Jiu-jitsu guilt. Chances are that if you are one of those people who are guilty of overtraining, you are familiar with this emotion. It can be felt on the rare occasions when you are forced to miss a class and frequently results in a case of the cold sweats and shakes around class time induced by the certainty that they are probably teaching the one thing that would bring your entire jiu-jitsu game together that night.
I have discussed this before as it is a syndrome that I am all too familiar with. I have tried to cope with it and allow myself to have some sort of a social life but just when I thought I might get my jiu-jitsu guilt under control, I discovered two new types of jiu-jitsu guilt.
About 6 months ago, I found myself in a jiu-jitsu funk that I could not shake. I had overtrained and overcompeted and I reached a point where I could not drag myself to class. Instead of feeling guilty because I was upset to miss class, I found that I was feeling a lot of guilt about the fact that I didn’t want to go at all. This only made the whole situation worse. Either I would feel guilty enough that I would go to class even though I didn’t want to and then be miserable or my desire to not go would win and I would spend the next day mired in my own guilt.
I found that these types of jiu-jitsu guilt were feeding nicely off of each other. I did my best to come to terms with the fact that it was ok for me to not go to jiu-jitsu every time the opportunity presented itself and I worked at having a healthy training/social life balance. Sometimes if I felt like training all week, I did. If I felt like having dinner with a friend one night, I did that too. The guilt didn’t go away entirely but I at least stopped hyperventilating every time I was not at the gym during class time. Then came jiu-jitsu guilt type 3.
A few months ago, I hurt my knee and I ended up taking about 6 weeks off of training while waiting for diagnosis (sprained ligament) and treatment (4 weeks of PT). Because this happened when I was barely coming out of my funk, I was able to take the time off and not bristle too much as I really thought I needed it anyway. By the time I was cleared to start training again, I was more than ready to come back and I thought I would get back to training just as I had before.
For a while this worked. I was training about half as much as I was when I was training all the time so that I had time for other activities and time for my knee to recover after training. Eventually I got to the point where I wanted to ramp up training and get ready to start competing again. I was quite excited that I was mentally back to where I wanted to be. However I quickly found that I was not physically back. As I began to up my training, I found that my knee was hurting more and more. It has gotten to the point that I had to go back to the doctor this week and get it re-evaluated.
So you might be wondering what is the 3rd type of jiu-jitsu guilt I mentioned? Since I’ve had to back off of training again I often feel guilty that I am not tough enough to train through this injury. Logically I know that it is ridiculous to feel bad that I am resting my knee so that it doesn’t get worse. However, we live in a culture where people overcoming sports injuries are sensationalized and rewarded. If you follow football, you are probably familiar with the story of Adrian Peterson coming back from an ACL/MCL tear to lead the league in rushing the next year.
If you don’t follow football there is probably a good chance (since you are reading this blog) that you do follow jiu-jitsu. Most of my social media feeds are filled with at least 75% jiu-jitsu related information (the other 25% is made up of the few friends I have and grumpy cat). But if you train then you do not have to follow every jiu-jitsu athlete and page to understand what the jiu-jitsu culture is like. We are warriors. We train through injuries that would stop normal people. Chances are that most people on the mat on any given day are dealing with at least one injury.
Last week I saw an image of woman training in which the description stated she had just finished cancer treatment and had children at home and ended with the line “What’s your excuse?”. I know of a black belt in my area who was back to training a week after having knee surgery. If people are training through cancer and knee surgeries than what kind of jiu-jitsuer am I to let a sprained ligament stop me?
Like I said, in my brain I know this is kind of ridiculous. But in my heart I am feeling like maybe I am not tough enough to be a jiu-jitsu badass. I know that so much of jiu-jitsu is mental and this is just another challenge I have to figure out to progress in training. Here’s hoping I figure out the solution quickly, or better yet, my knee gets miraculously better. I am tired of being a victim of jiu-jitsu guilt.
I had an interesting start to 2014. But before I get into that, let me explain a little why I have been absent from the blogosphere for so long. Yes it is true that I had a lot of work stress and all the holiday merriment took its toll but I also have to admit that part of the reason I have been so silent is that I have not been in a good place with training. I continue to deal with the pain from my injured knee and I also managed to injure the good knee as well. The second injury is doing much better but because it was hurt for a while, I ended up having to put more weight on my bad knee and it is in a lot of pain.
I have been really down about the fact that my body seems to be at war with my soul. I want nothing more than to get back to the mats full time and resume my pre-injury training regime but my body seems to be telling me that it is not ready. So that’s what I’ve been up to…now back to the start of 2014.
I had decided early in the week that I did not want to do anything for New Year’s Eve. I was talking to a friend who also mentioned that she was planning to stay home and we decided to do nothing together.
So we spent New Year’s Eve watching TV and movies and eating Chinese food and cookies. It was actually very relaxed and fun and just the low-key kind of night I was hoping for. When she left to go home, I walked her to the front door of my building because I live in a labyrinth of hallways that my friends often have trouble navigating.
When she opened the door to go outside, we noticed a dog had been sitting at the door and he came rushing into the building. I immediately recognized him as another resident’s dog. I often see him being walked and I know his owner tends to walk him without a leash so I figured that the owner was also on the way in. My friend looked outside and said she didn’t see anyone out there and I realized that the dog was not wearing the harness I usually see him in when walking (I realize I might sound sort of like a creepy stalker but I just really love animals so I tend to notice them).
Once I assured my friend that I knew the dog belonged in the building and I’d get him home, she left and I waited in the lobby for a while, figuring that the dog had escaped his owner and the owner would soon come to claim him. As I waited, other residents and their guests came down and I asked them all if they knew who the dog belonged to. No one did (and many seemed to have had a little too much fun ringing in the new year so were not much help).
I started to worry that the dog’s owner was not going to come in and I started to wonder what I could do at that time (around 1:15am) to find him. I didn’t think my neighbors would take too kindly to me knocking on everyone’s door and asking “do you know this dog?”. Every time the elevator opened the dog tried to get on it and it occurred to me that I had seen him on the elevator with his owner many times. I was pretty sure that the dog and his owner lived close to me as I have seen them in my hall lots of times so I called the elevator and prepared to head to my floor.
As soon as the elevator opened, the dog got in and looked at me as if he was waiting for me to follow. I got in and pushed the button for my floor. When we stopped on the floor the dog got out and once again waited for me to follow. As I started to wonder what direction I should take him to look for his owner, he calmly started walking down the hall. I realized he was now in charge and resigned myself to following him to see where we would end up.
He very slowly and calmly led me through the same labyrinth of halls I’d just helped my friend through. He would occasionally stop to sniff something or listen to a noise until eventually he took a seat on the welcome mat in front of a door. I thought he might have sat down to take a break from walking (he is an adorably lazy bulldog of some kind) but he looked up at me in a way that made me think that he was pretty sure this was his house. I had some reservations about knocking on the door in case the dog was wrong as it was now almost 1:30 but when I looked at him again, he was still calmly looking up at me with a lot of certainty in his eyes.
I knocked and waited to see if I was about to really piss off a neighbor or about to become someone’s best friend for returning his dog. No one answered. I tried again a little louder and still no one came to the door. I started to worry again. What if the owner was asleep and couldn’t hear me? What if he was out of town? What was I going to do with the dog? I decided that I should take him to my condo and come up with a plan to find the owner. It was too late to knock on everyone’s door so if nothing else, I figured he could spend the night in my house and we could find his owner in the morning.
I tried to call the dog and get him to follow me but he just sat there looking at me curiously. I tried to move him by grabbing the scruff of his neck but he would not budge. Right or wrong, he decided he was home. I stood in the hallway for a while wondering what to do. I thought I could probably leave him there and his owner would get home eventually but I couldn’t bring myself to leave him alone in the hall.
I looked down at him again ready to plead with him to move but he had such a strong, steady look in his eyes that I knew it would not work. He had been on a journey I knew nothing about and found his way home. He was not going to leave it for me or anything else.
As I began to wonder if people would think I was weird for sleeping in the hall, I heard the door to the stairs open and around the corner came the dog’s owner. He stopped in shock in the middle of the hallway and then smiled. I walked up to meet him and explained I had found his dog outside the building. He told me the dog had been missing for a while. I didn’t think at the time to ask how long but clearly longer than that night.
I couldn’t help but ask if the dog was indeed sitting in front of his house and his owner confirmed that yes he was. I told him that I was glad the dog had found his way home and then headed off to my condo and my bed. However once I got there I couldn’t stop thinking about the strange circumstances that led the dog home that night.
I do tend to believe that things happen in life for a reason and I kept wondering why the universe had sent me a lost dog that night. Most of us are probably familiar with the saying that someone is following someone around like a lost puppy. However in this case, instead of the lost puppy following me around, he very calmly and assuredly led me to where he needed to go. I started to think about my frustration with training and how it was all stemming from me not being able to do what I used to do. I think maybe the universe was trying to tell me that sometimes I have to let go of what I believe is the right path and follow the lost dog to see where I’m meant to go.
In my last post I discussed how jiu-jitsu has forced me to stop overthinking everything and learn to roll in the moment. I am going to continue the theme of how jiu-jitsu has forced me to think outside the box and address another topic my brain has trouble with: the lack of repeatable results.
I have always been drawn to math. There’s something about numbers and their relationships that appeals to me. I can still remember learning about the divisibility by 9 rule (explained here). It rocked my world. I was able to figure out the divisibility by 3 rule after that and to this day I still often add up numbers to see if they are divisible by 3, 6 and/or 9 (some people may think that is nerdy, some people may say it’s a little obsessive compulsive but I prefer to think of it as adorable).
I find comfort in equations and formulas knowing that I can always predict the results based on a series of steps. I make a living writing computer programs. My job is to produce repeatable results. Given the same input, the output should always be the same. I am used to living my life very algorithmically. I think in sequences of events. I like to know that if I do A and B that the outcome will always be C. Now enter jiu-jitsu where almost nothing is repeatable or predictable.
Early on in my training I regularly found myself trying to figure out what the next step would be when I was drilling a move. Often when I would ask my instructor, the answer would contain some variation of “it depends on your partner’s reaction”. I found this very unsatisfactory. I just want to get to C. Tell me what A and B are and we can all go home happy.
But of course there is no equation to jiu-jitsu that results in the same outcome all the time. There is so much that is not under your control. Different partners will react to the same setup differently. Even the same partner will react in different ways. Just the other night I was rolling with someone and he tried to put a triangle on me, I did an escape and got out. Not two minutes later he put me in another triangle (it’s triangle week at the gym), I did the same escape and he didn’t budge and I had to tap. There is nothing logical about that! Within a span of seconds I did the same experiment with the same steps and got two different results.
Early on my desire to think formulaically really stifled my training. If I was getting in a bad position a lot I would ask my instructors ways to get out of it. They would often show me a couple of escapes to use depending on what your partner was doing. I would pick one and decide I was going to use it. I would then get really frustrated when I would apply the escape and it wouldn’t work. YOU TOLD ME THIS WAS A SIDE MOUNT ESCAPE AND I DID IT YET I AM STILL IN SIDE MOUNT! What I didn’t realize was that I was ignoring the part where I worked off of what my partner was giving me.
I was also so focused on sequences of events that I often wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was drilling that day. I would find myself thinking about what came before the move and after and what the desired outcome would be and I wasn’t working hard enough to learn the move itself.
As I mentioned in my last post, I soon discovered that my typical way of thinking was not always beneficial to me in jiu-jitsu. I made the decision to stop trying to process everything logically while I was rolling and concentrate more on acting instinctively to what my partner was doing. I found that not only was my jiu-jitsu getting better by doing this but I was having more fun and feeling less frustrated. My ways of thinking have changed so much that when a student asked me last week what the next step would be from a guard pass I showed her, I said “well it depends on what your partner does”. I have become everything I used to hate.
So jiu-jitsu made me think outside of my very cozy, logical box and learn to rely on instinct. It also forced me to realize that my next move was not always going to be under my control so I had to learn to work with what was given to me. Of course these are lessons that not only apply to the mats but also carry over into everyday life.
This change in thinking has been a big part of my jiu-jitsu transformation and I will always be grateful for it. I think it will always be difficult for me to explain to the non jiu-jitsu people in my life why jiu-jitsu is good for the soul but this is a huge part of it. Through jiu-jitsu I have had to do things both physically and mentally that I never thought I was possible of and I know I have become a better person because of it.
It is almost always true that relationships are easier when they start. You are in an initial phase of discovery and romance and everything is exciting and new. I think that the relationship with jiu-jitsu is no different.
When I first started jiu-jitsu, it was love at first sight. I fell fast and hard. I was enamored with everything I was doing…pushing my body in ways I never thought possible, competing, seeing results on and off the mat. I couldn’t get enough. So much so that I joined a second gym and regularly trained 6-7 times a week. I often felt tired, weak, beat up and sore. I got a few injuries. I didn’t care, all I could think about was jiu-jitsu and it’s all I wanted to do.
As time went on the luster of new love started to wear off and I began to realize that jiu-jitsu was not the flawless end-all, be-all I thought it was. Sometimes it’s not fun to feel like you got hit by a truck, sometimes not being able to move a joint for a couple of weeks without significant pain sucks, and sometimes being crushed on the mat just isn’t fun.
As the rose-colored glasses started to come off, I began to panic. I didn’t know what to do on days when I was feeling exhausted and I didn’t feel like training. I had pushed myself so hard for so long that I didn’t know anything else but training. Whenever possible, I would arrange social outings with my friends around jiu-jitsu and my life was a constant pattern of work, jiu-jitsu, sleep, repeat.
This all came to a culmination this summer after training for two tournaments and pushing myself really hard. I decided to take a week off after so that I could recover, something I never voluntarily did before, and I found that afterwards I didn’t feel the same drive and compulsion to go back. I went into a pretty significant funk and couldn’t focus on anything training related. I had to make myself go to class after work, I wasn’t staying long after to roll, I couldn’t get back on track with my diet and cardio. A few weeks after that I sprained a ligament in my knee and I almost felt relieved to have an excuse to not go to jiu-jitsu.
The change in my attitude plus my time off forced me to take a good, hard look at my relationship with jiu-jitsu. While I still felt that I loved jiu-jitsu, I started to wonder if maybe I had jumped into a committed relationship too fast. Sure I still wanted to be with jiu-jitsu but maybe it was time to see other people too.
So after my injury, jiu-jitsu and I took a break and I got to see what life would be like without it. For a while it was pretty fun. I was going out with friends a few times a week, eating and drinking stuff I tend to stay away from while training, coming home before 9pm and watching a bunch of TV and movies that I don’t typically have time for.
However as time wore on, I started to miss jiu-jitsu. I missed the gym. I missed my coaches. I missed my teammates. I missed the challenges, both physical and mental, that I cannot find anywhere but on the mat. I missed the focus and discipline that came with training jiu-jitsu. I realized that I did not feel as complete without jiu-jitsu in my life.
So after going through a rocky patch, I finally feel that I am ready to come back to jiu-jitsu 100% committed. The bloom of new love has worn off and I realize that jiu-jitsu is not perfect. Sometimes it’s flawed. Sometimes I am flawed (very rarely of course). But I have discovered that I like the person I am with jiu-jitsu much better than the person I am without it.
Of course now and then I am going to want to hang out with my friends to blow off some steam when I am feeling angry with jiu-jitsu, but I am committed to always coming back. I feel really good about where I am in my relationship with jiu-jitsu right now. It’s easy to be committed when everything is new and wonderful but it’s a lot harder to make the same commitment when you realize the amount of work it takes to succeed. I know that jiu-jitsu and I are in it for the long haul and I think we will have a long, fulfilling life together.
A question I’ve been getting a lot since I had to stop training because of a sprained ligament in my knee is “what are you doing with all your spare time now?”. I typically train jiu-jitsu in some fashion at least 5 days a week so I have found myself with a lot of “extra” time I am not used to having. Because this is a high impact martial art, chances are most of you will have to miss some time because of an injury at some point in your training as well. Should you find yourself on the sideline wondering what to do with the copious amounts of time you are not spending rolling around on the floor in your pajamas, here is a list of things I have been doing to keep myself busy.
- Eat – I figure I need to heal the injury from the inside which means I need a lot of calories.
- Drink – Since I cannot train I am not getting an endorphin rush nor am I wearing myself out on a nightly basis, alcohol has been a suitable (and delicious!) substitute for making me feel both happy and sleepy.
- Spend some time with friends – Since I spend so much time training I often neglect my friends, especially with tournaments coming up. Having some down time has been a great way to reconnect with some of them. It’s also a good excuse to partake in numbers 1 and 2.
- Catch up on TV shows – I am proud to report that I am now entirely caught up on The Vampire Diaries and ready for the new season to begin (on Thursday!). Soon I might start on this Breaking Bad everyone is so fond of (although now that I have had so many years of people telling me it’s the best show ever I am sure that I will watch it and be let down by unrealistic expectations…I’d rather be the freak who never watched Breaking Bad than the freak who didn’t like it). If you are feeling ambitious number 4 can be combined with numbers 1,2 and/or 3.
- Rest – I really need to make sure I heal up so I am trying to move the knee as little as possible. This takes much skill and the patience to lie on the couch for hours at a time.
- The “to do” list – We all have a list of things that we neglect because we have no time between work and training. Whether it be the light that has been burnt out for months, the closet that needs to be cleaned, the pile of mail yet to be opened or the hundreds of other things that need to get done, when you are injured it is the perfect time to pick off some items from that list. I am totally going to start doing that. For real. Soon.
- Permanently mar your skin – As you may know, I am a huge fan of shoulder pressure and it has become my best weapon in jiu-jitsu. One of my teammates felt he was spending so much time with my shoulder that he named it Stanley. The name stuck and I started to think of my shoulder as “Stanley” as did many of my training partners. I have wanted to get a Stanley tattoo on my shoulder for a while but never wanted to give up a week or more of training time. Since I had some extra time…
So as you can see I have been keeping myself quite busy! Luckily the physical therapist says I can try drilling tonight and if I don’t have problems with that, I should be able to start training full time again soon. Hopefully all goes well or I may end up coming back to jiu-jitsu with two full sleeves.
I spent last week enjoying some gluttony and sloth and tried to focus on things that are not jiu-jitsu. Of course even when I am not training, jiu-jitsu is never far from my mind and I have so many friends through training that I can’t escape talking about it or thinking about it even if I want to (which I don’t).
A topic that has come up a lot lately is how to retain female training partners. This is a topic that has been on my mind pretty much since I have started training. As I have discussed before it’s always somewhat hard for women when a female training partner quits because we are very invested in them.
I have read many articles about how to attract women to jiu-jitsu and what you can do to keep them coming, Valerie Worthington recently wrote this article about it which created some good discussion both while she was writing it and then after it was published. While I do believe that there are things that can be done to make it more comfortable for a woman to start training jiu-jitsu, I have often wondered if there is anything that can be done to keep women training.
Even if a gym does everything right to attract a woman to train…they have changing facilities separate from/equal to the guys, the guys don’t flirt with her, no one smashes her the first time she takes a class, everyone is welcoming…is there anything that can be done to keep her training?
Inevitably no matter how awesome a gym is, every jiu-jitsu student is going to get smashed. If you are not one of the stronger or bigger members of your gym, this is particularly true. Most women are going to spend the first months (possibly years) working on defense and survival. I didn’t even think about getting submissions until I had been training for almost a year.
Even if you try to introduce a woman to rolling slowly and only let her roll with partners who will be kind and let her work instead of muscling, there is eventually a time period where she has to be released into the wild of rolling with everyone and she will get smashed.
This is when I believe it comes down to the individual and not the environment. Many people of every gender have quit jiu-jitsu after they started rolling because they realized that it is not for them. So again, even if the gym does everything to encourage women to train, there is nothing that can be done to change their desire to keep training if they don’t enjoy it.
This is something I’ve thought about a lot in my own gym. We have a lot of women who train Muay Thai and even more that take the kickboxing class but very few who train BJJ. I pushed hard for us to start a women’s BJJ class because I thought if we could create a less intimidating environment for the women to try jiu-jitsu, more would get into it. I know that if I were wondering what jiu-jitsu was about and I saw a mat full of 20 guys rolling around on the floor (ok there is also one crazy girl) I would maybe not think “I have to try that!”.
So we started a women’s class and I started to believe that my plan had worked. We got more women to try jiu-jitsu, there were times we had 6 or 7 women training in the women’s class. It was so exciting! As time progressed though, I noticed a pattern. They didn’t keep training.
I took this really hard for a while. I teach the women’s BJJ class and I felt like I was doing something wrong if they weren’t staying. As a blue belt, I definitely do not have the skills that our other coaches have. We only go over basics in the women’s class and I try to focus on things that I find work for me in rolling with the guys but I definitely cannot run the class like our black/brown belt coaches can.
I think I was operating under the assumption that all I had to do was get the women to try jiu-jitsu and they would fall in love with it just like I did. I guess I really couldn’t understand how someone could try it and not love it. But I know this is not true because most of the people who start jiu-jitsu don’t continue with it.
So in the time since we’ve started the class we have had maybe 10ish different girls come who were not training before we started the class. Of those 10ish there is only 1 that continues to come. There have been several occasions where the women’s class consisted of me and that one student, she even joked she might have to start paying me for privates (I consider the women’s class a labor of love but she occasionally makes me treats which is really the only payment I need).
This is a pattern that exists outside of the women’s class though. There are women who have started training in the regular classes and who also haven’t continued. In my gym we have beginners and advanced classes at the same time. Once you get a stripe you get to train with the advanced class. This is a format we adopted around May or June last year. At the time the format changed, there were two women who had just started and they eventually earned their stripe and made it to the advanced class. They have both since stopped training. In the year or so since those two women earned their stripes we’ve had exactly…wait for it…0 women come to the advanced side.
This realization came to me last week and I was somewhat astonished. Even though I know that most nights I am the only woman who trains in the advanced class (we have two other female blue belts but one trains during the day and the other works at the gym so doesn’t get to train with us that much as she has other duties during class), the fact that we haven’t had a woman train long enough to earn a stripe in a year seemed crazy to me.
So I started thinking about whether it’s something we are doing at the gym. Even though no gym is perfect, I think ours is pretty good. My coach has always been as encouraging and helpful to me and the other women as he is to the guys. Even though most of the students are men, there are some really great people to train with. I am in class 99.99% of the time so there is almost always a woman on the mat (plus I personally think if I had the chance to drill with me I’d work very hard for that stripe but I guess I am biased).
So assuming we are not doing something awful at the gym that is driving away women, why are they leaving? The only thing I can come up with is what I said above…jiu-jitsu is not for everyone. I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of the women who have trained for a while are very much obsessed with jiu-jitsu. You have to put up with a unique kind of hell to eagerly fight with a bunch of boys who are stronger than you. You either love it or hate it, there’s not a lot of room for middle ground.
I should also point out that I know that this phenomenon of people quitting jiu-jitsu is not exclusive to women. I don’t even attempt to learn people’s names until they are in the advanced class because I know many of them, male and female, will not train long enough to get a stripe. It just hits me harder when we lose girls because I want more female training partners (I am so self-centered sometimes).
So I’m going to try my best not to take it personally in the future when the women stop training and not to get too upset. I have been fortunate enough lately to get to train with women at other schools which has been awesome and has made my longing for more women at my own gym diminish. If anyone has any ideas on what we can do to get the girls to stay, I’d love to hear them. But I think a lot of it just comes down to the individual. It takes a special kind of crazy to train jiu-jitsu!
There are certain universal truths that I’ve had to accept as a woman who trains jiu-jitsu. One being that whenever the instructions of a move include “put your hands on your partner’s chest”, there will be a moment of awkwardness as my partner tries to figure out where to put his hands. Another being that I have to remember to be super careful when I’m doing cut passes while rolling with the guys. These are not particularly annoying things and I’ve accepted them as part of training.
One of the things I’ve had to acknowledge and accept though still bugs me and probably always will. That thing (sorry to get all technical with the terminology) is the fact that no matter how much I train, no matter how good I get, I will never be able to be as physically strong as the guys I train with. It’s just not possible. It’s not a matter of giving up, it’s just simple biology.
Now some of you might be thinking “oh great, another girl who is going to complain about strength”. To you I’d say, shut up and stop reading my blog! No wait, I kid, I kid…come back! The reason that you hear a lot of women, and smaller guys for that matter, talk about strength a lot is because it is not something that is ever going to go away. Knowing that I am smaller and weaker than the guys I train with affects each and every roll I have with them.
When I am rolling with the bigger, stronger guys at the gym, I often find myself not even attempting submissions. Knowing that much of the time they are likely going to be able to use their strength to escape the submission, I tend to focus on sweeps and position instead of submission. This is particularly true during no-gi weeks when I can’t even rely on grips.
It also changes what kinds of sweeps and escapes I will go for when rolling. There are just times when I doubt my ability to execute a move while I have the weight of someone who is 50-80 pounds bigger than me on top of me. And of course any time you roll as the smaller, weaker person you have to think about your personal safety first before you think about BJJ as you are much more likely to get hurt than your bigger, stronger opponent.
This is not always a bad thing. If I ever had to use BJJ for self-defense the chances are that I would be fighting a stronger guy who outweighs me so training like this is great preparation for real world applications of jiu-jitsu. But at times like this, when I am trying to prepare for tournaments, I sometimes find it really frustrating. The game I would play against a girl my size is different than the game I play with a bigger guy and so sometimes I worry that training with the boys isn’t always the best way to get ready for competition.
I also find that being weaker makes it harder for me to understand when I get submitted because of bad technique or lack of strength. There are times when I know that someone used brute force to get a submission, for example when someone lays on top of me, holds me down and spends a few minutes digging my arm out from where I’ve safely tucked it in to lock it and get the submission (this is a personal pet peeve of mine). But I also want to be careful not to blame strength every time I get submitted as I know sometimes it was a failure on my part.
I am also aware that there are women who will be stronger than me and thus this is not a problem isolated to rolling with men. All things being equal, strength is often the determining factor. The problem is that I will never have the strength the guys have so it makes it difficult for me to gauge sometimes what would and would not work with an opponent of my size and strength.
But besides the affect it has on tournament prep, there are times when being the weakest person is just humiliating. When a guy who is new to rolling manages to get me in a weird position and get the tap on a move I know would not work on 90% of the gym, I can’t help but feel embarrassed. I get caught in positions that most of my training partners would not and sometimes it just sucks.
One time during open mat a few months ago, I was rolling with a newer guy who is very big and strong. Somewhere in a scramble he went for a triangle but did not manage to capture my arm and ended up just trapping my head between his thighs and using his strength to pin me to the floor. Since the triangle didn’t work and he wasn’t sure how to transition he just started squeezing my head with his thighs. He was so strong I couldn’t get his legs off of me but it was not something I wanted to tap to. He continued to squeeze for a bit and I finally looked up at him from my precarious position near his groin and said something along the lines of “um…you know this isn’t actually a submission right?” to which he replied that he did but inexplicably kept squeezing my head until the round ended shortly after.
I know that a lot of the humiliation and embarrassment comes from me. In my head when the new guys catch me in something because I am not strong enough to escape it, I picture them bragging to everyone about how they beat a blue belt when they have barely started rolling. I know that anyone can get caught by anyone on any given day but I sometimes feel like I am the low-hanging fruit for the new guys. This is just something I have to get over or I’ll continue to feel frustrated. But I think there will always be times when I get caught in something stupid and want to stand up, stomp my feet and scream NO FAIR.
I also know that even though I will not ever be able to match the strength of my male training partners, I can learn to deal with it. I handle strength now so much better than I used to. When I first started training and I would roll with a big, strong guy, my way of handling it was to curl up in the fetal position under said big, strong guy and pray for a quick round. I am now focusing on using their strength to get position when they over-commit their weight and I have to believe that as I keep training, more submissions will come. Someday I will not be the one who gets caught with her head being squeezed between a white belt’s legs.
So what is the point of all this rambling? I guess part of it comes from the fact that while I am preparing for my upcoming tournaments (NY Open next week and then probably Grappler’s Quest the week after), I am feeling the frustration of lack of similar training partners.
Admittedly, some of it comes from my ongoing quest to make people understand that it is sometimes really difficult to train when you are the weakest person in the gym. I was teasing one of my training partners a few weeks ago and telling him he wished that he was as strong as I was. I jokingly said “it’s easy to come to the gym and train when you are the biggest and strongest, try coming when you are smaller and weaker than everyone else”.
As I reflected on the exchange later I started to think I was at least partly right (of course I always think I’m right). I also realized that probably the big guys would never truly understand what it is like for me to train, just like I am sure they face training challenges I cannot understand. Being out-muscled is the cross I will always have to bear when I train. So I guess I just wanted to share some of my thought on why sometimes it sucks to be me.
Note: I am very sorry for the long delay in posts and for the fact that I have not kept up with anyone else’s blog in the last couple of weeks. I am on a very code heavy project at work right now so have had very little down time. Add to that the fact that I accidentally wiped out a whole chunk of code last week that I had to recreate on my own time over the weekend (the title of this post is what my boss said to me when I told him about the missing code and my plan to replace it) and hopefully you can understand the delay. I will do my best to catch up and keep up from now on though!
“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.
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.
Those of you who are jiu-jitsu nuts, and chances are that since you are reading a jiu-jitsu blog you might be (although obviously the high quality of my writing has universal appeal), have most likely run into a situation where you have found yourself trying to explain to someone why you love jiu-jitsu so much. For those outside the sport, trying to understand why a friend or loved one has become so obsessed with BJJ can sometimes be tricky. I mean let’s face it, BJJ is kind of gross. You roll around on a floor, get covered in other people’s sweat, get choked, have someone try to break your limbs and then of course there is the phenomenon of the mystery hairs.
So I think most of us can agree that it might be hard for someone to understand the appeal of jiu-jitsu. But what about you? Do you, the jiu-jitsu head, understand why you love it? I often find myself at a loss for words when trying to explain to one of my friends why I love BJJ. I usually say something about it being the most physically and mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done but I really can’t find an explanation to encompass all that is BJJ. I typically give up, shrug my shoulders and move on. I know BJJ is awesome and if they can’t understand it, that is their problem.
A training partner and I were discussing this last week. He said that he, a person who is well-established in his job, often has trouble making people understand why he risks injury, denies himself sugar and bread and comes to work banged up all so that he can train jiu-jitsu. I mentioned that I also have a hard time explaining the appeal of jiu-jitsu and maybe it is because I can’t even really explain it to myself. He then said “well if you think about it, jiu-jitsu is our drug, we are constantly chasing that high”.
The high he was referring to was that feeling you get when you have a good roll. Not a good roll meaning you tap someone but the type of roll where your body is doing things that your mind doesn’t know it could. Hopefully you have experienced a roll like this. If not, hang in there and keep training because eventually you will. I will attempt to explain it although I am sure I will fall short. It is as if your mind transcends the conscious plane and becomes one with your body. It taps into something primitive and primal and instead of thinking about how your body should respond to a given situation, your body just knows and reacts.
It’s a glorious feeling. And I have no idea how to make it happen. I have tried to figure out how to reproduce this state of rolling. I wear the same gi, the same rash guard, I eat the same thing, I listen to the same music but alas it doesn’t work. My mind remains on the conscience plane and thinks things like “oh you’re in side control, that sucks” instead of helping my body get out of it.
So I take myself to class night after night, searching for that elusive high. As the time for class approaches, my blood starts racing, I can’t think of anything else and I just want to run into the gym hours before class and start training. If you think about it, it makes sense that we train to achieve this primal level of rolling. Haven’t we all been told that we have to drill something until it becomes instinct? This is how your mind and body become one and jiu-jitsu becomes an art.
So while I don’t think that comparing jiu-jitsu to a drug is an explanation that is going to make my friends and family feel any better about how much time I spend training, it does help me to explain it to myself. Maybe I’ll think of a more socially acceptable way to explain it soon. How about you guys? How do you all put into words all that is awesome about jiu-jitsu?