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Ebb and Flow

I apologize for the lack of posts but my lack of activity in the blog has been corresponding with my lack of activity in jiu-jitsu. Life has been crazy hectic lately with injuries and preparing a condo for sale (if you are reading this and might be interested in a 1br condo outside of Philadelphia, hit me up) and all sorts of other things that you probably don’t want to hear about.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my relationship with jiu-jitsu. When I first started training, I, like a lot of you reading this I am sure, was completely obsessed. I trained every day of the week, I felt guilty if there was a day I couldn’t train, the only thing I read, watched or thought about was training jiu-jitsu, the only time I travelled was for jiu-jitsu vacations. I own so many jiu-jitsu shirts that they took up an entire large box when packing up my condo. When I was in this obsessive compulsive training mindset, I had many people tell me that eventually I was going to slow down or my body would make me. Although I did get my fair share of injuries, it never slowed me down for too long and all I did was sit around miserably and wish I could be training.

During the height of my obsession is when I started reading, and eventually writing, jiu-jitsu blogs. Many of them I read from the beginning instead of jumping in at the end. After a while, I began to notice a pattern in some of the blogs I was reading. Many of the people would start their blogs while in a similar, obsessive love affair with jiu-jitsu. Of course this makes sense, most people don’t decide to write a blog about something they are neutral about. However as I’d read through the months and then years, I noticed that people would eventually stop being quite so obsessed with training everyday, often because of an injury but not always. Then the blog would change tone and the person would talk about having trouble getting back and then losing motivation to go entirely. Even though I had many experienced grapplers telling me I’d eventually slow down and I was reading the same in other blogs, I somehow thought I would be different. I couldn’t imagine ever not wanting to train all the time, so why was everyone talking about slowing down?

Well eventually I got a fairly serious injury (a herniated disc) which forced me out of training for a significant amount of time. It took almost a year to diagnose and treat and it got progressively worse until I could barely walk, let alone train. Once my back was feeling better and I could get back to training, I found it was very hard. The injury had taken a toll physically and I lost a lot of strength, my conditioning was awful and I had gained weight. In many ways I felt like I was starting all over again except now I knew what it was like to not be entirely awful which made it worse. Outside of the physical aspects, I also found that training had gotten a lot harder mentally. Once my life had to switch focus from jiu-jitsu all day every day, I found other things that I also enjoyed. I started hanging out with friends again (and not squeezing them in after training), I picked up new hobbies, I even started dating my girlfriend. So once it came time to go back to training, I found, much to my surprise, that I didn’t always want to go.

I still love jiu-jitsu and I don’t see myself ever stopping training (unless my old lady body completely falls apart) but I have a completely different relationship with it now. I find that often I have to talk myself into going to class instead of having to talk myself out of going to class (on the rare occasions I missed it). I am going back to the gym tonight for the first time in a month or so and while I am excited about it, I also am feeling sad that going to class means I won’t get home in time to spend significant time with my girlfriend or pets.

This month will mark my fourth year training jiu-jitsu. Our relationship started very hot and heavy. Jiu-jitsu quickly became my whole life and I was entirely consumed by it. But like any flame that burns too hot, it started to fizzle out. I do still love jiu-jitsu but it has become an aspect of my life and not my entire life. Most of the time I recognize that this is a healthier relationship with jiu-jitsu than I had before. I have things in my life besides jiu-jitsu and my world doesn’t completely stop when I can’t train.

In the end, I was not more dedicated or in love with the jiu-jitsu than anyone else and my obsession eventually ended. Redefining my relationship with jiu-jitsu over the last year has been very challenging and eye-opening. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder about what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten injured. Would I still be training everyday? Would I have a different belt? I look back at pictures of when I was at fighting weight and training was my whole life and sometimes I miss that person. I miss the obsession and how it fuelled my training. But then I look at the other things I have in my life now and I think that maybe that injury wasn’t the end I thought it was but the beginning of something new. I’ve come to realize that my relationship with jiu-jitsu is like any other relationship. It has to mature and change if it’s going to last in the long run. It’s been a hard process but I think me and jiu-jitsu will be together for a long time.

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Lots of ladies

Every month at my gym we host a women’s open mat. They are open to all women and they are quite fun. It’s a great chance for us to get the experience of training with other women. They have not typically been hugely attended with our average being around 6 women, but hey, that’s about 5 more than I am used to getting to train with!

However the stars aligned in favor of women jiu-jitsuers in the Philadelphia area during our November open mat and 23 women came to train. 23 women!!! This was only the third time in my training career that I had seen 20 or more women in one room to train and the other two events I had paid for (not that they weren’t totally worth it).

I really don’t know if I can make the guys understand what a rare treat this is for us ladies. In my gym there is a chance that any class you attend will have 20 or more guys there to train with. In order for us to get that many women we had to host an open mat, mobilize people from other gyms and advertise in women’s grappling groups. We had a couple of people come from about 2 hours away just for the chance to train with some women. One of them, a purple belt, said it was the first time she had gotten to roll with a woman who was her rank or above.

Every time I get the chance to train with a lot of women, particularly women I don’t train with often, I am struck with the realization of how different it is than rolling with the guys. Instead of dealing with being outsized and outstrengthed, I have to adapt to smaller, quicker opponents. I actually found myself getting frustrated at one point and thinking “these girls never stay still!”.

When thinking about this later it occurred to me that this might be how the guys I train with feel about me. I have often heard guys say that rolling with the women is challenging because they are technical and squirmy but it’s not something I’ve experienced a lot since most of my training is with guys. It was really eye opening. I started to understand why the urge is there to just lay on top of someone and hold them down (but I still don’t like having this done to me…I haven’t evolved that much).

I also began to wonder what my jiu-jitsu would be like if I trained with that many women all the time. I feel like I, as well as probably lots of women who train, have had to adapt my jiu-jitsu so that I can deal with size and strength. What kind of game would I have if I trained with women all the time? Perhaps I’d be the smasher? Probably I won’t ever find this out but I do find it intriguing.

As awesome as women’s open mat was, I also find these events to be somewhat bittersweet. Having a rare glimpse of what it would be like if there were as many women who trained as men is a bit of a tease. Rolling with someone who is more evenly matched to you physically is very different than rolling as the smaller/weaker person most of the time. Although I love the guys I train with and enjoy it, it’s really fun to roll with people who don’t have the option to smash you sometimes.

However I know that we are still some time away from being anywhere close to equaling the number of guys who train. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy the challenges that come with training with the guys and look forward to events like open mat where I get to mix it up with the ladies.

The ladies who came to women’s open mat

Make them earn it

A disclaimer:  In this post I will be describing something that happened to a friend of mine and my take on the situation. I realize that not everyone will agree with my opinion. While I won’t apologize for it, your feedback and discussion are always welcome.

Loyalty and respect are themes that are pervasive in the martial arts and jiu-jitsu is certainly no exception. In fact it seems that the higher the belt, the more respect a person gets, whether earned or not. I’ve had some reason to examine what the notions of respect and loyalty in BJJ mean to me in the past few weeks.

Last summer I attended a 4-day jiu-jitsu event. I went with a teammate of mine who I managed to persuade to come with me because 1) she is awesome and 2) I was afraid of being the only woman there. As luck would have it, there was another woman signed up. The three of us lodged together and became fast friends. The event, although open to the public, was run by a prominent regional BJJ franchise. Most of the instructors and attendees (including my new friend) were members of this organization. This summer the event was scheduled to take place again and my new friend and I both signed up.

About a month and a half ago I was sitting in my gym waiting for BJJ to start and catching up on Facebook news. I saw the following post from my friend:

friendFB

I immediately reached out to her to see if she was ok. She assured me that although she was a bit upset, she was going to be fine and keep training. After making sure she was ok my thoughts naturally turned to me (I am ridiculously self-centered) and I wondered if her no longer being associated with the organization was going to affect her going to the event. I asked her if she was still comfortable going and she said she was, that she still had a lot of friends that she was looking forward to seeing and it was going to be fine.

A few days later a mutual friend brought my attention to the following Facebook post from her ex-coach (clearly my sister has been right all these years and Facebook is indeed evil):

coachFB

This post was very disturbing to me. Of course the first thing I felt was outrage and sympathy for my friend. I could only imagine what she was going through because of what seemed to me to be an angry, hurtful and juvenile attack on her character.

I next couldn’t help but think about how unprofessional and “un-BJJ” like the post was. I understand saying heated things out of anger, but surely a business owner who makes a living in a discipline that is centered on respect would realize this wasn’t a good way to represent himself to the community.

I figured that if he had still been too upset to realize this wasn’t the right thing to do, surely someone else in the organization would tell him. I expanded the status to see the comments, expecting at least some of them to be admonishing and was dismayed to see that not only had everyone else seemed to be happy to add to the mudslinging, the head of the organization, several coaches and some potential camp attendees had “liked” the status. In case you are wondering if maybe they didn’t realize who her ex-coach was talking about, he mentioned her by name in the comments.

As I sat there reading the nasty comments, my heart sank. I was upset for my friend and what she was going through but I was also upset as a woman who trains jiu-jitsu.

My friend and I are in very similar situations in that we are often the only woman on the mat during class. Even if you are a woman who gets to train with lots of other women, the overwhelming majority of people in the sport are men. There is a good chance that you are going to become friends with a lot of guys. I know that her close friendship with one training partner (who also left the gym to pursue MMA) had long been a source of speculation at her gym.

I have made many friends, both male and female, that I hope I will be talking to for the rest of my life through jiu-jitsu. I know I am not alone in this, jiu-jitsu has a way of bonding people. I know anytime a man and woman spend a lot of time together some people will start to speculate but because most of the people involved in jiu-jitsu are men, it is only natural that a woman who trains would become friends with men.

However as a woman who is surrounded by men while training you can’t help but worry about the perceptions of others sometimes. In a sport where many of the positions are suggestive (for examples read the comments under the recent Kyra pictures), it is natural to be concerned about what people think about the one lady rolling around on the floor with a bunch of men between her legs.

These concerns are largely unfounded but they are there for a lot of women who train. My hope would be that the leader of a gym would do all he could to dispel these misconceptions. Instead my friend’s coach not only chose to feed into them, but used them to bully and slander her.

A few days later she called to tell me that things had gotten worse. She was concerned for her safety and no longer felt comfortable going to the event. I told her that I understood and she said she was going to talk to the man organizing the event to try to get a refund of her deposit. I told her I was not very interested in attending anymore either and she said she was going to try to get my deposit back as well.

My friend spoke with the organizer and we found out that we were not going to get our deposits back. Although disappointed, I was not overly surprised. I accept his reasoning that he had already used the money setting up the event with only the slightest bit of skepticism and anger.

Obviously my friend was not going to go under any circumstances, especially since her ex-coach was likely to attend. I was left with the decision to either lose my deposit money, $325, or spend an additional $500-$600 on getting to the event by myself and paying the remainder of the tuition.

I didn’t like the idea of losing money but I couldn’t stop thinking about what her ex-coach had said and how others in the organization had reacted to it. I have often struggled with feeling like I don’t fit in when training. There is a certain testosterone-laced machismo that goes along with training a combat sport and as a woman, it’s easy to feel out of place and even isolated sometimes.

I know that much of this is in my head. Many of the people who train jiu-jitsu feel out of place sometimes whether it be because of their age, their size, their perceived lack of athletic ability, etc.

To me, her ex-coach’s statement felt like he was confirming the secret fear that so many women have felt when training, that we don’t belong there. He had rid the gym of the girl who comes in not to train but to cheat on her husband with the men at the gym. He only mentioned her by name in his status suggesting he was placing the blame for these alleged affairs squarely on her shoulders. It made me feel like my inner fear was true, the boys don’t want the girls to train. The support of the leaders of his team suggested that they agreed.

Even if you do not agree with my interpretation, I think it’s hard to argue that her ex-coach’s statement was anything but disrespectful. He used accusations spread about in a gym and posted them as if they were fact without any kind of proof. Even if he had believed his words to be truth, he showed a complete lack of respect for her family in posting them publicly.

In the end I made the only decision I could and skipped the event. I couldn’t go and pretend I was ok with the way my friend’s ex-coach had treated her and the team’s continued support of him. As the event came and went and I saw pictures posted online that included her ex-coach, I knew I had made the right decision.

I don’t know if the leaders of the organization addressed this situation with my friend’s ex-coach behind the scenes. It is my hope they did. I do know that no one has apologized to my friend for what he put her through and publicly they have done nothing but support him.

So I didn’t get to go away for vacation this summer. It wasn’t a complete loss though. This experience reminded me that respect and loyalty are not things we should give away blindly based on the color of a belt someone puts on or the team they train under, but rather they have to be earned.

That’s my girl

Since the beginning of the women’s only class at my gym, I have been concerned about my ability to teach a class. As a blue belt with 1 year and 364 days of training (yup, tomorrow is my bjj-iversary), I didn’t know that I was qualified to teach anyone. However I felt really strongly that we should have a women’s only class and I would love to coach more when I grow up, so I was really excited to lead it when the program started.

Still with the rise and fall in attendance over time and the fact that if it weren’t for one very loyal, awesome student, there would be many weeks where I showed up to an empty gym, I can’t help but wonder if the class has had any effect.

Last weekend we hosted a women’s open mat (something we try to do once a month) where women from other gyms were invited to come train with us. We don’t typically drill much if at all in these and instead focus on rolling and positional sparring. We had a few people from other gyms come, me and my loyal women’s class student.

I was excited for the opportunity to roll with my student because I don’t really get an opportunity to do it much. We tend to focus mostly on drilling in the women’s class and if there are only a few students, I let them roll with each other and try to give them tips while watching. She’s been coming during the week for the regular classes as well but she is still in the beginner’s class so I don’t get to interact with her very much there.

So when the time came for us to roll I couldn’t wait to see how far she’d come since the last time we rolled (probably about 6 weeks ago at the last open mat). She had told me after the last time that she thought I was going too easy on her so I made sure to take it up a notch this time. I was really impressed with how she was handling herself. I started to think about how far she’d come and wondered how much of what she was doing she had learned from me.

And then it happened. The singular greatest moment in my brief teaching history. She got on top of me in half guard and what was the first thing she did? She jammed her shoulder right into my face. As I laid there with my head pinned to the floor by our smallest student, I couldn’t help but smile. If the only thing that comes out of the women’s class is that I taught one person how to use her shoulder to neutralize a bigger opponent, then it has all been worthwhile.

I’m not sure you’re doing that right

As someone who is not the strongest person in the gym, I sometimes find myself in the unfortunate position of being trapped by someone who is stronger than me. What I mean by trapped is that I am in a bad position (side mount, mount, back control, etc.) and the person is strong enough to keep me from escaping despite me trying every escape I know.

I hate when this happens for many reasons. It makes me feel like my jiu-jitsu is still pretty weak if I am so easily defeated by strength. It can also make me feel panicky. I, like most people I am sure, really am not comfortable with being held down against my will. This is usually also the point when I realize that my partner is willing to use whatever strength they have to win the roll and I stop thinking about jiu-jitsu and start thinking about safety.

So I hate when this happens but I know that it is probably always going to happen and that I just have to deal with it. As I’ve said before, that’s the price you pay when you are not the strongest person in the gym. And although it is not the most enjoyable thing in the world, I know that situations like this have helped me to gain a very solid defense game. It’s all about working with what you are given.

Sometimes when someone is using a good amount of strength against me and I feel that they’ve muscled something, I wonder afterwards if I should say something. I typically don’t. Some guys are very strong and much of their game plan is to use that strength so it’s not really fair of me to say something. I also never want to seem bitter (especially since I typically am) or like a sore loser by standing up and proclaiming loudly “NO FAIR” after every submission.  And sometimes I’m not really sure if was all muscle or not and so I don’t want to accuse my training partners of something they didn’t do.

I was thinking about this last week after a particularly grueling roll with one of the newer guys. He is very tall and I am guessing at least 60 pounds bigger than me but I am pretty awful at guessing weight. He took my back at some point. Not to brag, but I am pretty good at escaping back control. Failing that I am very confident in my ability to defend submissions from the back (really it’s not bragging because the ability to defend came from getting my back taken about 5000 times).

So try as I might, I could not escape his back control. He also started going for chokes so I switched my focus from escaping to defending the chokes. I had my chin tucked and my head turned so I was feeling pretty confident he wasn’t going to finish me but he was so strong that I couldn’t break his grips either. I could hear him breathing very hard in my ear and my face felt the effort of him using all his strength to try to finish a gi choke because my gi was being pulled across my face. He twisted my head so far that my neck cracked. I thought about tapping but I was feeling really stubborn about tapping to a non-choke.

The roll ended and I was sitting on the bench afterwards silently fuming. I found the roll unpleasant for all the reasons I mentioned above. But I have to admit the thing that really gets me upset about these rolls is that I don’t like thinking they are walking away from the roll feeling they beat me. After I’ve had some time to calm down I realize I am being prideful and ridiculous and gain proper perspective on the situation but in those minutes following a roll like that, I know I am just angry.

So even though I had thought about saying something to him after the roll, I did not because I knew mentally I was in a very sore loser state of mind and I didn’t want to be a jerk. As I was reflecting on the situation later though, I realized I probably should have said something. Whenever I will bring up someone using strength it is because I think they are over relying on it or using it in place of good technique. If I feel like they’ve managed to get something on me that they wouldn’t be able to get on most of the guys in the gym then I think it is ok for me to say something because with most of the guys they are going to need to use technique and not strength.

This was clearly one of those times. My partner had a significant size and strength advantage on me and had me trapped in an awful position. When he went for the submission and it didn’t work, he didn’t try to figure out what was wrong with the technique or what I was doing to defend it, he applied more muscle. Thinking back on it now I wish I had calmly looked up at him and said “hey I am not sure if you noticed but I’m a lot smaller than you and you are using all your strength to finish this choke and it’s not working…do you think maybe your technique might be off?”.

I really don’t want to be whiny about strength all the time and I am still going to be very choosy about when I say something. But I also know that in a situation like this it is to the benefit of both of us to point it out. I know that my partner was not maliciously trying to use strength against me, he is fairly new and that’s what new guys do. If I can help him tighten up his technique in the future it will be helpful for him when he’s going against people stronger than me (everyone else in the gym) and it will be helpful for me because he will no longer feel the need to smoosh me.

I think I will always wonder whether it’s appropriate to point out someone using strength, particularly because it’s hard to be objective when I am feeling prickly after being dominated in a roll. But sometimes I think it’s OK to point out that more power is not always the answer.

It’s not for everyone

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!

Grappler’s Quest update

Sorry for the delay in updating you all about Grappler’s Quest. I promised myself a day of laying around doing nothing yesterday and I was really serious about making that happen. Anyway, on with the tournament breakdown!

I arrived at the arena around 12pm but was not surprised to see that they were running behind after witnessing the inefficiency of weigh-ins the day before. So after a couple of hours of waiting around they called my division and I went to the table to compete.

As I hinted about in my post Saturday, I was feeling very nervous about competing in the advanced division. 18 months is hardly what I’d consider “advanced” in BJJ and I was feeling very worried about who I was facing. After seeing some of the girls compete in gi, I realized that most of them in my division were purple, a couple of browns and even one black belt from another system (not following BJJ belts) who I’ve seen compete professionally in MMA as well. In contrast to most of my other competitions, I did not go first this time and was actually the only person who had a bye in the first round. I tried to watch some of the other matches but was trying not to feel nervous so I was going in and out with attention.

Finally it was my turn to go and I stepped on the mat. The girl jumped guard almost immediately (I suspected she would as I had seen her do it in her pervious match). She had a deep hook behind my head so I went to the ground and was ducking my head to clear it. I honestly can’t tell you what happened next or what I did wrong but the next thing I knew I was on my back and she had an arm bar locked on tight. I tried to turn into her and come up on my knees to escape it but she had it really tight and when I turned I heard (and felt) a pop so I tapped.

Well damn. That really sucked. I stood there at the end of the match holding my very sore elbow as they raised the other girl’s hand and couldn’t believe I had been almost immediately submitted again. I once again felt humiliated that my coach and my teammates and some friends who came to watch all saw me get submitted, probably inside of about 45 seconds this time.

I left the mat and told myself that I couldn’t focus on it because I might have another match (I did not) and I still had gi left. As the hours passed and I had time to reflect on my match, all I could conclude at the time was that I was probably outclassed. Whatever she did to transition to that arm bar was quite smooth (even talking with my coach later he wasn’t quite sure how she got it) and I got caught. My friend took video of it so I am anxious/apprehensive to see it so I can figure out what went wrong.

Before I go on to gi, I have to take a brief detour to complain about why it sometimes (often) stinks to compete as a woman. At first after I finished my match, I couldn’t help but think about the unfairness that I had to compete at advanced with just under two years of experience while the guys had an intermediate division at 18-36 months (I won’t even go into the lack of age divisions for women).

I don’t really want to be whiny and complain about things I can’t change but as I spent the next couple of hours icing my elbow in the hopes that it would be functional for gi, it occurred to me that having women fight as advanced with 18 months of experience was also quite dangerous. As I watched some of the earlier matches and the other competitors were going for foot locks and leg locks it occurred to me that I was in a division where anything was legal and I felt quite unprepared for that as a blue belt.  I am not saying my elbow got popped because I don’t know how to defend arm bars as a blue belt, I know that could have happened in any of my past matches. But at 18 months there are a great many people who are still white belts and I just see a lot of potential for injury in having a division with advanced rules for people who have only been training a year and a half.

I understand that women’s divisions are often quite sparse and that is the reasoning behind the current breakdown but considering we had 7 women in my division, maybe they can add another bracket for women in the future. Ok end of rant…thank you for listening!

So after a few hours of icing, watching some of the guys from my team compete and watching one of my coaches have an epic 70+ minute match with Wilson Reis and then win $1000 in the Rough Zen submission only tournament, it was time for gi.

As I was waiting for the match before mine to end I was thinking about how awesome it would be to come back from my poor showing during no-gi and have a Hollywood moment where I triumphed despite my sore arm. You know, me standing in the crane position while her coaches were yelling “SWEEP THE LEG” (in French as it turns out).

However after my rather insignificant showing in no-gi all I could think was “just don’t get submitted this time, whatever happens, just don’t get submitted!”. In retrospect this is probably not the greatest attitude to go into a match with. So I went in just hoping to last the round and that was exactly what happened.

I do not remember all the details of the match (and sadly I don’t think anyone taped this one). I was trying to do the traditional, knee in the middle guard pass and my coach told me to push up on her belt. I could tell because of how loose her belt was that I was just pushing it right into her boobs. I could see the discomfort on her face and I just couldn’t keep doing it. I didn’t tell my coach that at the time but I just didn’t want to pass guard that way! Sorry coach 🙂

Anyway she eventually got to my back. She tried to go for a bow and arrow and I defended it. We spent most of the match with her attacking and me defending. My only moment of offense was when I noticed she had her feet crossed on my back and I went for the leg lock.

So again, not the result I wanted but I was at least happy that I was able to hang in for the round. I think finally being able to last the entire match is some progress and hopefully will move me past my “I can’t compete with blue belts” mental roadblock.

For now the game plan is to take some time off to heal up (at least two days, possibly the entire week depending on the elbow) then get right back at it. My friend suggested some sports psychology books I will read to work on the mental part of my game and I need to really start working standup more. I just have to stay persistent and it will pay off eventually!

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

I had an awesome day of training yesterday. I went to a women’s open mat at another gym which consisted of a cardio circuit, a little bit of drilling (flying armbars, watch out world!) and then a bunch of rolling. There were 8 women there total. A brown belt was running it and there were 4 blues and 3 high level whites. It was amazing. Something very interesting happened as well but before I tell you that story I must first tell you the story of my most upsetting defeat in a tournament ever.

Let me transport you back in time to July of 2012. “Call me Maybe” was the #1 song on the Billboard top 100, the Philadelphia area was in the midst of a heat wave and there was a certain wide-eyed optimism permeating the BJJ tournament scene at the time. OK July 2012 was not that long ago, most likely you remember it.

I had decided kind of last minute to participate in a local tournament. I had not trained for almost the whole month of May because I had gotten a concussion in a tournament (on May 5th last year…yesterday was my concussion-iversary!) and I had eased back into training in June. I wasn’t sure I was ready to compete but circumstances lent themselves to going so I figured what the heck.

There were only 2 people, including myself, from my gym competing at this particular tournament so there was no one from my gym there when I got there. My coach was coming but in a weird twist of fate, the tournament was running ahead of schedule and my gi division was ready to start. This was not a huge deal to me. As a woman, I am used to going first and this was not my first time competing without anyone in my corner. I lost my first match by getting triangled and then I had a second match to fight for 3rd place (the joys of women’s divisions).

So my second match started and was going very well. I don’t remember all the specifics (it was almost a year ago and I have no tape of it) but I know I got to mount, I got a sweep, I took her back, I was doing everything right. During a scramble I saw that there was a little over a minute left on the clock and realized I was about to win this fight. I don’t remember how but my opponent got to mount. I was not worried because I had a ton of points. I could hear her corner telling her that she had to submit me to win so I was happy to just coast the rest of the time. She got a grip inside my collar and then quickly tried to go for an x-choke. I realized this was not great but I figured she wasn’t going to be able to finish in the time left anyway. And then I did the stupidest thing ever. I tried to peak at the clock to see how much time was left. I peaked at the clock. I lifted my head. I GAVE HER MY NECK. She got the x-choke in and I tapped. When we got up I saw that there had been 12 seconds left. 12 FREAKING SECONDS!!!

I was so upset and humiliated. I couldn’t believe that I had just given a match away. I am not saying she didn’t deserve the win, she was smart to capitalize on my stupidity but I had let my guard down by first letting her get to mound and then not defending the choke better. In another cruel twist of fate, as I was walking off the mat hating myself, my coach came in the door saw me and asked how it went. I waved him off and went to go sulk in private.

To this day that loss haunts me. I was so upset afterwards (that whole tournament was awful) that I was considering taking more time off of BJJ and never competing again. I actually had an awesome moment of motivation on my way home that day that I will save for another post (ooo, suspense!) and in the end I went back to BJJ right away. It ended up working out fine for me because my coach worked with me on some stuff I was doing wrong (he got to see my no-gi division) and it was a good learning experience. I took gold at my next tournament in the gi division and all was well. But I get an awful feeling every time I think of that match.

OK so fast forward to yesterday. “Just Give Me a Reason” was the #1 song…well you probably remember yesterday too. I was getting ready for open mat to start when two people came in the door. I knew I recognized one of them but I couldn’t remember from where. I felt like it was a negative thing and I was trying to think if I didn’t like her for some reason. I think I was staring at her trying to figure it out a little too intensely cause she awkwardly said “hi” and then I felt like a jerk. I figured I had probably just seen her around and shrugged it off.

Well you very smart readers probably realize that this was the woman who had x-choked me in July. I eventually realized it as well, about halfway through the cardio portion of the open mat. As I was drilling the armbar with a teammate of mine I told her who the mystery woman was (most of my training partners have heard the story of that tournament several times). I jokingly said I hoped I got to roll with her so I could get my revenge.

Well as it turns out, we did get to roll together. I didn’t know if she remembered me or not and we were just rotating and rolling with little break in between so we didn’t really get a chance to talk before. We started the roll and I got on top and worked my shoulder pressure. I went for an arm triangle and couldn’t finish it so I rolled up and transitioned into a bow and arrow for the tap.

As we were getting ready to reset I told her that I hoped I hadn’t been too much of a jerk with the shoulder pressure. This is something I worry about with everyone. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know I love me some shoulder pressure. If you’re one of my training partners you definitely know! I constantly am at war with myself about how nasty to make it though. I want to be aggressive but I don’t want to be the jerk who mashes everyone face in and no one wants to roll with. I have recently decided to just go for it and stop worrying but I still feel pangs of guilt on occasion.

She told me that I had been fine and then paused for a second and said “you know you’re the reason I still do this”. I was puzzled by this and asked her what she meant. She said that doing that tournament (and I presume having an awesome victory) had made her realize that she could be doing more worthwhile things with her life than sitting on the couch and watching TV.

Huh…well how do you like that? My darkest hour in BJJ might very well have been her brightest and we both got something we needed from it. She had learned she was capable of more than she thought and found the motivation to continue training. I had to learn to deal with the self-doubt and anger that came from that tournament and find the strength to move past it instead of giving up.

When things don’t work out the way I want I try to think that everything happens for a reason. What seems like the worst thing today is probably leading me on a path for something better. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that positive attitude though, like when you get x-choked in a match with 12 seconds left because you tried to look at the clock. Every now and then though you get a reminder.

One of the guys

Lately some of the guys I train with have been telling me that I have become one of the guys. What this means in the shallowest context is that they will say things about girls who come in for the other classes or they will talk about their weekend shenanigans with no thought to edit it for a lady in the room. I roll my eyes and make sarcastic comments when they do it but I really don’t mind.

I don’t mind because I know it is their way of showing that they respect me and consider me one of them. One of my teammates told me “you’re one of us because you train like us”. It actually makes me really happy to hear them say things like that. I train like a maniac and it’s very hard for me because almost everyone I train with is stronger and bigger and sometimes it just sucks. So knowing that the guys see my hard work and respect me for it gives me the warm fuzzies. I am glad they don’t consider me to be different than them because we are all jiu-jitsu nuts at heart.

But I am different. Sometimes I can’t deny this. I often have my own changing room at the gyms I go to, that’s kind of nice. I don’t have to wear a cup which is both good and bad (the guys often use them as weapons!). I can’t wear a gi without anything underneath the jacket without causing controversy. These are basic differences we all know exist between men and women.

But I know I am not one of the guys when I roll too. It saddens me to admit that but it’s true. I know that sometimes the stronger guys have to completely hold back any use of strength in order not to just crush me and hold me down. I know that they often go to extra efforts to not put all their weight on me so I won’t get smashed. I know that for guys it is tricky to roll with girls sometimes and I really am appreciative of the guys who are not only willing but eager to train with me.

But as much as it is tricky for guys to roll with girls, it is equally tricky for girls to roll with guys. If a guy is using no strength on me than I don’t feel like I can use any on him and it just turns into a flow roll. On the other hand if a guy is using a ton of strength it is sometimes tricky to know whether it’s in my best interest to try to use strength back and thus encourage him to turn it up a notch or just go into defense mode and hope that I survive the round. And sometimes I can just feel my training partner’s lack of desire to be rolling with me, either because he is uncomfortable, afraid to hurt me or whatever reason and then it’s just an unpleasant roll for everyone.

This is not really a problem for me when I train at my gym because I know those guys so well and we are comfortable with each other, but I often go to other gyms to train and am faced with these awkward situations when rolling with new guys. I would like to point out that I am not complaining or trying to say these guys are jerks. I understand that it takes a tricky balance to roll with a girl when you are a big, strong dude and I really do appreciate any guy who will take the chance to train with me. But if you are a man who has ever had a difficult time trying to figure out how much strength and weight to use when rolling with a girl and find it to be somewhat puzzling, imagine being a girl who has to figure this out every roll!

So no matter how much I love rolling with the guys, it will always be different than rolling with girls. I know that they often have the capability to out-muscle me and escape techniques because of size and strength disparity. I have learned to handle strength much better and I know as I keep training and my technique gets better this won’t be as big an issue anymore but even when I can beat a strong guy with technique, he is still stronger and I have to adjust my style to handle that. The same goes for size. There are techniques to deal with someone bigger than you (isn’t BJJ supposed to be the small man’s defense?) but again you have to adjust your style of BJJ when fighting a big guy. How I roll with the guys will always be different than how I’d roll with girls who are closer to my size and strength.

While preparing for the NY Open I had the opportunity to train with women that I don’t typically train with. It made me realize how important training with women is, especially if you want to compete. It is a very different experience to be able to give 100% of your strength and technique to a roll and be able to handle your partner giving 100% back. Also it is so much easier to move around when your partner is closer to your size! The NY Open has come and gone but I have pledged to make it a priority to keep training with these women. I think that it is beneficial for us all plus it’s just really fun.

Now don’t get me wrong. I still love training with the guys. I will probably always train with guys more than girls, that’s just the nature of the sport. I also think that training with the guys is important for every woman, especially when you are training for self-defense. But if you are a woman and you want to compete, or you just want to know what it’s like not to be outsized and outstrengthed all the time, than I think it’s crucial for you to find other women to train with as well.

I enjoy my position as one of the guys at the gym. I earned it and I feel like I am one of them as well (you know from the training standpoint…boys are still hairy, smelly and gross). But I think now and then I just need to be one of the girls.

The danger of getting attached

I’ve been talking a lot with a friend of mine recently about something that happened at her gym. She has recently switched gyms and started training at my former weekend school and has fallen in love with BJJ all over again. She always loved it and trained regularly but now she’s found a gym that’s a better fit for her. I am extremely happy about her switching gyms as well because we are part of the same team now and can train together. Her old gym used to be affiliated with a certain large organization which recently disbanded amidst a ton of scandal (I won’t name names) and they did not allow training outside of said large organization.

When she moved gyms there was also a surprising spike in new female membership. At the beginning of the year there were only two women at the gym, one who has a hectic schedule and does not get to train that often and me who only trained there on the weekends. First my friend joined and then three new girls shortly after her. We tripled the girls in a matter of weeks!

For those of you who are not familiar with what happens to an experienced woman at the gym when a new woman joins, let me explain. I have discussed before that when there are two women training, it is just assumed by everyone that they will drill with each other. It does not matter if one is more experienced or they are nowhere near the same size, they are both chicks and therefore expected to train together.

So as an experienced female grappler, when you see a new woman come in, you know your destiny in class for the foreseeable future. I will admit that sometimes this is frustrating. Sometimes you might want to drill a move with resistance or to roll hard but you are drilling with someone who requires more time and patience to get through class. I realize that both men and women have this experience and that we have all been the new, confused person in class who couldn’t figure out how everyone was locking up a figure 4 for the triangle. It is just that when the new person is a woman, if there is another woman who trains, she is going to spend the majority of her time with the new person in contrast to a new man who has multiple training partners to choose from.

But I really can’t complain too much about this. As women we are particularly invested in keeping the new girls in class. Many women are lucky to have even one other woman at their gym so when a new girl shows up, the excitement over a potential training partner is big. We are willing to invest our time and our training in this new person in the hopes that they will be a good training partner for us in the future.

When I first started at my weekend school, I would be paired with the other woman who trained there every time we were in class together. She has almost 3 years more experience than me and I would often feel bad that she was spending her training time with my spazzy, white-belt self. I said something about it to her one day and she told me that we always want to help our training partners no matter what but that particularly we want to help the women. She told me that she’d help me however she could and that one day I would hopefully be able to pay it forward. I remember this often and always try to be a mentor to the new women who start at our gym.

So back to the present. My friend found herself in the position of being the mentor to all the new girls at the gym because she is there more than any of the others (especially me since I had to stop training there). This was the first time she had been in this position as she trained with higher belts at her old gym. The girls all bonded quickly and would not only hang out in class but also regularly text, Facebook message and plan fun nights out.

Just a couple of weeks ago I asked her how it was going with the girls at the gym and I tried to gently warn her that there was a possibility they might not stick with it. Since I was part of the gym when they started, I am still in the loop somewhat and I was recognizing the signs of someone who was losing interest in training. I have seen many people come and go at my gym and sometimes you just know when someone is not going to stick with it.

Well not surprisingly she texted me Monday and told me that the girl had just informed her that she was quitting. My friend was really upset about it because she felt she had invested a lot of time to help her and now it had gone to waste. I completely understood her frustration. I have been there. Not only are you losing a potential training partner but you’ve just invested weeks, maybe months of your own training time trying to help this person out and it was all for nothing. I also think that as people who are absolutely obsessed with jiu-jitsu it’s just hard for us to understand why anyone would quit anyway…it’s the best thing in the world!

Is it a waste of our time trying to help the new girls if we don’t know if they’re going to stick with it? I can honestly say that I don’t regret any of the time I’ve spent with the new girls at my gym. I would encourage her, and any other woman, to keep doing the same thing. It’s always going to stink when someone you tried to help decides that BJJ is not for them and leaves. You are always going to be sad to lose a potential training partner and friend. But they are not always going to quit BJJ. Every now and then someone will stick with it and you will know that you were a large part of that.

So women, keep helping those new girls out. BJJ is hard for anyone who is new but particularly for women and having you there is going to be a big help for them. Hopefully you will get the privilege of seeing some of them stick with it and then pay it forward with other new girls. And I am not leaving you out here guys. If there is a new girl at the school, drill with her every now and then. It’s good for everyone to have a variety of drilling partners and friendliness from some of the guys might help her feel more comfortable. We all have some BJJ kindness to pay forward.

The Gentle Artist

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