is not suited for a particular technique, I work with my training partner to come up with a modified version that works for me. Brent’s version will not be as flashy, and perhaps not as effective, but it still can serve a purpose in my bag of tricks.   This additional time for modification is probably why my BJJ journey requires so much training time, and the second reason to keep training.

If I’m not training, I’m thinking about BJJ.   As previously stated, my mind is a dangerous place to go alone, so better to join like-minded colleagues on the mat and stay out of my head.  BJJ, like many (most?) sports is partially a matter of reflexes, partially a matter of muscle memory, and mainly a matter of repetition and drilling in practice.  The reps needed to get good at BJJ is the third reason for me to keep training.  Perhaps a naturally gifted athlete can learn a few basic techniques and quickly advance in this sport, but I am an Ewok– not a naturally gifted athlete, so train I must.  Thankfully the reps are starting to pay off.  What seemed impossible a few months ago, are now second nature to me.  Against bigger, and stronger opponents I am not competitive, but at least I make many like-sized people work hard for their victories.  This progress is something I am extremely grateful for and keeps my coming back.

In a perfect world my slow and painful progress in BJJ would be enough to erase my feelings of self-doubt. But the world is not perfect, and my mind is a dangerous place.  So I keep training!




4th and 99 . . .

Earlier this week at the end of class, I was presented by Sensei’s  Luis, Dave, and Monica with the fourth stripe on my BJJ white belt.  At least in theory the raccoon stripes on your belt mean you are just a breathe away from your next belt.  In BJJ’s case, that would be a blue belt. For the gentle art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the belts are few and far-between –presumably so the practitioners focus more on the journey, rather then the obtaining of color sashes to wear with their uniform.  At last summer’s white belt seminar I heard Gregg, our head instructor, indicate two criteria for passage onto the blueness (loosely translated):  solid execution of the basics of BJJ at sparring speed, and the skill to use BJJ against untrained opponents on the street.  After thinking about these two for a bit, I’ve come to the conclusion that my “breathe” away from blue will likely be a very long breathe.  Execution at sparing speed? Still a work in process.  Holding my own on the street?  Unless I bring a Glock to the jiu jitsu party you probably don’t want to bet on me! While I may not be ready for my blue, these last fifteen months haven’t been a waste of time.  For this post I’ll attempt to assess exactly how far I’ve come in my BJJ journey after four stripes on the white.

First, and most importantly for an Ewok who is losing weight by the minute, I have learned the principle of being “heavy.”  After a match goes to the ground and I am fortunate enough to end up on top after the scramble, I can make my 118 pounds feel like a whole lot more than that.  Whether traditional side control, scarf hold, or full-mount, I have learned to make my weight count for something.  As you keep practicing BJJ technique you develop the skill to pinpoint your weight onto one specific area of your opponent.  If all your weight is driven into your opponents shoulder, the 118 pounds you once had now feels like 280, and 280 pounds can keep a lot of people pinned.

Second, I have learned to not panic in very uncomfortable situations.  Sensei Dave told me at the start of my journey, often the key to BJJ is being comfortable in uncomfortable situations.  Though I still tap to pressure when weight is on me, it doesn’t happen very often.  As is most often the case in an Ewok’s BJJ life, my opponent usually ends up on top, either in side control or full mount.  A year ago, this would have led me to start squirming around and hyperventilating.  Soon, I wouldn’t be able to breath, and I would have to tap due to suffocation.  I have learned that staying calm gives me a “punchers” chance of getting out of bad situations.  The most important key is to just relax and settle my breathing.  Since BJJ is like chess of the martial arts world, I have come to realize that even under the most dire circumstances I have time to assess the situation and plan my next move, whether it be a sweep or attack.

Third, I have learned that except for what is mentioned above, I am like John Snow in Game of Thrones and “know nothing.” The crazy thing about the BJJ lifestyle, is that this revelation of knowing nothing is a profound improvement from when I started.  Knowing nothing may be bit of a misnomer.  It’s not so much that I don’t have an understanding of the basics, because I do.  It’s just that my mental knowledge does not correspond with what I can make my body do.  Having the presence of mind to recognize exactly how my opponent is going to destroy me while having no tool in the arsenal by which to stop the inevitable is a wonderful and yet demoralizing thing.  With more time on the mat, I will hopefully not only recognize the wizardry that is being inflicted upon me, but have the ability to counter-strike.

So, I guess my life as a new four-stripe white can be summed-up like this.  I understand a few things while knowing nothing at all.  How’s that for a confidence boost? Four stripes on the white and nothing to show for it!  I think that’s BJJ’s crazy way of getting me to keep coming back. Guess I’ll keep training and remember to bring the Glock to the street fight.

I’m no Vince Lombardi

“Second place?  That’s a fancy word for losing!” — Bender, Futurama

On the eve of Easy Mac’s competition at Grappling Industries Capitol tournament, I am spending some time reflecting upon my expectation of the boy’s BJJ journey — and by default my own.  He keeps insisting that the only positive result from any tournament he enters is first place. In as much as I have NEVER told him such nonsense, I am frequently left scratching my head.  How did he come to place such unrealistic expectations on himself?  I’m pretty sure that my goal at age seven was to not trip over the crack in the side walk. As athletic glory never came to this Ewok in youth, I an very careful to place no expectations on my child to do something I was not able to do myself. While Vince Lombardi of Green Bay Packer lore may have said “I have no room for second place,” the most I will ever offer up is: “maximum effort equals total support.”

My expectations for myself and Easy Mac are the same when it comes to competing in BJJ:  have the courage to step on the mat and compete; give maximum effort when on the mat; and try and learn something every time.  That’s pretty much it. No expectations of result, or finish.  I figure if you do the three things I mention, the wins may eventually come.  If they don’t, that’s okay too.  Oops, I almost forgot the most important expectation:  Have fun!  Frequently, with the nerves and adrenaline kicking in before and during a match, it is easy to forget that this jiu jitsu thing is supposed to be fun. Competition ramps it way up and the “fun” is lost if you let it.  Hence my carefully chosen expectations totally devoid of results.  Without any self-imposed pressure to win, my hope is that competitions can also be part of the BJJ fun.

The first expectation, development of courage (if such a thing can be developed) is probably my main goal in having Easy Mac enter tournaments.  Unfortunately the world does not allow timid people much success, so if there are avenues where I can encourage my boy to compete and risk losing, I will take them.  I believe that I can already see growth in this are with Easy Mac.  For the first couple tournaments, I really had to push him to compete.  He took it as a matter of course, that he would compete in last month’s in-house tournament at Harrisburg BJJ and Judo.  This time, it was his suggestion.  He heard one of the adults talking about the Capitol tournament and told me last week  over bagels and hot chocolate at the Cornerstone Coffee House that he wanted to travel to DC and compete.  Coming from the child who thinks winning is the only acceptable result, I was surprised.  Either he has tempered his own expectations, or he is extremely confident in his abilities.  I guess we’ll both find out tomorrow.

“Maximum effort equals total support,” that’s my Lombardi speech.  The second expectation from BJJ competition is that we will always give it our very best effort.  What is the use in signing up to compete if you aren’t going to give it your all?  Maximum effort is NOT to be confused with winning, or a particular result.  Maximum effort simply means that you try your best at that point in your BJJ journey.  As any athlete will probably tell you, there are just time when you don’t “have it,” or the opponent is simply better or has better skill.  In the continued spirit of keeping competition fun, maximum effort will never be gauged against wins and losses.

The final objective of competition is to learn something. To “learn something” can have many connotations.  Learn how to NOT walk into a triangle, learn how to make your arm bar technique better, or any other seemingly infinite number of learning opportunities that a competition might present.  On the more cerebral side, competition may present an opportunity to be a good sport, to lose with grace, or even learn compassion for your opponent.  Such lessons learned, will not only make Easy Mac and myself better at BJJ, it hopefully make us better people too.  As I prepare us for tomorrow, all I can demand of Easy Mac is maximum effort.  I’m sure that if I just keep out of his way, this won’t be difficult for him to do.



Because if I don’t . . .

What is it about the BJJ lifestyle that keeps drawing me back to the gym?  Almost every day of the week, I shed the work clothes, don my  BJJ uniform, and drive across the river to get smashed by people who are frequently double my weight. Sounds pretty crazy, especially to your loved ones who are not living the lifestyle.  I have read some places that the BJJ way is similar to a cult, others have called it an obsession. I prefer to simply call it a habit.  If I keep going almost every day, I no longer consciously think about what I’m doing — it’s  just my routine.  A routine that while maybe not lifesaving, is still the most rewarding thing I have every attempted up to this point in my life.   Because if I didn’t train BJJ, I know what I’d be doing now:  NOTHING.  Nothing  else I could hope to do would impact me physically, mentally, and spiritually as profoundly as my BJJ journey.

Physically, BJJ has made me probably the strongest I have ever been in my life.  Over the first four months, I  went from 127 pounds to 113.  Probably too much, as I was pounding out the miles on the treadmill in addition to the BJJ cardio done in class.  I have since eliminated the outside treadmill sessions, and added a touch of weight lifting.  I gained back 5 pounds and at age 47 did my first unassisted pull-up ever. Never to late to start I guess!  In regard to flexibility, I still don’t have it.  The simplest BJJ warm ups either still hurt or are beyond my ability, but inch by inch I can feel things getting easier.  Gone are the days after a training session where the next two afternoons are spent lying on floor in total agony.  So, if your looking for an overall body workout, BJJ is your ticket without the self-perceived judgement found in a normal gym.  The “nice” thing about training BJJ is that because it is so difficult to learn, just about everybody sucked when they started.  This mutual suckage lends to a welcoming environment when you start your journey.  At least that was my experience.

Mentally, my BJJ journey has worked me over far greater than any physical challenges suffered. The mental aspect of this sport makes it the most difficult thing I have done in my life.  As I mentioned above, BJJ is hard. Very. Freaking. Hard.  When I first came through the doors of Harrisburg BJJ and Judo we were told to leave ego at the door.  It didn’t take me long to understand why.  Since BJJ to a certain extent is a “combat” sport with live sparring  you continuously get the opportunity to test your knowledge against another opponent.  During these live rolls, especially when new, you will be submitted.  Probably submitted often. At least for me, the constant presence of submission was difficult for me to initially accept.  I’d get choked out, tap, and then pound my first on the mat. I’d go sit on the side and pout for a bit, and then try again with the same results.  Fourteen months into this journey I still get submitted ALL the freaking time. In fact, probably more often since I no longer sit on the side and pout. I learned to accept the submission game and push through.   Now I look at all my submissions as a source of pride.  How many people would chose to fail this often at something and keep coming back?   For learning to deal with failure I give thanks to BJJ and my fellow training partners.  It is a journey that an outsider truly cannot understand.

Finally, I give credit to my BJJ journey for helping my spiritual development as well.  I suppose this is where the potential cult-like aspect comes into play.  I am not saying that my pursuit of BJJ has or will ever replace going to church if I feel compelled to do so, but at this point in my life, my development on the mats is something that is creeping into all aspects of my life. Through BJJ, I have learned to become comfortable at the bottom of the “food chain.”  Being at the bottom is OK, I have come to accept this.  When your at the bottom, there is only one direction to go. But I also know that my presence at the gym gives more established practitioners the opportunity to teach, and through this grow as well.  As such, there seems to be a place for anyone who walks through the door of a BJJ gym: to grow, learn, strengthen,  care about others. At some point in my journey I started looking beyond myself. and  If the ultimate goal of spirituality isn’t looking outside yourself and caring about others, I don’t know what it is.

Learning to care about other.  This for me is a big deal  Being an Ewok, I for the longest time thought I had to be selfish and self-centered in order to survive. Just look out for myself since I knew the world wanted to crush the little guy.  Truthfully, this was my mindset going into the gym for the first few months. I thought I would simply learn how to defend myself, But a crazy thing slowly happened. My frame of mind totally flipped. Through being destroyed daily on the mats, I found a caring group of people who I grew to love like a crazy extended family.  I learned to care about others outside my own immediate family. One very close friend recently wondered why his friends at the BJJ gym are more encouraging and better friends than people at church.  For me, the answer to that question is easy. For those who train BJJ on a sustained and dedicated bases, they are living a lifestyle. Many people at church are looking for a quick “boost” of spirituality without truly living the message.  Through living the BJJ lifestyle I have become a more caring person. I will continue to train,  as much  to stay connected to this “spiritual” vibe, as to advance in the art of grappling.

Deep thoughts. . .

I have heard that BJJ is like the chess of the martial art’s world, that to be victorious in a match there is a significant aspect of strategy that comes into play.  Fourteen months into my BJJ journey, I can safely say that strategy beyond surviving a five minute match does not yet have much of a place in my jiu jitsu game. One of the benefits of being an Ewok practitioner in this thinking person’s is that I spend most of my time with my back to the mat in one of two positions: rib and soul-crushing side control; or my personal favorite, suffocation-inducing full mount. As such, my main BJJ strategy is to somehow survive my lot if life and live to fight again. While  I  look up at the ceiling in one of these two positions, a variety of fleeting thoughts go through my mind and I will share a few of them with you.

First off, there’s side control.  My spirit-twin!  The place I most often find myself walking into.  A place in BJJ where hopes of victory go to die.  In most instances, side control happens early in a match:  I’m taken down, and BAM, my opponent slides seemingly without effort into side control. My back is now pinned to the mat, and if done by an experienced partner, my ribs feel like they will almost definitely snap under the pressure.  To help control my breathing I try and relax myself by looking at the ceiling and counting the holes that are in the tiles above.  Some areas of the gym have tiles that do not have holes, so I am forced to admire the art deco molding instead.  Other areas of the ceiling don’t even have molding to admire, so I am left to wonder what caused the water marks on this area of the gym.  After taking a moment to admire the beauty of the gym ceiling I get back to the task at hand, how the hell do I shrimp to establish my guard?  I vaguely remember Sensei David Brogan saying something about rotating your feet opposite their body and then shrimping as if life your life depended upon it to insert your knee in between their body and mine. Or was it Sensei Shawn Raber who imparted this nugget of wisdom?  My memory gets a bit clouded when my ribs are being transformed into jello. So I rotate my legs and attempt to insert the knee.  Just get that knee in there, dammit!

My next thought will almost always be why in the hell don’t the class moves ever work in competition?  The easy answer is resistance. Drilling in class usually involves minimal resistance from your training partner in the hopes that you will eventually condition your body to perform these techniques.  Competition is a different story all together, not only is there resistance, but if feels like the other dude is trying to kill you.  I suppose with enough reps and practice the fight game will slow down and the class drills will slowly translate into effective BJJ, but for now it is difficult to get my mind beyond, “why in the $%@! won’t my knee go where I want it to?”  Because my knee won’t go where I want it to, the next thought in the progression is why won’t my opponent take full mount?  Theoretically full-mount is the most dominant position in the sport but all I know is that my ribs are about to break and rupture my spleen, so please God, let this guy transition to full mount.

Now we come to the second position I most likely find myself in: full mount.  Full mount is so familiar to me, it is like the twin brother I never wanted.  Full mount is one of the most dominant positions in BJJ, and you therefore are rewarded the most points for advancing to this position.  Not only are you able to smother and control your opponent from this position, but a myriad of submissions are available by which to end the match– chokes, arm locks, arm bars, just to name a few!  In spite of all this going against me, I see a glimmer of hope when being smashed in full mount.  First, my ribs are no longer being crushed.  Second, if it’s a “new guy,” maybe the old trap the arm and leg bump-sweep will work to get me on top. (Doubtful, but you never know.)  Third, from mount I maybe, just maybe have a shot at getting half-guard and working for a sweep from there.  Alas, in competition, none of this works for me yet. So my mind really starts going to a crazy place.  “I hope he goes for an arm bar,” I say to myself.  “Come on, just go for it, I dare you.”

An arm bar is a move in BJJ where your opponent is looking to hyper-extend your elbow in between their legs.  Why might I want them to do this to me you are probably asking.  During an arm bar, there is the ever so slight chance that when they drop their butt to the mat you can roll upward and stack their body and hopefully gain control of the situation.  It’s a moonshot, mind you, but one of the few things I’ve learned in my BJJ journey is how to defend and get out of an arm bar.  This right here demonstrates the craziness of BJJ wrapped in the disguise of strategy.  What other sport would make me actually want someone to try and rip my arm off in hopes I can foil the attempt?  As my BJJ game advances I will surely have better answers to side control and mount, but in the meantime I will continue to shoot for the moon!




After the dust settles . . .

Yesterday the the boy and I competed at the Harrisburg BJJ and Judo in-house tournament.  Easy Mac finished third out of five and I finished fourth out of four. These were not the results either of us went into the tournament wanting. As the supposed “adult” I am equipped to deal with the disappointment of defeat, but let me tell you what, a seven-year old is not.  After a knee to the head sends Easy Mac into a blind rage and cannot continue, his mom and I are left counseling him the best that we can, offering up a stream of typical platitudes such as: “winning isn’t what matters, what matter is having the bravery to step on the mat and do your best.”  As I’m sitting on the mat trying to explain this to my child with tears streaming down his eyes, part of me wonders if I really believe the message I am sending him. Let’s be honest, losing sucks and is very disappointing.  I get home last night and I’m asking myself why I put myself through this. After all, this Ewok’s BJJ journey has been filled almost exclusively  with defeat. Save for somehow snatching victory from the jaws of certain failure with a miraculous arm bar last summer, I am the participation trophy champion! After a bunch of contemplation, I have convinced myself that I believe the line I’m trying to sell my boy.

Why do I keep competing? Because it is difficult. When I started this journey, I promised myself that I would use BJJ to push myself.  For much of my life I have taken the easy path. I chose an easy major in college because I didn’t want to risk a bad grade in a difficult course.  Heaven forbid I suffer a C in chemistry or calculus on the path to a high paying job.  In Kansas when I studied the martial art kajukenbo under Sensei Andrew Evans, I had the opportunity to compete several times in the Kansas State Games, but I never found the courage to do so.  The fear of losing and potential shame cast upon me by friends and training partners was too much for me to deal with at the time.  In retrospect these concerns were baseless as Andrew’s school was filled with some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. But the power of self doubt is strong in this Ewok.  The power of self doubt is still very strong today — I have just made the choice to ignore it and not let fear stop me.  I often use MacArthur as my “excuse” for doing things that I otherwise would not have done in the interest of being a good father and role model.  But if I’m being honest about my BJJ journey, this is as much for me as it is anyone else.

Yesterday’s Valentine’s Day Massacre was my fifth competition, and Easy Mac’s fourth.  I know that it makes him nervous each time because at his age, “trying your best” translates into “I must win.” I can only imagine the pressure he puts on himself if he really believes he must win every tournament he enters.  I have repeatedly told him that there is definitely NOT an expectation of winning, but my fatherly speeches still fall on tiny deaf ears!  Yesterday, like each tournament before, I told myself that my only objective is to “do better” than I did the previous one.  Where I struggle is in defining what “better” actually means.  Normally losing is losing, and there aren’t degrees of losing.  But in regard to my BJJ journey I have decided to cut myself some serious slack.  While to the outside world my improvements in BJJ appear insignificant, I can accept that I am taking big steps from where I started.  If I can remember this, maybe I won’t lose my sanity as the losses keep stacking up!

Upon reflecting on yesterday’s matches I was able to take comfort in two things in particular.  Most importantly, my initial stand-up game was quite a bit better than in any matches fought before. In a BJJ match, the two fighters start in the standing position with the objective being that one opponent looks to take the other down to the ground by using a trip or a throw.  Once the fight goes to the ground the opponents look to accumulate points by advancing their position, or end the fight via submission.  In my past matches I have not been able to put up much resistance at stand-up, and have been taken down within seconds.  Especially in my first match yesterday, I did (for me) a pretty good job of “grip fighting” my opponent and looking to take him down first.  I tried for an arm drag that would lead to a trip. For the first time ever I was on the offensive.  Unfortunately I did not execute it properly and in the process lost my balance and let myself get taken down.  But at least I was trying to be the aggressor.  The second thing which gives me hope for the future is that I was able to last an entire match without being submitted. I had never “gone the distance” in a BJJ match before.  While I still lost on points, at least I didn’t fall victim to the triangle choke that usually gets me!

So why do I keep doing this to myself?  Since BJJ competition is so difficult the tiny improvements make the disappointments bearable.  There is something satisfying about being able to step on the mat, cinch your belt tight, and see what happens.  You can’t win if you don’t try, right?  This is the message I keep preaching to myself and telling Easy Mac.  While winning feels like a million bucks, it is within the attempt that you separate yourself from those who don’t.