I am continuing my focus of working on my aggression and mental game and it has been going well so far. I have realized that in pushing myself I have to not only be aggressive but I also have to learn to let go of some of my fear.
When I was at the women’s camp last weekend, I noticed that I was enjoying the rolls a lot. Typically when I am rolling with people for the first time, I am very reserved while I try to feel out their rolling style. I started to wonder why I felt so much more comfortable in this environment and then it occurred to me. I wasn’t scared.
It is really hard for me, probably for anyone in BJJ, to admit that they have fear. How can you have fear when your favorite thing to do involves getting beat up on a regular basis? However I realize that I cannot overcome the fear if I don’t admit that it is there and I need to move past it to go to the next level.
So where does the fear come from? I think there is a natural amount of fear for anyone who does BJJ. There are about a billion different ways you can get hurt. I think there is arguably more fear when you are smaller and weaker than most of the people you train with though. You know that you can get outmuscled and hurt a lot easier than your bigger, stronger counterparts. Chances are that you have gotten manhandled in a way that has made you feel awful and/or uncomfortable at some point. I know I have.
Here is the story of what I consider my scariest roll to date. It was shortly after I had begun training at my weekend school and I was in for Sunday basics class. I was working with a new guy who had been training about a month. We were drilling armbar/triangle/omoplata transitions. I spent most of the class showing him what the various moves were as he was brand new (I had probably been training about 7 or 8 months at the time) and he was very nice the entire time. We got to the end of class and he stayed on the mat to roll. I was surprised that after a month he was allowed to roll but the instructor didn’t say anything about him being there so I figured it was ok.
He asked me if I wanted to roll and I said yes. Since he was brand new I thought he would go very light and just figured I would let him get me into guard and work what we’d been drilling. That was a mistake. As soon as we bumped fists he lunged at me and took me down to the ground…hard. I got him into guard and he was trying his hardest to do an americana from there. I had just opened my mouth to tell him that wasn’t really a high percentage submission from guard as I could just use my legs to bring him forward and ruin the leverage when he got frustrated, yanked me up by the arm (the one he had the americana hold on), twisted said arm behind my back and threw me about 4 feet to the side. I think that I started yelling “TAP” in midair and he quickly got off me and we reset.
In retrospect now I should have realized it was not good for me to keep going but I thought that it was my fault because I had thought he was going to go light and I was clearly not prepared. I figured if I took it up a notch this time I would do better. That was mistake number two. Even though I was “prepared” for him going harder this time, I couldn’t keep up with his speed and strength. He managed to twist my body into some weird position that I was not familiar with and then got frustrated and tackled me again. I think there was another submission after that and then the round ended. He told me when the round ended that he had been going for a knee bar and asked me if he had set it up right. I told him I didn’t know as I had never trained one. He told me he hadn’t either but he had seen it on YouTube.
I left immediately after this because I realized that I had hurt my ribs but even if I hadn’t, I would have had no desire to roll anymore. I will admit that I cried the whole way home. This was the first time I had ever felt so uncomfortable during a roll. So much was going through my mind. Was this what it was going to be like if I kept training with all guys? Could I keep doing BJJ if it was? Was my partner so concerned about “winning” that he didn’t care if he hurt me or any other partner? Did he not realize that he was completely manhandling me and didn’t need to be going that hard? In a way it felt like a violation. I had trusted him with both my training and my safety and I felt he let me down on both.
However, I also learned some very valuable lessons that day. One was to be very cautious when rolling with new people. I had always heard this but I guess it was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I also learned that if I am uncomfortable with a roll that I should just stop it. I think that is hard for everyone. No one wants to admit that they can’t handle a roll but it is better to stop a roll or ask someone to take it down a notch than to get hurt and spend time off that mat (I had to take off for about a week and my rib continued to hurt for weeks after).
So this was, I believe, the end of my “I’m going to kick everyone’s ass!” mentality and the beginning of my cautious, safe rolling. I had taken it up a notch and so had he and it had ended poorly for me. I also spent so much time after that guarding my sore ribs that all I did was play defense. This was not a conscious decision on my part to stop being aggressive and play safe but I think it was always in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to go hard and make the boys go harder because they were always going to be stronger.
Now that I have realized what I was doing it has been completly liberating to let go of that fear. That doesn’t mean that I am just attacking everyone with no concern about getting hurt. I know most of the guys I train with and I know that I can trust most of them. I will always be cautious about rolling with new people and I will stop a roll if I feel like it is out of control.
But by not worrying about safety first and BJJ second, I am able to raise my level of aggression and I am seeing some great results. So if you are smaller and weaker know that you will always have to be a little bit more concerned about safety but don’t roll scared. Trust the partners who have earned that trust, let go of the fear and have some fun!
As those of you who have read my previous posts have gathered, I often think about BJJ from the aspect of size and strength. I am constantly trying to learn tricks for how to deal with bigger, stronger people because most of the people in the gym are bigger and stronger than me. However I am also sometimes in the position where I am the bigger, stronger (perhaps, I don’t really think I am stronger than anyone) person. I am smaller and not as strong as most of the guys I train with. I am not, however, smaller than most of the women I train with. I have decent size for a woman, I am about 5’ 6” and around 150lbs (trying to get to 140) so outside of BJJ I would not consider myself “small”. I was, in fact, very overweight from the time I was a child until I was 24. Because of this I am always very aware of my size.
When I first started training BJJ our program was quite small and there was only one other woman who regularly trained there. She was (and continues to be) very small. She is maybe 5’ 1” or 5’ 2” and around 115 pounds. I weighed more when I started BJJ so I was probably 45 or 50 pounds more than her at the time. Because we were the only two girls, we always drilled together and very often rolled together. This is one of the things that kind of sucks about being a girl in BJJ. In a lot of schools you are lucky if there is even one other woman to train with. Never mind that you might be completely different sizes, you are just excited to find another girl.
So the small girl was my most frequent training partner when I first started. Even when we would have liked to mix it up and drill with someone else, the coaches and our teammates would see that both of us were in class and they just assumed we’d be working together so we did. It became pretty clear to me early on that she did not like it when I put my weight on her. She would grimace, she would wince, she would even come straight out and ask me to not put so much weight on her. As a person who grew up overweight, I am hyper-sensitive when it comes to my weight. All I could think about was that I was crushing this small girl with my massive self. I got used to leaving space between us so I didn’t have to put weight on her, I avoided all moves where I had to put pressure on her and basically did everything you are not supposed to do in BJJ. Because of the fact that this was how I was drilling everything, this is what I was doing when rolling as well.
I stopped training with the smaller girl as much because she couldn’t make class as frequently and also was out with injuries a couple of times so I got to spend more time drilling with the guys. Around the same time I started training at my weekend school as well. The lead instructor there is a small guy. He is maybe 130lbs. He understands the small man’s game. He taught me a lot about using shoulder pressure (any of my teammates can tell you that shoulder pressure is my absolute favorite thing) and how to strategically place your weight to control your opponents. He might only be 130lbs but he can make you feel like there is 250lbs holding you down. He also made me realize how important it was to leave no space between your opponent and yourself.
Training with the guys and learning from my new coach made me realize that I had developed a lot of bad habits by working with someone much smaller than me who couldn’t handle my weight. I had to basically relearn everything with an emphasis on using body pressure. I am not trying to blame my smaller teammate or accuse her of being a bad partner. If you are a guy reading this, picture a training partner of yours who is 50 pounds heavier or lighter than you and think of the issues you have drilling and rolling with this person. Now imagine that this is the person you train with 75% of the time and how that would affect your game.
I think about this when I am working with the guys. I don’t want my size and strength to be an issue for them and I don’t want them learning bad habits because of me. I never tell them not to put their weight on me even though I know some of them do not. Honestly I think everyone finds pressure unpleasant. I can’t imagine even a big guy is comfortable with 150 pounds sitting on his chest. I have accepted that training BJJ means that I am going to get squished a lot. I like getting squished. I sort of feel like one has to in order to keep training.
On the other hand, I have also realized that I am not doing me or my smaller partners any favors by not putting any pressure on them or leaving tons of space so that I do not put weight on them. This is not to say that I lay all my weight on top of them and watch them squirm beneath me. I try to use strategic pressure (shoulder pressure. all. day. long.) and take away space.
So where am I going with all this? I don’t really know. I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a good training partner. We have an obligation to keep ourselves safe but we also have an obligation to make sure our training partners are getting their work in. It’s a constant balance. How do we find that balance? Again I don’t know. I guess like all things BJJ we just keep on training until we figure it out.