Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fighters vs. Martial Artists

There are plenty of tough guys out there...and a lot of them are very skilled fighters.  However, that doesn't make them "martial artists".  There is a difference.  It is ultimately up to you which category you fall into.

Clearly, in a martial arts class, you will learn how to fight.  In fact, Jiu-jitsu is considered to be one of the most effective fighting arts on the planet!  And through learning to fight, you may, and likely will, develop a level of "toughness".  Constantly dealing with being put under pressure, being put in compromising positions, and learning to still survive and keep going can develop a lot of grit.  But these things alone don't make you a martial artist, at least not in the way that I think of the word.  Being a martial artist takes more than physical fighting skill, more than toughness.  It is really about your character.

At first, many might scoff at the idea that learning how to throw people, choke people, delivering devastating strikes and breaking limbs is a good way to develop your moral character.  But, it in fact can do just that.  However it does not come automatically.  It has to do with your intention.  We learn to fight because we understand that we have not only a right, but rather an obligation to be able to defend ourselves and our loved ones if placed in harms way.  But, as the famous quote says, "with great power comes great responsibility".  We carry ourselves confidently in the face of adversity with the knowledge that the skills that we develop will keep us safe, but also understanding the responsibility to avoid having to use them if at all possible. We train to fight so that we don't have to.

Through the rigors of training, we also will encounter struggle.  We will fail.  We will deal with obstacles in the path of our development.  How we learn to overcome these obstacles and deal with failure helps us to develop not only physical toughness, but inner strength.  These are opportunities to  confront and work on our own inner demons-fear, doubt, hopelessness, negativity, etc.  Facing and overcoming these things helps us to grow and become better people, and THAT is what martial arts is ultimately about-becoming the best version of you that you are capable of!

Since the earliest days of organized martial arts, going back to the Feudal Era of Japan, people realized that warriors or fighters who were not of strong moral character could be very dangerous.  That is why the Japanese warrior class developed a code of ethics, known as Bushido, that would guide them in their daily lives, both on and off the battlefield.  This Warrior Code still exists today, in various forms, in many martial arts academies.  We have a version of this hanging on the wall of our academy, the 7-5-3 Code™.  This code which was organized by the Valente Brothers, is a way of representing how we can best live a healthy, prepared, and virtuous life both on and off the mat, and how our training can help us to deal with problems in our daily lives.

This 7-5-3 Code™ refers to the "Seven Virtues of a Warrior": Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, & Loyalty; the "Five Keys to Health": Nutrition, Exercise, Rest, Hygiene, and Positivity; and the "Three States of Mind": Awareness, Balance, and Flow.  You can learn more about the 7-5-3 Code™ here.

There are countless examples of people who have been great fighters, world champions in boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, or mixed martial arts, highly skilled in many respects; but lacking in moral character.  Some have been involved in drug trafficking, child molestation, rape, or even murder. Some may not have even committed any of these types of overt acts, but yet the way that they choose to lead their lives leave a lot to be desired.  These are not, in my opinion, martial artists.  Of course, we are all human, and we all are subject to make mistakes.  None of us are perfect by any means.  However, the martial artist always strives to be better, recognizing their flaws and imperfections, but always working to overcome them.  They lead their lives in a purposeful way, trying to not only better themselves, but to make the world they live in, and the people around them better.  Ultimately, that is an individual choice.  But, the benefits of the latter are numerous.  I would encourage all of you to consider that way you lead your life, and let your training help you to fulfill a greater purpose than just becoming a hardened human weapon.  I am privileged to be part of a team that highly values moral character, not just physical skill, and one that, I think cultivates these qualities in all of our members.  Train hard, be hard to kill, become a very tough, skilled, and technical fighter...but also, strive to be a better human!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Fighting Strategy of Jiu-jitsu

Jiu-jitsu, as it was originally conceived, is a fighting art.  It was designed for combat, and as it evolved through years of trial and error in real fights, developed into one of the most sophisticated and effective forms of fighting the world has ever seen! Most Jiu-jitsu practitioners from my generation got into the art because we witnessed what Royce Gracie did in the early days of the UFC, taking on bigger, stronger, very skilled opponents, and vanquishing them with techniques of the "gentle art" that his family was so paramount in developing.  Some of the things that continues to make Jiu-jitsu such a dominant martial art, and a staple of every professional fighter, is the liveness of training-constantly putting our techniques to the test against a resisting opponent in a live setting-and the fighting strategy that makes it so successful. So what exactly is that fighting strategy?

The Jiu-jitsu fighter does not seek a fair fight.  If we are to assume that our opponent is likely to be bigger, stronger, and more athletic, it is already, by its very nature unfair.  So, the strategy of the Jiu-jitsu fighter is not to meet the opponent on equal grounds.  Rather, in order to provide the best chance of being successful, the Jiu-jitsu fighter seeks to put themselves in a situation in which they can do damage to their opponent, while minimizing their opponent's opportunity to do damage to them.  This is the basis behind the concept of positional dominance that is so key to understanding Jiu-jitsu's fighting strategy.  There is a hierarchy of positions, based on providing the fighter with the most control over their opponent, while simultaneously limiting their opponent's opportunities to effectively do damage.  At the top of this hierarchy are positions such as the mount, back control, and knee on belly.  These are positions in which one fighter clearly has a positional advantage over the other, from which they have more opportunity to launch attacks including striking techniques and submission holds over their opponent, who is in a clearly defensive posture.  Other techniques, such as forms of the guard, are more neutral positions, in which the fighter, while on the bottom of the fight (which is always an inferior position) can utilize their arms and legs to effectively control their opponent and minimize their potential to inflict damage, while also providing them a platform to launch successful attacks.  This heirarchy of position is fundamental to understanding the Jiu-jitsu fighters strategy, and leads to the often heard adage "position before submission".

In other words, the Jiu-jitsu fighter doesn't proceed with reckless abandon, relying on strength and athleticism.  Rather, they follow a carefully conceived strategic framework, looking to always improve their position relative to their opponent first, before launching an attack.  Achieve a dominant position, effectively controlling the opponent and neutralizing their ability to effectively attack, and then finish the fight through striking techniques, or some form of submission hold, utilizing leverage to give them a mechanical advantage over their opponent.

Utilizing this idea, there are several easily recognizable phases of a fight, and specific strategies in each that the Jiu-jitsu fighter uses to accomplish their goal of defeating their opponent.  The first of these is where the fight normally starts, with two fighters standing on their feet squared up with each other.  We can refer to this phase as the "free movement phase".  Because there is no contact yet between the two fighters, they both have freedom over their own movement and neither is in control of the other.  This phase of the fight can be very dangerous, because, without contact, the fighters rely primarily on their visual cues alone to anticipate the movements and reactions of their opponents.  Often, in this phase, the fighter who has quicker reaction time, better footwork, etc. will have the advantage.  But, what is important is that, at least in theory, it is a fair fight.  Anything that one fighter can do, the other fighter can do as well.  In this phase, the Jiu-jitsu fighter's objective is to stay out of range, utilizing footwork and striking techniques to keep the opponent away at a safe distance until they have an opportunity to establish a clinch.

The next phase then, is the clinch.  In this phase, the fighter closes the distance, attaching themselves and tightly wrapping their arms around their opponent.  The purpose of the clinch, primarily, is to enable to Jiu-jitsu fighter to safely transition into a grappling range, where they can better control and anticipate their opponent's reactions, and utilize their body weight and leverage, while minimizing their opponent's ability to land damaging strikes.  By closing the space between themselves and their opponent, the take away the distance necessary to land powerful strikes which have the potential to knock them out or do significant damage.

After establishing the clinch, the Jiu-jitsu fighter will often seek to take the fight to the ground.  This can be accomplished either by off-balancing and taking down their opponent, or, in some circumstances, pulling a form of guard, accepting the bottom position, with the strategy of utilizing the legs to defend and attack from the bottom.  The ground grappling phase is what Jiu-jitsu is most commonly known for.  Why is this such a common theme in the strategy of Jiu-jitsu fighters?  Often, fights will end up on the ground naturally.  As the two combatants are moving around, pushing, pulling, attempting to establish control, often there is a loss of balance that results in one or both participants ending up on the ground.  This can be seen often in street fights where going to the ground isn't a strategy, but more often just a matter of circumstance.  For the Jiu-jitsu fighter though, it is often a deliberate strategy.  By taking the fight to the ground, the Jiu-jitsu fighter is able to minimize the size and strength difference of a larger opponent, particularly if they are able to control the top position.  Because the ground provides a stable surface, the Jiu-jitsu fighter can more effectively use their body weight to control their opponent's movement and immobilize them, restricting their ability to escape.  This leads to our next phase of the fight-securing a dominant position.

Dominant positions are those in which one fighter has a distinct leverage advantage over their opponent, and one in which they are able to more effectively able to utilize offensive maneuvers, including powerful strikes and joint locks/chokes to subdue or control their opponent.  And, conversely, a position in which it is difficult for the opponent to launch any form of effective offense. Again, there are a heirarchy of various positions, with positions such as knee on belly, mount, and back control being at the top. In this manner, the Jiu-jitsu fighter can slowly wear down a more powerful opponent, allowing them to struggle and tire themselves out, while using efficient movements and a minimal amount of energy. The Jiu-jitsu fighter's main objective is to maintain dominant control first, before seeking opportunities to finish the fight right away.

Finally, the ultimate objective is to finish the fight, subduing the opponent by means of striking techniques (often these strikes are meant primarily to create movement and open up opportunities for submissions or improvements in position-particularly if the opponent is much larger and more powerful) or submission holds (chokes and joint locks).  These holds may be used simply to control the opponent or to render them unconscious (in the case of chokes/strangles) or incapacitate them by hyperextending various joints, causing (sometimes permanent) damage to the bones, ligaments, and tendons.  In the context of training, this "kill" is represented by the tap, where one person willfully submits to the other, so that these positions and techniques can be practiced safely.

All of these various phases of the fight encompass a general strategic framework for the Jiu-jitsu fighter.  These are not hard and fast rules, but more guidelines.  Often these phases will happen in different orders or some maybe bypassed altogether, as the situation dictates.  For example, it is not ALWAYS the best idea to take the fight to the ground, due to environment factors, multiple opponents, etc.  But following these general principles will help to better understand the strategy by which the Jiu-jitsu fighter can be effective, even when confronted with a larger, stronger, more athletic opponent.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Resolve to Make Your Jiu-jitsu Better!

Well, here we's a new year!  This is the time that we traditionally look back on the past year and resolve to be better.  The stereotypical New Years Resolutions, most of which typically don't last more than a couple of weeks.  This is a great time to rededicate yourself and really make a commitment to training again!  That's a great start, but what can you do to make sure that you actually follow through?

Unfortunately, in Jiu-jitsu, the statistics are not in your favor.  Those who have spent any significant amount of time on the mat can attest to the many, many people that they have seen come and go over the years.  I remember distinctly, and am somewhat embarrassed to admit, that, prior to being a school owner, when I was just another student training, I got to a point where I wouldn't even bother learning someone's name until they made it to blue belt, because chances are, once I got to know them, they would disappear.  I'm not proud of it, but it's true.  I don't recommend this practice by the way.  I was just continually disappointed by teammates that didn't share the same commitment level I did.  Unfortunately, many of you....even some of you who consider yourselves extremely motivated and dedicated right now, will eventually fade away.  I sincerely hope that this is not the case....but my past experience says otherwise.  This doesn't have to be the case for you though, and I hope that it's not! So how can you make sure that you live up to the goals that you set for yourself and make sure you don't fall through the cracks?

Make Training a Priority
Everyone will miss class from time to time.  Sometimes, life just gets in the way.  Illness, injuries, or unexpected situations may come up once in a while and keep you off the mat.  Just try not to make it a habit.  Showing up for training is a habit....not showing up is also.  Make it a priority to get to class consistently.  If you want to be serious about your training and make real progress, consistency over time is the key.  If training is just something you do when nothing else is going on, invariably, something will come up.  Make it a regular and important part of your schedule.  Block out your training times on the days you plan to train so that other things don't interfere.

Don't Take Extended "Breaks"
Sometimes, you need to take a week off that mat.  Sometimes, you need to let your body recover, you need to reset mentally, maybe you're taking a short vacation (although often you can take your gi with you and find a way to train).  This is perfectly normal and OK.  However, I don't recommend taking extended breaks from training.  In my experience, it is very rare for a student to take a break for a month or more and ever return to the mat.  Even with the best of intentions, other things begin to take up that time that you previously dedicated to training and take priority.  And, the longer you are off the mat, the harder it is to come back, both physically, and mentally.

Hold Each Other Accountable
Jiu-jitsu is hard.  We all struggle from time to time, and everyone has days where they would rather just stay home on the couch than go to class.  Often, what keeps us coming back in is our training partners.  Hold yourself and your training partners accountable!  Call up that teammate that you like to train with and make sure that they're planning on showing up, and they will return the favor for you.

Participate in Team Events
This goes along the lines with the previous point.  The social aspect of Jiu-jitsu is very important.  It keeps us engaged and keeps training fun, because we're among friends.  So, cultivate this!  As much as possible, participate in team get togethers and events off the mat.  Engage with your training partners outside of class.  The bond that we share on the mat through sweat and blood is very valuable, and this is a good way to make that even stronger.  And it is very important because, again, these are the people that you're going to show up for.

Keep a Notebook/Journal
This is a great way to not only recall details of technique, but also to keep track of your progress.  I recommend writing your notes immediately after class while it is fresh in your mind, and then reviewing your notes before the next class.  Remember to write down any questions you have to, so that you can remember them the next time your instructor asks for questions.

Keep Jiu-jitsu Fun
What keeps us coming back to Jiu-jitsu is that we have a lot of fun doing it! Sure, it's hard work, there's frustration and sometimes confusion.  But, you should leave training with a smile on your face.  A lot of this is about having the right attitude.  Don't take it too seriously.  Of course, you want to pay attention to detail and always work on improving, but try not to get to frustrated when you screw up.  All of us do, and it's the process by which we learn.  So, maintain emotional balance.  Don't get too emotionally attached to your mistakes, just learn from them and move on.  But keep smiling and stay positive, because as long as you're on the mat, you're getting better whether you realize it or not!

Set Short Term Goals
Sure, ultimately your goal may be to receive your black belt in Jiu-jitsu, and that's of course a very admirable goal.  However, it's a very long road to get there.  So, it helps if you break that off into more manageable chunks, so you can better track your progress.  Maybe it's your next belt, or even your next stripe.  But, it doesn't have to be tied to rank at all.  Maybe it's trying to figure out that sweep from the guard that you're struggling with. So, spend the extra 5-10 minutes before or after class with a partner getting some reps in with that move until you feel comfortable.  Then, maybe your goal is to hit that move on all of your training partners at your level.  Start with the smaller ones first, then work your way up.  When you can successfully pull it off at will on all of them, start trying it on the people who are a little ahead of your level, and so on.  No, chances are, as a white belt, you're probably not going to pull off your new move on one of the brown or black belts.  But go for it anyway!  It will show you the vulnerability of the position and give you some insight on where it fails and where to go from there.  And, you will definitely get much better at the position than you were previously.  Keep your long term goals in mind, but focus on more reasonable, more attainable smaller goals along the way, and before you know it, you will be knocking on the door of that long term goal!

Always be Working on Something
Technique wise, you should always have something specific in mind that you are focusing on.  It's a good idea to focus on what you feel are weak areas-positions you struggle with-and really dive into those.  Drilling and reps are your best friend, but specific positional sparring is also a great tool to help you master these positions.  The point is, have a specific focus every time you show up, particularly in sparring.  If you're working on, for example, escaping side control, you have to put yourself in that position so that you can work on your escapes.  So, if that is your focus, when you're sparring don't spend a lot of time trying to take down your partner and maintaining top position.  Whatever it is that you choose to work on, it helps you to maintain a little more focus and purpose to your training sessions.

Listen to Your Body
While it's good to push your limitations, sometimes you need to listen when your body is telling you it's had enough.  It's great to work hard, but allowing your body to recover is just as important.  It's OK to take a day off.  Sometimes you may need to take a week of.  That's fine.  Just don't let it turn into multiple weeks, and try not to make it a consistent habit.  But, it's better to rest a few days, then to keep pushing too hard and get injured and potentially miss more mat time.  Sometimes this means staying off the mat, but often you can come in and just watch class and take notes or just do some light drilling.  You don't have to spar every time you train, and every time you spar doesn't have to be a fight to the death!    It's a long road, so pace yourself.

Remember Why You Started
Why did you first walk through the doors of the academy?  Maybe it was because you wanted to get in better shape, to find a new fun activity, to learn to defend yourself, to improve your focus or self-confidence?  Whatever your personal reason, I would be willing to wager that you are closer to achieving that now than you were when you first started.  Keep that in mind when you feel like you want to give up.  You've invested a lot of time, money, and sweat to get to where you are now.  But you still have room to continue to get better.  And you will....if you stick with it.  Everyone has times where they feel like just quitting.  It's definitely the easier way.  There are plenty of excuses you can make for why you didn't achieve what you set out to do.  However, there are many more reasons to stick with it!  I promise you, if you dedicate yourself to consistent practice, the rewards will be well worth all the effort!  I don't know too many people who have quit Jiu-jitsu that look back on that decision in a positive light.  Most of the time, what I hear from these people is, "man, I wish I had never let myself quit".  But don't worry....if you are in that situation, it's never to late to come back to the mat.  Your instructor and training partners will be very happy to welcome you back!  You are going to be somewhere ten years from might as well be a black belt in Jiu-jitsu!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Taking Accountability

One of the biggest transitions that a Jiu-jitsu student will make along their journey is when they take make the step to take ownership and accountability for their own training and progress.  This is a huge landmark moment in a student's development, and it generally signals the beginning of a rapid period of growth.  And this moment comes sooner along the process for some than it does for others. In the beginning, a new student doesn't even have a concept of what Jiu-jitsu is.  They show up for class each day, expecting to be fed new information and do their best to absorb it.  They go through the motions, trying to replicate to the best of their ability what the instructor is showing.  At this stage, even though the student may be very enthusiastic about learning the art, they often don't have the capability to know what they can do to help to expedite the learning process.  But one of the best ways to see progress in your training is to really take your development into your own hands.  Here are a couple of ways that you can help to take accountability for your own training.

Show Up-This one is probably the MOST important.  Unfortunately, you can't get better at Jiu-jitsu sitting at home on the couch.  You have to come to class.  The people who come in and get on the mat consistently get better.  The ones who don't, won't.  And while your instructor and teammates may and should check on you from time to time if you haven't been in for a while, ultimately it is up to you.  Everyone has a life outside of the academy and things that sometime will get in the way of making it to class.  But those should be an exception.  Make training a priority and you will find a way to make it happen.  The best way to do this is to put it on your calendar on your regular training days, and to hold yourself accountable.  Even when you're tired, you've had a long day, just show up. If you can get through the door and step on the mat, the rest will take care of itself.  And I promise, you will feel better after and be glad that you showed up.  The key to your development is consistency, so try to avoid taking extended breaks off the mat.

Trust your Instructor-This one is huge.  While you may not understand why your instructor is telling you to do things a certain way, and you may think that there is a better way, you have to trust your instructor and have faith in the system.  They have spent many, many more years on the mat than you have, and have likely gone through the same processes, struggles, and questions that you are currently.  They are showing you to do it that way for a reason.  If it doesn't make sense to you know, it probably will down the road.

Take it Slow-You can't develop a high level of skill in Jiu-jitsu overnight, no matter how much you desire to.  Everyone wants to be better, no matter what level.  Just show up.  If you're in class, you will get better.  You may not notice immediate results, as it takes time, but be patient and trust in the system.  It is better to try to understand Jiu-jitsu in smaller pieces.  Don't worry if you don't get the whole big picture right away.  Just focus on one thing at a time.  Eventually, it will come together.

Take Notes-I encourage all of my students to keep a notebook and bring it with you to class.  Right after training, go make your notes about that days class, in a way that you can understand them.  Then, as you have time, review your notes throughout the week.  You won't remember all of the details the first time you see a move, but each time you review it, you can go back and update your notes.  Take notes AFTER class.  Don't take notes DURING class. Otherwise, you will likely miss important information while you are focusing on writing your notes.  Another strategy that I have seen some students employ is to take "video notes".  Many instructors may not want you to videotape techniques during class, but you may be able to grab a training partner after class and videotape yourself going through the technique you just learned so that you can help to remember it later.  Just be sure to check with your instructor and make sure these things are for your use and don't end up on YouTube!

Ask Questions-Instructors LOVE questions!  Please don't be hesitant to ask, or think that your question is dumb.  Don't be embarrassed if you don't understand something.  Chances are, other people have the same question as you do.  Even if it seems too simple, ASK!  Your instructor is not going to berate you for asking a question.  A good instructor looks forward to students questions.  Sometimes, you may think of a question later, after class, while lying in bed or driving to work.  Try to take a moment to write it down so you remember later when your instructor asks for questions.

Get in Extra Training-It doesn't take a whole lot of time, but you would be amazed at what 10 minutes of extra drilling before or after class will do for you!  Grab one of your training partners and go over positions and techniques that you are having trouble with.  The best way to improve positions that you are struggling with is to get your reps in.  Often, the technique will start to clean itself up just through repetition.  The guys who get good are typically the first ones on the mat and the last ones to leave!

Watch Video/Read Books-There is a huge amount of access to information about Jiu-jitsu available online, in books, dvds, apps, etc.  While these should never be a substitute for showing up and training at your academy, they can be a great supplement!  You have to be careful, because while there is a lot of great material out there, there is also a lot that is very suspect.  Ask your instructor if they have any recommendations on additional resources you can access outside of class.  This is also a great way to stay engaged and focus on training on those (hopefully) rare occasions that you can't physically make it into the academy.

Traveling? Take your Gi!-I always recommend that my students take advantage of any opportunity to travel at other Jiu-jitsu academies while they are traveling.  It keeps you active and on the mat during those times that you are away from home, and is a great way to get other perspectives and to meet and train with a lot of awesome people!  Please make sure that you check with your instructor first and make sure that they are ok with you training elsewhere while out of town.  They may also be able to recommend good places for you to train.  This is NOT the same thing as regularly showing up to another academy down the street from your academy or in the same town.  While some instructors may be ok with this, chances are most are not, so always maintain an open line of communication.

Attend Seminars-These are great ways to supplement your training.  Seminars can be expensive, but if you walk away with even one new technique or concept that you can use for the rest of your Jiu-jitsu career, it is well worth it!  Ask your instructor for their recommendation on seminars that would be good for you to attend.

Train with a Specific Focus-You should always be working on something.  Pick one area that you feel needs improvement and really try to focus your training around that.  Of course, you need to focus on what is being shown in class at any given time and train that during class.  Don't be the guy that is working on some other move on the side during class that is completely different than what your instructor just showed.  But during your open mat time, before/after class, in sparring, try to have a specific idea in mind that you are working on.  If you're working on escaping the mount for example, you have to let yourself be mounted in sparring so you can focus on it.  Put yourself in positions to be able to focus on what you're working on at the time.

Show up for Sparring-Sparring is one of the most important and fun elements in Jiu-jitsu.  Don't avoid it.  It is essential for developing your timing, reflex, and sensitivity.  It is the laboratory where we have the opportunity to experiment with our techniques.  Your techniques WILL fail, and you should embrace that and see it as an opportunity to learn and fix your mistakes.  Also, don't avoid the "tough" opponents.  The ones who challenge you the most are some of your best training partners for your development.  They will not only help you develop your toughness and mental fortitude, but will also help you refine your techniques.  You don't have to go all out every single round either.  Pace yourself, take a round off when you need to rest, and sometimes back off the intensity and just focus on flowing.  But the live component of training is one of the keys that makes Jiu-jitsu as effective as it is.

Work on your Weaknesses-It is easy to avoid the things that give you the most trouble and just use your "go-to" techniques that you know you usually have success with.  However, this is not the best way to improve.  Strive to be well rounded in all aspects of your training.  If you spend more time focusing on your weak areas, before you know it, they will also be strengths!

These are just a few simple things that anyone can do to help be responsible for your own learning and if you can implement some of these ideas, you should begin to see incremental improvements in your progress in developing your Jiu-jitsu.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

You Gotta Believe!

One of the biggest factors in being successful in Jiu-jitsu is confidence.  You have to believe and trust in your Jiu-jitsu!  It is amazing how confidence breeds success.  As I like to say, if you don't believe in your technique, your opponent certainly isn't going to either.  So how do you develop this belief in yourself and your technique? Through failure!

Yes, it seems ironic.  Because success does breed confidence and confidence builds success.  But, only through trial and error can you work out the details necessary to develop your skills, and in turn, your confidence.  So, embrace the positions that give you a hard time.  What’s the worst that can happen?  You get caught, you tap, you start over….and more importantly, you have a unique and very valuable opportunity to gain some important insights into why your technique failed.  Where was the mistake, the loss of balance, the lack of posture, the failure to recognize a potential pitfall in time.  

If, for example, you want to develop an “impassable guard”, you have to spend lots of time there, getting smashed by people better than you; people who will test you at your best positions.  Slowly, you will close up the gaps and tighten up your technique.  And your guard will start to truly become impassable! 

Obviously, as with any physical skill, your technical ability will improve with consistent and dedicated practice. But that’s not really the focus of this post.  The point that I want to stress is that if you want to have an impassable guard, you have to truly BELIEVE that you have an impassable guard.  It doesn’t mean that, in reality, no one will ever get passed your guard.  Despite our best efforts, we all still fail.  There is always someone better out there who can continue to challenge you, and you should welcome that!  But, your belief in your own ability and trusting in your Jiu-jitsu is crucial.  

I’ve had students comment in the past that they didn’t go for a move because they “knew” I would counter it.  While this is generally probably an accurate assessment, it’s not the right attitude when rolling.  Go for it!  And go for it with the belief that it WILL work.  If you’re not committed to the move, there is very little chance that it will be successful.  Worst case, you have an opportunity to see where your mistake was and work on correcting it in the future.  But you might just surprise yourself! As an avid chess player, I have often heard the following advice-“you don’t play the person sitting across from you, you play the position on the board.”  This couldn’t be any more true in Jiu-jitsu.  Don’t be intimidated because the person you’re rolling with is a higher belt.  Don’t assume you have no chance to win.  Believe in yourself, and you will be amazed with the results!  And, the upper belt that you are rolling with will appreciate it as well (by the way, this DOESN’T mean be a complete spaz…but that’s a whole other article). 

The point is, the fundamentals of Jiu-jitsu don’t change depending upon who you are rolling with.  Learn the fundamental principles of each position and focus on the position you are in, not the person you are sparring with.  Sure, they may be more skilled and knowledgeable than you in that particular position, but again, that is just an opportunity for you to learn and grow.  I want to stress that, when rolling with upper belts in particular, you should always maintain an appropriate level of respect.  But that doesn’t mean you should go into your shell and be afraid to try things.  So, always be humble enough to continue to learn and accept failure, but believe in yourself, and trust in your Jiu-jitsu!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Learning Through Failure-The Importance of Sparring

One of the most fun and exciting aspects of training Jiu-jitsu is live sparring-testing out your techniques in the crucible of live training with a resisting opponent.  Live sparring can be very challenging & rewarding, but it can also be intimidating, frustrating, and dangerous.  How can we make the best of this crucial aspect of training, and make sure that it is beneficial & not detrimental to our development?  Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for.

Sparring Too Early
Sparring is a critical part of training.  It is the best way to develop reflex & timing, understand the fail points in your technique, and teach you how to maintain your composure & deal calmly with adversity.  But, you need to develop a foundation first.  Jumping into live sparring too early, after only a few classes, usually only leads to frustration, confusion, and potentially injury. Until you learn the basic positions, techniques, & concepts of Jiu-jitsu, stick with just drilling the basic techniques without resistance.  New students haven't developed the technical proficiency to know what to do in most situation, so they resort to using brute strength.  This leads not only to technical mistakes which, if they are lucky, only result in a quick tap.  But, their overzealousness combined with lack of technique often can lead to an unnecessary injury.  In the best case, they end up just being physically dominated and tapped repeatedly with no understanding of what transpired.  It is not a learning environment, it just leads to a lot of frustration.

Avoiding Sparring Sessions
While jumping into live sparring sessions too early can be detrimental, avoiding live sparring once you've started to build a solid foundation is also a problem.  One of the things that makes Jiu-jitsu one of the most effective martial arts in the world is live training with a resisting opponent.  There is a huge difference in drilling your techniques with a cooperative partner, and trying to apply those same techniques when your partner is resisting.  Yes, you will get tired....yes, your technique will fail...yes, you will end up in bad positions....yes, you will tap.  But, you will survive!  All of these things are good for you and will hep make your Jiu-jitsu better!  Your best bet when you start sparring is to seek out more experienced students who can help to guide you along the path & help point out your mistakes without just trying to beat you up.  Start slowly.  Let your partner know you are new to live sparring. A good strategy is to focus on specific positional sparring drills at first, for example, just passing the guard, or escaping the mount, while your opponent provides a moderate level of resistance.  Don't get frustrated.  There is a saying in Jiu-jitsu that "before you can be the hammer, you have to be the nail".  Trust me, all of the "hammers" in your academy have all done their time as the "nail".  We learn & grow through failure.  Don't let your ego get too involved.  View the "tap", not as a loss, but as an opportunity to learn.  But, don't skip out on sparring.  Don't be that guy/girl that always has somewhere else to be when its time to roll.  You don't have to spar every class, and if you're injured or feeling beat up, it's ok to skip out once in a while.  If you get tired, sit a round out & then get back on the mat.  But, try to do some type of live training at least a few times/week.

Going too Hard
This is probably the most common pitfall that students make, especially in the beginning stages of Jiu-jitsu.  Because of the fact that beginners haven't developed their technique yet to a comfortable level, they tend to rely on their natural instincts, which usually means an over-reliance on strength, speed, and physicality.  This is a recipe for disaster, and will inevitably lead to injuring yourself or your training partners.  Jiu-jitsu isn't about using brute force to impose your will on your opponents.  It is about utilizing positioning & leverage to capitalize on your opponent's weaknesses.  Of course, this takes time to develop, and as your technique gets better, it will become easier.  Learning how to relax and stay calm under pressure is one of the hardest things to do in the early stages of training Jiu-jitsu.  But it is important to train safely & help you to develop your skills faster!  If you find yourself accidentally head butting, falling on, elbow/knee striking your opponent, grabbing skin when you grip the gi, and completely out of breath at the end of the round, chances are you have fallen victim to this mistake. SLOW DOWN!!!

Avoiding the "Tough Guys"
Everyone has their nemesis....that one opponent that you always dread sparring with.  They completely dominate you and you feel you have no chance of ever making anything work when training with that person.  The person that always makes you tap...a lot.  The person whom you feel that slight sense of panic & dread every time you get paired up with them.  Don't avoid that person.  They are very important to your development.  We have to learn how to deal with pressure and adversity, how to avoid panic and stay calm under pressure.  And, they can be a good measuring stick for you as your technique develops.  You'll be able to start to survive longer, tap less, and maybe even pull off something once in a while.  They will help you develop your defense & survival strategy & mindset.  You don't have to roll with that guy every single class, but you should seek them out periodically.  The suffering that you experience in the short term will pay off great dividends in the long run.

Competing in the Academy
We've probably all dealt with the guy/girl that views every single sparring round as the finals of the World Championships.  They must win at all costs, disregarding their training partners safety, and never taking any risks.  Don't be that guy/girl.  We learn through failure.  The academy is your laboratory and your sparring sessions are where you can experiment and try new things!  Take chances, play with new positions, try moves you aren't entirely comfortable or confident with.  There are no gold medals being handed out at the end of the class, and I promise you aren't going to be kicked out of the gym, looked down on, or shunned if you get caught and have to tap!  If your main focus is on "winning" every roll, you will tend to only rely on the techniques that you are already good at, and never address your weak areas that you actually need to work on.

Don't Be a Mat Bully
Regardless of what you may think, your role is not to be the "enforcer" in the academy.  Particularly if you are more experienced than your training partner, don't be a bully.  You should let the lower belt set the pace.  There's no need to completely dominate them and keep them from being able to move.  In order to control your partner, you only need to stay a little bit ahead of them.  You don't need to overwhelm them to a point where they feel helpless & frustrated.  Tapping your partner 57 times in a 5 minute round does nothing but inflate your own ego.  It is not really helping you or your training partner.  Your job, as an upper belt, is to help the less experienced students get better.  Turn them into someone who, in a few years, will legitimately be able to challenge you and in turn push you to get better!  It doesn't mean don't submit them.  The tap is important for the lower belt to recognize their mistakes.  But, do it in moderation, and give them some space to work too!

Don't Avoid Lower Belts
The opposite of the person who avoids rolling with the toughest people in the room is the person who avoids rolling with people that they feel doesn't present them with a sufficient challenge.  They avoid rolling with white belts, kids, smaller people, women, etc. This attitude is very selfish! Yes, you need to challenge yourself, but help the rest of your team to learn also.  It is arrogant to think that you can't get any benefit from rolling with these people.  If you can't challenge yourself while training with someone smaller or less experienced, that is YOUR problem, not theirs.  Work in inferior positions, work on your weak side, handicap yourself by only using one arm, etc.  While you are helping to guide these newer students, this is the perfect time for you to work on your weak areas, where you know, if you screw it up, you can still recover.  And, it is important to remember, especially with kids, beginners, and people significantly smaller than you, you have to make sure to look out for their safety.  Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves and make sure that you don't slip and fall on them or accidentally injure them.

Don't Be Stubborn-Know When to Tap
If you've been in Jiu-jitsu any time at all, you've probably heard the mantra "tap early & tap often".  This is a good rule of thumb, particularly if you are fairly new to the art.  Tapping is not a sign of weakness.  It is simply an acknowledgment of the non-verbal contract we have with our training partners.  Basically, it says, "I recognize that you have caught me in a position from which I can't escape and I acknowledge that if we continue, you could seriously injure or kill me, so I willfully submit-now let's shake hands and start over"!  Everyone taps.  Nobody gets good at Jiu-jitsu without tapping A LOT! When you tap, you should view it as an opportunity to learn.  Figure out where the mistake was, and try to go back & fix it.  You don't need to hang your head in shame.  The reality is, nobody cares but you!  On the flip side, don't celebrate when you tap your partner either.  If you are seriously training and trying to improve, you SHOULD be tapping-at every level.  Obviously, as you get better, it probably happens more infrequently, but don't run from it! Seek out the person that can tap you, as they will show you where your weaknesses are.  A couple of my pet peeves on the subject of tapping:  1. Don't be stubborn.  If you're caught you're caught. It's not worth getting injured.  Don't rely on "flexibility" to avoid tapping.  The only way you really find out how flexible you are is when your joint breaks.  Trust me, you don't want to find out.  Live to fight another day.  2.  On the opposite end, don't be a "pre-tapper". If you need to tap, tap.  But don't tap before your partner even locks in the submission.  Work on your escapes.  And, please don't hover your hand in preparation to tap for 3-5 seconds before finally making the decision to succumb.  You can use that time, and that hand, to try to defend the position.  If you're going to do that, you may as well just go ahead & tap.  3.  Don't be a "ninja tapper".  The phantom tap isn't fooling anyone and it is dangerous.  Make sure your partner knows you are tapping so you don't get hurt.  If it means loudly yelling "TAP, TAP, TAP" so the entire gym hears it, that's ok.  Better than getting injured.  4.  Don't be the guy/girl that realizes you're caught and then starts "coaching" your partner to get the finish.  You made a mistake, you got caught, own it!  You don't have to be ok with the mistake, and actually, you shouldn't but own up to it and try to avoid letting it happen next time!  While we're on the subject, this notion that someone should never tap to a lower belt is nonsense!  We don't need to establish the pecking order on the mat every training session.  Just train!  That is all ego and it doesn't have any place in the academy.

Don't be the "Talky" Guy/Girl
When it's time to train, it's time to train.  Don't waste training time analyzing everything that happened every time someone taps.  Finish out the round and then discuss it.  After the tap, shake hands, and go again.  If it's an open mat format, that's a different story, but during structured sparring classes, you shouldn't be sitting around talking during the round.  It's time to train.

Don't Quit Early
Finish the round.  Your mind will quit on you long before your body will.  Even when you feel completely exhausted and feel that you have nothing left, don't let yourself quit before the round is over.  This is a mental trap that will continue to plague you if you give into it.  Even if all you can do is lay on your back & try to defend, finish the round!  The exception to this, of course, is if you take an injury.  You should stop immediately and assess any potential injury and treat it as necessary.  It's not always smart to try to just shake it off & push through.  You could aggravate it and make it worse.

Ask Questions
Especially when you're rolling with an upper belt, if you get caught, make sure you understand why.  Ask questions.  What happened?  How can I avoid that in the future?  It's ok to get caught.  It's not ok to not understand why you got caught and continue to get caught in the same position over and over again without asking.  Sparring can be one of your greatest learning tools, but only if you approach it with the right attitude.

Have Fun!
This is one of the most important parts of sparring and Jiu-jitsu in general.  Don't forget why you started in the first place....because Jiu-jitsu is awesome!  Make sure you have fun.  When you're enjoying what you're doing, all the sweat and hard work, the bumps and bruises will hardly be noticed and will definitely be worthwhile!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Lose Your Mind and Go with the Flow!

In Jiu-jitsu, we talk a lot about developing flow-the ability to perform our techniques seamlessly, almost automatically, with very little thought or pre-planning.  This state can exist in almost any athletic endeavor, where your mind's conscious recognition of performing a certain technique or movement is subsequent to your body actually performing this movement.  Sometimes, we refer to it as being "in the zone".  The Japanese have a term, "Mushin", which literally means "no mind", but which can be roughly true translated as flow.  It is one of the three states of mind described in the 7-5-3 Code™that we are constantly striving to perfect.  Everyone has probably had the experience of this flow state at one point or another, but it is something that is often fleeting, and seems to elude us the more we try to chase it.  So how do we develop "flow" in Jiu-jitsu?  The same as in any other endeavor, whether it's perfecting your golf swing, playing the guitar, or learning any other physical skill....repetition.

Basically, when we are talking about "flow", we are talking about developing reflex.  The ability to instinctively increase our reaction time to a  given stimulus by eliminating or significantly reducing conscious thought, thus "no-mind".  There is a principle referred to as "Hick's Law".  Basically, Hick's Law is a term named after American psychologist William Hick, which describes the relationship between stimulus & response.  It states that given a certain stimulus, the more possible response choices a subject has to that stimulus, the slower their response will be.  So, if we put this in terms of a self-defense situation, what that means is that if we learn only one option to respond to a certain stimulus, say a sucker punch for example, that our reaction to that technique will be inherently faster than if we have a variety of possible technique options to choose from.  But the problem is, a fight is dynamic.  There are so many possibilities and Jiu-jitsu has so many techniques.  So how do we overcome the limitations of Hick's Law?  Again the answer lies in repetition.

It is always fun and exciting to learn new techniques and positions.  But the real key to developing a high level of skill in Jiu-jitsu lies in constant repetition of the fundamentals.  That means constantly drilling them, to the point that you are tired of drilling them, and then drilling them some more!  There is a huge difference between memorizing movements and making them reflexive.  Reflex is the ability to perform a technique unconsciously, reactively, even under stress, without thinking.  In a fight, or even in a sport Jiu-jitsu match, things happen so quickly that by the time you consciously think about doing a particular movement, often the opportunity for such a technique has already passed.  So, while you might "know" how to do an armbar, if you haven't drilled that technique to the point that your body does it almost automatically, the chances that you will pull it off in a realistic situation are very slim.

It has been said that on average, it takes about 10,000 repetitions of a given movement to develop this type of reflexive response.  That's a lot! That, combined with the shear complexity of Jiu-jitsu, all of the positions, techniques, counter-techniques, etc. is why it takes years of training to develop a high level of skill in the "gentle art".  And, even if you have put in the time with a given technique, remember that, as with all physical endeavors, these are perishable skills.  If you aren't constantly practicing & refining them, you will lose them.  So, as Rickson Gracie famously has said, "Don't practice the move until you get it right; practice it until you can't get it wrong"!

So, remember that the next time you find yourself bored with repetitively practicing basic fundamentals over & over again.  Don't look for a shiny new toy every time that you come to Jiu-jitsu class.  Polish the ones that you already have.  Ask yourself if you really know this move well enough, understand the details deeply enough, and have drilled it enough times to develop the reflex to use it automatically, even under stress, against a larger, stronger, resisting opponent.  Just our fundamentals program alone, Fighting Foundations™, contains 108 of the most essential Jiu-jitsu techniques for a self-defense situation.  Multiply that number times 10, 000 reps, and you have a staggering 1,080,000 repetitions to master each of these fundamental techniques.  But, don't get overwhelmed.  Just get on the mat as often as you can, make the best of your training time, focus on the fundamentals, get your reps in a little each day, and before long, you will be well on your way to achieving your optimum flow state!