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.
There are certain universal truths that I’ve had to accept as a woman who trains jiu-jitsu. One being that whenever the instructions of a move include “put your hands on your partner’s chest”, there will be a moment of awkwardness as my partner tries to figure out where to put his hands. Another being that I have to remember to be super careful when I’m doing cut passes while rolling with the guys. These are not particularly annoying things and I’ve accepted them as part of training.
One of the things I’ve had to acknowledge and accept though still bugs me and probably always will. That thing (sorry to get all technical with the terminology) is the fact that no matter how much I train, no matter how good I get, I will never be able to be as physically strong as the guys I train with. It’s just not possible. It’s not a matter of giving up, it’s just simple biology.
Now some of you might be thinking “oh great, another girl who is going to complain about strength”. To you I’d say, shut up and stop reading my blog! No wait, I kid, I kid…come back! The reason that you hear a lot of women, and smaller guys for that matter, talk about strength a lot is because it is not something that is ever going to go away. Knowing that I am smaller and weaker than the guys I train with affects each and every roll I have with them.
When I am rolling with the bigger, stronger guys at the gym, I often find myself not even attempting submissions. Knowing that much of the time they are likely going to be able to use their strength to escape the submission, I tend to focus on sweeps and position instead of submission. This is particularly true during no-gi weeks when I can’t even rely on grips.
It also changes what kinds of sweeps and escapes I will go for when rolling. There are just times when I doubt my ability to execute a move while I have the weight of someone who is 50-80 pounds bigger than me on top of me. And of course any time you roll as the smaller, weaker person you have to think about your personal safety first before you think about BJJ as you are much more likely to get hurt than your bigger, stronger opponent.
This is not always a bad thing. If I ever had to use BJJ for self-defense the chances are that I would be fighting a stronger guy who outweighs me so training like this is great preparation for real world applications of jiu-jitsu. But at times like this, when I am trying to prepare for tournaments, I sometimes find it really frustrating. The game I would play against a girl my size is different than the game I play with a bigger guy and so sometimes I worry that training with the boys isn’t always the best way to get ready for competition.
I also find that being weaker makes it harder for me to understand when I get submitted because of bad technique or lack of strength. There are times when I know that someone used brute force to get a submission, for example when someone lays on top of me, holds me down and spends a few minutes digging my arm out from where I’ve safely tucked it in to lock it and get the submission (this is a personal pet peeve of mine). But I also want to be careful not to blame strength every time I get submitted as I know sometimes it was a failure on my part.
I am also aware that there are women who will be stronger than me and thus this is not a problem isolated to rolling with men. All things being equal, strength is often the determining factor. The problem is that I will never have the strength the guys have so it makes it difficult for me to gauge sometimes what would and would not work with an opponent of my size and strength.
But besides the affect it has on tournament prep, there are times when being the weakest person is just humiliating. When a guy who is new to rolling manages to get me in a weird position and get the tap on a move I know would not work on 90% of the gym, I can’t help but feel embarrassed. I get caught in positions that most of my training partners would not and sometimes it just sucks.
One time during open mat a few months ago, I was rolling with a newer guy who is very big and strong. Somewhere in a scramble he went for a triangle but did not manage to capture my arm and ended up just trapping my head between his thighs and using his strength to pin me to the floor. Since the triangle didn’t work and he wasn’t sure how to transition he just started squeezing my head with his thighs. He was so strong I couldn’t get his legs off of me but it was not something I wanted to tap to. He continued to squeeze for a bit and I finally looked up at him from my precarious position near his groin and said something along the lines of “um…you know this isn’t actually a submission right?” to which he replied that he did but inexplicably kept squeezing my head until the round ended shortly after.
I know that a lot of the humiliation and embarrassment comes from me. In my head when the new guys catch me in something because I am not strong enough to escape it, I picture them bragging to everyone about how they beat a blue belt when they have barely started rolling. I know that anyone can get caught by anyone on any given day but I sometimes feel like I am the low-hanging fruit for the new guys. This is just something I have to get over or I’ll continue to feel frustrated. But I think there will always be times when I get caught in something stupid and want to stand up, stomp my feet and scream NO FAIR.
I also know that even though I will not ever be able to match the strength of my male training partners, I can learn to deal with it. I handle strength now so much better than I used to. When I first started training and I would roll with a big, strong guy, my way of handling it was to curl up in the fetal position under said big, strong guy and pray for a quick round. I am now focusing on using their strength to get position when they over-commit their weight and I have to believe that as I keep training, more submissions will come. Someday I will not be the one who gets caught with her head being squeezed between a white belt’s legs.
So what is the point of all this rambling? I guess part of it comes from the fact that while I am preparing for my upcoming tournaments (NY Open next week and then probably Grappler’s Quest the week after), I am feeling the frustration of lack of similar training partners.
Admittedly, some of it comes from my ongoing quest to make people understand that it is sometimes really difficult to train when you are the weakest person in the gym. I was teasing one of my training partners a few weeks ago and telling him he wished that he was as strong as I was. I jokingly said “it’s easy to come to the gym and train when you are the biggest and strongest, try coming when you are smaller and weaker than everyone else”.
As I reflected on the exchange later I started to think I was at least partly right (of course I always think I’m right). I also realized that probably the big guys would never truly understand what it is like for me to train, just like I am sure they face training challenges I cannot understand. Being out-muscled is the cross I will always have to bear when I train. So I guess I just wanted to share some of my thought on why sometimes it sucks to be me.
Note: I am very sorry for the long delay in posts and for the fact that I have not kept up with anyone else’s blog in the last couple of weeks. I am on a very code heavy project at work right now so have had very little down time. Add to that the fact that I accidentally wiped out a whole chunk of code last week that I had to recreate on my own time over the weekend (the title of this post is what my boss said to me when I told him about the missing code and my plan to replace it) and hopefully you can understand the delay. I will do my best to catch up and keep up from now on though!
“Leave your ego at the door”. Anybody who trains has seen this slogan. I always used to think that it meant that you should train humbly without thinking you are better than those you train with so that you are open to learning. I still think it means this in part but lately I have been thinking about another interpretation of the phrase.
I’ve been discussing with a training partner of mine her growing frustration with jiu-jitsu. She is somewhat of a perfectionist and has admitted that she gets very aggravated because she can’t get moves exactly right the first time we drill them. I long ago realized that perfection is rare and elusive in jiu-jitsu. My goal when I am training is to pick up something new each time I drill something. Tricks to tighten up a triangle, where to put pressure when doing a pass, etc. I do this and I know my game gets better but that there are still many holes in it.
I also often feel frustrated when I am doing something new and I don’t know where to start or when I feel like I am not good at something so it is curious to me that I don’t also feel this level of frustration. I think some of it comes from the fact that I was not involved in competitive athletics at all before I started training. I was overweight until I was in my early 20s and then I did various exercisey things (biking, some running, weight training) but nothing that involved competition so I didn’t have a background of being a successful athlete to compare my jiu-jitsu training to.
I also had a somewhat unique training experience when I started jiu-jitsu. The jiu-jitsu program was new at the school when I started (we were previously a Muay Thai and kickboxing school) so most of us in the class were new. I wasn’t regularly getting my ass handed to me by people who had been training years longer than me so I probably didn’t feel my newness as much as some other people do.
But now it’s a couple of years later. I do get my ass regularly handed to me both by people with more experience than me and, sadly, people with less experience. The more I’ve learned about jiu-jitsu the more I’ve realized that I don’t know anything about jiu-jitsu. I am probably years away from “good”. So why do I still love jiu-jitsu? Why don’t I feel frustrated?
Probably a lot of it is because I came in with low expectations for myself. I didn’t have a history of being successful at athletics so I didn’t have anything to compare my training to. I also probably have lower than average self-esteem so didn’t really expect much from myself when I started to train. I am not saying low expectations and bad self-esteem are assets here but if you don’t go into jiu-jitsu expecting to excel it is not very disappointing when you do not.
I can only imagine how frustrated I would be now if I decided to take up something besides jiu-jitsu, say skiing, and had to start at the bottom. Actually I don’t have to imagine that. I took my first and only ski lesson last year and got so upset with my inability to do it that I ended up taking off the skis and walking down the last part of the trail while the instructor was screaming at me to put my skis back on (hey, there was no way I was going to get a broken leg and miss training). So I can imagine that those who come in with a history of past success would be completely frustrated by starting jiu-jitsu.
So am I saying that I never feel frustrated when training? Um, no. There are days when I am being held down and muscled around or just plain out jiu-jitsued that I leave feeling like I want to burn my gi, pick up a pizza on the way home and never return to the gym again. When I am feeling this way I console myself by remembering that I am just paying my dues. That I have to experience getting beaten so that I can learn how to win. That I have to be out-muscled so I can learn how to deal with strength. And I know that the only way I will learn how to deal with these things is to keep training. So that’s what I do.
It seems obvious to tell someone who is feeling frustrated or depressed by their perceived lack of ability that they just need to train more. One of my favorite things to say to people when they are upset about something jiu-jitsu related is “the only solution to a jiu-jitsu problem is more jiu-jitsu” (unless the jiu-jitsu problem is a broken limb or something, then more jiu-jitsu might not be the answer). But telling someone to train more is not going to make them feel less frustrated.
I think that to lose the frustration associated with jiu-jitsu a person has to be willing to let go of their past success and ideas of perfection. They have to accept that they are going to be awful for a while. They have to be willing to get their asses handed to them in the name of learning. It’s a very difficult and humbling journey and not everyone is ready to take it. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll never be ready. So if you are someone who is feeling frustrated by jiu-jitsu my advice to you is to keep training because you’ll get better and it will become less frustrating. You might have to check your ego at the door but that door is always open.