This month BJJ and I are celebrating our tenth anniversary. We met way back in the autumn of my 29th year, and have been going steady ever since. There’s been ups and downs and times when we’ve been ‘on a break’. Through all the challenges, blood, sweat, tears, frustrations, euphoria, big wins and little wins (mostly little wins), I can say that knowing BJJ has made my life better. While we may not be spending as much time together just now, I know we’ll see it through and keep the fire burning for another decade.
With so much behind us and so much to look forward to, it seems only fitting to mark this anniversary with a reflection on our shared history, and some wishes and goals for our future.
Those Heady White Belt Years
When I found BJJ and my instructor Dave Birkett of Dartford BJJ ten years ago I already had 6 years martial arts experience and a black belt in Shorinji Kempo. As grapplers know, striking and working from standing may be fun with challenges all their own, but being on the ground is a whole other ball game. While there were transferrable skills I brought into BJJ – primarily a willingness to persist – I went through the same ridiculous white belt phase we all do. So full of keenness, vim and vinegar and a whole lot of heart. Light on subtlety and surprised and frustrated by the slowness of progress in the art.
It took me three years to get to blue belt and the white belt years we’re pretty euphoric. The first 3 months or so were a real eye-opener. I would tap out just from being smothered under someone’s mount and got my arse handed back to me in a most regular fashion. I loved it though and saw the potential. My instructor, Dave, met me halfway. He helped me deal with each set of problems. We took little first steps like getting to my side to relieve pressure on my ribs and breathe when being crushed and manhandled. By tackling problems little by little and just keeping on keeping on, I eventually gained enough confidence in my defence to keep myself safe with bigger stronger players, and start to get the better of men and women closer to my own size.
I was getting traction. BJJ and I talked every night before bed and I recorded our time together in a BJJ Diary, that continues to this day. It was all going so well. Then the test case for why white belts don’t do heel-hooks in sparring left me with a torn MCL and off the mats for 9 months.
Persistence, again, was the key to getting the leg rehabbed and my behind back in the dojo. I was working in the City of London at the time and was able to easily visit the gym every lunch and do my physiotherapy exercises. My dedication to this process didn’t go unrewarded and in 6 months I was ready for striking work and by 9 months I was rolling again.
The 9 month break didn’t dull my ardour nor my skills by much. I ramped up quickly to where I’d left off and then BJJ and I were off and running again. Next milestone together was trying out competition.
I prepared hard for the Gracie Invitational at SENI 2008, cutting 5 kilos in 6 weeks; awesomely, regular training let me keep that off no problemo. Lots of practice, visualisation and concentration on the idea that I could win but didn’t ‘have’ to and I was ready.
It was a fun day, with 2 fights in front of the huge SENI crowd. Again, persistence. It was all about not giving up and trusting the technique, which helped me escape how many armbars?! You tell me:
That was a really tough match for me. My opponent, Zoe Hall, was all over me; younger, more experienced and really strong, she was great. I remember clearly feeling so tired of having her smash me and thinking, ‘I can end this with a tap’ (around 2:57 of the video), then rallying – ‘No! This isn’t training, keep going, fight, fight!’. I escaped and got to my feet. When she used her hand on her knee to stand up I knew she was tired too. I gave a big smile, ‘I’m fine, not dying inside – haha!’. I knew she’d go for another great takedown and got ready to sprawl – yes! Worked my technique and found the back and finished with an RNC. I brought home the gold that day.
That year I also took part in the Kent BJJ Open where I had 3 fights. With the experience of SENI under my belt, I trained for the competition and went in there with the goal to work my takedowns and sprawls better this time. Sprawling was more proficient at this comp, and my takedowns really came together, some nice single legs in my second fight and this peach of an ippon seo nagi in my first fight:
Hot damn! There is no substitute for reps! I drilled that throw so much before that competition. I don’t think I ever really expected to pull it off, but I loved throws from the old Shroinji days, and why not give it a try! I was really happy about meeting my goals for that competition and I brought home silver that day.
My plan was to compete every 6 months or so. To have regular competition as a part of my training process but not the heart of it. To this day, I see competition as an important part of a balanced training diet, not more not less. For me, competition is part of the means, and not the ends. In my case, an amateur competition career was cut short by knee injury number two, a ruptured ACL.
Lessons from White Belt
I’ve carried two principles with me from white belt. Or, perhaps more precisely, two principles employed prior to my BJJ-birth, were really important for framing my progress in those early years.
Lesson 1: it just takes time. I came to BJJ with some life experience that prepared me for a long haul. On the one hand I’d already achieved a black belt in another art, so I didn’t feel that crazy rush to move up the ranks. I was more prepared to put in my time and take it easy; it would come. On the other hand, I’d attained a PhD a few years prior. I was familiar with dedicating myself for the longer term with consistency and tenacity. On the mats, the understanding that skills simply take time and practice to master, that things don’t come easily, really helped me to keep plugging away in a very challenging art and to value the small increments of progress I made over time.
Lesson 2: measure progress in tiny units of improved technique. Rather than focussing on how many times you submit or submit others, put the emphasis on your hit rate for the thing you’re working on. Moreover, break down your bigger goals into smaller chunks. Need to work on your mount escape? Start with mastering a fraction of the escape. Perhaps you’re ready to add a sweep to your arsenal. No easy task, and you can benefit from patting yourself on the back when regularly getting into the position for your sweep, even if you don’t get the desired outcome. Measuring success solely in submissions (taken or given) is a dark road. Down that path too much measurement of yourself versus others. Yes, improved technique may be realised by how many submissions you get. However, in the end the race is against yourself. A more fruitful focus in the longer term can be on the development of your basic technique.
Any of this sound familiar? Wildly different from your experience? Let me know in the comments. Liked this post? Check out Part 2.