The Double-Edged Sword of BJJ

I’ve been really sporadic in my training this year. Just a lot of things going on. A lot of excuses I can offer as to why I haven’t trained as much as in recent years.  But none of those matter, I haven’t put in the mat time in 2015.

This week was the first time for me to be back in the gym in 2 weeks. Which might not sound like much, but last year I was training about 7 hours a week. Anyway, one thing I’ve been struggling with is the lack of progress I’ve made as a blue belt. Obviously lack of mat time is a big factor.

Today after sparring something dawned on me. BJJ is a double-edged sword. That sword is its simplicity.

Hear me out.

It seems to escape every bad position is essentially this: If you can bridge. If you’re flat, get up on a shoulder, then an elbow and possibly a hand. Move away. Put your feet on your opponent and control the distance.

It might be more nuanced than that. But today I was rolling and was in a bad position, I hear our coach telling me to get up on my elbow. I tried, but ended up in a worse position. After the round he showed me what he meant. It really was to get up on an elbow, scoot my butt towards my elbow and keep doing that until I could do a knee shield or foot on his hip etc.

Why is that a double edge sword? Because I think I learned all of that the first month or so of training.

It’s not that once you get to blue you learn more moves, and the purple, brown and black learn even more (I’m assuming, anyway, nobody has taught me secret blue belt moves.) Instead, it’s realizing that if your opponent is behind you with their chest on your shoulder and their knee pinning your legs, you still need to shrimp and get up to your knees and scoot away.

The techniques are that simple.

At the same time, their difficult to pull off in every situation. Or for me, their even difficult to recognize in every situation. I’ll wind up somewhere and think “Surely THIS position calls for a different escape.” So far the answer every time has been “No. There’s nothing special about this position either.”

It gives me hope that I can get better on those moves. It’s also incredibly frustrating that 3 years in I still can’t do the basics.

Time Heals Wounds

Regular readers of this blog (are there really any? I don’t know, but it sounds cool) will no doubt have seen my struggles dealing with my tournament performance a few weeks ago. It was even noticeable to some of my teammates the week following my tournament as they asked if that was still bothering me.

This past week was not a good BJJ week for me. Our gym was closed for Labor Day. I wasn’t able to train over lunch on Tuesday. Thursday I had my bag packed and was ready to go, and life “got in the way” so I had to go deal with that.  So I went 8 days between training sessions.

This past Friday I was at open mat and was rolling with one of my favorite BJJ people. He’s been better than me my entire career, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the rolls.  I had a decent day on Friday night. Granted, I didn’t submit him, I’ve only done that once and I’m not convinced that I really got him that time. But I was able to defend some positions, escape some positions and overall give him some good looks as he got ready for a tournament.

As I left the gym that night I thought “This is why people train.” You can have a bad day, week, or month. But then you have a good, not great, day and you are excited to train again. It was fun just to be in the gym rolling with people I enjoy hanging around with, and getting a good sweat in for about an hour, before I kicked off my weekend.

After lamenting about my tournament performance, I received a lot of encouragement about how it’s the person who doesn’t quit that achieves. That seems to be true. What I do know is that had I quit, or even just wallowed in my self pity and stayed away from the gym for awhile, I wouldn’t have been able to experience Friday.  You’ve got to get back on the horse.

Why do I do This?

Saturday after my tournament, I had a 3 hour drive home by myself.  I don’t mind driving, and I had loaded up on podcasts for the trip so I wasn’t worried about being bored. The thing about driving solo, however, is there is ample time to reflect. And after losing 3 of 3 matches, there was plenty to reflect on.

I joked this morning with someone that I think I went through all the stages of grief on the drive home. There were times when I was questioning why I do this, maybe not so much BJJ, but compete. I chastised myself for getting into my head too much. Try as I might, I could not convince myself that I should be able to win one match for a gold medal.

I thought about how in at least one of my matches, I didn’t really move and it’s hard to win when you don’t move. I thought about how I might be “too defensive.”  Too worried about being submitted, and afraid to move and get caught. Preferring instead to lose 2-0 on points than get submitted.

I thought a lot about how, maybe, I’m just not that good. I really had no reason to assume anything different would happen at this tournament. I’ve not historically had good tournaments. I wasn’t beating all the whites and blues at the gym.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure why this tournament has had me down so much. It’s unusual for it to be Monday night after sparring, over 48 hours since the tournament ended and me still down. But I am.

As I mopped the gym tonight, and again as I drove home, I reflected on the realization, that I’m not sure I’ve actually improved since my blue belt test last October.  I don’t feel like I have. I don’t even mean that as a lot of guys do, where they think “I’m still getting beat by so-and-so and I’m still not beating so-and-so.”  Instead, I’m looking at the stupid little things I don’t do, basic things like shrimping away.  I’ve probably improved since a year ago, but I haven’t felt like I’ve actually improved in ground fighting for several months (I do think my standup is getting better, as I’ve been taking judo almost every week for a while now.)

On my drive home I thought some more about if I’m getting better or not. I realized I have a few choices.

  1. Quit BJJ
  2. Keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing
  3. Do something different, change things up.

I’m not considering #1, but it’s always an option, so it showed up on my list.

Number 2 leads to the old saying “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”  Which means, #2 is a viable option. I could focus on training the way I always have and then I’d just have to come to terms with the outcomes I get.

Number 3 seems like the “right” choice.  That’s probably what I should do. If I want to have different results, I need to do something different.  Train differently, prepare differently, add private lessons, spar less, spar more, quit my job and live on the mats, something.

I’m pretty sure, although not positive, that I’ll choose #3. I don’t know yet what change I’ll make. It could be minor or something more drastic. I know it’s the only way to get better, by forcing myself to grow.

I debated even writing this post and then again posting it. It sounds super negative, and I guess it is one of my more negative ones. I also don’t mean for it to be the dramatic middle-school-esque “nobody likes me” type of post. At the same time, I started this blog to chronicle my journey as I got up off my couch, and onto the mats, and the truth is, sometimes getting off the couch is a struggle.  And if anyone actually reads these, I’d like them to know that if they ever wonder “What am I doing out here” that other people have had those thoughts.

Two Thoughts After Refereeing a Tournament

This weekend I went back down to Topeka to help out with the Sunflower State Games. We sent 6 referees down this year. It was my second year doing it with guys from my gym, and once again it was really fun.

This year I spent almost all of my time in the kids brackets. I wrapped up the kids’ gi matches right before lunch, and then no-gi about 1.5 hours after lunch.  By the time I was all done with the kids, I ref’d 4 male white belt matches, 2 male blue belt matches, and 2 female absolute matches, and then the tournament was done.

As I was refereeing the kids, there were quite a few key lock attacks from mount. Only one was successful and even that one, the kid didn’t tap, but I stopped it as it looked pretty nasty.  Watching the kids compete this time made me realize something, if a kid got hurt on my mat, and I could have prevented it, I would feel absolutely horrible. We want them to have fun and compete, and part of our job to is to make sure they’re doing so in a safe environment.  So when arms started getting twisted, I was watching closely. For example, one kid had his arm stretched out in a straight arm bar, but his thumb was pointing down and the attacker didn’t correct it. I’m sure it wasn’t comfortable, but overall, the kid was safe. The only one I stopped the attacker had correct form and the kid defending had his elbow pointing almost to 12 o’clock. I wanted to make sure he was safe, and when I stopped it, he didn’t argue, no parents argued, no coaches argued, I think everyone realized that even if he didn’t tap, he was in a pretty bad position.

The other thing that struck me while refereeing was how, for the most part, the competitors have a lot of sportsmanship.  It’s hard to see with the little kids, because the get emotional from losing. It’s almost always out of embarrassment and occasionally out of being scared. I didn’t see a single kid get mad at his or her opponent. I saw, on numerous times, both coaches congratulating the kids, consoling the kids and telling them they did good and were safe. That wasn’t too surprising, really. What struck me was the teen and adult competitors.

There was one teen that was 3 or 4 years older than his opponent, and had him in a tight arm bar. The younger teen kept working to defend. In the end, he tapped, but not to that arm bar. As soon as the match was over, the victor turned to the other kid and said “That was a good arm bar defense.”  And it really was. Although I only ref’d less than 10 adult matches this year, they were all good sports, telling each other after the match things like “That was a tight choke you had” or “I couldn’t believe I didn’t sweep you.” I even saw one match in which the two guys had gone against each other and the guy that lost had his elbow pop. That was before they came to my mat. The guy that won the first match was once again winning the second one and he had his arm, he turned to the guy and said “I don’t want to hurt your arm.” The other guy didn’t tap, so he applied it a little bit more and he tapped.  True, he shouldn’t have been talking during the match, but he could have easily locked on the submission and cranked hard, but he didn’t.

When we step on the mat to compete, it’s for different reasons. I do it to challenge myself and see how I’ve progressed. Others do it to prove they’re the best. Others do it for their own reasons.  But it was nice to see that even in a tournament experience, the competitors respected their opponents and wanted them to be safe.

Comparing Myself

The last few weeks I’d been thinking about how I measure myself in BJJ.  I realized that I’ve had a problem throughout my life.  It’s not easy to be succinct with what the problem is, but I’ll try.

In various areas of my life, I’ve found myself friends with people that are near the top of whatever it is we’re doing.  For example, during my time in seminary, one of my workout partners was an assistant to the president of the seminary. Other friends and study partners had done internships at what I considered “impressive” churches.  Now, if you read that and think that’s an oxymoron, it really kind of is.  However, in my mind, it wasn’t, because I admired those churches and the men that were leading them.

That is true in other areas of my life as well.  I’m a pretty decent software developer. I surround myself with other software developers that are most likely way better than me. I’m a conference speaker. I’m not the best conference speaker, I enjoy it, but when I go to conference, I try to hang out with those speakers that are better than me.

I’m finding that to be the case with BJJ as well. I have some amazing teammates. I have teammates that seem to medal (or do medal) every time they step out on the mat.  There are guys I roll with that seem to always be cool, calm and collected. Meanwhile I’m over here trying to not be nervous before my first match at a local tournament.

What I’ve found in each situation is that I’m envious of those people. It’s not an obsessive envy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy each of those folks.  But what I’ve seen as well is that if I try to be someone else, that never works out for me. In seminary, I was not a young, single guy like most of the interns were. I was married with kids, and trying to act like that wasn’t the case would have been disastrous. With development and conference speaking, the same is true. If I try to shift and be someone else, I will not be even as good as I already might be.

So I need to do the same in BJJ. I can be average in BJJ, I might even manage to be good. I could even have a one or two amazing days in BJJ.  However, I’m not going to be consistently be at the top.

If that is true, then what do I need to do? Should I pack it up and quit BJJ? Absolutely not!  Should I push everything else out of my life and devote solely to BJJ? Maybe, but that’s not something I’m interested in. I’m not willing to sacrifice other areas of my life to pour that energy into BJJ. My career is more important to me than BJJ.

So what do I do then?

The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is to look at where I’ve come from.  I walked on the mats at Mid-America Martial Arts just shy of 3 years ago. I was out of shape, and largely uncoordinated. I went 4 months without a submission once I started sparring. Read that again. Four months!  I didn’t tap a single soul. Not other white belts, and not even the guys that started around the same time.  There were nights that I would have 10-12 rolls and get tapped out more than 20 times. I remember one night in which I was armbarred 8 straight times by different partners and different positions. I somehow managed to keep leaving my arms exposed. I remember showing up to sparring with my goal to have at least ONE session in which I didn’t get submitted. I got so close to that, tapping to an armbar with less than 5s left on the clock.

I spent quite a long period of time where the only people I was able to catch were people that started after me. Let’s be clear, I don’t mean that I tapped all the people who started after me, but rather I didn’t tap anyone that started before me. Reflecting back, I haven’t seen a whitebelt come into our school that was worse than me when I came in.

What I can say, though, is that I’m better this month than I was last month.  My transitions from one position to another is far better than they had been. I feel like I understand the importance of your hips when you’re sweeping someone. Even if I don’t always put that knowledge to use.

To put it simply, I’ve grown in BJJ.  And that, I think is the only thing I can do. It doesn’t do me any good to measure myself by someone else. Not in my career, and not in BJJ. It’s not always easy, in fact it is really difficult. But my goal has in BJJ has to be “Be better today than I was yesterday.”

Stopping at Blue

It seems the two most common times to stop BJJ are at white belt and at blue belt. White belt makes a lot of sense. You get a lot of people who want to try it out, realize it’s weird to be in such close contact with a stranger, or see that BJJ is much harder than Jacare makes it look, or find out it’s just not their thing. In some ways, it’s like everything else. Get in, try it out, see if it’s for you.

The second belt that people often quit at is blue. This one is a bit harder to understand. For most people, by the time they get to blue they’ve put in a couple years (I had around 500 hours on the mat by the time I got my blue. So it wasn’t a small investment.) But at the same time, in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty early on.

I got my blue a little over 6 months ago. A day I will remember for quite some time. It was after a lot of hard work, and literal blood, sweat and tears (and I’m not even talking about the test.) I was pumped. I had been able to accomplish something.  I was moving up.

However, over the past couple months, I’ve started to see a bit more about why some people stop at blue. Now, as I’m typing this, I have no plans of quitting, so it’s nothing like that, but I can begin to see why some people would. But over the last 2 to 2.5 months I’ve been out of the gym twice for 2+ weeks. The first time I had ringworm on my arm, the second time we were moving. In addition to those extended absences, I also missed days here and there as we had to go look at houses on a gym night, or I had to skip a lunch time class because a client came in to our office.  During those times, I reflected and took a cue from OJ and thought “I’m not going to quit, but if I was, here’s why…”


The first reason I could see for stopping at blue is progression. When I walked on to the mat the first time, I didn’t know anything. I left at the end of that class feeling exhausted, but also excited because I had learned the steps to my first arm bar.  The next two years had lulls where I didn’t leave class feeling that way, but those days were often met with the reminder that I was getting close to my blue belt.  However, at blue belt, the wave of euphoria over learning a new skill is often gone.  I still pick up things all the time, but they’re little now.  I catch myself watching the technique thinking “Does the hand placement matter there? How important are those grips?” And so I try to notice those details, but overall the knowledge isn’t coming in huge leaps and bounds like it was at white.

Finding Where You Rank

The next reason I see people leaving at blue belt is realizing where you’re really at. It’s amazing. You just got your blue. All the 3 and 4 stripe white belts look up to you, thinking “Is it almost my time? I can’t wait.”  The 4 stripe blues and above reminisce about when they got their blue.  It’s a real feel-good time period. That lasts about a week. Then you find yourself back in sparring and you realize quickly your blue belt didn’t give you any extra powers. The same stupid mistakes you made last week in sparring, you’re making this week. That 2 or 3 stripe blue who mopped the floor with you last week? He’s mopping the floor with you this week.

In fact, in some cases, those higher belts are kicking your butt even harder than they were before. You see, when you were a white, they didn’t have to work as hard. They didn’t have to be as crafty. Now though, you’re getting better, and so they work harder which means they enjoy beating you that much more.

Time to Purple

Not only do you realize where you fit in the food chain, but you have another realization as well. Purple is soooooo far away. In fact, right after you get your blue, purple might as well be black. You have to actually be good to get your purple, whereas you might just have to be ok to get a blue.  So while you’re getting your butt kicked by the same guys, you don’t even have the luxury of looking forward to getting your purple, because it’s going to be quite a while.

Time Involved

Finally, one thing being out of the gym showed me is how much time I spend at the gym. I got home and it was still light outside. I was able to eat supper before 8:30 or 9pm. I could sit down, relax and take a few breaths, and it wasn’t already bed time.  I missed the gym during that time, but I’m not going to lie, it was nice having some nights off.  As you near blue belt, it seems to consume you more, you spend more time at the gym. So when you have a night off, it’s even more of a break than a normal night off. That can be seductive to some people.

Like I said, none of these are reasons for me to quit, but I do understand how any one of them, or a combination of them, could see someone stop at blue belt.


From as long as I can remember in my BJJ training I’ve heard people saying that combinations is how you set up submissions. You go from the lapel choke to an arm bar to a triangle back to an arm bar.  Mentally, I understood what people were saying. But my skill set was one that focused on one thing. For example, if I was going for an arm bar from guard, I’d focus solely on trying to attach my opponent’s arm.  Of course, they’d realize what I was doing and focus on defending that arm. So it would become a battle of who could get the arm and who couldn’t. Sometimes that would involve strength.  It became very difficult to arm bar anyone.

However, in the past few weeks something has started clicking in my brain and I’ve been able to go more for combinations. For example, this past week I was rolling with someone who had my back. I escaped and we had a scramble. I was partially on his back and partially on his side. I was working for a choke. I noticed as I was working for it, he was defending it by moving his arm into a bad position. So I went for the choke again, and as he defended again, I was able to attach to his arm, throw my leg over and arm bar him.

Rolling this way has, in some ways, made things easier. Rather than burning my arms out trying to force a choke, I’m able to use a choke to set up something else. As I think about it now, I need to try and work on this in other areas as well. For example, passing guard, or getting to mount. Move in one direction, and once my opponent responds, move a different direction. Instead of going straight ahead all the time, changing directions.

I Belong At Blue

I had my first tournament at blue belt today. I ended up losing both of my matches, one by RNC and one by omoplata.  However, after the tournament I was talking to a teammate (who killed it by the way) and he asked me “So, as a blue, what did you learn out here?”  I told him, “I learned that I belong at blue.”

That was something that, really, I didn’t know. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I was a blue belt, but there’s something about finding that out for yourself.  I stepped out against a guy who, from my understanding, has been blue for a while. He tapped me out with a choke, after 3.5 minutes. My next match was against a (much) younger guy. He tapped me out at about the 1/2 way mark of the match.

While I lost, it wasn’t what I feared. I lost each of the first 4 matches at white belt in a much worse way. I probably didn’t belong with the white belts. Here, the guys executed better than me today, and they might even beat me every time we meet. However, what I realized was, I was in both of those matches. That told me that I belong at blue.

It was a boost of confidence. I think that was part of my nerves this week. Am I going to be overmatched? Are they going to destroy me? And that could still happen at a future tournament. But I realized, whether I ever get a gold at blue or not, I am a blue belt.

Rolling Without Time

Last night, open gym only had 4 of us there, so we didn’t set a timer. There have been a couple times in the past that something like this has happened.  The first one I remember was about 15-16 months ago. There was a blue belt that was trying to work on a specific choke. If he couldn’t get in that position, he’d just keep rolling until he could. This meant I escaped a lot, and we switched positions a lot as he tried to get the choke. He finally did after about 30 minutes. I was a bit surprised that I just went 30 minutes, as that’s not something that I’m used to.

Then a few months ago, I was rolling with another guy on Friday night and again we went about 30-35 minutes. This time, the gym closed before either of us could submit the other. It wasn’t for lack of trying. There were arm bars, and escapes, chokes and defenses, we were just evenly matched. I have no clue what the points would have been had someone been keeping points, probably something like 28-22.

Then again last night, when I got to the gym, there were 2 guys just starting to roll, and another teammate and I stepped on the mat at the same time. We started rolling, and we moved from the middle of the mat to the edge and had to reset before we smashed our heads on the concrete. We continued rolling and went back across the mat.  There were some definite momentum swings. I had knee mount, cross side, he had my back multiple times. I wound up in guard a few times, he had kesa gatame at least twice.  At one point, however, as I had him in my guard, I thought “I’ve been here before. If I just protect myself and keep relaxed, I’ll eventually get him.”  I don’t know what made me think that. But I knew at this point we’d probably been rolling for 15+ minutes, and I knew that I’d had grappling sessions like that in the past.

We kept working, he put back into kesa gatame, I once again escaped and got my guard back.  We kept going, him trying to pass, me trying to submit him.

Finally, at around 25-30 minutes, I was able to transition from guard-omoplata-triangle and finish the match.  We both were exhausted. My arms had been burning for a good 10 minutes, both from my grips and from trying to fight out of his tight grips.

After I left the gym, I started thinking that I enjoy those types of matches. Matches that just keep going. I enjoy them for a couple reasons. First, when I have a clock on me, I feel an extra sense of pressure or urgency. I’m not sure that always helps me. For example, last night, we stayed standing for a minute or two. In a tournament, I usually want to get it to the ground fast, because I know I don’t have much time.  But last night wasn’t that way. In the same way, if I have a dominant position in a timed match (e.g. cross-side) I start telling myself I need to finish because there’s not much time left.  But in a match where there’s no time, all I have to worry about is protecting myself.  When my partner was on my back, I didn’t panic, I just worked on getting to a safe place.

Another reason I like those long type of matches is because at some point, in every one of those matches, I have a thought that goes like this: “I’m tired. This is exhausting. If he gets close, maybe I’ll just tap so we can stop.  Wait! If I am tired, then he is tired too. If I put a little more pressure on, maybe HE will tap. It becomes a mental game, which is something I don’t always feel in a 5 minute tournament match. It moves beyond just “who can get the arm for the arm bar?” to “Who is mentally tougher? Who can pace himself and rest when he needs to? Who can control his breathing?”

First Tournament At Blue

This Sunday, I’ll be competing in my first tournament as a blue belt. It is actually reminding me a bit of my first tournament.  On one hand, I don’t think I’m as nervous as  I was for it. I haven’t been waking up early all week, or constantly thinking about it. I think that’s because I’ve done a handful of tournaments, and so I know what a tournament is like.

On the other hand, I am still nervous about it. I keep thinking about how it’s a blue belt tournament, and not a white belt. To be fair, even the last white belt tournament I did, I didn’t do great in. I never won a tournament, I’ve never been at the top of the food chain. But now, I feel like I have to start over again.

I’ve had to remind myself several times that I belong in the blue belt division. I might not be the best blue belt, but I am a blue belt. I have the skills and abilities of a blue belt. And when I remind myself of that, it helps calm me down. I don’t feel out of place.

I think part of what is driving that is looking at the guys that are blues at my school, or even looking at guys that got their purples in the last 4 months or so.  There seems to be a wide range of skill and ability there. At times, that even seems wider than the gap between brand new white and a 4 stripe white belt.

I’ll admit it, there have been times in thinking about this, that I’ve been a little scared. But then again, that’s part of why I compete. Avoiding competition because I’m scared or nervous is only going to make it worse in the future. It’s like quitting, if you quit something it’s easier to quit something else in the future. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy competing. I enjoy the tournaments. If I go watch a tournament, I picture myself out there competing. So it’s not that I’m forcing myself against my will to go compete. Instead, it’s more of a struggle of 2 people inside of me.  The part of me that wants to compete and learn and get better. And the part of me that doesn’t want to give someone the chance to break my arm.

I compete because it’s fun.

I compete to see how I’m doing compared to other people of similar age, weight and skill.

I compete to challenge myself.

I compete to grow and get better.

All that said, it can still be a nerve-wracking experience.