On Mondays and Wednesdays I do not have BJJ until 7 but it is pointless for me to go home between work and the gym so I typically either run errands or work late. We also have a decently stocked fitness gym downstairs that we are allowed to use so I have told myself I have to go get some cardio in on Mondays and Wednesdays before class. I used to do this in the past but got lazy around the holidays. Yesterday I succeeded in both getting some pet supplies and getting some cardio in before BJJ: win.
My instructor was at our new location last night so I showed my purple belt teammate who was running class the pass we are going to work on this week as I had been there for instructor training Saturday and he had not. While I was waiting for class to start one of the Muay Thai instructors who is also a totally badass purple belt introduced me to a new student. We are all excited about this particular student because he is the father of one of our current students. The instructor introduced me and added “she’s one of the coaches”. It felt totally surreal to get introduced as a coach. As I have said before, I don’t feel like I know enough to be considered a coach but then I wonder if you ever feel like you know enough about BJJ.
Class began, we warmed up, we drilled, we lined up to end class. It’s no-gi week. That means a certain white belt will probably try to line up in front of me again. I had told my drilling partner (and blog reader… hi Pixie!) about my anger when he had lined up in front of me so she reminded me at the end of class to get in front of him. I made sure I did and in a show of solidarity so did she. One day down, three to go.
I got a couple of rolls in after class. I tried to work my new omoplata sweep series in both rolls. In the first my partner got his arm out before I could do anything. I got into the omoplata position during the second roll and was about to grab my partner’s leg for the sweep but he just lifted me up with his trapped arm and deposited me on my back. Oh well, I will have more chances to try tonight.
I didn’t get to do any training on Thursday or Friday because I came down with a cold. I hate not training but I figured no one wanted me to share the cold, especially with a tournament coming up this weekend, so I stayed home. I also skipped the 9am women’s class at my weekend school on Saturday because I had plans to enjoy a Nyquil-induced sleep and I didn’t want to have to get out of bed at 7:30.
I was very excited to go to my main gym for instructor training and the women’s class there though. Instructor training didn’t really happen until it was almost time for the women’s class because my coach was working with the guys who were sparring as a couple of them have fights coming up. I didn’t really mind because I like watching the guys spar but I do have to admit that in the back of my mind I was thinking that I could have gone to basics class at my weekend gym. I love drilling basics.
Finally it was time for women’s class. In stark contrast to last week, only one person showed up for class and she had, as she put it, “about half a class of experience”. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of trying to teach someone a triangle while triangling them but I can now say that I have (spoiler alert: it’s hard). Since I hadn’t done anything all day that resembled a workout, I decided to stay after and do some strength and conditioning circuits. One of the other guys decided to do the same and our instructor hung out and talked to us while we were working so that was fun. I am still sore today. I was doing strength and conditioning classes for a while and they really helped me a lot but the class got canceled (it was a women’s mma fitness class at my weekend gym and I was the only person going) so I am out of practice. Clearly I need to focus on this more.
Saturday night the purple belt instructor at my weekend school sent me a message and told me he was coming to the gym an hour before class if I wanted to get some work in. That is an opportunity I would never pass up so I told him I’d be in. We had some awesome rolls before class and he helped me work on finishes from an omoplata sweep I am fond of since I am not good at actually finishing omoplatas. We drilled triangles in class (at least I wasn’t trying to teach them this time!) and then it was time for open mat.
Feeling bolstered by my earlier rolls with my instructor and trying to stick to my new resolve to go with the strong guys and not back down, I asked a white belt fairly new to rolling to go. I am usually cautious with new guys but he always seems very quiet and nice so I figured he would be ok. Not so much. He was able to hold me down the entire time while he continually went for x-chokes from every position, knee-on-belly, half guard, side mount. He caught me offguard once from side mount and finished one. That was a hard pill to swallow. Not only did I get submitted by a newb, in a fairly low percentage submission (x-choke from side mount, wtf?!) but I hate when I get gi choked. It feels like a betrayal. My gi is supposed to be on my side!
Next round a blue belt asked me to roll. I like him a lot but he is an ex-wrestler and his pressure game is ridiculous. I’ve never had any form of success against him but I wasn’t gonna say no so we went. As he always does, he managed to keep me on my back and fish out an arm for a submission. I know that this is his game, he gets on top, gets you to your back and attacks your arm. Even knowing this I can never seem to stop it. This happened two or three times and then it occurred to me to maybe not let him get on top anymore. When we reset I basically bull rushed him and got on top. I didn’t have much time to reflect on my victory as he quickly rolled me and got mount again. He went for an armbar and I fought it longer than I should have, probably because I didn’t want to get submitted AGAIN, and my elbow popped. Luckily the round ended right after that and it wasn’t too bad, my elbow is just mildly sore today. It was a good reminder to not let pride get in the way next time though.
I was going to call it a day after the elbow popping but the purple belt asked me to roll again so I did. He asked me how my rolls had gone that day and I told him not so great. He told me he really thought I could have success with the omoplata sweep series we’d been working and that I should focus on that. Good idea! Oh but wait, how does one get to an omoplata position when one can’t get to guard? He agreed that made it problematic.
I reflected on my rolls and realized I was probably spending too much time fighting their arms. Both guys repeatedly were trying to drag my arms out. I almost always tuck my arms inside but if someone is stronger they very often can pry an arm out (which I loathe). Knowing this was coming, particularly in my second roll, I spent a lot of time trying to fight them off instead of trying to escape the position. So that will be what I pay attention to this week. I am not going to let people settle into positions and start prying my arms out, I have to keep moving. And I have to keep not backing down. Why is there always so much to work on in jiu-jitsu?
This is probably a little bit late but just in case you were wondering where I came up with the name for this blog, here it is!
As those of you who have read my previous posts have gathered, I often think about BJJ from the aspect of size and strength. I am constantly trying to learn tricks for how to deal with bigger, stronger people because most of the people in the gym are bigger and stronger than me. However I am also sometimes in the position where I am the bigger, stronger (perhaps, I don’t really think I am stronger than anyone) person. I am smaller and not as strong as most of the guys I train with. I am not, however, smaller than most of the women I train with. I have decent size for a woman, I am about 5’ 6” and around 150lbs (trying to get to 140) so outside of BJJ I would not consider myself “small”. I was, in fact, very overweight from the time I was a child until I was 24. Because of this I am always very aware of my size.
When I first started training BJJ our program was quite small and there was only one other woman who regularly trained there. She was (and continues to be) very small. She is maybe 5’ 1” or 5’ 2” and around 115 pounds. I weighed more when I started BJJ so I was probably 45 or 50 pounds more than her at the time. Because we were the only two girls, we always drilled together and very often rolled together. This is one of the things that kind of sucks about being a girl in BJJ. In a lot of schools you are lucky if there is even one other woman to train with. Never mind that you might be completely different sizes, you are just excited to find another girl.
So the small girl was my most frequent training partner when I first started. Even when we would have liked to mix it up and drill with someone else, the coaches and our teammates would see that both of us were in class and they just assumed we’d be working together so we did. It became pretty clear to me early on that she did not like it when I put my weight on her. She would grimace, she would wince, she would even come straight out and ask me to not put so much weight on her. As a person who grew up overweight, I am hyper-sensitive when it comes to my weight. All I could think about was that I was crushing this small girl with my massive self. I got used to leaving space between us so I didn’t have to put weight on her, I avoided all moves where I had to put pressure on her and basically did everything you are not supposed to do in BJJ. Because of the fact that this was how I was drilling everything, this is what I was doing when rolling as well.
I stopped training with the smaller girl as much because she couldn’t make class as frequently and also was out with injuries a couple of times so I got to spend more time drilling with the guys. Around the same time I started training at my weekend school as well. The lead instructor there is a small guy. He is maybe 130lbs. He understands the small man’s game. He taught me a lot about using shoulder pressure (any of my teammates can tell you that shoulder pressure is my absolute favorite thing) and how to strategically place your weight to control your opponents. He might only be 130lbs but he can make you feel like there is 250lbs holding you down. He also made me realize how important it was to leave no space between your opponent and yourself.
Training with the guys and learning from my new coach made me realize that I had developed a lot of bad habits by working with someone much smaller than me who couldn’t handle my weight. I had to basically relearn everything with an emphasis on using body pressure. I am not trying to blame my smaller teammate or accuse her of being a bad partner. If you are a guy reading this, picture a training partner of yours who is 50 pounds heavier or lighter than you and think of the issues you have drilling and rolling with this person. Now imagine that this is the person you train with 75% of the time and how that would affect your game.
I think about this when I am working with the guys. I don’t want my size and strength to be an issue for them and I don’t want them learning bad habits because of me. I never tell them not to put their weight on me even though I know some of them do not. Honestly I think everyone finds pressure unpleasant. I can’t imagine even a big guy is comfortable with 150 pounds sitting on his chest. I have accepted that training BJJ means that I am going to get squished a lot. I like getting squished. I sort of feel like one has to in order to keep training.
On the other hand, I have also realized that I am not doing me or my smaller partners any favors by not putting any pressure on them or leaving tons of space so that I do not put weight on them. This is not to say that I lay all my weight on top of them and watch them squirm beneath me. I try to use strategic pressure (shoulder pressure. all. day. long.) and take away space.
So where am I going with all this? I don’t really know. I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a good training partner. We have an obligation to keep ourselves safe but we also have an obligation to make sure our training partners are getting their work in. It’s a constant balance. How do we find that balance? Again I don’t know. I guess like all things BJJ we just keep on training until we figure it out.
Sunday was my first real chance to test my new resolve to not shut down and go to defense mode when I was faced with a strong opponent. I started out in the basics class. Before class I tried to make this pumpkin-egg-pancake thing for breakfast and it was sitting in my stomach like a brick. Of course the instructor decided to drill armbars from knee on belly. Luckily breakfast did not make a second appearance while on the mat and I got through class (which I actually enjoyed once I was sure I was not going to throw up, we hardly ever drill knee on belly).
Class over. It was time to roll. The injured purple belt taught class and he was up for a few rounds so I got to roll a couple with him. That’s always a fun time so no panicking on my part there. Next a very tall, rather strong, fresh new blue belt asked me to roll. We have rolled before and he is very nice so that was also a fun roll. He always manages to take my back and then I spend a lot of time getting to practice my back defense. I find that bigger guys often have trouble finishing chokes on me. I don’t think they are used to having to make everything tight for a smaller neck. Not to say he can’t get me, he went to mount and got an armbar when the choke wasn’t working.
After that round the guy who had me trapped in various triangle positions last week (the one who was supposed to “go light”) asked me to roll. OK. The test was about to begin. We started to roll and he quickly got me in guard and went for a, you guessed it, triangle. This time instead of worrying that he was going to break my neck I immediately postured up and started fighting his leg. He tried to sweep me to get the mounted triangle and I managed to post and stop it. We fought back and forth and he finally did get me into a mounted triangle. I immediately turned my neck from the choke and started fighting his legs again, a stark difference from last week when I just laid on my back and watched him trying to finish the choke. We went back to triangle from guard and I finally was able to get around a leg and get to side mount. Wait…I got to side mount! I was even able to transition to mount but got rolled right off. We continued trading positions, he got an armbar from mount at one point (I apparently need to work my armbar from mount defense) but I tried to give it my all. I didn’t panic and shut down.
OK so that was done, woo! Not so fast. Most of my teammates had left by this point and everyone else was already paired up so he asked me if I wanted to go again. I really didn’t. It took all my strength and determination to get through the previous round and I didn’t think I had another round with this guy in me. But I have this thing about not saying no to someone who offers me a roll and I figured this would be a great way to test my resolve so I agreed. It was more of the same, trading positions, no submissions this time and I refused to back down. At one point he had me stacked and I figured he was going to push my legs to one side and pass. Nope, he pushed them right over my head so I did a flip over my neck and landed on my knees. I did have a moment of panic here and thought about stopping the roll to tell him that was not a safe move to do to a rolling partner (not only can you break someone’s neck, it’s ineffective as I ended up on my knees and then landed a single leg from there) but I kept going.
The round ended. I took my tired body off the mat in victory and packed up to go home. It was the first battle in the war against stronger opponents and I had come out of it victorious. I can’t wait for the next one.
Saturdays are quickly becoming my favorite training day because I get to focus on training with other women. A few weeks ago my school started a women’s only BJJ class on Saturdays. I like to think I was actively involved in getting it started, and by being actively involved I mean that I kept asking my instructor “so when are we going to start a women’s BJJ class???” We have large Muay Thai and kickboxing programs at my school and there are a lot of women who train in those so we are hoping that having a women’s only BJJ class will make BJJ seem less intimidating to any of the girls who might be thinking of checking it out. We also have enough women who train BJJ to deserve our own class. My instructor wanted a woman to teach it so he asked me to. I was really intimidated by the thought of teaching a class, I don’t feel like I know enough to teach anyone anything but I really wanted there to be a women’s class so I agreed. I have found that I really like teaching the class though. I have to focus on little details so that I can accurately teach the moves and this is helping me a lot when I do my own training.
A girl who used to occasionally train at my main school has started training at my weekend school*. The owner lets us come in at 9am and we drill for a while and roll a couple of rounds. We did armbar/triangle/omoplata transitions yesterday which was really fun. On a normal Saturday (well normal since the women’s class started), I would have to leave after that for instructor training at my main school. However, my instructor was at the newly opened second location of the gym yesterday so I got to stay and participate in the basics class. A new girl started at the school this week so I got to drill with her. It’s always nice to get new girls in the school and she definitely has that look in her eye that I have to come to realize means she is going to become a BJJ addict.
After hanging out at the weekend gym for a while, I headed over to my main gym for the women’s class. We had all of the girls (6!) show up for class yesterday. It was an occasion so momentous that we stopped halfway through class to document it with pictures. I think the fact that all of the women take an hour out of their Saturday to come train shows that I was not the only one who really wanted a women’s only class. It feels kind of awesome that 5 other people are willing to come in and listen to what I have to say about BJJ for an hour too. Getting to train with all those women yesterday made my entire weekend happy. Can’t wait for next Saturday!
* I have two gyms. My main school, the one I go to most and the one I get my rank from/compete under is my “during the week” school and the other is my “weekend school”. However the main school is where we have a women’s class so it’s also my Saturday school now. Confusing I know.
I often worry about whether I do enough at the gym to earn respect for my BJJ skills. I am very dedicated to training, I go almost every time there is a class. I also try to be as friendly as I can. I feel relatively confident that most of my teammates respect the work I put in and (hopefully) don’t find too much on a personal level that they dislike. But what about my actual jiu-jitsu skills? I am submitted far more than I submit. A lot of times I feel like I am moved from good positions at will. I often wonder when rolling with someone who has less experience than me if they are thinking “How did she ever make it to blue belt…I am totally beating her”.
I realize that this is largely in my own head. I am projecting my own feelings of shortcomings onto rolling partners who probably are not thinking that. I know that when people get promoted they often feel that they do not deserve it. But every now and then something happens that makes me think this is not all in my head.
At my school, as in many others, we line up according to rank at the end of the night. I am often amused by watching everyone try to scurry and shove their way into where they think they should be in the line. This week the advanced classes were no-gi (we have beginner and advanced classes simultaneously on the mat, the advanced class alternates between gi and no-gi weekly and the beginners are always in a gi). I have noticed on no-gi weeks that there is one particular white belt who will regularly make it a point to get in front of me when we line up. The first time it happened I thought he had done it inadvertently and I made a joke about him being in front of me. He just looked at me and then stayed where he was. I was not really interested in getting in a pissing contest about lining up so I just let it be and have done the same every time it’s happened since.
As you astute readers may have guessed, this happened again last night when we were lining up (it actually happened twice this week out of four classes, one of which I didn’t line up for…not that I am counting…) and this time another white belt got in line right behind him. I again didn’t say anything but every time it happens it galls me. I feel it is a clear indication that he does not think that I have earned the right to stand in front of him in line.
Last night was different though. When we started the line to bump fists, a fellow blue belt at the beginning of the line saw me a few people down from him and asked quite loudly what I was doing down there. I made a joke about how I guess I didn’t outrank the two guys in front of me in no-gi. The second white belt most likely had just followed the first in line and he immediately apologized and said he had not been paying enough attention when he lined up. The first white belt, the one who does this regularly, again said nothing. The blue belt then said “it’s not right”.
So while the white belt may not feel I have earned my place in front of him, it made me feel better to think that the blue belt thought I had. I thought about it again after I got home and decided that the blue belt was right. It is not right! If my coach thinks I’ve earned that spot then I’ve earned it. From now on I’ll be taking my spot in line, loudly and rudely if I have to.
I’ve talked a lot so far about strength and how I have felt frustrated and futile when dealing with it. I wish I could give some tips for how to handle it but that is something I am still working out myself. I would like to share some insight I have had on the topic lately though and hopefully that can be helpful.
When talking with my purple belt instructor Monday morning (as referenced here), he told me that some of the guys at the gym might need to be taken down a peg or two and he thought I could do it. This, I assume, was BJJ speak for “they need to get their ass beat”. I thought about this afterwards for a while and couldn’t understand why he would think I was a person capable of this. He was obviously wrong. But was he? I roll with him more than anyone else at that gym, he knows what I am capable of. I trust that everything he tells me about BJJ is true because I know how good he is, why couldn’t I trust his opinion on this?
It then occurred to me that I have gotten into a really bad habit. I learned very early in my rolling days that if I tried to match strength with strength this usually encouraged my partner to take it up a notch. When I was new and had no technique, this usually ended disastrously for me. So somewhere along the way I trained myself to shut down and get very defensive when I felt like I was outmuscled. This usually means that I stay perfectly still, wait for my partner to move and then try to escape. This is a strategy that somewhat makes sense when you are new and have no technique but what about now? I have a lot more technique now (in theory) so why am I shutting down and going right to defense mode as soon as I feel outmuscled? I shouldn’t be! I know that when people rely on strength that they are often times sloppy and I know I can exploit that. So my new resolution is to stop settling into defense mode and go after everyone.
Sometimes though, I am still going to get outmuscled and I am going to feel awful afterwards. I know this. I accept this. It’s where I am at now. When I get upset about it I try to remember that in the long run this is going to help me. I can’t rely on strength, I have to use technique. Rolling with stronger people is only going to help me to learn techniques on how to deal with them. Eventually I will know how to handle it when I am outmuscled. Then the strong people are going to have to learn how to deal with being out-techniqued. I much look forward to that day.
Sunday was a perfect example of why I both love and sometimes hate BJJ. On Sundays we have basics class and then usually go right from drilling to rolling. The purple belt instructor who usually teaches the class had unfortunately sprained his knee rolling with the black belt owner of the gym. I was particularly bummed about this because he is my favorite rolling partner at the gym and he will usually make it a point to roll with me 3 or 4 rounds in a row. He doesn’t muscle me and he lets me work offense (what’s that?) so it’s always a fun time. The owner decided to surprise us by making us do conditioning for the first 30 minutes of class. This involved sit-outs, curl + press with a 25lb weight, 40lb kettlebell swings and 80lb kettlebell deadlifts (I am still sore). After that we drilled a knee cut pass from guard and he showed us how to take mount from there. It was an exhausting class.
After class was over and the guys were beginning to pair up, I took a seat next to the injured purple belt and eyed my rolling options. None of the small guys were in class and most of the guys who were in class were either guys I tend to avoid or guys I knew I would get muscled around a lot by. After the exhausting conditioning, I wasn’t sure I could handle the challenge of rolling with these guys and was going to quietly exit when the first round started. That idea was quickly squashed when both the owner of the gym and the purple belt expressed that they felt I should roll. For the next few rounds I got man-handled, muscled and submitted at my partner’s will. I felt like they were giving it their all and I had nothing to give. I tried to sneak off the mat after every round only to get paired up again. I was very frustrated by this point and I could feel the worst of all things was happening, I was tearing up. I am not a person who cries easily but sometimes the futility, frustration and exhaustion of getting my ass kicked will do this to me.
As I tried again to slink off the mat, the owner called me over to roll with him. Well you don’t say no to a black belt so off I went. That was actually helpful. He helped me to work on passing from half guard. For reasons unknown to me (perhaps I am terrible at passing) I am in half guard A LOT so this was great to work on. However he could see I was upset and asked me what was up. I just tried to act like I was not actively holding back tears and told him it just wasn’t my day. He told me to work with one of the other guys and instructed that guy to “go light” and let me get some positions. As we started the round the guy asked me if we should just roll like normal but slower. I agreed to this and the next thing I knew I was in a triangle. As I tried to work an escape, he quickly swept me over and went for the mounted triangle. I spent the next 4 minutes like this, going back and forth from mounted triangle to triangle in guard while he tried to finish. The injured purple belt took pity on me (this last triangle was about my 17th of the day) and we just drilled a couple of triangle defenses and I was finally able to make my exit from the mat.
After I got home I was feeling dejected and depressed. Why go through all this training if it doesn’t stop me from getting my ass kicked on a regular basis? As I was sitting on the couch having my pity party, the owner of the gym texted me to ask if I was OK after training. I felt both embarrassed that I had been so upset he felt the need to check on me and happy that he cared enough to do so. I told him I was OK and apologized for getting so upset. He wrote back telling me not to worry and added “and btw…you are tough as nails and have grit and determination”. I thought this was nice but I didn’t feel tough as anything.
So yesterday morning I was on Facebook at work (do you actually work at work?) and the purple belt sent me a message asking how I was doing. I felt more embarrassment that he also felt the need to check on me. I repeated that I was fine, apologized for getting so frustrated and thanked him for his help. We then proceeded to have a long conversation about how to handle strength (he is a smaller guy and also has issues with this), how I was handling it (more on that in the next post!) and general jiu-jitsu frustration. He mentioned that any girl who chooses to train BJJ with the guys is going to have a tough road. Wait, there was a choice? (I kid, I love the guys I train with).
So I sat at my desk thinking about what had happened, feeling embarrassed that both instructors had felt the need to check on me because I was so visibly upset at training. It then occurred to me that they weren’t checking on me because they felt bad for me or sorry for me. They saw me struggling and they wanted me to know that they appreciated that struggle and they didn’t want me to feel discouraged. This is what I love about jiu-jitsu people. When you are feeling down and are convinced you will always be the worst on the mat, one of your teammates or coaches is always there to let you know this is not the case and encourage you to keep going. So thanks coaches, I’ll keep on fighting.
I had a moment of enlightenment on the mat a few weeks ago in class. I was in BJJ basics class and we were drilling side control to mount transitions. The pair next to me and my partner were both bigger guys. One of them is known in our school to have ridiculous strength. They started playing the “what-if-I-do-this” game to see how they would stop the transition. The strong guy (being a strong guy) would just bench press his partner off when he would settle into mount. At the end of class when the instructor asked us if anyone had any questions about what we’d been drilling, strong guy’s partner raised his hand and said “I felt like I was doing the move right but strong guy was just pushing me off. What do you do if the guy is too strong?”.
The instructor, who is not a very big guy, thought about it for a few seconds and then explained that sometimes you have to figure out what will work versus partners of different size and strength. He explained that you can’t give a stronger guy any space and you want to always have pressure and various other tips that those of us who are smaller/weaker have most likely heard dozens of times. He then looked at strong guy and said something along the lines of “but some people are just freaks”. Everyone laughed and several other students then chimed in with stories about their frustrations in rolling with strong guy.
As this was all happening I was sitting on the mat with my jaw open and eyes bugged out. I wanted to run up and grab them by the lapels and scream in their faces “THIS IS WHAT MY ENTIRE LIFE IS LIKE!”. I was incredulous. Were they really complaining about the one guy on the mat that could overpower them and render their technique useless? Did they not know that this is how I feel virtually every time I roll with them? Then as I gazed around the mat at about 15 guys I had a moment of realization that no, they did not know. Sure there might be a handful of training partners that they found to be frustrating because they were too big, too strong or both but they could most likely find a partner who was not bigger or stronger. They didn’t know what it was like to be the smallest or weakest in the class and feel this frustration almost all the time! It then occurred to me that women who train BJJ are tougher than I realized. To feel that level of frustration about 90% of the time you do something and to keep coming back for more, that takes a lot of guts and determination (in my case with a healthy dose of stubbornness mixed in). Be proud ladies, you’re all badasses.