Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson 15: Finding a Balance Between “I’m Registering For Worlds!” Days and “That’s It, I’m Burning My Spats” Days.

We’ve all had those days on the mats that make us truly question both our progress up to that point, as well as possibly our intellectual capacity. Similarly, most of us have also had those magical days when we tap a swath through a deep room. So how do you balance all this out? Obviously on good days I can’t get all delusional and submit my registration for Worlds Black Belt Adult, but I also can’t dwell on that night a room full of lower belts all passed my guard and held me in side for a round (I’m not still bitter about that…Really.). Somewhere in there, my actual skill level exist. The key to psychologically mastering the mats is to accept that those days are atypical- they’re just good and bad days- and to remind myself that my mat career is going to be a series of incremental progressions and improvements rather than leaps forward or backward. Enjoy the experiences of good and bad days, but at the end of the day, leave it on the mats.

This is easier said than done…I like to cling tightly both to my successes and my failures. I know that to progress, grow and to continue enjoying bjj, I’ve got to let the good and the bad days go, but I recognize that this is a struggle and a skill. Sometimes the gears are greased, the engine is running smoothly and your teammates are dousing you in praise. Coach saw you pass a notoriously difficult guard, and saw you submit a killer. This is a moment to relish, and you’d be a fool not to revel in your own glory for a bit, but you’re going to have to leave it on the mats when you go home. Not every day will be your day. I’ve been around long enough to know how quickly after tearing up the room, I can find myself spending three rounds trying to get out of an armbar, and the rest of the night tapping to almost everyone I roll with. Sometimes you are the hammer, sometimes the nail. Keeping this in perspective can go a long way to help mitigate the deep gully in confidence you might experience when facing a bad day on the mats after a string of good days.

I don’t suffer from an over attachment to my good days, really. My hangup lies in a propensity to dwell on my bad days, the days that I’m the nail. This is probably the more common mental scenario for the average practitioner, and it often makes it tough to cultivate a realistic perspective about your Jiu Jitsu. Spending a bunch of time convincing yourself you suck is obviously a stupid waste of time, so fostering a habit of letting go of your losses alongside your wins is essential for mat mental health. Chances are you don’t suck, and if you do, it’s very likely because you’re just new-ish and you’re supposed to suck, so don’t worry about it.

The moral of our story today is that you’re neither Garry Tonon nor the Reggie Strickland of BJJ; keep your good days and your bad days in perspective, enjoy and learn from them when they happen, then forget them.

Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson 14: The Three Principles of Passion.

What’s the one thing that virtually all highly skilled and very successful athletes have in common? It’s true that dedication, work ethic, resilience ect are all essential qualities, but I think underlying all of those is one singular attribute; passion. It isn’t enough that you train hard, become skilled and apply those skills to win. You have to miss the mats when you’re away from them, you have to LOVE what you’re doing. The greats like Marcelo Garcia treat their Jiu Jitsu like it were a high-maintenance lover, who will not be satisfied with anything less than their full attention when they’re together. Jiu Jitsu will build you up and break your heart, but it’ll always be there, giving you all the feels so long as you’re always pouring your best into it. There’s a lot that goes into becoming a champ, but among those things are following the three Principles of Passion: Be physically present as much as possible, be mentally present at all times and don’t dwell on failure.

Not everyone can train 2-3 times per day, six or seven days a week like Keenan or the Miyaos, that’s a given, but you gotta show up! Time to spare for the mats is one of the toughest hurdles to clear for a lot of folks, but if you want to be more than just ‘OK’ at BJJ, you need to put the time in. There’s a saying I really like, and the longer I train the more sense it makes: “You can’t cheat the grind”. You really can’t, especially in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. There’s no secrets, no special techniques and it doesn’t matter how strong you are. If you can’t execute a technique properly, if your skill level is lower than that of your opponent’s, you lose. Plain and simple. You have to put the mat time in- and a lot of it- to get good.

To some this is painfully obvious, but to many there’s a disconnect, here. I’ve spoken about the high attrition rate in Jiu Jitsu before, and expanded a bit on why people leave, but at the heart of a lot of the insecurities that lead to people quitting is fundamentally a lack of mat time, resulting in a lack of skill. Pretty straight forward, but some folks don’t get it and wind up stunting or halting their growth with an inconsistent and uncommitted training schedule. Commit to your training. Most people have jobs that prevent them from training all day everyday, but do yourself a favour and set aside at least 3 training sessions a week. More is fantastic, but realistically speaking, consistent growth is possible if you agree to commit at least 3 good quality mat sessions per week and stick with it over time.

Being mentally present every time you hit the mats is just as important as physically getting on the mats, but for some this is even harder than making it out in the first place. Most of us struggle with mental presence; we’re constantly thinking about a number of things in our lives while we perform unrelated tasks. This is one of the beautiful features of our impressively complex brains, but it doesn’t allow us to focus properly at the task at hand. When you step on the mats, you need to consciously decide that you would rather be nowhere else in the world than there, doing nothing else but training Jiu Jitsu. For some people this comes really easy. They just slap hands, and their problems melt away. For others, mental presence is a skill to learn like any other, and it takes practise to master. If you’re preoccupied with how much you hate your job, your financial stresses or family issues, you can’t pour your full attention into your Jiu Jitsu. We all have problems, and we all need to practise leaving those problems in the changeroom with our street clothes. It’s not simple to do, but it can be done and it’s a necessary step on the path to greatness.

There are tons of ways to practise and accomplish mental presence. Do what works best for you. For myself, I like to think in pictures, and I’m a product of my time, so I’ve had a lot of success by replacing imposing thoughts with a quick flash of Grumpy Cat as my cue to re-focus. Other folks use meditation or different, less meme-based forms of visualizations to get their minds back to the mats. However you accomplish it, and however long it takes, discipline your mind to focus only on Jiu Jitsu when you’re on the mats.

Failure is an unavoidable fact of life. You probably wont fail at everything you do, but from the day you’re born to the day you kick the pail, you will fail multiple times at many things. What sets successful and exceptional people apart from everyone else is their ability to move on from failure, even catastrophic failure. You’ll probably never experience catastrophic failure in BJJ, but you will taste defeat again and again. What will set you apart from everyone else will be how quickly you let those failures roll off you, and how well you turn the negativity of those experiences into something positive. My first loss at a competition floored me. I dwelled on my loss for a few weeks, and I drove my coach up the wall in the process. I kept clawing for reasons why I lost: I need to roll with a larger variety of bodies, I need to lift weights, I had the wrong kind of tights on…blah blah blah. To my coach it was simple why I lost- I didn’t sweep when I should have, I need to work more on sweeps. Determine what led to your loss and pick away at it. Move forward, make something useful out of something crappy and don’t cry over it. Easier said than done, but it’s doable and essential to your growth both on and off the mats.

Top 6 Non-Jiu Jitsu Things You Need To Learn When You Start Jiu Jitsu

Top 6 Non-Jiu Jitsu things you need to learn when you start Jiu Jitsu.

Often we see articles outlining the top things we must learn when we start studying BJJ, like the Triumvirate of Tap (triangle, armbar, omoplata), RNC, how to break guard and how to regain your own guard. But what about the OTHER stuff, the things you weren’t prepared for, the little lessons out of left field that really test our character? Here’s my list of things that have no obvious link to BJJ, but you’re gonna need them if you’re going to survive.

1 Humility. Yeah, we hear this a lot, eh? “Stay humble”, “Ego isn’t your amigo” and so on. It’s absolutely true! Tapping sucks, tapping all day long sucks more, and knowing you’re going to show up to class and tap to someone better than you for several months is disheartening. Get used to unhitching your self-worth from an arguably bloated pride, and get to work on deflating that thing, too! You’re gonna tap a lot before you get to the point that you tap others regularly, or even survive a full round with someone better than you. Get comfy!

2 Curiosity. Lucky for you, most of the more common attacks and guards have been well hashed out by the geniuses that have come before us, but that doesn’t mean you need all your information handed to you unquestioned from a professor. Rolling is magic! Every roll is a series of almost endless possibilities, the opportunity to discover tons of things in your roll, and the worst case scenario is you tap. Explore, get creative, be curious about where you’ll end up if you do something unfamiliar or accidental in a roll. There’s a ton of variations to just a simple armbar. Get out there and don’t be scared to muck around until you find what works best for you! Ask questions, too!

3 Tenacity. I mean, obviously if you’re being passed, swept and submitted repeatedly for a good length of time, you’re going to need to dig deep inside yourself to find the strength to keep hitting the mats. You’re also going to need that tenacity when you finally start catching your partners. No one’s giving you a tap. You gotta earn the tap, and often it’s earned through being just a bit more tenacious than your opponent. Let’s also not forget that catches (when you get a hold of a submission position, but aren’t finishing) eventually turn into taps. It may feel like you’re constantly losing the kimura you set up, but remember that you weren’t even able to set up a kimura once upon a time, so have the faith and tenacity to keep trying and to keep holding on until catches turn into taps.

4 A Sense of Humour. You’re really going to want to learn how to laugh at yourself, and see the humour in having your face squished under a friend’s butt while they impose their armbar or kimura set up on you. There’s a fine line between being funny and being childish. Find that line, get close but don’t cross it and spend the years you invest in BJJ laughing. Not taking yourself too seriously will not only help you adjust to the reality of BJJ but also help you make and keep friends on and off the mats. Sometimes (ok, a lot of the time) I just chuckle quietly to myself about something I saw on the mats, sometimes I share the humour, it’s really situational, but never malicious. Laugh out loud with love.

5 A Healthy Lifestyle. Lots of folks talk about ‘living the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle’, but too often the lifestyle most practitioners adopt is a combo of late hours on Youtube watching Miyao videos, over/under training and eating too much sugary acai-flavoured everything. “But it’s cool, I put kale in my shake this morning!” is not going to save anyone from stalling out living that kind of lifestyle. Cut the sugar down, sleep well, train consistently and put good, whole foods down your gullet. Going into ketosis is cool if you’ve got the money and discipline to reach it, but if you’re making it onto the mats 3 times one week, skipping a week and returning for five classes the following week, chances are you don’t have the discipline to stick to a tough fad diet. Get a handle on the easy stuff first. The idea of ‘clean living’ is pretty relative, so don’t get carried away or intimidated, just stick to the mantra “healthy food, lots of sleep, less sugar, regular training” and you’re going to get pretty far.

6 Patience. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu takes a long time. Naturally you’re going to need to cultivate patience. First you’re going to be frustrated with your progress. Once you start seeing a little bit of progress, you’re probably going to rush catches and submissions, losing them in the process and wind up frustrated with that, too. Sooner or later you may even get impatient for your next belt. Work on your waiting skills, and don’t even think about asking or hinting to your prof that you’d like another stripe or belt! Don’t even think about it! Trust that your instructor is competent and will tell you when you’re ready to belt up.

There are so many more characteristics and qualities we need to cultivate in our journey through BJJ, but get started on nurturing these and you’ll have tools for life, on and off the mats!

Lessons I’ve learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson #4: Gym Hygiene is Really Important and Rarely Taught.

Lesson #4: Gym Hygiene is Really Important and Rarely Taught.

I have gone to the bathroom in bare feet, and returned on the mats to roll. There. I’ve said it. I didn’t do it because I’m committed to being the grossest, most inconsiderate person I can manage to be, but because no one told me it was gross. It never occurred to me. I figured it out through the silent stink-eye fellow grapplers were giving me and through BJJ memes. I mean, it makes perfect sense…but I didn’t know. That was a little bit embarrassing for me, and I’d like try to spare you some shame by handing down some lessons on gym hygiene I’ve learned over the years.

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The first is the most obvious ‘wear-the-shoes-provided-to-the-toilet’ rule. Most gyms will provide a pair or two of flip flops or some other footwear (this is often where Crocs go to die), to limit the chances of tracking illness-causing urine and fecal matter onto the mats via your bare feet. If your gym doesn’t have any, bug them to get some. Let’s be real here, guys- and sometimes even women- miss the mark, and miss it with a frequency that would make a visually impaired sniper’s record look pretty good. Even if individually you hit the can, you’re still probably stepping in someone else’s failures. Wear the shoes. Don’t forget to wash your hands, too.

Similarly, we’ve all heard of the numerous studies that indicated there could be fecal matter on toothbrushes left in washrooms, check out this study http://www.climbing.com/news/study-finds-fecal-veneer-on-gym-holds/ done in a rock climbing gym that suggests the stuff is all over climbing holds due to members doing the do in their climbing shoes. Don’t track this stuff onto the mats and make your partners sick. Don’t do it. Just don’t. Wear the shoes.

Next, wash your gear. This includes sports bras and cup straps. For most of you this is obvious; why would I want to stink and use my chest and crotch to cart around all that thriving bacteria? But some folks feel they can stretch these garments out a bit further than their natural one-use-between-washes life. Lots of people only have one or two of these items, so sometimes the best solution is to just go out and invest in a few more cup straps or sports bras. It should go without saying that gis and no gi rashguards must be washed after every use. And no, you won’t wash the magic out of your belt if you throw it through with your gi. You’ll only wash staph and ringworm-causing bacteria out. Sorry for your loss. A gym can have the tightest disinfection regime, the flyest in-washroom shoes and disinfectant fluid available all over the place, but it’s always as vulnerable as its least hygienic member. Don’t be datch guy. Wash your gear.

Stay home when you’re sick! It’s bad enough that I just absorbed your bodily fluids via sweat dripping in my eyeballs, I don’t want your mucus and germs, too. You’re not a beast when you train sick. You’re just kinda being a jerk with no consideration for your partners. I don’t like taking time off either, but you need to submit your cold/flu before you even think about submitting anyone else. This goes for folks with communicable infections, too. Be excellent to your training partners by staying home and working on your solo drill, knitting a Wookie suit or baking a cake. I don’t care. Stay home when you’re ill.

This leads us to our next entry: treat your infections and viruses. The longer you leave things like warts and ringworm, the harder it becomes to treat them. They’re not going to go away on their own, and they’re going to wind up in someone else’s system. Not sure? Go to a doctor. Don’t pick at it, definitely don’t train *or visit other schools! Don’t do it!* and don’t mess around. Treat it with something that’s had clinical trials conducted on it and a proven track record of working.

Finally, if you happen to be a true beast and train Muay Thai for a couple hours, then follow it up with a couple more hours of jiu jitsu, be a mensche and change your clothes in between. This isn’t so much an issue of communicable diseases (although fresh clothes between sessions will reduce the chances of transmission), as it is about not grossing your drilling and rolling partners out. With great power, comes great laundry responsibilities.

Those are the ropes, folks. Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like to add another gym hygiene commandment.

Lessons I’ve Learned Studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Lesson 3: Ego Isn’t Your Bro-There’s No Shame on Tapping.

Lesson #3: Ego Isn’t Your Bro.

Tapping is a fact of life in Jiu Jitsu. You will tap. You have to tap to learn. You will tap to someone better or quicker or more clever than you right up until the day you hang up your coral belt. You’ll tap to folks that you consider less talented than you. Eventually you’ll even give up a tap to the noobs here and there to help them learn. There’s no shame in tapping. Never. I can’t say this enough and any more firmly; There is no shame in tapping!

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Now that I got that out of the way, let’s talk about why we don’t tap. There are two primary reasons why someone doesn’t tap: Ego and inexperience. There’s different levels of ego on the mats, so for the purpose of this discussion, I’m not talking about being a jerk on the mats, just being overly stubborn or proud. Usually ego and inexperience go together, so before you think you’re a complete idiot because your elbows, shoulders and knees are jacked up from not tapping… Most beginners go through this somewhat painful and often embarrassing stage. You don’t know when to tap, but you’ll be dammed if you’re not going to give your all when you roll (we’re going to talk about the well known ‘White Belt Spaz’ another day). So you go hard and stay way too long in a kimura you thought for sure you’d be able to get out of. Not your finest moment, but ideally during your next rolls you survive longer before you tap to that kimura, and at some point along the way you’re going to say to yourself “Ah ha!!! I keep getting getting caught in this kimura because I keep letting my partner isolate my arm in his/her guard!”. This is learning. They may still have other ways of getting that arm, but now you’ve learned a defense to one.

A personal experience that I can share, I was at an open mat in Toronto as a relatively new white belt. While rolling with a purple belt, she caught me with my very first knee bar. I’d never felt one, never even seen one before that moment. I didn’t tap when I should have because I didn’t understand the mechanics of a knee bar; and I was too proud to tap to this tiny lady, even though she was ranked way higher than me. Meanwhile the poor purple belt assumed I knew what it was and what to do because I only train no gi. Needless to say I was very sore for a few weeks and even had the audacity to blame my partner, which isn’t fair. When in doubt, tap. I didn’t tap because I was ignorant of the submission and too proud to tap and ask what it was and how to counter it. Tapping is your responsibility.

There is no shame in tapping, there’s only lessons and experience. So when you have those days where everyone on the mat is a hammer and you’re feeling a lot like a nail, just think of all the experience you’re gaining and all the money you’re saving on painkillers and joint supplements! You may have tapped three times to the same darce, but I bet you won’t get caught a fourth time! And if you do, so be it, now you know you need to work on your darce defense.

Things I’ve Learned Studying Jiu Jitsu, Lesson 2: You’re Gonna Suck- For a Long Time.

Lesson 2: You’re Gonna Think You Suck – For A Long Time

On some level most people begin almost any skill- based venture with at least a basic understanding that they will suck really bad at it at first. Jiu jitsu is no different in that respect, except that you will in all likelihood do poorly for way longer than you expected. That doesn’t mean you won’t have tons of fun in the process of becoming great, but don’t let the realty of inevitable ignorance spoil one of the greatest journeys you’ll ever take in your life. As a wise man once said, “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something”. – Jake the Dog.
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Acquiring any nuanced skill set of course will be long and difficult, but many people underestimate the process required to become proficient at Brazilian jiu jitsu. Lots of folks see their 16 year old nephew with a Tae Kwon Do black belt and think that achieving their BJJ black belt will be a walk in the park. The fact that jiu jitsu is tough and takes a while to get good at often results in a number of drop outs by new white belts and early blue belts (we’ll chat about the Blue Belt Blues another day), who can’t handle the stress of being bad at something before they get good- So they quit. But this won’t be your fate, primarily because now you know what to expect, right?

Heck, catch a brown belt on a bad day and you might be privy to their grumblings about the shortcomings of their game. Meanwhile you’re looking at the two stripes on your white belt thinking ‘damn, if he thinks he sucks, I must be terrible!’. Well, yeah, you are terrible – compared to a brown belt. But you’re not a brown belt, you’re a white belt who is in all likelihood doing a very good job at being a white belt in jiu jitsu. Don’t rush the process and embrace the simple fact that the vast majority of folks starting out in bjj must first be the nail before they can be the hammer. And don’t forget that you’ll also have the magical days- those days when you light up everyone you roll with, your game is on fire, things click and you just get it. This is what keeps you going and reminds you that despite feeling as though you’re not improving, you really are.

This process of not being very good is actually good for you, both for your jits as well as for you as a person. You must first learn humility to accept your place on the mats, but you also need to foster the hunger to succeed, to keep coming back despite being subbed more often than you’d like. Finally, you need to learn how to swallow your pride enough to listen to your coach when he or she tells you to work on something, or tells you which submission to go for when they coach your roll. Trust your coach’s years of experience. Afterall, they spent a great deal of time sucking at jiu jitsu just like you before they got to where they are now.

Things I’ve Learned While Studying Jiu Jitsu: Lesson 1

1. Size really does matter…Sorta…

I don’t like starting off with this but we’d better get it out of the way first; One of the top benefits of BJJ most people tout is it’s ability to minimize size differences, going on at length about how great BJJ is for the smaller practitioner. On paper this is true, but anyone under 130 lbs or so can testify that climbing up the ranks in Jiu Jitsu is tougher when the average weight of their training partners is 170 lbs+. Technique and experience are undeniable equalizers, but at the end of the day a 209 lb body has an advantage over a 112 lb body.

That said, another size- related lesson I’ve learned is that women and men both come in all sizes in the spectrum. Whether you roll with a man or a women doesn’t matter much provided they’re roughly your weight. Will a 145 lb blue belt survive long against a 145 lb brown belt? Nope, but chances are the blue belt isn’t going to needlessly wreck up their body supporting someone’s excess weight. Besides, a 109 lb brown belt (and you can find more than a few of these guys training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Toronto!) can make it feel like you’re rolling with a 230 lb opponent anyways, so take the opportunity to work your technique on the mats, not your bench press by rolling according to your size. But don’t be fooled; that 109 lb brown belt will tap a 230 lb blue belt into oblivion. Experience will win out over size 95% of the time, so don’t walk away from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu just because you’re 120 lbs. At the end of the day, a good blue belt of any weight will win out over someone with no experience regardless of weight. Don’t despair if you’re smaller, just stick with your training and trust your technique!

This isn’t to say that at any skill level a smaller person shouldn’t roll with a bigger person. There are benefits to training with someone above or below your weight class. A smaller person can benefit from working their attack timing, bottom escapes and sweeps against a heavier person, for instance. Similarly the bigger opponent is forced to focus on controlling their attacks and more often than not, their back and choke defense!

Size really does matter, but at the end of the day when the field is leveled, an individual’s BJJ skill and experience is what defines the roll.

Stay tuned for lesson number 2 next week!