First tournament

[I’m going to try and update this throughout the day. We’ll see what kind of connectivity the highih school has. If nothing else, I’ll update it tonight or tomorrow morning.]

Week Of

This week I’ve been focusing on getting ready for my first tournament. I needed to drop about 4 pounds to make 185. This is the first time in my life that I needed to control my weight. I literally ate a salad every day for lunch. I drank no less than a gallon of waBter every day. When I woke up Friday, I weighed 185 so all I needed to do was not gain weight. When I got home from work, ready to leave for the tournament, I was closer to 183.

In addition to making weight, I had to make sure I want you tired and too beat up to compete. This meant that I didn’t do any sparring this week. I also limited my early morning conditioning to just Monday and Wednesday.  All told, I did 5 hours of gym time, as opposed to my normal 8 or 9. In some ways this was hard, because I really wanted to spar. I enjoy it. To make matters worse the sparring classes seemed to be smaller this week, almost as if they were tempting me.  But it has a good side effect as well. I am really rested, which was the goal. I have no muscle aches. Nothing is tender from a submission in sparring.  And even better, I’m ready to go. It’s like fasting. After you fast, food sounds so good, you’re excited to eat it. Well, instead of fasting from food (although I did that a little too) I fasted from working out, and I’m excited to get back out there.

Drive Out

We left Omaha about 3:30 Friday for our drive to Bettendorf. The main goal of leaving at that time was to get to the hotel in time for the kids to swim a little Friday night. Plus, I hate arriving somewhere late at night only to start out early the next morning. I never feel rested. There was a secondary goal too. Right before we left, I saw that if I could make it to the high school by 8:30, I could do my weigh-ins at night. I wanted to do this so I could sleep in a bit longer on Saturday, and also eat a little more Friday night. In the end, we got to the high school at 8:40. They were still inside setting up the gym, but I couldn’t find an open door or get anyone’s attention, so I was unable to weigh in until Saturday morning (as I’m writing this, we’re heading over in 15 minutes for weigh-ins.)

The drive itself wasn’t too bad. I’ve made it before when we lived in Peoria, IL.  However, it was a little different this time. I’d say about 2-3 times an hour I’d start to get excited/anxious/nervous about the tournament.  But I tried to use these to my advantage. If I started feeling a little edgy, I’d just start visualizing my gameplan. I’d think about my grips, my take down, a sweep, my first submission attack, his escape, my second submission attack, his second escape and my third submission attack which ultimately wins the match.  Then I’d think about the same thing for my no-gi match.  This would usually calm me back down for another 20-30 minutes, and then I’d repeat.

Early Morning

This morning I set an alarm for 7:30, so I could get up and work on this a bit before we headed over to weigh ins. But in reality, I didn’t need an alarm. I woke up at 3:30, 5:30, 6:00 and 6:45. Each time I woke up, I thought “Ok, it’s got to be about 7:30 now.”  At 3:30 I felt like I could get up and be ready. But I also knew that would be pretty foolish, so I’d force myself to go back to sleep, trying to think about my gameplan, and relaxing my breathing.


Hit 181.4 that’s 25 pounds lighter than when I started BJJ. There are at least 6 guys in both of my divisions.


warming up




I got to the gym at 8:30 and my first match was about 12:00.  After weigh in, they made out the brackets had a quick rules meeting, and then did the opening round of the pro tournament.  By the time my division got called I was ready. I was the first match, which I wanted. I didn’t want to sit around and watch the other guys in my bracket. My plan was this: pull guard, sweep to mount and Ezekiel choke. I went out and got my grips pulled him a couple times and jumped guard. I was unable to sweep him and he finished me with a head & arm choke triangle.



It seemed to take an hour to get to my second match, but I think that was just me being impatient. I had the same gameplan. I was able to pull guard again, but he was able to pass and get my back. He locked in a tight rear naked choke, but I was going to try my best to not tap. I tried to buck him off my back because he was high, but I was unsuccessful. In the end, I lost 7-0 on points.


For my no-gi matches, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted to try and jump guard, but was unable to. My opponent got a takedown and then locked on a tight head and arm choke. I tried to move out but was unsuccessful and tapped.

My final no-gi match was against the guy I lost 7-0 in gi. I was able to grab a leg, but couldn’t get the takedown, I tried to push through and get into his guard, but was unable. I got to guard, but it was hard to do anything because my instinct was to get a lapel grip, and there isn’t one. I tried to set up a couple sweeps but was semi-afraid of opening my guard because I didn’t want to get passed. He was able to move to side control and then knee mount. I was trying to escape and I knew time was running out. I needed to either get a submission or lose. As I start taking chances, he got mount and ended up winning 12-0.


Final Thoughts

So clearly not the outcome I wanted. However, I was glad to get out there and compete. I was able to beat my body up for a little bit and see what that’s like. Everyone from Mid-America was super supportive.  Charles pulled me aside before my first match and made sure I had a couple good breaths.  He was very encouraging before the matches started, and I was glad to have him there.

I was able to execute part of my gameplan, and for that I’m grateful. I was worried about getting taken down. I need to spend some more time on my sweeps, once I got to guard I kind of stalled out and that was what let my opponents pass my guard and it quickly went down hill from there.

I am very grateful that my family gives me the opportunity to train, and I’m also glad that Mid-America helps train me. I will be back at the gym on Monday, ready to get better.

Nova União Seminar

Today we had Professor Wendell Alexander, founder of Nova União, come to our gym and lead a seminar. He was joined by one of his black belts, Leo Peçanha. If you’re hoping to read about the moves they showed us, quit reading now. You should have shown up (plus, if you’re coming to the blog of a white belt to learn technique, you’re beyond help.)

Both of these men are world champions. Professor Alexander’s achievements are pretty impressive. Something like 146 black belts. 14 of his black belts have won world championships. Additionally, he coached BJ Penn, and currently coaches Jose Aldo and Renan Barao, who currently fight in the UFC.  With all of this, two things struck me when I first saw him. First, based purely on looks, he doesn’t appear to be a guy that could seriously hurt you (break limbs, choke you unconscious etc.) He just looks like a guy who is good shape. Second, he  seemed very humble.  Now to be completely honest, I don’t know what he was saying, I don’t speak Portuguese. I trust that Leo was doing an accurate translations for us. But he could have been insulting us the whole time. However, I don’t think that’s true. He was very quick to help anyone at the gym, including me and my one stripe white belt.  His willingness to teach and show us moves, and make sure we were doing it right, is part of what I love about Jiu Jitsu. So far, in my journey, everyone I’ve met has been more than helpful.

I did learn some nice moves today. A couple sweeps, passes and submissions. I suspect that I will get some practice on these in the coming weeks. The best part about the moves he showed today were that for the most part, there was nothing crazy about them.  There were a couple moves that I don’t see myself doing anytime soon, but in 4 hours we learned no less than 10 separate moves, and most of them I could see using, and hopefully 2 or 3 of them will make an appearance this weekend at the Sasquatch Open.

The best part about having nice, clean, basic moves is that, they’re more likely to be effective. At least in my opinion. That style fits my personality very well. I’m not a fancy or flashy person. I’d rather be a master of a couple things, than halfway decent at a lot of things. Much like the playbook in this video:

Overall, today was a great seminar. I was completely exhausted by the end. But I’d have to say that I got more than my money’s worth out of the day.

Tournament Prep – How

Like I said in my last post, I’ve known since about January that I’d be doing SOME tournament in March or April, just didn’t know which one until mid-February. Since I have decided to compete, I started focusing on getting ready for that. So in January, on Sunday evenings I went to AC’s “Competition” training. It was really helpful in getting me work on my takedowns and also work on chaining movements together.

Then on February 18th, the gym redid their BJJ schedule and started offering more sparring classes, as well as a strength and conditioning class at 6am. I changed my schedule some so that I was still getting 7 or 8 hours a week, but instead of stretching it over Monday through Thursday & Saturday morning, I’ve been doing Monday to Wednesday (and Saturday morning.) I actually have the same number of hours of BJJ, but I also get an extra night off.  This means that since February 18th, I’ve done 4 hours of technique and 3 hours of sparring every week.

I also decided to try out the 6am class. I haven’t been as faithful to that as to BJJ, but I’ve managed to hit it 5 or 6 times. It is building up my cardio and my strength, but it’s helping me in other ways as well. I’m shooting for the 185 division (I was 206 when I started in August) and that class is helping me get there. It’s also helping me build up my endurance and pain threshold. There has yet to be an easy class, and so just getting through that class has helped me push past “comfort” areas, an experience I’ll no doubt need on the day of the tournament.

The final area that I’m trying to work on is the mental aspect. In some ways this is more difficult. I’m good at mental exercises, and doing what I want mentally when it only depends on me. I’m not so good at enforcing my “gameplan” on others, and that’s something I’m trying to work on. I’ve talked with one of the coaches and came up with a gameplan. He’s helped me work on that over the past week as well. One thing he said has stuck out in my mind. When the match starts, I have to assume it’s already on the ground and I’m in a position I want to be. I can’t sit back and say “If he does this and I do that and he does this then maybe I’ll be here.”  Mentally I have to go in and say “I’m doing X, then Y and then Z.”  And that’s what I’m trying to work on right now.

So for the past 2.5 months, my preparation for the tournament has focused on BJJ skills, conditioning, and mental preparedness. All things that Mid-America has had a hand in. The only thing left to do now is actually compete.

Importance of a good Gym — Teamwork

On thing that I really enjoy at Mid-America is that team atmosphere that seems to invade everything that goes on there. In technique class, the higher belts always seem more than willing to work with lower belts to help them figure out what it is they’re doing wrong, or missing. When sparring, I’ve seen and heard more advanced students tell the less advanced ones what they were doing to get caught with the same thing multiple times. After class, I’ve seen guys getting back on the mat to work on a specific technique, or to recreate a situation they were in so they can be shown how to escape.

But it’s more than just the jiu jitsu guys. Mid-America also offers Muay Thai (among other classes.) And there are several people that cross train between the two, but there are also plenty of people that only train one or the other. But that doesn’t stop the teamwork and support. This past weekend was a great example. Another Ring Wars promotion was held. And while I wasn’t able to attend, it seemed as if I was the only one from the gym not there. People from the gym were excited for the fighters we had participating, they were encouraging them on the week leading up to the event.

This level of support and teamwork goes a long way. For one, it helps you improve. I have been asked countless times in sparring sessions “Is there anything you want to work on? What’s you’re weakest point?” (To which I always reply “Everything.”) When people go out of their way to help others get better it provides several benefits. First, it helps them see what they’re doing even better. It’s often said the best way to learn something is to teach it. Secondly, it encourages the one getting the help. It’s hard to see why a particular position didn’t work out, especially when you’re in the middle of it. But if someone can come along and say “You were almost there…” or “You just need to make a minor tweak…” then it’s encouraging to the one learning. Third, it puts the focus where it needs to be, on learning. The emphasis isn’t on me beating you, or you beating someone else. Instead it’s simply about getting better.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I haven’t been in any other gyms. I started 7 months ago at Mid-America and that’s all I know. So when I think about things that make a gym good, I’m not saying other gyms are bad at doing this. I’m simply stating things that have helped my progress the past 7 months. And if anyone reads this who is thinking about starting up martial arts, I want them to have certain expectations, so they don’t just sit back and say “This gym doesn’t help each other at all, but I bet they’re all like that.”  It might be that all gyms have these traits in common, but I doubt it.

Tournament Prep – Why

I am two weeks away from my first tournament (apart from the in-house tournament we did back in December.) I’ll be competing at the Sasquatch Open in Bettendorf, IA on March 23rd. I’ve been preparing for this tournament for a little over a month now. I knew I’d be competing at some tournament in March as far back as mid-January, I just didn’t know exactly which one or when until about 4 weeks ago.

As I’ve been preparing for the tournament, I’ve thought on more than one occasion, “Why am I doing this?” And in fact, a forum discussion over on Sherdog asked that same question to the people who compete. I gave a brief answer over there, but was thinking more about it since writing that.  Why am I competing?

You Mean There’s Tournaments?

When I first started jiu jitsu, my motivation was really that I wanted to learn jiu jitsu. I had seen it on display in MMA matches, and thought it might be “fun” to learn jiu jitsu.

I approached it without much more thought than that. I knew I didn’t want to do MMA, and honestly didn’t even think about the fact that there might be BJJ only tournaments. Even after I initially learned there were tournaments, I still wasn’t sold on the idea of me doing them. In fact, posted somewhere at our gym were guidelines for getting stripes. One of them listed was a “competition” stripe. The accompanying paragraph said something along the lines of students are not required, but encouraged, to compete. Reading that sentence was a relief, because I was glad that it wasn’t required.

After that, I didn’t give tournaments much thought. I went to class, learned my technique and tried to get better. For the most part, the tournament season had died down, but there was still a local tournament here in Omaha that a lot of our guys were going to. I went out to just see what it was like, and to support the team. Once I went and watched, I started thinking more about competing. I’m not exactly sure what it was about that tournament that started to change my mind. By December, when we held our in-house tournament, I was ready to go. Despite losing all 5 of my matches, I came home ready for more. I didn’t want to stop, I was enjoying myself too much.

Since that time, I’ve realized that there are two main reasons I want to compete at tournaments. The first is to test or prove myself. The second is to test or prove the gym.

Prove Myself

I got the name of this blog from ripping off the “Couch Potato to 5k” idea. The idea that you can start as a couch potato and move into something, hence CouchJitsu — moving from the couch to being a jiu jitsu practitioner.  It wasn’t that I was completely sedentary, but I was more-or-less so. The last time I participated in any kind of organized sports was almost 20 years ago when I was a freshman in high school. I spent one year on the JV soccer bench. The rest of my time in high school was spent in debate.  After high school, I would play the occasional basketball game with friends, or a round of golf every once in a while, but that was about it. Since 2000 I’ve had various streaks of trying to lift weights, swim, jog and just normal “go to the gym” type activities. However, I don’t think any of these really lasted more than a few months at a time, and it would be back to my normal self.

So now I’m learning jiu jitsu, after years of essentially sitting around. I want to test myself to see what I can do physically  It’s a part of my life that has never really been tested. I’ve never seen if I can execute a physical game-plan for an entire round. I’ve never tried to force my body to ignore its aches and pains and push on. I’ve done that with my mind for academics and work, but I’ve never done it with my body for anything.

Prove The Gym

The other reason I want to compete is to prove the gym I’m at. Truth be told, they don’t need me as a representative. When you walk in the front door, you can see belts, and medals and trophies up on the wall and in display cases. We’ve got pictures of guys inside the Octagon and several other cages. Mid-America has made a name for themselves long before I came along, and if I were to quit today, it would not tarnish their name at all.

So I don’t mean, that I am going to try and show the merit of Mid-America’s ways, as if people will watch me and say “I was on the fence about that gym, but seeing Nate really convinces me.”

Instead, what I mean is that we have quite a few guys that travel to tournaments and compete. In fact, the same weekend that I’ll be competing at the Sasquatch Open, we’ll also have guys at the Pan-Am Championship and NAGA St Louis. We’ve already sent people to the Houston Open and we have a decent number competing in Chicago this weekend.  A lot of these guys come back with medals. Some even come back with medals not only for their own weight class, but also for the absolute, or open (all weight) class.

So what I want to see, and prove to myself about our gym, is that even guys like me with no real athletic background can go out and compete with other people from other gyms.

It’s not really about the medals for me. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win gold. I’ll want to win gold every time I compete. But I won’t measure success and failure based purely on if I medal or not. There are a lot of factors at play in my mind. I want to see first hand, how I stack up compared to other practitioners.


What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, I was reflecting about our sparring class and how it’s nice to not be the newest white belt anymore. Not that I’m dominating the new guys, I catch them sometimes, and sometimes I’m able to focus simply on being in a good position, and sometimes they catch me. Then there was sparring class tonight.

Compared to a couple months ago, I did all right. The times I was submitted, I was able to defend a while and keep moving. Which is something I couldn’t say not too long ago. However, tonight was bad for another reason. Multiple times tonight I felt like I was just too exhausted to move. I was sore. My knees hurt, my back is a little strained etc. I have a game plan for my tournament coming up on the 23rd, but I’m not super confident that I’ll pull it off.  Combining all of that made it hard to be motivated to keep pushing forward.

But there is one thing that does keep me moving forward, simply this: I will not be unprepared for my tournament. Clearly I’m not going to be able to plan for every case. I might be matched up with someone much younger, or stronger, or someone who’s got more BJJ experience than me, or has a wrestling background. I might have to compete with someone who has done several tournaments already. Or, none of that might happen. I can’t control those things. I can control my training. I can control my conditioning. I can control my game plan. That’s what’s motivating me to keep pressing forward. My first tournament is coming up in 18 days. I have but 4 sparring sessions left before the tournament (assuming I don’t spar the week leading up to the tournament.) I have about 5 conditioning days left as well. I want to be able to walk off the mat knowing that I was as ready as I could be, and not questioning “What if I did 1 more sparring session? What if I didn’t skip that class a couple weeks back.”


Conditioning is Mental

Tonight our sparring class was run by our black belt, Ed Shobe. He got his belt from Rodrigo Vaghi (who got his from Rickson Gracie.)  I say that to show that our school is not far from the “old school” mentality of jiu jitsu.  I’ve heard rumors of how tough our blue belt test is. I hope one day to be able to tell you how bad it sucked (and that I made it through it.)

Tonight was a bit different from other sparring classes. We started with a partner and did 3 flow drills. So my partner started in my guard, passed to side control, slid over to mount and then went for an armbar. I escaped, and wound up in his guard. Then it was my turn to pass etc. It’s not completely passive, but there’s not a lot of resistance either. It’s more about getting the muscle memory down than it is winning a match so to speak. Next we moved on to pass-sweep-submit from closed guard. Then pass-sweep-submit from open guard. Then several matches where we started on our knees.

In itself, that’s not all that different from class. What was different was there were essentially no breaks. In between each “round” we had about 1 minute. During that time Ed made sure we stood up. We weren’t sitting, kneeling or even leaning over. He wanted us standing up tall. We also couldn’t put our hands on our hips. We were told “If you want to hold on to something, grab your belt and be a tough guy.”

After class, I was exhausted. As I thought about what we’d just done, I thought about how I was out of shape. After the last roll or two, I just wanted to put my head on the mat and sit there for a minute, but I couldn’t. Everyone else on my team was standing up, I needed to stand up as well. It was the little things (a seemingly common theme in BJJ) that were going to help me be better conditioned that my opponents. Instead of sitting down or bending over, standing up will force me to get used to not sitting around between matches.  I never realized how much of conditioning is mental.


I need to slow down

This past Sunday we were doing tournament prep. For one particular drill, I was to start in Scott, my partner’s, guard. Then as I passed, he was to turtle up and I was to take his back and attack. As I did this, my partner properly turtled and I slid my left arm underneath his neck and then started to work my right arm in. He did the proper thing to to defend me from choking him. At this point, I wasn’t sure what to do. I think I know 2 or maybe 3 moves from when the guy is turtled. So I moved to another, he again defended. I went back to the first, and we played this little game for about another 20 seconds before the bell sounded. When it was over, Scott told me when I had the back, I needed to slow down. He went in to a bit more detail, but the message was essentially, slow down.

As I’ve thought about that, I realized it’s true in more situations than just when I have the back. But it seems to me that when I’m uncomfortable or don’t know what to do, I panic a little and go a little too fast. Some of it is me thinking if I don’t make a move, my opponent is going to escape or sweep me, or even worse figure out a submission.

The funny thing is, though, it’s more likely to happen when I’m rushed. It’s something I put to the test tonight in sparring class. If I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I’d get to a “safe” position, or at least as safe of a position as I can. For example, I got to kesa gatame tonight against my last opponent. I knew of two attacks from there, both of which required me to move my hips up closer to his head. However, first, I wanted to make sure I had a decent base so that he couldn’t roll into me. When I did that, my openent was able to hook my leg. I kept working to free that leg and move forward, because I knew that I needed that leg out for me to be able to do either of the attacks I knew. In the end, we stalled out and the bell sounded with us in that position, I couldn’t advance, but he couldn’t escape.  However, I’m pretty sure that if I’d panicked and decided to abandon that attack I would have left myself in a bad position. After all, I had a dominant position and it wouldn’t have taken much for him to get me in half-guard, which I have a hard time with.

In this case, I need to do the opposite of what my nature says. It says “Go! Go! Go!”, I need to keep saying “know what you’re doing before you do it.”

Putting the pieces together

January 6th, AC started a 6-week competition class. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go or not. My plan for this year is to at least hit the local BJJ tournament that has 3 competitions a year. If I like it/do good at it, then maybe 2014 look to Chicago for an IBJJF tournament. I knew that after my performance at the in-house tournament, it sure wasn’t going to hurt to go to the class.

Turns out there were only 5 guys (including AC) to show up the first night. We started with a simple stand-up drill. I grabbed my partner’s left sleeve with my left hand, and placed my right hand on his shoulder with my right elbow on his chest. It was a couple steps to my right, dragging my partner. Then it was his turn.

We did this a few times then added a new step. Two steps to the right, then move my right hand from the shoulder to his left sleeve and my left hand around his back to his belt.  After practing that for a minute or two, we added another step. We added dropping down and grabbing a leg to initiate a takedown.  Finally, we moved to the ground and sat in side control for 3 seconds.  

Part of this was to show how to link pieces together. Which I was very grateful, when it comes to standup, I have no clue what I’m doing.  But some of the small pieces, like sitting in side control for 3 seconds while we catch our breath was also helpful. It showed me that I don’t have to grab wrist, get belt, get takedown, move to side control, then to mount and try an armbar all in 5 seconds. But instead it needs to be deliberate and purposeful.

On the following Wednesday I had a similar experience. Instead of Kyle for the open class, we had Ed, the blackbelt at our class. He wanted to teach us how to do some guard passing. Again we started slow. One partner laid on his back, one stood in front of him. The standing partner would grab the other guy’s pants and just simply  move the legs from left to right. Then we added trapping a leg to our body with our elbow, then getting our knee over their leg and on the ground. By the end of the night we had a pretty nice pass that we could execute a couple different ways.

Both of these helped me pick up what we were doing more quickly. It was a lot like a children’s book to hep kids learn to read “The. The dog. The dog ran. The dog ran around. The dog ran around the house.” If I had just seen either of these progressions in competition, or on youtube, I probably would have said “That’s neat, I have no clue how to pull it off though.”  But by breaking down each of these moves into a sequence of steps, it made it more clear how things fit together. 

That’s something that has consistently happened at Mid-America. The way they taught me to do a triangle choke from guard has at least 9 steps (assuming I didn’t forget any when I counted just now.) If the first day they just threw up a triangle and said “Ok, now you do it.”  I would have been lost, and I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get the basics.