A Weird Perspective

This week at work, there was an old piece of wall covering (think paneling) that needed to be broken in half and thrown away. I laid it down on the floor and started folding it back on itself until it snapped with a loud pop.  The VP of Business Operations came out, and she told someone “No, you have to hold it so he can chop it like this” as she made a karate motion.

I said, “Nah, I don’t do that.”

“I thought you were in martial arts.”

“I am, but we don’t do any striking. No chops, or kicks.”

“So what do you do?”

“We go for submissions. Attack the arms, or chokes.”

“Oh, you mean, like bending fingers back?”

“No. Fingers are too small. No small joint manipulation.”

“So what do you attack?”

“I try to break their arm, hyper-extend their elbow, or choke them unconscious.”

She looked at me and said “You’ve got a bit of a mean streak in you, then.”

Then as she thought about it, she said “You have to be close to the person to attack an arm.”

“Yep. Judo throw, or wrestling takedown.”

She kind of jokingly backed away from me at one point when we were talking about this.  It made me laugh. In her mind, for the past 14 or 15 months, she thought I was someone that practiced punching someone in the face, or kicking them in their head. She thought that was fine. But she thought me going for submissions meant I had “a mean streak.”

As I thought about it after work, it made me smile. I have almost the opposite thought. Watching striking seems more violent to me, than practicing BJJ, but I can see how when you describe it as “hyper-extending someone’s elbow” it doesn’t seem all that playful.

The Closest I’ve Come to Going Out

This week I was in our sparring class.  We were doing 10 minute rounds and we had an odd number. So if someone was submitted they stayed in and a new partner came in.  At one point, I had a new partner come in, we slapped hands and started to roll. He pushed my head down and tried to go for a guillotine. When I defended, he transitioned to my back. He tried to go for a rear naked. As I was defending that, he started to set up a bow-and-arrow choke.

As I tried to defend, I turned to my right. However, that was the wrong way. He grabbed my right leg and as I was trying to turn, I ended up tightening his choke.  It got tight really fast. I tapped.

As my next partner came in, I was still seeing stars. That lasted for about 15-30s.

That’s been the closest I’ve come to going out, and it came this week.  On the plus side, I probably won’t turn the wrong way next time.

Goals Change

One month from today I’ll be competing in my next tournament, and the first one since getting my blue belt. As I was driving today, I started thinking about it and I had a bit of nerves, like right before I step out on the mat.

As I started thinking about it, I was reminded of the fact when I started I didn’t even know there were tournaments. Now I compete, and try to win. I have yet to win a tournament, but that’s still a goal every time I step out on the mat.

Looking back two years ago, my reason for training BJJ was that it looked fun. And it is fun. But now a lot of times I’ll find myself training with an eye towards competing at a tournament.  That’s not always a good goal, because what would happen if I were to get injured, or for some other reason be unable to compete?  I think I’d still enjoy BJJ, even if I couldn’t compete.

However, I was glad for the reminder that my goals have changed recently. Because it gives me a chance to review & remind myself why I’m training. Chances are, I will never be a world champion, and if I tie my motivation to tournament success, I’m more likely to get discouraged.

A Summary of 2014

This year I spent slightly less time at the gym than in 2013.  I still wound up with 294.5 hours at the gym between BJJ, conditioning and a handful of Judo classes.  I also competed in a couple tournaments. I got 3rd in Circle of Iron and 3rd in no-gi at a tournament in Kansas City. Also, for the first time, I placed at our in-house tournament, getting 3rd there as well (seems to be a theme for the year.)  I think my favorite tournament was our second in-house tournament. It was submission only, and it was scored a bit like the World Cup. A win was 3 points, a draw was 1 point and a loss was no points. I ended up winning one match and drawing my other 4.

In addition to competing in a tournament, I had the privilege of helping referee a tournament as well. That was fun, and surprisingly no parents yelled at me, and thankfully no kids got hurt.

The biggest accomplishment this year was getting my blue belt. I wrote a rather long post about that, so I won’t rehash it. I will say, however, that here almost 3 months later, seeing a blue belt in my gym bag still makes me proud and makes me smile from time to time.

For 2015, I’ve already signed up to compete at my first tournament as a blue belt. I’ll be at Circle of Iron in Omaha on February 1st. I’d like to do some more tournaments again this year, but we’ll see how my schedule works out.

Over all, here’s what my tracker said I did this year.

Screen Shot 2014-12-27 at 9.52.38 AM

The bulk of my time was spent in gi technique (77.5 hours) just barely beating out gi sparring (76 hours.)  Open mat came in 3rd and that’s a lot of sparring, probably 70% gi, 30% no-gi.  Overall, gi & no-gi, it’s over 100 hours of technique and another 100+ hours of sparring.  As you can see here, I really slacked off on my conditioning, averaging less than 1 day a week for the year.


Blue Belt

On August 6, 2012 I walked into Mid-America Martial Arts and started my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class that night. I was totally out of my element. There were legit pro fighters training for an upcoming bout. There was a constant thud as the Muay Thai guys were hitting pads. I was wearing a big, heavy gi, with no idea how to tie my belt. I was walked over to the intro class where I was greeted by a guy with skull tattoos and shaved head.  Was this really something I wanted to do? Was I crazy? Was I too old to be starting at almost 35? This was a far cry from the computer screen I was used to sitting in front of.

I knew next to nothing of BJJ at the time. I knew it was used in MMA, but I had no interest in being a fighter, something I made sure Aaron (owner of MAMAs) knew when I talked to him on the phone. It just looked “fun”. That’s a sentiment that to this day my wife can’t grasp.

I knew that since it was a martial art, it most likely had belts. I knew I’d start at white and I knew there were brown and black belts, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know how to progress through the belts, or what belt came next. I didn’t know how long I’d need to train to advance. I was pretty much a tablua rasa.

Shortly after starting the intro class there was one night that nobody else showed up, so it was just the instructor and I. He told me about the belts, told me it took him quite some time to get to blue, told me he started at 40, told me all sorts of things that made me love BJJ more, and in particular, made me proud to be studying under Rodrigo Vaghi.

It wasn’t long before I started hearing about the “blue belt test.” Not as something that I would need to worry about any time soon, but when people get close to testing, the stories come out. I found an forum post online by one of Vaghi’s guys in St. Louis that talked about how totally exhausted he was afterwards.

To be honest, at the same time it was terrifying and exciting. Terrifying to think about being pushed to that physical level. Exciting at the thought of testing my limits. That’s part of what I was here for. No more couch potato. If I mean that, then something like that test is what I signed up for.

I still held out hope that the colored belts were just trolling the white belts that were getting ready for their blue belt test, until I saw the “after” pictures of one test. The new blues looked absolutely exhausted.

I know very little about the test. I know it’s 3 hours long. I know the last hour is all sparring with the colored belts. I know that there’ll be some bear crawls. That’s about it.

I also know that I was invited around July of this year to take the test. I’m actually getting ready to go do that in about 30 minutes.  I won’t post this until afterwards, because I’d hate to jinx myself.

I’ll say this, though. For the past month I’ve been waiting for this day. This past week has been like the week before Christmas for a little kid. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I woke up with the thought “Is it time to go yet?” At work I’d think things like “48 hours from right now.” Last night I set an alarm for 7am, so that I could get up slowly, relaxed and eat breakfast. If I have to rush out the door, I don’t eat.  Turns out I didn’t need that alarm. I woke up at 3:30, 4:15, 5 and finally got out of bed at 6am.

I’ve taken this morning to watch a little Netflix (Ken Burns’ Baseball), read some Reddit, and now I’m listening to Tool (just for Marty, who I know loves it so much.)

I did my last training for the week Tuesday night. Afterwards, I went through my tracking application and summed up what being a white belt has meant for me in terms of hours on the mat. A lot of people like to get wrapped up in “How long until I get my _____ belt.” Some people say “You should be a blue in 1 to 2 years.” I don’t know if any of that is true. I think it is highly dependent on you and your training schedule.  Here’s what I’ve done over the past 26 months:

Gi Technique: 227 hours (Probably about another 40 hours here, but I didn’t start tracking until January of 2013)

Gi Sparring: 164 hours

No-Gi Technique: 39 hours

No-Gi Sparring: 34 hours

Open Mat: 48 hours

Seminar: 14 hours

Total: 526 hours.

I also did 9 tournaments. Of those, 3 were in house tournaments.

I could not have done this without the amazing people at Mid-America. Some of whom are no doubt reading this. In fact, there are too many to mention by name. It really was a team effort, and I’m thankful for all of them.

Oh, and the guy with the skull tattoos? Super nice guy, that absolutely destroys me.

Here’s a picture of Scott & I. He doesn’t have skull tattoos, but he’s one of the coaches that did the intro class and has been a lot of help. IMG_20141011_122026-SMILE

It’s All In The Hips

Something I have noticed over the past 4-6 months of technique class is the number of times someone talks about the hips. In some weird half-guard and want to get to mount? Make sure your hips are higher than his. Want to do a sweep? Make sure your hips are higher than his. Trying to pass closed guard? Make sure your hips are moving forward.

I’ve heard it several times, too many to count, and every time it seemed to make sense. I never once thought “Nah, that won’t work” but at the same time I didn’t put much effort in to making sure I had higher hips.

Then this week in sparring I noticed how effective it was. There were a few times that I was in a bottom half-guard position, not really in a position to do any sweep I’d seen in class. Then I think “I need to get my hips higher.” On one occasion, as I got them up and bumped in to my opponent, the sweep was rather easy, and took almost no effort.

Another time we were in a weird scramble and by getting my hips up higher I was able to move into mount.

I think it’s something I’m going to focus on more.

My First Submission Only Tournament

Yesterday was an in-house tournament for Mid-America. It’s the fourth one I’ve participated in. The previous one was by far my best, I went 3-1, losing to the guy who took second.  I came in expecting to do at least as well.  The signs up around the gym said there would be a division for white belts 31+. As I thought about it, I wasn’t even sure who that was. I knew a couple guys, if they showed up, would be in that division.

As I thought about my gameplan on Thursday and Friday, I wanted to try to set up a Judo trip (o soto gari, perhaps.) And I was resolved to not pull guard, no matter what. If I could not take the guy down and he could not take me down, we’d dance for the entire time.

When we got there and signed in, we found out it would be a round-robin, submission only tournament. It would be like world cup scoring: a submission got you 2 points, a draw got you 1 point and a loss got you nothing.

They called out my name and the four others in my division and I immediately knew my resolution to not pull guard would be put to the test. We had one really strong wrestler, 2 guys that were fairly decent at Judo (for being white belts) and a wild-card, someone I’d never met before. With my luck, I assumed he also was a good wrestler.

Overall, I ended up going 1-0-4 on the day. I went 1-0-3 in my group, but there were 2 other guys that had the exact same record, so they matched us up against the other white belt group, and I wound up with a draw on that match as well.

It was an interesting experience. Something that I noticed was that I was still used to thinking in points, even though I knew it was submission only. For example, in one match, I was taken down, but was able to sweep my opponent. As I rolled on top, my thought was “Well it’s 2-2 now.”

Something else I noticed, though, was that I seemed to be more relaxed. I don’t mean passive, necessarily, but just relaxed. For example, at one point, I went for a submission that if I messed up could expose me to a pass. I didn’t get the submission, and while I was in a worse position, it wasn’t the end of the world, because I didn’t have to worry about the 3 point deficit.

I had also made it my goal to not get submitted. This was even before I found it was submission only. Once that was announced, I thought to myself “Ok, that was your goal anyway.”  There were a couple difficult positions I was in at different points. A couple of tight chokes. But I was able to hold on for the draw, despite being in a position position most of the match. It showed me that I can tolerate a lot more than I think I can. I think sometimes I get into a match at a tournament, and my opponent will get a submission attempt and I’ll tap. Yesterday showed me, that if it’s just close but not “on” that I can keep working to escape.

All that said, I don’t know how I would do at a submission only tournament that has longer times, for example 10 minutes.  There was one match that 4 minutes seemed like an hour. One of the others seemed like maybe if it went 10 minutes, I would have had a shot.

Being vs Becoming

This week, I saw a video labeled “Martial Arts: Expectations vs Reality“. It’s a humorous video put out by an MMA gym. The discussion on Reddit revolved around the idea that there are always a lot of guys that come in and want to be a fighter, and you don’t see them in 2 months.

I’ve been clear from day one, I’m not a fighter, and I don’t want to be a fighter. It was one of the first things I mentioned when I talked to the owner at Mid-America.

However, even if I don’t want to ever step in the cage and fight, there are some similarities between BJJ and MMA. BJJ sees a lot of guys come and go. I can think of 1 other person who started within 6 months of me that is still training BJJ. I’ve probably seen 100+ new faces come and go at various stages.

One thing this has highlighted is a belief I’ve had for a long time. A lot of people want to be _____, but they don’t want to become ______.  What you fill in the blanks with is really irrelevant. Some things that are true for a lot of people:

  • rich
  • skinnier
  • successful

We can add fighter here, or “good at BJJ” etc. What it boils down to, is a lot of people want to step into BJJ class and be able to hit an amazing takedown or flying armbar. They want to hit that nice, tight triangle. But they don’t want to work on getting there. Things that are often boring, like base, shrimping, hip movement etc.

To be fair, this isn’t an all or nothing situation. For example, I want to become a blue belt (and eventually all the way through black and beyond.)  I don’t just want to be a black belt, I want to get there.

But at the same time, I want to be 170 pounds, but the idea of eating right to get to 170 is not appealing to me. Until I’m willing to become 170 pounds, I know I’ll stay where I’m at.

To get somewhere, you have to be able to travel the journey that will get you there, and often times that involves pain & suffering.

Lessons From Refereeing

This weekend, a handful of us from Mid-America Martial Arts headed down to Kansas to help referee their state games. It was the first time I had refereed a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament. I had ref’d some little league soccer back when I was high school, so the concept of being the guy people looked to wasn’t new. But the action of a BJJ match is quite a bit different from kids playing soccer in a herd mentality.

Overall, the tournament went pretty well. I started by refereeing kids under 7 in both gi and no-gi. Wrapped that up pretty quickly so I took another 3 or 4 brackets of older kids and ran through those in gi and no-gi.  All-in-all, I think we ran through something like 8 or 9 kids brackets in about 1.5 hours. I was pretty tired, and didn’t realize how much energy refereeing kids would take. I got about a 45 minute break as the no-gi adult matches were finishing.

We then moved on to adult gi, and I took about 1/2 of the whitebelts. I didn’t pay attention to the divisions I had, but if I had to guess, I had under 181 and below, maybe even the weight class below that. Again, I think I had another 4 or 5 brackets at my table. We were able to run through all of those in under 90 minutes. As I asked for more brackets, I found out there weren’t any more to take. The other mats were just a couple matches away from finishing.

It was a very fun experience. I commented at one point, that it was nice because I didn’t have the pre-tournament anxiety nor did I have the post-match adrenaline dump, yet I was still able to be involved in a tournament.

I wasn’t perfect. However, I only had one coach ask me about a scoring decision I made. It was in kids, they were on the edge of going out of bounds, so I stopped them and restarted them in open guard. He told me afterwards that his kid was in knee-mount and asked me why I didn’t restart them in knee-mount. I told him, “Honestly, I didn’t see that.” He was okay with that explanation. It really did look like he was in open-guard from my vantage point.

Another time that I know I messed up was in the white-belt division. A guy was working for an Americana and his opponent wound up out of bounds, I restarted them in the middle in the same position. I should have awarded the guy attempting the submission 2 points and had them start standing. But I realized that afterwards.

I’m sure other errors were made. In neither of those situations did it materially change the outcome of the match, so I got lucky there 🙂

I learned a few things, though, that I never noticed from just watching tournament matches.  First, it’s okay to be patient. In fact, I’d guess the majority of the adults I ref’d were pretty patient on their feet. I had a couple guys come out and just attack instantly, but of the 30 or so matches I ref’d in the adult division, it was not uncommon for a minute or so to go by before it wound up on the ground.  I’m not usually that patient. I try for a quick takedown and if that doesn’t work, I instantly pull guard. It doesn’t always work out for me. Watching these guys compete I realized that it’s okay for me to not rush.

The next thing I learned was that it’s probably a good idea to listen to the coach that is sitting mat side. I know it’s easy to prep for a tournament thinking about some moves you want to do, or positions you want to gain. But you don’t get to control everything and so you might wind up with your back taken. The coaches there can see things you can’t. For example, where his hands are, or what his feet are doing. One match stands out in particular. A competitor lost by 3 points. On 3 separate times, he had side control and could have gone to mount. His coaches told him to go to mount. He never even attempted to. Had he been successful on just 1 of those 3 mount attempts, he would have gotten 4 points and won by 1 point. He lost the match and was eliminated.

Another area that coaches by the mat are helpful is not just position, but encouragement and reassurance. I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe one guy was right in front of his coach and his opponent was attempting a rear-naked choke. When you’re competing, your mind is racing and there are all sorts of things you’re thinking. This competitor’s coach said calmly and matter-of-factly “Don’t worry about that yet, he doesn’t have it in position. You’re safe. You’re not in danger.” In the end, he lost. But he didn’t get submitted. I don’t know for sure that had his coach not told him that, that he would have tapped. But I’m sure hearing someone tell him that he was safe gave him courage to keep fighting.

The final thing I learned was specific to competition BJJ. I have had coaches tell me this before, and even competing I didn’t realize the truth of their words. But most matches go something like this: There’s a takedown to guard or half-guard. There’s a guard pass to side-control and then to mount. In white belt there was a little too much turtling once the guy was in mount, giving up their back. But that was it. I did not ref a single match that involved spider guard, de La Riva, nor butterfly. I saw a lot of knee mounts and mounts. I saw one triangle choke, and a few arm-bars finish a match. All-in-all, the match was pretty basic.

There’s all sorts of fun stuff to play around in the gym, and to train, but when it came down to it on Saturday, if you had a decent take down, a decent guard pass, and a decent mount, you probably would have won all (or almost all) of your matches.

So Many Chances To Quit

Yesterday I competed in another tournament. I got 3rd in my no-gi division but pretty much bottomed out in gi and lost both matches by submission. It was frustrating & tiring and nobody likes to lose.  I then got in my car and drove 3 hours home. That drive gave me some time to think and reflect on the day, and really the entire tournament experience.  I don’t know if this tournament experience is normal or not, but I want to write it down in case someone else goes through it they can realize that at least one other person has been there.

As I thought about this tournament, I thought about how many opportunities I had to quit and just say I was done.  To start with, I first found out about this tournament around a month ago, on Facebook. I messaged a coach to ask him if he knew anything about it. He hadn’t heard of it (turns out it was their first time running a tournament.)  I could have stopped right then and said “Maybe this isn’t the one for me.”

I talked to some teammates and they sounded as if they might be interested, but they weren’t sure. At that point, I could have dropped the issue and just pretended as if I didn’t bring it up. In fact, I did the opposite. I registered early.

As I wrote in my post before the tournament, I felt extra nervous about this tournament. It started a few days before the tournament in my spare time I’d catch my mind wandering and I’d feel my heart racing. It would have been possible for me to just not drive into town for the tournament. I have plenty of other things to work on, but I had paid money and told people, and so skipping was never really an option.

Once I was at the tournament, the butterflies would come back from time to time. Thankfully, I had a teammate there. We were able to watch matches and chat and keep us both mostly relaxed.  But at any point, it would have been easy to just say “No, I can’t stand the pressure. The nerves are getting to me. I’m not going to compete.”  However, I didn’t pay money and drive 3 hours one way to stop now.

Once my division was placed at a mat, the nerves picked up again. For me, the absolute worst part of a tournament is the time between my division being called to a mat, and the referee starting the match. Once we slap hands and start grip fighting, I don’t have time for nerves. But the waiting, oh the waiting!

My first match, the guy took me down and I put him in guard. I started trying to work an armbar and keep him from passing my guard. I knew he was up 2-0 so I couldn’t just stay there and hope to win. In the end he was able to take my back, flatten me out and choke me. However, he started working a choke about 1 minute before he tapped me. I was in a turtle position, face on the mat, not doing a good job breathing and my mind said “If you just tap right now, it will all be over. You can stand up, you’ll be able to breathe. It’s ok.”  I had to ignore that thought, shove it out of my head and keep moving and fighting. I kept trying to move my hips away and he’d follow, I’d move, he’d follow, until finally one time, my arm came down just enough for him to get his arm in and finish the choke.

There were only 4 men in our bracket so I wasn’t sure if they’d just give two 3rd place medals, or if they’d have us compete. I asked and the guy paused for a minute and said “We’ll have a 3rd place match.”  As I told my teammate that, he said “Then you’ve definitely got 3rd.” It was comforting to know the confidence he had in me. Because quite frankly, at that time, I didn’t have the same confidence. I think there were 3 or 4 matches in between my two matches. As I was standing watching, there was a battle going in my mind. My brain was saying “Your legs are tired. You’re out of breath. If you lose to this guy you’ll get to rest. When was the last time you won a match after losing your first one?” I again had to push those thoughts out of my head. I heard my name called and again decided to step on the mat. That match went the full 5 minutes, with a few different position changes.  The final 30 seconds found me in my opponents guard. He was trying his best to crush my stomach. I knew I was winning the match. I knew that if I did nothing else, I’d still win. But had I been losing, or had I been unsure, that again was another chance or opportunity for me to quit. Thankfully, this time, my thought was “You think I’m going to tap to that?!”

My gi division was less exciting, for me anyway. I lost by choke to the same guy I lost to in no-gi. Then in the 3rd place match, I quickly lost by kimura as he rolled me with it.

As I thought back on the tournament, I realized there was probably no less than a half-dozen opportunities for me to quit. And quite honestly, the reason there were so many opportunities to quit, was because I didn’t quit at the first opportunity, so more presented themselves.   I don’t think I gave any of them any serious consideration, but they were there. It was something I had never thought of before.