Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson 10: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Body Image.

I like to think as a woman in Jiu Jitsu, I’ve got a pretty positive body image. I feel strong, I rarely think I’m fat or anything like that, I generally like my body and in part I attribute that to Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu helped me not only change my body, but also change the way I think about my body as well. I’m not going to sit here and say BJJ made me into a hot and skinny woman or something silly like that. Jiu Jitsu has taught me both how to take care of my body as well as how to really value my body.

Like many teenage girls, I often hated my body growing up. I’ve got big calves, a propensity to general thickness and I was made fun of a bit in school. I felt like I was fat and definitely didn’t consider myself athletic at all. Growing into adulthood took care of a lot of myouthful body image issues, but it took Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to help me understand how to appreciate my body not as an object that simply projects from my character, but as a machine that I’m in control of, and actually like to operate.

I used to be preoccupied with what people thought of my body, and in some ways I still do a bit, but learning how to impose a submission on a BJJ partner makes preoccupations about how I look in shorts suddenly seem silly and unimportant. It didn’t take long after beginning Jiu Jitsu that I stopped worrying about how fat I looked in my rashguard and started thinking about how I was going to get stronger and more explosive. When I step on the scale, I’m concerned about staying within my chosen weight class, not an arbitrarily chosen ’target weight’. It’s been one of the most singularly life changing tweaks in thinking I’ve had, and Jiu Jitsu got me there.

I’ve learned how to value the power in my body. I’ve got really strong legs. They’ll never be elegant, slim and lithe. I often joke that I’ve got cows instead of calves. They’re thick, blocky, muscular and perfect for keeping strong hooks and a powerful closed guard. Without even thinking about it, almost by accident, I learned how to love my most disliked body feature. I learned how to strengthen my body for BJJ, and in the process I learned the mechanics of my body. My diet got better (People often absorb “the bjj lifestyle” when they start training, changing to and experimenting with a healthier diet is one of the first aspects), which helped my body perform better, and somewhere in the past I had left my preoccupation with whether or not people thought my body was sexy or gross. It just plain stopped really mattering.

I can’t say I never get down on myself. In the last month for instance, I dropped the ball on my diet and training schedule and consequently gained about 15 pounds. It’s taken me pretty far away from featherweight, and while I’ve noticed I fill my jeans out a bit full right now, I really don’t care about how my silhouette is cut in my rashguards, I’m too busy trying to figure out how to catch my opponent’s arm.

Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson # 7: How to be Cool and Avoid Making People Feel Awkward.

Lesson # 7: How to be Cool and Avoid Making People Feel Awkward.

This isn’t quite so much about being cool as it is minimizing any awkwardness we might inadvertently cause. I don’t really know how to be cool, so to say I can pass that skill on to you would be a wild and spurious claim on my part. That said, I’ve sat back and watched, sometimes cringed, while people come, go and stay at the gym. Some people know what they’re doing in a team setting and others need some help. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym is home to all walks of life. Men, women, gay, straight, married, single, young, old and so on. Sometimes it’s tough to navigate all the corners of a heterogeneous team sport. This barely-cool blogger is coming to the rescue! I’ve laid out a loose dos and don’ts of how not to make people feel awkward, based on my own experiences (I’ve been aaaaaawkward!) and observations in and around BJJ.

Do: be friendly and personable on and off the mats. We’re not all chatty and smiles all the time. If you’re a reserved person, don’t feel pressured to come out of a shell you’re not ready to emerge from, but being friendly and approachable will go a long way. Likewise, if you’re an extrovert, small doses of your charm can draw out even the shyest student, and help to create a really inviting environment.

Don’t: be overly personable. This sounds a bit contradictory considering the previous ‘do’, but being too friendly too fast makes people on the mats feel uncomfortable. I’ve seen it over and over again: A new student joins, then they’re immediately trying to be best friends with everyone, and posts YouTube videos on the coach’s Facebook wall daily. Basically, don’t smother your new partners! The overly-friendly individual is always a really great person, but they need to let people figure that out for themselves. The alternative is that folks start thinking there’s something a bit off about them, which sucks and probably isn’t very fair. The new student’s intentions are good, but the approach was messy. Take your time when you first start and let people warm up to the awesomeness of you in their own time. Generally people in a gym (mine, at least. Can’t vouch for every other one, but most should be fine) are pretty friendly already, and will make you feel right at home in no time anyways.

Do: have a full and wonderful social life that includes Jiu Jitsu and the friends you’ve made through it. Keep in touch on social media with the people you’re friends with through BJJ. The community’s pretty small; you can end up in huge and often hilarious online discussions with people who share your passion for Jiu Jitsu. And then go do something else for the rest of your day because you have a life outside of Jiu Jitsu.

Don’t: make Jiu Jitsu your sole identity. It’s really easy to get caught up in the lifestyle and hype around Jiu Jitsu. Lots of new white belts Instagram their kale shakes, tweet about their full-shin lockdown bruises or mat burn and join every BJJ related Facebook page they can find. That’s fine and actually, par for the course. But don’t be one-dimensional about your love of Jits! After a few months of hammering your social media with nothing but bjj memes and your opinions on everything involving Jiu Jitsu and BJJ politics, people can start to think you’re either really boring or a know-it-all. No one likes a white-belt-know-it-all, and I’ll be frank with you: it’s embarrassing to watch. Use restraint when you dive into the BJJ online community. Remember that it’s small and people talk. Don’t overdo it and definitely don’t be overly familiar online with other Jits folks that you don’t really know. Like I said, people talk. It’s best they don’t talk about you at all, and if they do, make sure you give them good things to talk about- like the crazy good baseball choke you posted from your last competition- rather than have them quietly agreeing that you’re being annoying, or worse, creepy.

Do: work to become part of the team. Come out to class, roll, roll, roll and when you have no more left, roll again. Mat time is the quickest way into everyone’s heart, and the only way to get better at BJJ!

Don’t: get sour if you don’t feel like you’re ‘part of the team’ after a month of training. Yes, mat snobs are a thing (we’ll address those cats another day), but if after a month you don’t feel like you’re on the team or accepted, don’t panic, quit or give everyone stink eye for being exclusionary jerks. It isn’t that your team doesn’t like you, they just don’t know yet if you’re going to quit tomorrow. This was something I personally struggled with in my first few months. I began at a college drop-in BJJ program that had a handful of vets who watched as dozens of new faces came and left in a two semester period. I felt ignored and disliked, but after displaying my dedication (I travelled five hours round trip three times a week to train…no biggie), I was part of the team! Give it time. BJJ isn’t for everyone and mat vets know that. They’re just waiting until it’s safe to get attached to you.

Do: be respectful to everyone. Always. In the gym, online, at competitions, at the bar, the bus stop…I could keep going. Think before you speak, and consider other people’s feelings and experiences before you say something you’re not sure about.

Don’t: be a crude and disrespectful person, especially on the mats. Race jokes are not kosher. Rape jokes are never okay.  By calling your buddy on the mats gay, you meant he was totally fabulous, right? You get the picture. I’m not going to proscribe what you can’t say in life, I have faith in you. Don’t be a jerk. If you absolutely must be a jerk and tell a stupid, offensive joke, save it for your stupid and offensive friend’s ears only, m’kay? I once heard an Eddie Bravo quote: “Jiu Jitsu is the ultimate douchebag filter”. That isn’t always true, but it’s one of the better jerk filters available. We see through jerks quickly.

At the end of the day, just be as naturally you as you can. Sometimes a little insight into how an unfamiliar social setting functions is helpful, though.

Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson #6: The White Belt Spazz.

Lesson #6: The White Belt Spazz.

You’re sitting there on the edge of the mats, mouth guard at the ready, eying potential rolls. To your left a tiny, shy voice breaks in: “Hey, uh, you, uh, you wanna roll?” It’s a new guy, eight weeks into training, looking meek. “For sure!” you say. He doesn’t know what he’s doing yet, but he’s only about 160lbs, won’t be too bad, right? Let him work, you’ll work on your defenses. You slap, bump…and suddenly he grabs your wrist and throws his body into yours in his best attempt at a guard pass. You’re struggling to control him while you eat knees and elbows to the face, chest and shins, fending off every ounce of strength and exertion he can muster. This guy is going H.A.M on you like you’re in the finals of No Gi Worlds, knowing the deed to his house and his first born son are yours if he loses. He’s holding onto anything within reach, reefing on every joint in an attempt to get some kind of submission out of you. You’re not having much fun at all. You decide to turn it up in the hopes he might get the picture that he’s going too hard. Nope, he goes harder, with even less thought about where his limbs end up. You’ve set up an armbar from mount, but he’s bucking wildly trying to get out. That arm is yours, but during his little freak out- which can only be compared to a cat trying to escape from a burning pillowcase- his hand suddenly slips from his defense, and only the control you’ve learned over the years saves his elbow from pointing the wrong way. Mazel Tov, you just rolled with a White Belt Spazz. Dress your wounds, be thankful for a good cup or mouth guard and try to forgive him, knowing you probably did the same thing when you first started.

The White Belt Spazz is ubiquitous in every gym, primarily because inexperience and pride go hand in hand (see Lesson #3 for more on this), and there’s always someone new on the mats. I don’t mean this in a condescending way, it’s just a fact of life; we don’t know what we don’t know, but dammit, we’re not going to lose. After a bit of time on the mats, almost everyone learns to slow their roll down, use more leverage than strength, seize the opportunities available and tap when caught. But most folks who are new don’t understand the mechanics of Jiu Jitsu yet, don’t want to lose and often roll way too hard, hurting themselves or their partners in the process. This can lead to the Spazz having a tough time finding someone willing to roll with them and sometimes even hard feelings. So how can you avoid being the White Belt Spazz? It’s a pretty simple three-step process: Slow down, relax, lose the pride. Let’s break it down.

Slow down: This is pretty straight forward. I could get all preachy and talk about how much more you will learn if you take your time, but in the first formative months of a white belt’s journey, slowing down is more of a safety issue than anything. I remember once trying a no gi torreador pass when I was still quite new. I had an idea of how it worked, but all I managed to do was this weird wobble from side to side, slipped forward and smoked my face on my partner’s knees. In my head I imagined my coach beaming down at me in approval for my skill and speed. In reality, I just bit my tongue and got triangled for my troubles. Similarly, you’re going to do a lot less damage to your rolling partner when you slow down and quit flailing wildly. You’re a long way away from being a BJJ great, so explosive movements aren’t going to work for you yet. Chill out and master control before you work on speed. Shooting a leg through to catch a straight ankle is a really great skill to have, but you’re not making friends in the gym if 7 out of 10 times you wind up violently gas-pedaling your partner instead. Slow. Your. Roll.

Relax: This goes along with slow down, but has it’s own special place. A couple weeks ago I was drilling with a young man who was so tense that I though the guy was going to vibrate into another dimension all together. He held onto my arms like a vise grip, and even when he wasn’t engaged I could see the muscular stiffness in his whole body. By the time he was done his second rep, he was breathing heavy and sweating profusely. When my turn came, he was so stiff and resistant that I couldn’t work through the technique properly. Quietly in my head I resolved to drill with someone else next time, and myself being a bit on the smaller side, I totally wrote him off as a rolling partner until he relaxes more. But I understand! I was datch guy. I had to be reminded to breathe, sometimes. Tenseness is tiring. You’ll gas out in no time. Practice an economy of energy as often as you can. Breathe slowly, control your exertion as well as your emotions. I try to imagine myself as a large predator in an environment with few opportunities to eat, and all my prey is fast. If I use too much energy on the wrong thing I may starve to death if I fail to catch what I’m chasing. This is especially important to keep in mind for larger people who only have so much in their gas tank. Relax, use your energy strategically and use your muscles wisely.

Last but not least, lose the pride: This is hands down the most important part of de-spazzing. Arguably, pride is the single largest contributing factor to the Spazz, but it’s the hardest to conquer. We want to be good at what we do, and this drive is magnified in competitive, athletic environments. I’d be lying if I said I never imagine my superiors talking about how much of a natural I am at jits, how I ‘just get it’ and so forth. In reality I’m pretty average, but I want greatness, and my inner dialogue can trick me into thinking greatness can be mine if I just give it my all and mimic the superstars on the scene as best I can. I’ve seen naturals, but trust me when I say they’re only slightly less rare than a unicorn that speaks perfect Klingon. The rest of us have to settle with earning first our mediocrity, then greatness through good old fashioned grind. Don’t settle for mediocrity, but don’t force greatness, let it come. Accept that you’re going to be not-very-good until you learn to be good. The sooner you embrace this, the sooner you can bust down the mental wall that’s blocking you from seeing your true skill level, and where you need to put work in.

The White Belt Spazz, in its natural habitat is a curious beast to observe, and formidable to encounter. If you’re the spazz, just slow down, relax and check your pride. If you find yourself facing a spazz, be patient and honest. Tell them politely they need to slow their roll and help them, don’t alienate them. I’m pretty sure from time to time I still throw a careless elbow or knee, but I do my best to try and check myself when I get carried away.

Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson #5: Belt Blues: The Struggle Is Real.

Lesson #5: Belt Blues: The Struggle is Real.

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Most of you have heard of the ‘Blue Belt Blues’, a phenomenon many people will experience soon after getting their blue belt in which they begin to think they don’t deserve their new rank. The new blue belt might question their skill level, lose confidence in themself and often, quit Jiu Jitsu alltogether. Conservatively, for every blue belt that stays on the mats to purple, 2 have quit. Granted, life can also steer someone towards giving up on BJJ, but feelings of inadequacy can play a big role in why a blue belt leaves. The fact of the matter is that at every level you will question yourself. Every belt level experiences the blues, not just blue belts. How badly and for how long depends on the individual.

Virtually everyone who have experienced ‘The Blues’ have associated it with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Most have said that at some point they wanted to give up Jiu Jitsu all together, and many also indicated that these feelings lasted way longer than they were comfortable with. Many felt that as soon as they earned their new belt, they became a target for those sitting in the upper echelons of their previous belt- often losing to them- as well as chum for the more experienced sharks within their new belt rank. Basically folks report losing to training partners they expected to easily tap. What we can take from this is that often we feel like we ought to be better at Jiu Jitsu than we actually are, which has a tendency to swing us too far in the opposite direction and make us think we suck way worse than we really do. On any given day, most of us experience this inner battle, and most folks with a healthy sense of self worth tend to balance out and accept that there is always someone better, quicker or sharper on the mats.

The problem the person experiencing ‘The Blues’ is facing however, is a sense that they’ve leveled up, therefore ought to magically have the new super powers associated with that rank. ‘Yesterday, I was a white belt. Today I’m a blue belt, but I still can’t pass that other blue belt’s guard and some three-stripe white belt just caught me in a kimura. I must really suck’, goes the logic that’s churning mercilessly in the mind of someone suffering from ‘The Blues’. It’s a tough transition from being the King of the White Belts one day to just another blue belt the next. But let’s be real here, a ranking system is simply a way of tracking yourself along a spectrum of skills. Expectations will be a bit higher once someone moves up in rank, but no coach expects a fresh blue belt to pass like Keenan, dominate like Drysdale or submit like Garcia. So when the time comes, don’t put those expectations on yourself. Toronto- and I’m sure the BJJ world-over- has a veritable blue belt army, but only a handful of purple, brown and black belts. ‘Blue Belt Blues,’ and how individuals deal with it plays a big role in blue belt attrition, and that is clearly reflected in the number of individuals who remain to achieve higher ranks. Self-doubt is normal and will only last as long as you let it. Decide to accept your skill level as it is at all times, and trust that experience and time- rather than belts- will provide skill.

‘The Blues’ is a bit of a different beast for higher ranks; by the time someone reaches purple, they generally expect a bit of self-doubt and frustration while adjusting to their new rank. This time around however, they know that it doesn’t last forever and that they simply need to continue putting time in on the mats and trust the process. That doesn’t mean ‘The Blues’ doesn’t get under the skin of higher ranked students, it simply becomes easier to face and overcome after surviving the growing pains of adjusting to their blue belt. That said, by purple belt, expectations are pretty high. ‘The Blues’ hits hardest for higher ranked individuals on the bad days; those days when you’re not at your best, people are catching you and looking pretty smug about tapping a purple, brown or black belt. White and blue belts expect to be submitted by their peers and superiors, and it’s a treat when the roles are reversed. At purple however, some people start to believe their own hype and get the notion that they shouldn’t be caught by certain people. A lot of purples have reported being targeted heavily by blue and brown belts. A purple belt knows what they’re doing, but they’re not without holes. It can become difficult on the ego when others on the mats wish to capitalize on those small gaps, while everyone is watching from the sidelines. Use this inevitability to sharpen yourself! People want to roll with you because you’re skilled and they’d like to measure their rolls against yours.

Before you throw your 4-stripe white belt in for good to avoid ‘The Blues’, remember that the growing pains don’t last forever, and all the feelings of inadequacy and doubt you may experience are the building blocks to humility and self-mastery. Embrace the grind, it’ll only make you stronger.

Feel free to share your ‘Belt Blues’ experience with us.