This is Part 2, you can read Part 1: The White Belt Years here

This month marks 10 years rocking and rolling with my metaphysical boyfriend, BJJ. It has been quite a journey, and I’m looking ahead to more good years. It is a big milestone. It is time to take stock. Time to reflect on how successive stages of BJJ development have changed my perception of the art. Perhaps some of what follows sounds a lot like your own experience, or perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d love to know; share your insights in the comments.

Blue Belt: Thinking I Know Something

I was promoted to blue belt about 6 months before my second knee injury. After the experience of rehabbing an MCL tear with physiotherapy, I was inclined to believe my first orthopaedic when he suggested I could get away without having an operation. I lived and trained around a ruptured ACL for 4 years. Throughout blue belt and into my purple belt. Keeping myself safe while rolling without an ACL changed my game and meant ‘I gave a lot away’. I developed approaches, with the help of my instructor, Dave Birkett of Dartford BJJ, that were suited to training without a 100% fit leg.

A shrimp shrimps
A shrimp shrimps

In spite of a knee injury that effectively ended my embryonic competition career recounted in Part 1, the blue belt years were exciting ones. In retrospect, I learned a lot about myself. Biggest take away, aside from the omni-present importance of persistence? Blue belts tend to reckon they know something. As a teen doesn’t know how young she is, so a blue belt doesn’t know how little she knows. The blue belt journey for me, in many ways, was a process of ‘getting over myself’ (a process still ongoing).

As a woman/smaller person in BJJ, I face particular issues. We all have our own ‘hard’ and my hard is not harder than yours, but smaller players will hear me when I say that this is a tough, tough old game. Offensive ‘wins’ are few and far between when your day-to-day training is with bigger, stronger (younger) partners. It is hella frustrating to rarely get a sub and to have a lot of trouble holding one’s own with one’s belt range – the slimmer the skill gap the more the size advantage makes a difference. This was really uncomfortable for me and my ‘ego’ during my blue belt. This personal challenge led to the creation of the London BJJ Women’s Open Mat.

London BJJ Women's Open Mat
London BJJ Women’s Open Mat

Photo by Fighters in Focus.

Dave Birkett and I founded the London BJJ Women’s Open mat in 2009. The first session was held on 12 July at Dartford BJJ. With 8 participants, we had a humble beginning; from tiny acorns grow mighty oaks. Since our first session, the Open Mat has grown in strength and vitality. We have a large and active women-only Facebook group, and Open Mats held at least once a quarter. I coordinated the Open Mat for the first 5 years, and was happy to pass the baton to Hayley Carter in July of this year; the next generation of London BJJ women is keeping it rolling.

The Open Mat was and is important to myself and local BJJ women for a number of reasons. In particular it allows women to get together in a friendly, non-competitive atmosphere and just train with one another. More and more women are taking up BJJ, yet it is still commonplace for a woman to be the only female in her club. We are still very much a minority in the art and we’re thinly distributed across clubs. Open mats help make up for this and provide a forum for women to roll together. This gives the chance for fellowship and friendship as well as to see how one does when rolling with partners more one’s size. This is important feedback on one’s progress that can be difficult to come by when you’re hugely outweighed and outgunned by everyone else in your club.

Arm bar
Arm bar posin’

Being able to gauge my progress in defensive AND offensive skill with players of roughly equivalent size and strength, was especially important for my morale during blue belt. As I levelled up and grew into my purple belt, I became more resilient to dealing with bigger badder players and had a big conceptual shift in, what I now see, as a sense of entitlement that was holding me back. A manifestation of what we BJJers like to call ‘ego’.

Purple Belt: Sh1t Gets Real

I was very proud to be awarded my purple belt in October 2010. That was a big night for me. The transition to purple wasn’t easy, and I had a good three month period of ‘purple belt blues’ with panic and worrying about ‘defending my belt’. I got over it, and that’s when I really started to hum on the mats.

Meg Stance 1
Purple pride

By the time I went in for an ACL reconstruction in September 2011, I was feeling more empowered on the mats than ever before. It had taken 7 years of dedication, persistence, untold hours of drills, sparring, visualisation and note taking, but I felt I was really getting somewhere. I was starting to appreciate, in a visceral way, what my instructor meant by ‘defence first’ and his assurances during blue belt that once I was ‘confident in my defence’, my offence would come together.

I was mega confident in my defence. I could roll with white or blue belt guys of any size and deal with attacks with aplomb; both ‘surviving’ and escaping with relative ease. I could put myself in triangles with skilful blue belts and escape. I would be lucky to survive a roll with a purple belt guy, but I now had more reasonable expectations. The undeniable fact is, the smaller the skill gap, the more size will play a part in the outcome of a roll. That is not to say that the purples would be muscling me, rather that I need to be significantly more skilled than a larger opponent, so while I might be able to make it annoying for guys in my belt range, it is the very rare occasion that I will get the better of them. The fact that I was dealing with whites and blues without much issue and able to really play about with putting myself in awkward spots was KIND OF A BIG DEAL in my personal journey. I was and still am very much in the midst of getting a good level of competency with the basics – a cool thing about the purple phase; you’re more self-aware of how much there is to master than in those feisty blue years – but in that first year of purple belt, there was a big leap for me.

Confidence in my defence, made offensive success more possible. Rather than the odd submission, here and there, or with the occasional partner of my size and strength – my regular partners started at 10-15 kilos heavier and went up to 30 kilos heavier – I was consistently getting those subs. I had not (and have not) yet developed skill in tricking and baiting opponents for submissions. That’s a future milestone. I was, however, developing some pretty hot timing, if I do say so myself, and could regularly capitalise on the mistakes of others. As when I snagged an armbar when rolling with a blue belt for a rashguard review:

Not totally pleased with my technique there, but hey, it is all about progress rather than perfection.

Greater offensive capability helped me to overcome 2 entitlement-demons that had haunted me through blue belt. First up, I would get really REALLY up tight when I felt that a training partner was ‘patronising me’ by putting themselves in awkward spots and letting me have an advantage. As a blue belt, I ‘understood’ that stronger or larger or more skilful players should modify their games when outgunning a partner but – oh man! – I resented that this should apply to me. I felt so insulted, that me, ME with my badass blue belt was still treated gingerly by a lot of people. I thought a coloured belt and a couple of stripes entitled me to a leveller playing field. Nope! It took a lot longer for me than most of my clubmates to more easily play around with lower grades of varying size. Once I got to that point, I too needed to ‘keep it playful’ and put myself in vulnerable positions in order to practice escaping, or new sweeps or a fancy sub or a refined basic, whatever! I never thought/think less of my partner when I did/do this. As a blue, my insecurities had led me to believe my partners did think less of me when they modified their games for me. (NOTE: Plenty of guys didn’t go soft on me, or only very subtly. Apart from Dave, guys I’ve trained with for a long time were more than happy to smash me about in a controlled way. I really appreciated being treated like a smaller person rather than as ‘a girl’, with some of the baggage that can be attached to that label in a sporting context.). Adapting your game to your partner’s level, is a great chance for both players to work in a different way. Why settle for the same-old-routine of one or the other dominating the whole time? Where’s the chance to try something new and evolve? Once I could more fully appreciate the value of dropping to a partner’s level, I no longer felt resentful and insecure when I was/am on the receiving end.

A more balanced diet of defensive and offensive success changed my BJJ-feedback loop. This helped me to overcome a second entitlement-beast that had sat on me since blue belt: muscling isn’t fair – wah! As a blue, I spent a lot of time and energy feeling sad/mad/frustrated when I’d get muscled into a submission or, as was more the case in blue belt, have a partner muscle out of a submission. That sucked. It didn’t seem fair. I wanted to play too!

BJJ grrl LOLs
BJJ grrl LOLs

Guess what, that’s your opponent’s right. Not to injury you or to place their desire not to be submitted or to submit over your safety, but certainly to turn on the juice in a last ditch effort to get what they want. Suck it up. Because guess what, that sh1t will come home to roost. If, when push comes to shove, your bigger/stronger/more aggressive partner falls back to those attributes, rather than their technique, they are simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. You, my smaller-player-friend, you aren’t doing that. Okay, maybe you are, but you’ll grow out of it sooner than the bigger folks. Or you won’t, and then you probably won’t last in the game. It may take 5 years, 7 years, 10 years, 30 years! but eventually the fact that every time the pressure was on you had to use technique to deal with it will make you more powerful than you can imagine. When you get to the point where you are super confident with your defence, you can escape and hold your own and work your technique and timing rather than relying on attributes, you’re offensive scores with bigger people will increase. You will have your way. You will be the hammer. You’ll still be the nail, but you’ll get your long-denied share of hammer-time. In the end, you can’t fight fire with fire. You’ve got to use water. Let them come, let them go hard. Lock up shop, keep yourself safe, bide your time, escape, reverse, and when they start to freak that you’re all over them, have that sub.

Oh those were some good times. I felt that I made some big conceptual leaps and conquered some toxic burdens of entitlement to make lasting progress. BJJ and I were getting really deep and I was putting increasing energy into blogging, writing for magazines like Jiu Jitsu Style – I got the cover of the first issue, hell yeah! – attending every Open Mat I could, even being an extra in a grappling-inspired video to launch a Bella Freud collection. Madness! See for yourself:

I felt on top of the world. Then it was time to have a knee operation, a pregnancy, and an infant. While I stayed active through all this, it ended up as a 2 year ‘BJJ sabbatical’. What’s worse than getting muscled all the time? Putting in the hours to overcome that, going on break for health and family, coming back and realising timing, muscle memory, technique and core muscles disappear! That hurts. Hey, just another problem to be solved, another challenge to be faced.

Before the knee op and the baby, I trained every day of the week: 3 sessions at the club; 1 session on the home mats; 1 weights session; solo drills on the ‘off days’. I spent hours visualising technique and kept meticulous notes in a training diary to help with retention. These days, I aim for 1 session a week, with the occasional double-class week. With a family and a business that I love and limited local support with childcare, there’s little space for BJJ-mind cycles or working around my club’s timetable. I train as much as I can in my personal circumstances, and I continue to keep good notes. While I’m not yet back to where I’d like to be, my timing and technique are remerging, if heartbreakingly slowly. Like a language you’ve stopped practicing, it is still in there, but it is going to take some practice to regain fluency. I’ve also been working hard on diet and exercise since last July with an awesome PT, Vicky Busby. Vicky can work around my obligations and I’m able to do 2 sessions a week with her. All about the weights and intensive intervals. She has helped me loose most of the baby-weight and take my strength to and beyond my pre-natal levels. Feeling good and moving in the right direction.

What’s Next

Not only has it been 10 years in BJJ, it has been 10 years with my instructor, Dave Birkett. 2015 has some big changes in store for me, which will mean finding a new club. My family and I are leaving London and moving to my hometown, Rochester, NY in February. We are very excited for the new opportunities that await us. Surely, we are the people most excited to be in Rochester in February in the history of the universe. For perspective, this was March last year.

Dave Birkett and Meg Smitley
Dave and I

I’ve been researching the local clubs and there’s one I’ve got my eye on. Fingers crossed that we’re a good fit for one another. Assuming I can build a relationship with a new BJJ club, I’m looking forward to more opportunities to train once in Rochester. You’re pretty much 20 minutes from anywhere, I’ll have a car, local family-networks, and the Rochester clubs seem to have a greater number of classes throughout the day than what seems more typical around London. This all adds up to more chances to work BJJ into my weekly routine. That’s an exciting prospect.

I’m sorry to say ‘goodbye for now’ to friends and family here, but looking forward to saying ‘hello’ to friends and family there. In BJJ terms, I’m really sad to leave my club. There’s a lot of water under the bridge with the men and women at Dartford BJJ and my instructor, Dave Birkett, has been incredibly invested in my journey from the get-go. Dave has set the tone but the guys I’ve spent years training with are really special too, I’m looking at you: Ryan, Lee, Ricky, Gary, Barry, Danny, Sky, Charlotte and Kate, Hasan, Jamie, Will, The Family Birkett (Anne, Katja, Graham), Monique, Cat, Ben, the Ilford Branch crew, and all the other sh1t-hot men and women at Dartford BJJ. Not to mention my ‘3rd party training partners’: John, Keelin, Sooze, Lisa and Husna. I love you people, thank you for everything. A supportive club has been key to my progress to date. There’s a reason that it was Dave’s voice in my head on the cab-ride to the birth of my son saying, ‘You’re a warrior, you can do this!’. I’ll carry Dave and my loyal, tough, and impressively technical Dartford BJJ crew in my heart as I hop back across The Pond.

Dartford BJJ
Dartford BJJ