“Leave your ego at the door”. Anybody who trains has seen this slogan. I always used to think that it meant that you should train humbly without thinking you are better than those you train with so that you are open to learning. I still think it means this in part but lately I have been thinking about another interpretation of the phrase.
I’ve been discussing with a training partner of mine her growing frustration with jiu-jitsu. She is somewhat of a perfectionist and has admitted that she gets very aggravated because she can’t get moves exactly right the first time we drill them. I long ago realized that perfection is rare and elusive in jiu-jitsu. My goal when I am training is to pick up something new each time I drill something. Tricks to tighten up a triangle, where to put pressure when doing a pass, etc. I do this and I know my game gets better but that there are still many holes in it.
I also often feel frustrated when I am doing something new and I don’t know where to start or when I feel like I am not good at something so it is curious to me that I don’t also feel this level of frustration. I think some of it comes from the fact that I was not involved in competitive athletics at all before I started training. I was overweight until I was in my early 20s and then I did various exercisey things (biking, some running, weight training) but nothing that involved competition so I didn’t have a background of being a successful athlete to compare my jiu-jitsu training to.
I also had a somewhat unique training experience when I started jiu-jitsu. The jiu-jitsu program was new at the school when I started (we were previously a Muay Thai and kickboxing school) so most of us in the class were new. I wasn’t regularly getting my ass handed to me by people who had been training years longer than me so I probably didn’t feel my newness as much as some other people do.
But now it’s a couple of years later. I do get my ass regularly handed to me both by people with more experience than me and, sadly, people with less experience. The more I’ve learned about jiu-jitsu the more I’ve realized that I don’t know anything about jiu-jitsu. I am probably years away from “good”. So why do I still love jiu-jitsu? Why don’t I feel frustrated?
Probably a lot of it is because I came in with low expectations for myself. I didn’t have a history of being successful at athletics so I didn’t have anything to compare my training to. I also probably have lower than average self-esteem so didn’t really expect much from myself when I started to train. I am not saying low expectations and bad self-esteem are assets here but if you don’t go into jiu-jitsu expecting to excel it is not very disappointing when you do not.
I can only imagine how frustrated I would be now if I decided to take up something besides jiu-jitsu, say skiing, and had to start at the bottom. Actually I don’t have to imagine that. I took my first and only ski lesson last year and got so upset with my inability to do it that I ended up taking off the skis and walking down the last part of the trail while the instructor was screaming at me to put my skis back on (hey, there was no way I was going to get a broken leg and miss training). So I can imagine that those who come in with a history of past success would be completely frustrated by starting jiu-jitsu.
So am I saying that I never feel frustrated when training? Um, no. There are days when I am being held down and muscled around or just plain out jiu-jitsued that I leave feeling like I want to burn my gi, pick up a pizza on the way home and never return to the gym again. When I am feeling this way I console myself by remembering that I am just paying my dues. That I have to experience getting beaten so that I can learn how to win. That I have to be out-muscled so I can learn how to deal with strength. And I know that the only way I will learn how to deal with these things is to keep training. So that’s what I do.
It seems obvious to tell someone who is feeling frustrated or depressed by their perceived lack of ability that they just need to train more. One of my favorite things to say to people when they are upset about something jiu-jitsu related is “the only solution to a jiu-jitsu problem is more jiu-jitsu” (unless the jiu-jitsu problem is a broken limb or something, then more jiu-jitsu might not be the answer). But telling someone to train more is not going to make them feel less frustrated.
I think that to lose the frustration associated with jiu-jitsu a person has to be willing to let go of their past success and ideas of perfection. They have to accept that they are going to be awful for a while. They have to be willing to get their asses handed to them in the name of learning. It’s a very difficult and humbling journey and not everyone is ready to take it. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll never be ready. So if you are someone who is feeling frustrated by jiu-jitsu my advice to you is to keep training because you’ll get better and it will become less frustrating. You might have to check your ego at the door but that door is always open.
Toe holds. Knee bars. Calf slicers. These are some of the mythical submissions that I know exist in theory but that I have very little experience with. I have always been of the opinion that it would be nice to learn submissions early even if they are not legal in competition for me. For one thing if you learn them early, you have a leg up (bad pun intended) on the competition when you do get to the level that they are legal. Also the point can be made that not everyone trains jiu-jitsu for competition purposes so why not teach everyone all the technique? However last week I started to think about this from a different point of view.
During open mat one night last week, a guy who is relatively new to the advanced class asked me if I wanted to roll. I felt slightly worried because he is probably at least 8 inches taller than me and maybe 70 pounds or so heavier than me but I like to roll so I said yes. He was generally very good to train with and I enjoyed the roll but he clearly has either trained somewhere else or is very good at picking up technique off of YouTube because he had a very good leg lock game.
When the roll started he went for a straight leg lock and I started to defend it so he turned into my body and rolled. I assume this would be a reap in a tournament but I don’t know for sure. All I know is that it hurt so I tapped. Unfortunately because he was rolling and couldn’t stop the momentum he kept going so I very loudly let everyone in the gym know I was tapping by yelling “TAP TAP TAP” (I do this when I panic, it’s so embarrassing).
After I gingerly made sure my ankle and knee were ok we kept rolling and later in the roll he trapped my leg and then got a toe hold which I quickly tapped to because 1) I didn’t want a repeat of earlier and 2) I don’t really know how to escape a toe hold as I had never really trained them. I actually thought that I might be wrong about his level (it was no gi last week so we didn’t have belts on) so I asked him if he was a white belt and he said yes. I gently pointed out that toe holds were not legal for white belts and he said that he knew but he liked to go for whatever he could while rolling at the gym.
As I was walking around the grocery store afterwards my calf and ankle were feeling a little sore and I started to worry that I had tweaked them worse than I thought. It ended up being fine but it made me think about the danger of training riskier techniques. My training partner’s technique was not bad and he didn’t go for the submissions overly aggressive but my own lack of training the technique plus the inherent nastiness of the sub made it a potentially very dangerous situation.
So my brush with an injured leg last week has got me wondering about what is the right path to take with the more perilous submissions. I have always known that these submissions were not allowed in tournaments for lower belts because of the risk. I figured we didn’t spend a lot of time training them at the gym for that reason. I always felt it was somewhat silly to keep submissions from anyone but I am starting to think that my instructors and organizations like the IBJJF are actually protecting us from ourselves.
I am still not sure what the right answer is. On one hand if I had known how to defend better maybe it wouldn’t have been as hazardous. On the other, I’m not sure I want my ability to train (or walk!) for the next couple of months to be in the hands of spazzy white belts who are typically bigger and stronger than me. One thing is certain though, next time I roll with that guy, I will be very careful about where I am putting my feet.
A good friend and training partner of mine is constantly giving me a hard time about holding back when I roll. He notices it not only when I roll with him but when he sees me rolling with other people. Being a good training partner, he will frequently do things to annoy me while we roll until I get angry enough to forego the restraint and submit him at any cost.
Now I will freely admit that it is true that I hold back a lot when I roll, I even discussed it in this post. As much as I am trying to be aware of this behavior now and change it, I know that I still hold back. I still worry about all the things I mentioned before, getting my partners upset, hurting them, etc. but I got to thinking about this last week after a rough night on the mats.
I had rolled with a training partner of mine that I really enjoy rolling with. He is very good and very challenging and this night was no different. He submitted me either 3 or 4 times, I forget which (or maybe my pride refuses to remember) and I got really frustrated after the last time he submitted me. There was cursing, there was anger, there might have even be pouting.
After I had cooled down a bit and had time to be ashamed of my behavior (I only hope that my training partners understand that most of the time I get angry on the mat it is anger directed inwardly at me and not outwardly at them), I was thinking about why it was that this particular roll was so upsetting to me. It’s not like I am unaccustomed to getting submitted…hell I’ve probably tapped out 20 times since that roll! So why? Why do some submissions sting more than others?
For some reason what my friend said about me holding back popped into my head while thinking about this. Was I upset because I had allowed myself to get submitted by holding back? Maybe. Maybe not. That still didn’t feel quite right. It then occurred to me that I got upset for exactly the opposite reason. I felt like I was giving almost all I had to the roll and it was still not good enough.
This was a moment of epiphany for me. Of all the reasons I was aware of for holding back some of my aggression, this was one I had never consciously thought about before. The more I thought about it though the more it made sense. Sure it’s scary to think that if you unleash the beast (as the kids are fond of saying) that you might hurt one of your training partners or yourself. But in another way it’s even scarier to have to face a situation where you gave all you had to give and it was not enough.
I realized that by holding back I am maybe giving myself a cushion to soften the blow of being defeated. I can think “well I didn’t win but if I had given a little bit more…” and console myself with what could have been. I am giving myself an out instead of having to face the scary truth that on this date, at this time, my opponent was better me.
Most of the time I know that it is not bad when I “lose” while rolling. That I am still at the beginning of my BJJ journey and of course I am going to get caught. I also know that anyone can get caught by anyone, that is the nature of the sport. But I also think that it is hard for me or for anyone to have to admit to themselves that their best is not good enough.
While this is probably not the biggest reason I hold back when I roll, I think it probably factors in. It definitely was a major factor in my anger that night.When I think about it now with the benefit of hindsight and a cool head, I realize that to improve my jiu-jitsu, it is much better for me to give my all and come up short than it is for me to hold back because I am afraid to fail.
Next time I get angry on the mat I hope that I can have the clarity to remember this moment of epiphany and console myself with the knowledge that while today my best was not enough, sometime soon it will be.
I will be the first person to admit that I train too much, I even talked about it in this post. This doesn’t only mean that I spend the majority of my free time training (I do) but also that I am sometimes (often) guilty of training when I know that I shouldn’t. Specifically I have trained through an injury in the past and I know that should I get injured in the future, I would probably do so again.
This is a hard thing for me to admit to everyone because I know that it is wrong. In my brain, I am thinking the same thing that the non-BJJ people in my life are thinking…are you nuts? I am nuts. My drive and desire to train jiu-jitsu is so strong that the physical discomfort I feel when I have an injury is often secondary to the mental anguish I suffer by staying off the mats.
Sure there are times when I have had injuries bad enough that I had to stay off the mats because I just couldn’t do anything. But even when this happens I know I come back before I should. Whereas in the past I would have used the excuse to not be active, now I am coming up with excuses why it is still ok to train. The longest I’ve had to abstain from training was for one month when I had concussion last year and I was MISERABLE. I found myself getting angry at everyone and everything and sitting on my couch depressed at night because I couldn’t go train. I even started watching WWE because I was so hungry for anything combat related. I started watching wrestling people!
This is just something I’ve learned to deal with when training and I know I am not alone. Someone once told me that if you are not nursing at least two injuries at a time than you are not doing jiu-jitsu right. So there you have it. I train while injured even though I know it’s probably not the smartest thing to do.
However I found myself in a somewhat uncomfortable position yesterday while chatting with another woman who trains at my gym. As I have mentioned before, I teach a women’s only class on Saturdays and this particular student was not in attendance yesterday. I was not surprised by this as I had heard through the grapevine that she had hurt her ribs. She asked me how class had gone and I asked her how her ribs were doing. She said they were still sore but she was coming back this week to train because she couldn’t stand being off the mat any longer. My mind immediately started thinking of the logical replies: “don’t rush back”, “BJJ will always be there, take care of yourself”, “health is the most important thing”. But before my fingers could type what my brain was thinking, she sent me another message in which she basically said that she knew I would do the same thing.
Now besides being a person who overtrains, I also pride myself on being a woman of my word. I try my best to live an honest life and carry through on all my commitments. So when she said that she knew I would do the same, I found myself struggling to figure out what to say to her. She was right, I would do the same. I have done the same. I will most likely do the same again.
I like to think of myself as a mentor-type person to the newer women who train at the gym. I teach the women’s only class and I try to talk to them about what it’s like to train as a woman in a male-dominated sport. I try to tell them about mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned in the hopes that they can avoid them and maybe have a little smoother time as they transition into BJJ badasses.
So as someone who thinks of themselves as a mentor-type person, I couldn’t encourage her to train while injured, that would make me the most irresponsible mentor ever! However as someone who tries to be honest, I couldn’t lie and tell her I wouldn’t do the same. So we started talking about our mutual love of BJJ and the frustration of being injured. I eventually suggested to her that she come to class to try to drill but not roll at first. I also suggested that if there was an uneven number in class that she should work in the group of three so that she could take a break or not be grappling dummy while drilling if it was a move that hurt her ribs. These are things I have done while injured. While I miss rolling I find that drilling is better than no BJJ at all. The hardest part is making myself leave when the rolling starts.
But looking at the situation from the point of view of someone who is supposed to be something of a role model to the women who are just starting really made me think about my own training while injured. If I feel uncomfortable telling someone to train through an injury, why do I do it? If I had to answer that question I would say that my psychological need to train sometimes outweighs my physical wellbeing. Is this smart? No, probably not. But it’s true. So next time I am injured I am going to try to think about what I would tell one of the new students to do in the same situation. Does this mean I’ll stay off the mat an appropriate length of time? Honestly, probably not. But at least I’ll feel remorse about my bad decisions. That’s a start!