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!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Friends Don't Let Friends Quit Jiu-jitsu

Chances are, if you're reading this, you're training Jiu-jitsu.  Some of you have been training for quite a long time, others are fairly new to the "gentle art".  Many of you, hopefully most of you, are very excited about wake up excited to get on the mat, you fall asleep going over techniques you learned in class in your head, you spend your free time when you're not on the mat watching videos & trying to soak up every bit of Jiu-jitsu knowledge that you can....and statistically, most of you will eventually quit!  I know, you're saying to yourself "no, not me!"  And I sincerely hope you're right.  Having dedicated a good portion of my life to practicing this art, I know first hand all of the positive benefits that consistent training can have on every aspect of your life.  And I want all of you to experience those same life-changing benefits too! But, unfortunately, the numbers don't lie.  The vast majority of those who start their Jiu-jitsu journey, even with all of the best intentions, won't make it long enough to see their blue belt.  And the number who quit after achieving blue belt is so staggering that it is almost a syndrome.  Less than 1% of those who start training Jiu-jitsu will make it to black belt....and black belt is really just the beginning! These statistics hold very true for almost every Jiu-jitsu academy everywhere.  This is why you've probably all heard the saying that "a black belt is just a white belt who never quit training".  As Chris Haueter (one of the first American Jiu-jitsu black belts) said, "it's not who's's who's left".  Almost all of you reading this have the potential to achieve the coveted black belt.  But, because getting very good at Jiu-jitsu takes a very long time, and it is one of the hardest martial arts to achieve rank and promotions are so few & far between, most people just don't have the dedication that it takes to get to this level.  There are so many obstacles to overcome & sometimes life gets in the way.  Those of you who have spent a significant amount of time on the mat can attest to the many, many people that you have seen come & go over the years.  So, how can you make sure that YOU don't become another statistic....just another blue belt with your face on the back of a milk carton?

A big part of Jiu-jitsu is recognizing patterns.  Recognizable behaviors that allow you to predict what your opponent is likely to do next.  There are very predictable patterns of behavior in quitting training.  As a Jiu-jitsu instructor, I have seen them many, many times. Most of the time, I know a student is quitting before they do.  The process of quitting Jiu-jitsu doesn't happen overnight.  It usually happens gradually, over a period of time.  And the fact that it follows predictable patterns means that it is also avoidable.  You can recognize these patterns in yourself and work to avoid falling into them.  There are very few things that can lead to you quitting training that aren't avoidable.  People have lots of "reasons" for stopping training....the reality is, most of these are "excuses".  Here are some of the most common and how to avoid them.

"I don't have time to train"
I get it....we all have responsibilities and a life outside of the mat.  And sometimes, life gets in the way.  Occasionally, things will come up that will cause us to miss training, and that is sometimes unavoidable.  Illness, working overtime, vacations, family obligations, etc.  But the reality is, nobody has "free time".  We are all busy, but we make time for the things that are important.  If training is a priority, you will find a way to get it in, even if that means trying to find time to train with some of your teammates during "off times" when there is no scheduled class.  It might mean coming in early, staying late, or making some sacrifices in other areas, but if it's important, it is well worth it.  

"I can't afford it"
Again, this is mostly a matter of priorities.  Jiu-jitsu training isn't cheap.  But then, most things in life that are worthwhile aren't.  And really, if you think about what you are getting out of it, you can't really put a price on that!  Many people will say that they can't afford training, but will spend more in a night out with their friends than they would spend for the entire month of Jiu-jitsu class tuition! If finances really are tight, there are usually ways to adjust your spending in other areas.  Maybe take a part-time job to help pay for your training.  If all else fails, talk to your instructor and explain your situation.  Most instructors that I know are willing to work with people who are truly dedicated, to the extent possible, and you may be able to work something out in the short term to keep you on the mat. Don't expect a free ride, but you might be able to help out around the academy, or help distribute promotional materials to help offset some of your expenses.  Some academies (such as mine) offer incentive programs to students who refer new people into their programs.  

"I'm injured"
Injuries can take us off the mat, so it is very important that we all do our best to train in a way that we avoid injuring ourselves & our training partners.  But, we are training in a fighting art, and sometimes, injuries are going to happen.  The good new is, most injuries can be worked around.  Having an injury is not a reason to stop training.  Of course, you don't want to aggravate an injury by trying to come back to hard training too soon.  But most of the time, there are productive things that you can do to still improve your Jiu-jitsu even while you are nursing an injury and can't train at 100%.  An injury can be a setback, or it can be an opportunity for growth, depending upon how you deal with it. A very famous example is that of Roberto "Gordo" Correa, who is well known for his development of the half-guard position.  His reliance on and innovation of the half guard was due to a knee injury.  Without the injury, it is unlikely he would have developed his half guard to the level that he did.  If you do have an injury, it is very important to make your instructor and your training partners aware of it.  Talk to your instructor and see what you can still safely do while recovering from your injury.  Even if you have an injury that prevents you from doing any type of physical training (this doesn't happen often), show up for class, put on your gi, and watch, take notes, etc.  You can still get a lot out of training even if you can't physically participate.  Also, it keeps your mind & body in the habit of training.  If you take significant time away from the academy due to an injury, it is very easy to fall out of the habit of training altogether & never return.  

"I'm just gonna take a break for a while"
This is one of the easiest traps to fall into, and one of the ways that good students "accidentally" quit training Jiu-jitsu.  Sometimes, our bodies & minds need to take a break.  Sometimes, a week off the mat can be a good thing, as it can allow you to recuperate, rest, and reset.  However, you have to be very careful, because a week can easily turn into two weeks, to a month, to 3 months.  If you take an extended time  (more than a week or two) off of the mat, it is very difficult to return.  Even with the best of intentions, if you allow yourself (for whatever reason) to take an extended break from training, the chances are very slim that you will return.  It's not because you meant to quit.  But, when you aren't training, other things start to take up the time that you were spending on the mat.  Priorities change.  You keep meaning to go back, but something always keeps coming up.  After a month or two, part of you wants to go back, but you feel that you will be rusty, out of shape, and you've lost too much ground.  It's easier just to quit altogether.  Guess what, you will be rusty, your timing will be off, and those who have continued training while you were out may have gained a step on you.  So what?! It doesn't matter.  Get back on the mat & train!  You will get your timing back, you'll get back in shape, and get back to where you were before you left & continue to grow & improve from there.  The hardest part is just making yourself get through the door & step on the mat.  The rest will take care of itself.  The easiest solution to this problem is, simply don't allow yourself to take extended breaks from training!

"I'm not progressing fast enough"
Jiu-jitsu is hard.  You're not gonna get it overnight.  In fact, it takes a couple of years on average to just start to feel comfortable with the basics.  It can seem overwhelming at times because there is so much information to take in.  Be patient, have realistic expectations, and be willing to fail.  Don't put too much pressure on yourself.  Whether you realize it or not, you are getting better.  Everyone progresses at their own pace, so don't feel the need to try to keep up with anyone else.  Measure your progress against yourself.  Think about how much better you are now than when you first started, and imagine how much better you will be a month, a year, 5 years from now if you stick with it!  Don't get hung up in belt promotions.  Just show up & try to learn & get a little better everyday.  The promotions will take care of themselves.  Those who train for the belt will typically never get it.  Training is its own reward.  The belts are just markers of your progress along the way.  You will be promoted when your instructor feels the time is right.  Don't worry if you feel like you are tapping all the time.  That is the process of learning.  The tap is not a failure, it can be a valuable learning experience and an opportunity to expose a weakness in your Jiu-jitsu.  

These are just some of the most common "excuses" that people give that can cause them to stop training Jiu-jitsu.  It is a long road, filled with ups & downs.  There will be plenty of hurdles along the way.  But for those who can stick it out, the rewards are amazing!  Training is a habit, and it will become part of who you are.  Not training is also a habit.  Don't let yourself fall into one of these traps.  Make a commitment to yourself and make your training a priority.  Be the 1% who sticks around while you see the others come & go.  If you find your motivation dwindling, or you are having trouble getting it to train regularly, talk to your teammates, talk to your instructor.  Chances are they have dealt with the same frustrations, insecurities, and problems that you find yourself facing.  Remember why you started training & try to find a way to reinvigorate your training.  Logically do you really think you would benefit more from NOT training Jiu-jitsu?  You know the answer.  Just show up, put your feet on the mat, and chances are, you will be glad you did!  And, remember, nobody gets through this together.  You need good training partners & teammates.  Lean on them when you need to, and help to motivate each other & hold each other accountable.  If you see one of your training partners falling into one of these patterns, if you haven't seen them on the mat in a while, give them a call, shoot them a message, & see what's up.  Encourage them to stay the course too, because you both need each other!  Remember, friends don't let friends quit Jiu-jitsu!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Promotions & The Value of the Belts

Promotions in Jiu-jitsu are kind of a big deal,  mainly because they are few & far between, and don't happen very often.  We celebrate these milestones for our teammates & training partners.  We look forward to our own eventual promotions usually with a mixed feeling of nervous anticipation & dread.  Often times, while some part of us wants to eventually achieve these milestones, when that moment finally comes, we often feel that we aren't yet ready.  This feeling is totally normal & represents a very healthy attitude towards promotion.  The reality is that, usually, once you start to become comfortable at a certain belt rank, thats about when it changes.  This little bit of discomfort is very important for our continued development.  Like many things in Jiu-jitsu, it is through pressure & discomfort that we learn the most.

The belt system as we know it, is an adaptation of the system of colored belts originally developed by the Founder of Judo, Jigaro Kano.  Originally, the concept was developed to group athletes by relative skill levels for sport competition.  While the belts aren't the focus or reason for training, they are important as they do represent distinct milestones & levels of development.  They are good markers of progress and they can help with setting shorter term goals.  The journey from white to black belt in Jiu-jitsu is typically so long it is helpful to break it up into more manageable chunks.

So, how does one best deal with promotions.  First, trust your instructor.  Whether you believe you are "overdue" for your next promotion, or you don't feel you are ready, your instructor knows best.  As an instructor, each and every promotion is something that is done with a great amount of consideration, and they are never taken lightly.  The best thing to do is just to continue to do what you are doing & not worry either way about promotions.  If you just continue to train & strive to get a little better each day, the belts will take care of themselves, and you will look back in a few years and be very surprised at how seemingly quickly you have achieved a high level that, as a beginning student, you may have never thought possible!  Realistically, you are going to do the same thing the day after you receive a new belt promotion as you did the day before-just show up & train!

Secondly, recognize the belt for what it is.  Just because you have earned the right to put it on, doesn't mean you have earned the right to wear it.  You earn that right everyday on the mat through your continued training.  There is always a breaking in period with any new belt, and it will take a while before you feel comfortable at that level.  You have to grow into the belt.  Look at it as an opportunity to step up to a higher level & a higher standard.  Don't hide behind it because of fear or anxiety!

Finally, don't put any unnecessary extra pressure on yourself.  Often, students get a new belt & feel that now they can no longer tap to a lower belt.  This is non-sense.  If you are training correctly, you have to put yourself in vulnerable positions & always be willing to learn through failure.  Because of the fact that the nature of belt promotions in Jiu-jitsu tend to be based on your actual performance, it is true that in general the higher belts should be more skilled and able to better control lower ranking students.  However, thinking that you can never get caught by someone of a lower belt level is just purely ego, and is not a productive attitude for continued improvement.  Everyone, including black belts, makes mistakes, and this is how we learn.  The belts are not magic.  Simply putting a different colored piece of cloth around your waist doesn't give you special powers overnight.  Take a moment to celebrate your accomplishment, and then, just get back on the mat & keep training!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Putting the "Fun" in Fundamentals!

I want to take a minute to discuss the importance of fundamentals.  It is something that  is heard often in a Jiu-jitsu academy, “focus on the fundamentals”.  What are “fundamentals” anyway?  Why are they so important?

The fundamentals are the basic core positions, movements, & concepts from all of the major positions in Jiu-jitsu.  Techniques can be broken down by their application from various positions.  Of course, understanding the positional hierarchy and the concept of positional dominance is a major concept in Jiu-jitsu.  Here are, in my mind, the major positions, in order of dominance (least dominant to most dominant)-Standing (no contact), Clinch, Guard, Half Guard, Side Mount, Knee on Belly, Mount, & Back.  Of course, there are variations on all of these major positions, and the Jiu-jitsu practitioner must be comfortable with both sides of each position, understanding both defense & offense.  Of course, every position offers an almost endless variety of possible techniques.  Fundamentals, then, are the most common, most reliable techniques.  They are the fundamentals because they work!  All of the techniques that are generally considered to be fundamentals have stood the test of time.  They have all been battle-tested, in live combat, over a period of many, many years.  And while there are many variations of all of these techniques, they all share a few common traits.  

The fundamentals should be based on natural body movements, not requiring an unusual amount of flexibility, strength, or agility to perform.  This means, that just about anyone can, with practice, perform these techniques effectively.  They are based on the principle of leverage, meaning that they are efficient.  One of the key concepts of Jiu-jitsu is maximum effectiveness with minimal effort.  This is because, if we always make the assumption that our opponents will be bigger, stronger, & more athletic than us, it is crucially important not to make unnecessary movements that waste precious energy.  Usually, the simpler answer is the best answer.  So, fundamental techniques generally have fewer steps to get to the same result.  Finally, fundamental techniques are those that can be utilized in a real fight, always taking into account the opponent’s potential ability to strike, and being aware of their most common likely responses.

When you watch two very high level Jiu-jitsu practitioners spar, you are most likely to see “white belt” techniques being used; that is, techniques that most students typically learn within their first few months of Jiu-jitsu training. The most common finishes in most Jiu-jitsu & MMA matches are things like guillotines, armlocks, triangles, rear naked chokes, & kimuras.  Why is this?  Certainly, these advanced practitioners have a whole arsenal of techniques at their disposal.  Of course, this is very true.  However, these “basic” techniques are the ones that even advanced practitioners have spent the most time with.  These are the techniques & positions that even the best black belts have been practicing since they were white belts.  Of course, all of these advanced practitioners have tricks & fancy moves that work well under the right circumstances.  But, faced with another practitioner of comparable skill, size, & strength, they fall back to their understanding of the basics.  And herein lies the crucial importance of these techniques.  These are the most proven, effective, time-tested techniques, and the ones that, when you are in trouble, in a bad position, tired, or being overwhelmed by a larger, stronger opponent, will still give you the best chance of survival.  

The fundamentals are the techniques that you literally can’t practice enough.  One of the most important & most difficult things to do in Jiu-jitsu is to develop reflex.  This doesn’t mean simply “memorizing” techniques.  All to often, I see students drilling techniques in class, working with a cooperative partner.  After a handful of repetitions, when they start to feel somewhat comfortable with the basic movement sequence, they seem to think that they’ve “got it”. But then, during live training, these same students are unable to perform the technique against a resisting opponent.  It has been said it takes an average of about 10, 000 repetitions of any physical skill to acquire mastery; the ability to perform it reflexively, even under the stress of a live situation.  That’s a LOT of reps.  This is why it takes so long to develop a high level of skill in Jiu-jitsu.  So, I strongly encourage students to make the best of their precious training time.  As Rickson Gracie has been known to say, “Don’t practice the technique until you get it right….practice it until you can’t get it wrong!”.

If you plan to pursue Jiu-jitsu for a long period of time, even a lifetime, you will learn & practice the same fundamental techniques many, many times.  How does one continue to practice these techniques without succumbing to boredom?  Well, the true answer is, you don’t always.  Sometimes, repping techniques is boring.  No matter your passion for training, performing endless repetitions of the same technique is not always the most exciting thing. However, it definitely WILL pay off.  However, I encourage students to try to look at the technique through “new eyes”.  Keep an open mind, remain humble, and don’t assume you already know everything there is to know about the move.  My appreciation for the value of the fundaments has increased so much more since black belt than it ever was as a lower rank. Too often, students show up to class wanting a new shiny toy-some advanced variation of a technique that they have never seen before.  And while this is always fun & exciting, the reality is, the longer you train Jiu-jitsu, it will become increasingly rare to be exposed to a brand new technique or concept that you’ve never seen in some form before.  However, it is even MORE exciting to re-discover a fundamental technique that you have done for years.  Often, picking up one small detail can change your whole perspective & understanding of the technique.  It is a constant process of polishing & perfecting our most important techniques.  So you shouldn’t only be content to practice the basics, you should be excited. There is so much more to all of these techniques than you may realize!  

The process of learning Jiu-jitsu follows predictable stages.  And each of them is crucially important.  First, you are just trying to learn to survive, to learn the basic positions, and have a rudimentary understanding of the movements.  As you become more comfortable with the basics and start to be able to hold your own somewhat in sparring, and even to impose some offense (blue/purple belt) it is very normal to look for new techniques, new variations, etc.  It is very important to always allow yourself to have an open mind & explore new ideas & positions.  But don’t neglect your fundamentals!  Interestingly, as students become advanced practitioners (brown/black belts), they typically return their focus to the same techniques that they learned as white belts, although obviously with a much different focus & higher level of understanding.  This is when Jiu-jitsu really becomes exciting!  Stay focused, keep training, & keep practicing your basics!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

We're all in this together

In today's world, it seems that everyone is taking sides.  Either you're politically liberal or conservative; you're strongly religious or atheist; you're pro-this, anti-that.  It is easy to label people by their particular socio-economic background, cultural heritage, belief system, or ideals.  Personally, I find that these differences make the world interesting.  If we were all the same, it would be a pretty boring place.  But all too often, people divide themselves into groups based on these types of characteristics, and there is often a lot of hostility among these various groups.

On the mat though, through Jiu-jitsu, we are able to break through these artificial barriers & see that we are more alike than not.  We all have similar struggles, similar frustrations, good days & bad days, and we're all working towards the same goal-to be better today than we were yesterday.  Through training together, pushing each other, choking each other, sweating & sometimes even bleeding on each other, we develop a very close bond with our training partners.  This is why I consider those that I share the mat with family.  We don't have to think the same or agree on everything.  Jiu-jitsu transcends our differences.  I think it is because Jiu-jitsu, being an art of physical combat, is so primal that it is something we can all relate to.  Martial arts have been around pretty much since the beginning of recorded history.  Mankind has always had conflict, always had the need to protect ourselves from others, and so, we developed more efficient ways of fighting.  I believe that this is inherent in our nature as human beings, and that is why I think it is something that we can all relate to.

We love to see our friends & training partners accomplish their goals.  Whether that is seeing them finally getting a well deserved belt promotion, or having that ah-ha moment where a technique they have been struggling with finally clicks.  We all celebrate the accomplishments of our teammates together.  We all share in the accomplishments of our teammates because we are part of it.  Nobody gets better at Jiu-jitsu by themselves & we all need good training partners to help us develop.  And, those of us who have been on the mat a little longer all remember having those same struggles & overcoming those obstacles ourselves.  We all had a first day on the mat.  Even the most accomplished black belts, whose technique seems so smooth & flawless-we were all white belts once; struggling with learning how to breakfall, shrimp, and stand in base.  We are all traveling along the same path, some of us just started the journey earlier.  As a new student, that is sometimes hard to put into perspective, but it is true.  Sometimes it seems that the upper belts are infallible.  They are not.  They started in the same place you are, and they still struggle just like you do.  We all deal with frustration from time to time.  That never goes away.  You just learn to recognize that it is a part of the process & continue to work through it, knowing that there is usually a major breakthrough on the other side if you just persevere.

One of the most interesting things about being a Jiu-jitsu instructor is that I get to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life.  And, the cool thing is, how Jiu-jitsu brings us all together!  Because we are family, I try to get to know my students personally & develop a relationship with each one.  At any given time, we have white collar workers, blue collar workers, people of all different faiths, or none at all, politically conservative, politically liberal, men, women & kids of all different ethnicities & cultures all sharing the mat together.  And, none of it matters when we're trying to choke & armlock each other.  The primal struggle to survive under pressure and the bond that we all share through Jiu-jitsu transcends our differences, and we find that these differences only serve to enhance everyone's experience as we all struggle to meet our own personal goals together.  Just another reason why Jiu-jitsu is so cool!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Poker Face

Ok, I know you're probably wondering what a Lady Gaga song title has to do with your Jiu-jitsu....hear me out.

I was having a discussion with a student the other day about this issue, so I thought it would be a good topic for a blog post.  In Jiu-jitsu, we need to develop a "poker face".  What I mean by that is, your facial expression and your demeanor should be pretty much the same whether you're attacking or defending, whether you are in the best position or the worst position, and even when you're about to tap! This is very important, as I'll discuss later.  But, like everything else in Jiu-jitsu, it doesn't come naturally.  It is a skill that must be practiced.

Oftentimes, I see students who are stuck in a tough position or attempting to defend a submission attempt making all kind of pained faces, grunting, hyperventilating, etc.  None of this accomplishes anything, and can actually be detrimental.  Jiu-jitsu is about efficiency.  That means not using anymore strength or force than actually needed to get the job done.  Even though it doesn't seem like much, constantly contracting all of those small facial muscles over & over again actually burns a lot of unnecessary energy.  And it doesn't really do anything other than give your opponent more confidence in their own position.  So, defend if you need to defend, tap if you need to tap.  But up until that point, your general demeanor & facial expression should be one of calm focus.  Sometimes, while defending a choke for example, you may need to tighten the muscles in the neck to reduce the effect of the choke & buy yourself some more time to defend.  That is perfectly ok & not what I'm talking about.  But in general, holding extra tension anywhere in your body that is not necessary, and especially in your face, is just burning your gas tank.

From another point of view, if your opponent sees you with a pained expression on your face or hears you audibly struggling, it is only going to serve to invigorate their efforts.  If they feel that you are about to tap, they will hold on a little longer, knowing that the submission is right around the corner.  But if you are calm & composed, they may feel like the submission is not having its intended effect (even if, in reality, it is very close), and they may lose confidence in their position, causing them to adjust or even let go of a potentially fight ending submission hold.  I can think of several instances where my opponent had me caught dead to rights in a tight submission and I knew in my head that I was caught & my chances to escape were not looking good.  But rather than panic & strain, I just maintained my composure & looked right at my opponent with an almost "bored" look on my face....and they just let go!  They didn't have confidence in their position & my appearance of confidence in my defense was enough to change their strategy.  On the other hand, if you are the one applying a submission & your opponent sees you visibly straining, they may continue to defend even when they are caught, because they believe that you have almost expended all your energy and your grips are beginning to fail.

All of this goes along with the concept from our Jiu-jitsu philosophy of Fudoshin, or emotional balance.  While there is certainly more to it than this, having the ability to stay calm under pressure, not get too excited when you feel you are close to finishing your opponent, and not panicking when you are caught, goes a long way.  Everyone has heard about learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.  It's amazing how much having a good poker face and maintaining your composure can not only change your opponent's thinking, but also change your own state of mind & help you to better manage a tough situation, whether on or off the mat.