Both sides of the coin

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.

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4 responses to “Both sides of the coin”

  1. slideyfoot says :

    I love shoulder-pressure: absolutely essential if you’re smaller, IMO. I use it from mount, side control, half guard, passing…everywhere. Reaching under their head for the far armpit and hooking that works particularly well, as then you’re effectively controlling both shoulders and their head.

    Like you, I have occasionally wondered if I’m being unnecessarily mean when doing that, but I think as long you aren’t grinding your shoulder around and rubbing it over their face, but instead just holding them in place, it’s reasonable.

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