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Falling Behind

Probably most of us have had someone tell us at some point in our jiu-jitsu journeys that we should not be comparing ourselves with others. Probably many of us have said the same thing to someone else. Probably most of us believe it. But probably most of have done it anyway.

I had a moment of depression a little while ago doing just that. When I started jiu-jitsu, it was a new program at our gym so basically everyone who was taking jits classes was new to the sport. I, along with some of my classmates, quickly became obsessed with it. There were two of us in particular who went all in. Attending all the classes, finding other places to train (when the program started, jits was only 2x a week which we all know is not enough jits), competing as much as possible.

As time went on, I sort of fell behind him. He became the beginners instructor at the gym and eventually ended up leaving his job to work at the gym. He was training full time, living the dream and I was finding myself cutting back a lot because I felt like I was overtraining, I kept getting injured, etc.

Since I had to take the summer off, I really noticed the divide when I came back. Admittedly getting back into jiu-jitsu has been really hard for me. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. One reason is that when I had all that time back from not training, I started filling it up with other things. I started taking ukulele lessons, I started dating my girlfriend, I’ve started taking new fitness classes. Now that I am trying to get back to training, I am having trouble finding room in my schedule for everything I enjoy.

And even though fitting jits back in my schedule has been difficult, the hardest part for me has been the mental part. I am not in the shape I was when I was training uninjured 5 or 6 days a week. I feel big, slow and stupid. When I train I feel like my mind remembers what to do but my body is no longer capable of it. This has lead to many frustrating nights and constantly wondering if I’ll ever get back to where I was.

So a couple of weekends ago while I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw pictures of my old training buddy getting his purple belt, I felt some angst. I have figured he was long due for a purple belt so it wasn’t a surprise but it still kind of hit me hard. I know you’re not supposed to think things like “that could have been me”, but I couldn’t help it. I was thinking that if I had trained more, not gotten injured, kept myself healthier while I was out or did any number of things “better” I could be getting my purple belt too.

Part of me was wondering why I was even bothering with training. I’m having so much trouble getting back to it and I know that I am going to see even more people advance in a quicker time frame than me. Then I decided I should get over myself.I had fallen into the trap of judging my progress based on tangible milestones. Right now the journey for me is not about advancing but about getting back on the right path.

It’s going to take time, a lot of work and a lot of frustration to feel like I’ve gotten back to my formal self. I wish I had done things differently but I also realize that I cannot change the past so all I can do is focus on the future.

Last week I officially registered for my first competition in a year and made a commitment to myself to get back to healthy eating, train as much as I can and as hard as I can and leave it all on the mats in April. It might be my greatest triumph. Or I might get my ass beat. But what I will gain by making myself get back to training will be invaluable and will hopefully lead to continued good habits and focus. I’m ready for my 2015 comeback!

Too self-conscious to roll?

Since the day I first started training jiu-jitsu, I have been in love with rolling. I love drilling too (I have learned to appreciate it more the longer I’ve been training), but to this day I often find myself anxiously looking at the clock during class waiting for the time when we start to roll. This is one of the reasons that my continuing knee saga has been so aggravating. I have to limit my rolling and I really, really miss it.

So it’s been somewhat of a surprise to me that I’ve come across several people recently that have confessed that they are very self-conscious when they roll and thus they are not feeling the love for rolling that I do. When I’ve asked them why, a lot of it centers around feeling like they are doing everything wrong and everyone watching knows it. This also occurs when rolling with upper belts who they are sure are mentally cataloging everything they do wrong during the roll. Another point of particular anxiety seems to be when a higher belt will try to give them something while rolling and they don’t know what it is.

I am by nature a very insecure person so I began to wonder why it was I never felt this way. Could it be because I have always just been so good at jiu-jitsu that there was nothing to feel self-conscious about? Um no, that is clearly not it. I think part of it was just because I found rolling so fun that it didn’t occur to me to be self-conscious about it. Also I had a somewhat unique experience when I first started training in that the jits program was new at my gym so pretty much everyone was a beginner. Thus I had some training under my belt before I regularly got the chance to roll with higher belts. I was actually so eager to get the chance to work with higher belts when I was new (something that has never gone away) that I can’t imagine being anxious about it. Well that’s not entirely true, the first two times I got to roll with my instructor, I was so nervous that I kicked him in the face.

I have felt the embarrassment of being certain that a higher belt was trying to feed me something and not knowing what it was. I have always found that the best thing to do in this situation is just to ask. When I started training at a second gym, I used to roll with one of the instructors a lot and we would inevitably come to a point (usually 2 or 3 times) when he would stop moving and I just knew he was trying to give me something but I had no idea what. At first I felt really embarrassed that I didn’t know and I’d try to just keep going. I realized that was a pretty silly thing to do as he was trying to teach me. So instead of feeling embarrassed or trying to pretend that I didn’t know he was setting me up, I’d stop and say something like “I’m sorry, I know you are trying to give me something but I don’t see it”. Unsurprisingly he did not laugh and tell me I had no future in jiu-jitsu but would instead point out our positions and what was available to me that I had not seen. Not only did I find this was not an embarrassing thing to do but I also discovered this was a great way to learn.

In fact this happened as recent as last night. I got to roll with my instructor and he asked me why I gave up on something when I had him in side control with a gift wrap. I told him I didn’t really know what was available there and we spent the majority of the roll with him showing me options from there. I don’t look at it as I did something wrong or feel embarrassed about it. He is a second degree black belt and I am a blue belt, he obviously has knowledge I don’t and can see things I can’t and I was glad he showed me some more finishes from there (and also can’t wait to try them).

So that would be my advice on how to handle feeling embarrassed when you don’t know what a higher belt is trying to give you. But I find I don’t know what to say to people who are feeling self-conscious about people watching them when they roll. I wish I could think of some sage advice to give my friends because I believe that if you are not enjoying rolling, you are likely not going to keep training and I would hate to see people quit because they are afraid of being judged on the mat.

So I am curious whether or not anyone else out there has felt this kind of anxiety and what they did to overcome it. Does it just take more time training? Does anxiety go away the first time you tap a blue belt in which case I’ve unknowingly helped many people overcome it 🙂  Any and all advice would be appreciated.


Note:  for some more insight and advice for dealing with jiu-jitsu guilt as I discussed last week,check out “A Skirt on the Mat” and Jiu Jiu’s blog where they also discussed it.

Pulling the trigger

When rolling last week I noticed something that I was not overly happy about. I find that I am very rarely going for submissions anymore (the exception being of course the arm triangle, my favoritest submission ever).

Since I like to over analyze everything I spent a lot of time wondering why it was that I am not going for submissions more. If you’ve been training for any length of time, chances are that you’ve heard the saying “position before submission”. I understand this sentiment and could not agree with it more but I think that I am in more of a “position before position” frame of mind.

Some time ago I discovered that a good way to cope when I feel like I am being out-muscled is to concentrate more on position and transitions rather than on submissions (rhyming unintentional but thoroughly enjoyed). I found that I had much more success this way. Instead of going for a submission, having the person get out and then being in a bad position myself I was focusing on getting to top positions and just maintaining that position.

I found that I really enjoyed rolling this way and I was getting better at maintaining positions and controlling stronger opponents. I highly recommend this approach if you are someone who feels like you are at a strength disadvantage. However I think I’ve gotten to a point where I am just content to get a position and hold onto it rather than go for the finish.

I don’t necessarily think that is a bad approach to jiu-jitsu but since I am looking to compete again soon I feel like I need to go for the kill more. I also feel like I’m getting a bit stagnant so I am hoping to shake things up. But I know this is going to be a hard goal for me.

Probably most of you have had the experience of setting up a submission on someone who is bigger and stronger than yourself and having them use that strength to get out of it. This is something that I have experienced a lot. For example, I feel like every time I go for an armbar from guard that my partner ends up getting their arm out and then passing my guard. Some of this is because they are stronger than me. Some of this is probably because my technique is off (just the tiniest bit of course). By deciding to go for submissions I have to accept that I will most likely end up in bad positions more often. This is not something I will enjoy but I know it’s the only way to get the technique right.

I also know that if I want to start hunting for submissions more that I have to take my aggression up a notch. This is something I continually have trouble with for many reason. It’s difficult for me to do something that I think is “mean”. I know this is ridiculous because we are all involved in a combat sport but I still struggle with it. I find this is a particular concern of mine when rolling with women, particularly the new ones. Having been smashed so many times when I was new, I really don’t want to be the smasher who discourages another woman from training.

I think too that there is some fear about being overly aggressive when I am training with the guys because my aggression will lead to their aggression and I am always worried about the ability for me to physically handle that aggression. I don’t think this is ever a concern that I could (or really should) get rid of entirely but I do have enough training partners that I trust that I should be able to take it up a notch at least some rolls.

So I’ve decided to focus a little bit more on submissions when I’m rolling, even if that means I lose a good position or I have to take my aggression to a higher level. I’m thinking of setting a quota for submission attempts for myself at the beginning of the night and not getting off the mat until I’ve met it. If I get to a point I feel comfortable doing that, I might start setting quotas for finishing submissions (starting with 1 a week, ha!). It’s going to be challenging but I feel like I am at the point I can get the position, now it’s time for the submission!

A + B does not always equal C

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.

Shut it off

I think a lot. I know that seems like a pretty lame confession but it’s long been both a terrific asset and a terrible downfall of mine. On the one hand I tend to think through everything and make what I feel are logical, rational decisions. On the other hand I often overthink things, imagine the worst possible outcome, convince myself it will happen and then paralyze myself with indecision and fear.

I find this thinking duality exists in jiu-jitsu as well. My tendency to think through things has been very helpful in jiu-jitsu. While drilling in class I will often try to think about what the situation would be where I would use the move we are drilling, whether it’s a move that I think I will be able to apply to my own game, what I could do to get into the move, what I could do after the move and so on. After class I will drive home thinking about my rolls…what went right, what went wrong, what positions I am getting stuck in, etc. I will begrudgingly admit that I often even wake up in the middle of the night and end up laying there thinking about my current jiu-jitsu problems. It’s a bit obsessive maybe but I think it’s all been beneficial in helping me learn.

Somewhat early on in my grappling career though I realized that there was a time where my tendency to think through things rationally and slowly was not helping me at all. That time would be when I am rolling. I would often get stuck in bad positions and just lay there doing nothing while I thought through my options. What escapes do I know from here? How did I get here? What are the risks if I try a certain move? Not surprisingly by the time I had rationally and thoroughly thought through my next move, it was irrelevant because my partner had most likely moved onto something else or, even more likely, submitted me.

I started to realize that when it came to rolling, it was going to be more beneficial for me to turn off my brain and just let my body do its thing. This was by no means an easy thing. I am a thinker! I feel like my mind is always going and shutting it off is not something I’ve had much success with in the past. I am a horrible sleeper and I think part of the reason is that my brain just won’t shut up.

I was determined though to stop letting my brain take over my rolls and concentrate on letting my body do what it wanted. I quickly found that this was making my rolls a lot better. Most jiu-jitsu practitioners know that the best time to get out of a bad position is when your partner is still in transition. I realized that by spending so much time thinking about what to do next, I was missing my chance to take advantage of the moment.

To my surprise I also found that I was enjoying rolling so much better this way. I thought it would be a struggle to get out of my own brain for a while but I actually enjoyed the break from being a pragmatic overthinker. This is probably one of the qualities that I enjoy most about jiu-jitsu, the chance to stop thinking about everything and just rely on instinct and muscle memory.

Of course there are still times when my brain gets too much in the way and this sometimes leads to frustration and anger on the mat. I often see the same frustration when rolling with the newer students. I can see their mind working and feel the paralyzing indecision gripping their bodies. I often want to tell them “just stop thinking!” but I figure that would probably only be more confusing.

While I know that there is definitely a strong intellectual component to jiu-jitsu, I have learned that in the heat of battle, it is best for me to shut off my brain and let my body do what I have trained it to do. If you are finding yourself getting super frustrated on the mat because you can’t think of what to do next, I challenge you to stop thinking about your next move and just do it.

The frustrated and the furious

This has been my life since I have started to get back to training. I am now done with physical therapy (not because my knee was 100% better but because the prescription was for 4 weeks and I did not go back and get another) and trying to smartly ease my way back into training. At first I wasn’t going every night and now I am going more nights than not but trying not to roll hard two days in a row.  It’s been mostly going well but every now and then (like this past weekend) I push it too hard and my knee swells up and gets painful again. This is of course super annoying because all I want to do is get back to training like I was and each setback makes me wonder if that is even possible.

For some reason (advancing age? broken down body?) this injury seems to have taken more out of me than my others as well. I am having trouble picking up anything we drill and when I roll I feel weak, slow, gassed and ineffectual. I know that I just have to get used to training again but it’s hard not to feel frustrated by taking steps back.

I am no stranger to jiu-jitsu injuries. I have had a few rib injuries, concussions, popped elbows, my fair share of black eyes and more gi burns, scrapes and bruises than I can count. Mostly when I’ve been injured my focus has been on rehab and all I can think about is getting back on the mat. However with this injury I am experiencing a lot of anger for the first time.

Why am I so angry? Because this injury was 100% preventable. In the past when I’ve gotten hurt it’s been during tournaments or rolling where I go in knowing that I am accepting a lot of risk but this injury came about because an overzealous partner went too hard while drilling single legs. It’s really hard for me to admit that “out loud” because I feel like I am breaking one of the sacred, unspoken rules of jiu-jitsu in which we never blame our partner for an injury.

I think it’s important to state that I know that my partner did not intentionally injure my knee and although I am not overly happy with this drilling style, I don’t think any less of him as a person or hate him now (truthfully I don’t see him anymore as he’s gone back to school but if/when he comes back, I still won’t hate him). But the fact of the matter is that I was standing there offering no resistance and my partner shot in really hard on my knee and I got hurt and when I think about it, I get angry.

Besides the fact that I feel completely rusty, I find that I am shutting down and just concentrating on not getting hurt when I roll. This is a problem I had before and I definitely do not want to go back to that style of jiu-jitsu. I worked really hard to overcome this in the past and I feel like I’ve added a mental setback to the long list of physical setbacks I have to deal with. This is, I think, why I feel so angry about this injury. Because I feel like I’ve regressed and this would not have happened if my partner was a little more careful when drilling.

I also find that I am feeling overly anxious about who I roll with. My gym has a lot of big guys (to me at least, I guess it’s all perspective) and in the past I have not been afraid to roll with most of them. I have felt that my jiu-jitsu was to the point that I could deal with someone wanting to hulk smash me but now whenever I get approached by one of the big guys, in the back of my head all I am thinking is “don’t hurt me”. This is definitely not a good mental state to be in when starting a roll.

So this is where I’m at right now. I’m rusty, out of shape, angry and afraid of half the people at the gym. Sounds bleak right? I’m not going to lie, it is. But as much as my brain is feeling done with jiu-jitsu right now I know that this is nowhere near the end of my journey. Even now as I am driving to the gym making myself nuts overthinking everything (this is one of my more endearing qualities), I feel the surge of adrenaline and anticipation I get every time I go to train. There have been moments where I’ve had a good roll or something finally clicks and I remember the part of jiu-jitsu that is pure joy.

So the plan for now is to keep being smart about training but to keep pushing myself to go. Eventually my brain will remember what the rest of me has not forgotten and we’ll all love jiu-jitsu again. I also have to make peace with my anger because it is only getting in the way of me moving past this injury. As always the only solution to a jiu-jitsu problem is more jiu-jitsu!

It sucks to be you

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!

Nobody is perfect

“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.

For our own good?

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.

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