Importance of a Good Gym – Encouragement

I truly enjoy my time at Mid-America. From my perspective, it has been a perfect fit for me. I have the opportunity to go as hard as I want, and I don’t have pressure from anyone trying to make me someone I’m not.  I feel very fortunate that this was my first gym. After all, I can only imagine if I had gone to a gym that wasn’t a good fit, it might have scared me away from jiu jitsu.

I have to assume that most, if not all, gyms have people telling you how good that gym is compared to others, or how what they do is different. When I used to go to Liftetime Fitness, I’d hear how much better it was than 24 hour fitness. Then when we switched to a local gym, I heard how much better it was than other gyms, etc. It’s not limited to BJJ schools, or even gyms really. It’s any organization that you’re in will have people telling you how and why they’re better than “competing” organizations.

Like I said above, this is the only BJJ school I’ve ever trained at. So I can’t tell you first hand that our classes are tougher, or better, or bigger, or more focused on the students, or anything else. But I can tell you one thing that our gym is great at, encouragement. It’s not something that I would have thought was important before I started BJJ, but now that I’m 6 months in, I’m beginning to see how important it is.

For the past 3 months I’ve been hitting the sparring class just about every week. Most weeks I’ve gone on Tuesday and Thursday nights. There’s been a couple nights that have had more than 3 or 4 whitebelts (one time we had 9, I think.) There have also been nights that I have been the only whitebelt. That can be hard, because it means that I tend to end up with a lot of matches against blue, a few against purple and the occasional brownbelt match. Going up against the higher belts the only way I’ve really found to measure progress is along the lines of “How long did it take for that guy to submit me? 45 seconds? Awesome, last time it was only 30 seconds.” And if somehow I’m able to go a full 5 minutes without an upper belt submitting me, I always wonder if my escapes were working, or were my opponent was just going easy, or even just working on something in particular (like staying heavy in mount.)

Over the past 2 or 3 weeks, I’ve had a couple people that I’ve worked with on multiple occassions tell me specific areas that they could see improvement on. It wasn’t a big deal for them to make a comment, and even at the time I wasn’t floored by it, but it ended up being pretty meaningful. It’s hard to tell if you’re improving, and how much you’re improving, at least for me. So to hear from someone who appears to know their stuff that they can see you getting better is a big deal.

Since BJJ only has 5 belts, you aren’t awarded with a new belt all the time. There are stripes, but even those aren’t something you get every 2 or 3 months (at least not that I’ve seen.) Encouragement plays a big role in this environment. It doesn’t have to be grandiose either. I’ve heard countless guys at the gym tell people things like “That was a really good triangle defense.” or “Your guard is getting really hard to pass.”  Little things that can go a long way to helping people along the road.


It’s not a sprint

One thing that sparring class has really helped me with is conditioning. Before my first class I was talking to a classmate and said I felt like I needed to get my cardio up before I started sparring. He told me that the sparring class would make sure I was conditioned. He was right. I can tell that I have better cardio after doing sparring for about 6 weeks.

But it taught me something else as well. Jiu Jitsu is a marathon, not a sprint. I knew the journey itself was a marathon. After all, it takes more than a decade to get a black belt, that’s not something you can do on a whim without determination. But in a lot of ways, the matches themselves are not sprints. 

For example, if I am in someone’s guard and I go about passing the guard as the only thing I have to do, then when I pass their guard and wind up in side control I’ll have no energy left to advance my position or pull off a submission. I’ll wind back up in the guy’s guard (or a worse position.)  All that energy will have been wasted, and for what?

To take it a step further, if I’m in sparring class and I spend all my energy on a single pass, what is going to happen for the next 50 minutes? I’ll essentially just be a 200 pound pillow that offers no real resistance to my partners, and have no shot of doing anything myself. I won’t get better and neither will they.

Higher Belts Tap Too

One thing I’ve realized in BJJ is that even the higher belts tap. It sounds obvious, but for some reason it wasn’t obvious to me. I remember watching Matt Hughes take on Royce Gracie in the UFC and Matt worked an armbar on Royce for a while. Royce never tapped to that. He ended up losing, but due to strikes.


So I assumed that as BJJ players got better, they’d find ways to not tap out, that the submission just wouldn’t be as effective as it is against whitebelts. There’s something wrong with that line of thinking, though.  Basically, each of the submissions involes something like hyper-extending an elbow (armbar) or cutting off blood flow to the brain (rear naked choke.)  The human body cannot function without blood to the brain. It’s also not designed for your elbow to bend the other way.  Both will involve damage to the body if you don’t tap.

As I learn though, one line of thought has popped up over and over again. It goes like this: You don’t teach a boxer to get un-punched in the face. So too in BJJ, you can’t get un-rear naked choked. You can learn to avoid positions, for example posturing up to keep away from triangle chokes. But once a  submission is sunk in, you can only do one of 3 things, regardless of skill level: Tap, Nap or Snap.

I guess I watched too much Karate Kid growing up, where it’s okay if Daniel-san gets beaten up, because Mr. Myagi will take on 5 guys at the same time and not get touched. It’s not like that in the real world.

Higher belts have more experience, they know how to escape positions, how to avoid positions, etc. But they’re not super-heroes.


First Submission

If there’s one thing that people know about jiu jitsu it’s that it involves submissions. Casual fans of MMA often see guys win by rear-naked chokes, or armbars, both moves in jiu jitsu. I’d say most whitebelts want to learn submissions. And with it being a competitive sport a lot of time focus is placed purely on submissions (usually not by instructors, but by eager students.) In fact, I believe my first week, if not my first day, I learned an armbar.

But in the past 5 months, I’ve learned that jiu jitsu is about more than submissions. There is defense, and a lot, and I mean A LOT, of positional awareness and body movement. I’ve discussed shrimping earlier, and that is as much, if not more, a part of jiu jitsu than armbars.

When I’ve gone to sparring I’ve tried to focus on “what do I do in this position?” That meant one night I was armbarred probably 5 times from the same position, because I wound up there and didn’t know what to do. After that night I started thinking “What was common in all of my armbars?” That lead me to realize I was 1. Giving up the back easily and 2. Leaving my top arm wide open. The next sparring class I wanted to 1. Turn into, and not away from my partner so that I didn’t give up the back, and 2. Keep that top arm close. I focused on that, and I believe was only caught in one armbar.  

That was a lot of my focus, a lot of times I was going against guys that were way better than me, and already knew all the attacks I know, so I started wanting to see how long I could survive. And if I went against another whitebelt, I’d try to see if I could do any kind of attack.

For our sparring class on January 8th, there were probably more than 20 people there. For some gyms that might be normal, but since I’ve been going our average sparring class size is probably closer to 8-10 people. It was the single most whitebelts I’d seen in a sparring class (I think I counted 9.)  

We started the night in groups of 3 playing “pass-sweep-submit” from full-guard. Then we went into different groups of 3 and played from half-guard, and finally from side-control. So by the end, we’d gone 45 minutes of playing pass-sweep-submit and most, if not all, of us were pretty tired. We then started sparring. We did 5 minute matches and if someone was submitted they stayed in and the odd man out came in to start another match.

First 5 minute match I went against 2 guys, losing one and having time expire on the other. I found another guy to go against to start the 2nd round and he was able to triangle choke me after about 4.5 minutes of us scrambling from different posistions.  For the final 5 mintue match I went against someone I’d gone against probably 10 times in sparring. I like going against him because while he’s better than me, we usually have a decent match, this time was no different.  

I started in his guard, and tried to pass. He went for an arm and couldn’t quite get it. He wound up in a dominate position, I think probably side control. He started to try and set up a choke. I moved around some and he started angling for the armbar (the same one I was talking about a few paragraphs back.) I locked on my defense and kept moving. I then turtled up and was trying to think how to get out of that position. He still had his right hand on my lapel, but I was defending it with  my right hand to keep the choke away. Then he threw on a body triangle (which means he stuck his right leg across my gut, and put his right ankle underneath his left knee, and closed it tight.)

I knew if he started squeezing that, I would be tapping soon as he would squeeze out all my air. That’s when it hit me, I had been in roughly the same position before, only I was the one with the back. It was the in-house tournament, and when I crossed my ankles, I was tapped out about 2 seconds later. I thought his leg was too far off to the side, and I thought if he felt me move he’d adjust to keep me from going for it. But honestly, it was my only shot. If I didn’t attack his ankles I’d be tapping in short order.  I threw my left leg over, pushed it down towards the mat and felt him tapping my chest.

Getting my first tap was thrilling because I finally actually “won” a sparring match (for whatever that’s worth.) However, it was also frustrating, because I kind of felt like I just lucked in to that submission. I mean, I didn’t think “I’ll let him take my back, roll me over, hope he crosses his legs, and then attack his ankles.” It was more of “I’m in a world of hurt here, if I don’t do something quick this is over.”” It was also humbling. I’ve been doing jiu jitsu for just over 5 months, and this is the first time I was able to submit someone. I also had gone against 6 other guys (and had 11 matchups of either pass-sweep-submit, or sparring.) It was litterally the last possible moment for me to get my submission, after he tapped, within 15 seconds, the buzzer sounded and we circled up to stretch to end class. 

So my first submission was thrilling, frustrating and humbling. In other words, it was a normal BJJ experience.


Be Deliberate

After the in-house tournament, I spent some time thinking about the matches I had that day. I was thinking about what I did wrong, what I did right and what my opponent did. For example, none of my opponents tried to jump guard. One thing that popped up multiple times was how forceful my opponents were. It felt like I was performing a move in class, and they were going at it like it really mattered.

My first thought was that I needed to be more aggressive. I remembered back to when I played soccer as a kid. One time on the way home from a game my parents were talking about me being more aggressive, really kicking the ball. I told them I’d just have to imagine it was my sister’s head or something (sorry Jen, but it was true.) The problem was, when I put more power behind a kick I felt like I had less control. The same was true when I played little league football. I felt like I could hit hard or I could hit right. I was worried the same thing would be true in my jiu jitsu game. I could do the right steps, or I could do some of the steps really forceful.

After the tournament I continued to go to the sparring class and wound up against some of the higher belts. One night I’d go against a brown, the next time a couple purples and a good blue belt. As they moved around, set up attacks, prevented me from passing I realized something. They seemed to be in complete control. That is, they weren’t panicking. They might get one hand in my lapel to set up a choke and then they’d wait for me to make a wrong move and get the other hand in, and I’d tap.  Or they’d get into side control and as I started my shrimping and escaping, they would transition to another position (seemingly effortlessly.)  That’s when I realized that I don’t need to be more aggressive, I need to be more deliberate.

For example, one time I wound up against someone trying to go for an armbar on my left arm. I had just learned the armbar escape and was trying to defend the arm. I had grabbed on to my right arm and was moving my hips around. As I did this, my opponent moved with me and slowly and steadily kept working to free the left arm. He wasn’t yanking on my arm with all his strength, there weren’t a lot of spastic movements. It was if he realized he was in the dominant position and it would take a lot more work for me to free myself than for him to secure the arm, so he rolled with it and waited.

I spent much of my time in sparring and the tournament waiting and reacting to what my opponents do. If I started to attack an arm I did it half-heartedly, almost as if I expected my partner to get out of the attack. I wasn’t attacking deliberately and with confidence. It seems as if attacks have less to do with raw agression and more to do with being purposeful.

My Abusive Relationship

As I sit and type this, I have a couple bruises on my right arm from someone’s spider guard 4 days ago. My left ankle feels like it has a bruise (although I can’t see it.) My shins feel like I walked into a coffee table in the middle of the night. My abs are sore and I’m a little tired. All of this is a result of my jiu jitsu training. The thing is, I’ll be at the next class at 5pm tomorrow.

I’m physically beat (in more ways than one) and yet I’ve never felt better.

It’s more than physical exhaustion. It seems at least once a week I’ll be in class watching someone perform a move. As I watch I think “I’ll be shocked if I pull that one off.” Other times I’ll watch the move, pay careful attention, and think I’ve got a good understanding, until I try it. Watching someone who is really good at triangles hit one looks amazing, and I can only imagine what it looks like when I try to hit one.

I leave beaten and brusied, wondering if I can pick up the small details. But I always come back. This might be the first time in my life that I’ve been aching, sore, exhausted and yet dying to get back and do it again. 

In-house Tournament

On December 8th, Mid-America held an in-house BJJ tournament. They had two whitebelt divisions, under 30 & over 30 as well as a blue belt and kids division. I’ve heard there were over 100 people there that day.

This was my first exposure to competition in BJJ. I’ve done the sparring class for a whlie, but even that takes the approach of “You have 4 minutes, if you get tapped out, just reset and start over.” But the tournament was set that if you tap, you’re done.

I didn’t have high expectations for myself, but I was really excited for the tournament. My workday on Friday seemed to drag along slower than any in recent memory. Saturday came and I got to the gym about 8:40, the tournament was set to start around 9:30. At one point I was nervous that we wouldn’t have many people in my division, as most of the white belts I’d bet were under 30. In the end, we had 6 white belts over 30.

After the first match of the day, in our division, the names Nate & Paul were called out. I stepped up to the mat and found out there were 2 of us named Nate. They matched the other Nate up against Paul. Then a couple minutes later I was matched up against PJ. Turns out this was Paul’s son, I had been slated in the under 30 division. Both Nates lost to both Pauls, and so we swapped back into the correct divisions.

After that, my next match went the full 4 minutes before I lost on points. I don’t think I ever gained a dominate or advantageous position, but there were several scrambles and a lot of movement.  

The third match also went the full 4 minutes and I lost on points there too (either 2-0 or 3-0.) It was a much slower match. The other guy got a take down, and i was able to get half-guard. I didn’t really know what to do so I just made sure he couldn’t attack my arms or choke me. I wanted to escape, but I was worried that if I opened my guard up, he’d get a better position.

My fourth match was pretty quick. My opponent did an arm-drag, and I wound up turtled up. He was able to pull an arm out and tap me.

My final match was probably the most dissappointing to me. I had gained mount once and the back twice. The second time, however, I crossed my ankles and as soon as I did, I was tapped out by some sort of ankle lock.

Overall, I had a lot of fun, even going 0-5. And more importantly, I realized something during my second arm-bar loss. It was an armbar that I’d tapped to a few times already and I finally realized I was moving in the wrong direction. When my opponent would start to move towards side control, I’d roll so that my back was to them. At the same time, my top arm would be up, a second or two later I’d be tapping because that top arm was attacked.

As I sat and thought about the tournament, I realized if I had rolled to face my opponent on that arm bar, he wouldn’t have been able to get my arm. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have other attacks, but he wouldn’t have had that one.

Another thing I learned is that I’m not deliberate enough. I plan on writing a post about this at a later date, but I entered each match with more of a mindset of “Ok, let’s see what this guy does” rather than thinking about how I wanted to attack. My focus was completely reactionary. At first I thought I wasn’t being aggressive enough, but I noticed that others look very relaxed while rolling, but they are still deliberate.

I’ve been told a few times leading up to the tournament, as well as afterwards, that it’s probably one of the harder tournaments I’ll go to. More than one person has told me that they do pretty good at other tournaments, bringing home gold or silver, but go 50-50 at our in-house tournament. If that’s true, then maybe I’ll actually win a match at another tournament 🙂


You don’t get this with a treadmill

The new year is a time when a lot of people resolve to get to the gym or eat better or any number of other things. That’s not really my style, in fact, I’d more likely resolve to stay out of the gym in January than to go in January, but that’s just my personality.  

True to form, I’ve noticed some new folks at the gym over the past month (perhaps they got an early jump on their resolutions.) It’s great. I always like seeing new people at the gym, it’s encouraging to think about MAMA growing.

But one thing you’ll get at Mid-America that you won’t get at Lifetime or 24 Hour Fitness or Gold’s Gym is the family atmosphere. Thursday night in sparring class I went against a couple people that I’d never sparred against, and a couple that I’ve gone against more than once.

After a couple matches I had guys tell me that I was doing good. And it wasn’t a generic “good job.” But specific things, for example, “you did everything right in defending that armbar.”  Towards the end of the night I had one more experienced guy beat me, then put me in his shoes and showed me the steps he took to beat me, and let me do them to him.  Finally, at the end of the night, one of the blue belts told me “It’s very clear that you’re paying attention in class and trying to apply what’s being taught there. I can see an improvement.”

I don’t know if that guy would even recognize his comment if he saw it above, but it meant something to me. At times I feel like I’m picking things up or moving in the right direction, but having that confirmed from someone else is a big boost.

And that’s one thing I really love about Mid-America. I’ve yet to meet anyone there who doesn’t try and help all of his or her teammates improve and reach their personal best. That doesn’t happen at big name gyms where people just want to put on their headphones and run on the treadmil without anyone bothering them.