Do less

Be present


Ryron Gracie, Super Seminar Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor NY, 4-5 May 2019

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while. For months, I’ve struggled to find the words to explain the truths of composure in jiu jitsu as I understand them.

I know it when I see it. For example, in myself when I’m calm and inhabit the roll fully. And when I lose it and am goaded into fighting fire with fire. Or in the feeling of satisfaction when I chill in a ‘bad’ spot. I mean, hey, you’re just crushing me, I can wait all day for your attack. How about when fellows want so badly to grip my wrists as hard as they can, meanwhile over-extending their arms. Ah, or, my personal favourite, when my partner spins around on top, going side to side like a dervish and I’m just over here relaxing with my T-rex arms enjoying the compression. Perhaps they’ll decide to attempt something…

Ryron Gracie instructing at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor in NY

So, I know composure when I live it, and when I don’t. I know stillness when I’m inside it or fighting against it. I see the vulnerability of loss of calm and feel the power in myself or from others when we own our composure. Yet, I couldn’t find my way to making these intuitions into words.

Thus, perhaps you can imagine my gratitude to Ryron Gracie and my training partners at last weekend’s super seminar at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor. We enjoyed an immersive weekend of discussion and technique with one unifying theme: composure.

What’s Your Goal?

For years I’ve told myself that ‘survival’ and ‘not losing’ are key to developing my game. Indeed, these ideas are essential to my humble BJJ sparring tips. However, while there is value to this idea, Ryron and my fellows at the seminar helped me to see that this isn’t as far as it goes. This view is still brittle. Though ‘not losing’ may be more robust than hang-ups over trying to ‘win’ or avoiding ‘bad positions’, it is less sustainable than simply aiming to develop your understanding. Full stop. Just learn more. Revel in that. Of course, I have heard this many times from Dave Birkett, Marc Walder and John Ingallina. However, I was better able to receive this lesson last weekend.

In other words, if the mindset is ‘not losing’ or ‘surviving’, how do I feel when I do ‘lose’? Perhaps a bit defeated. However, if those ideas are subsumed within the wider goal to learn, that changes the whole picture. Now, I can look at a ‘loss’ with new eyes. I can consider things such as:

  • Did I control that position a bit longer than last time?
  • Was my transition to the next thing more or less effortless than last time I was there?
  • To what extent did I try to impose my will versus just be in the roll?

And this last point is where the past weekend’s seminar really helped to clarify my thinking. What I term composure in jiu jitsu, and what Ryron likes to describe as ‘being present’ and ‘being in the moment’. In other words, cherishing calmness in order to act less and respond more.

Rich Komar, an absolute treasure trove

Composure and Jiu Jitsu

The challenges to composure in jiu jitsu are individual. Everyone’s journey is different. Each of us battles different triggers, fears and anxieties. We carry these onto the mats with us. Then, they whisper in our ears and goad us out of our stillness. Where we can overlap, however, is in our pursuit of stillness. Or in our endeavours to find comfort where there is none. To simply be where we are and react, without judgement of ourselves or of the interaction with our partners. To just be and develop our understanding.

For me, that struggle is greatest from a position of offence. Much of my time has been spent in the role of nail. That crucible has stripped away my fears of vulnerability on the bottom or in defensive positions. I can certainly be tricked into over-reacting. However, it takes at least an intermediate degree of smoothness and strategy to get me rattled. Otherwise, I’m quite happy to ‘safe hands’ under your side control for as long as you like. Or enjoy a cuddle from you on my back while I wait for your frustration to open the door. The same cannot be said when I’m on the offensive.

For instance, when I get your back I might hold my breath and rush headlong into my submission. Or I’ll see that arm come out on the side mount and spin too fast to maintain good control. I suspect larger people with more practice on the offence have a harder struggle when they have to stay cool on the defensive. I suspect too, that my smaller compatriots have a harder time keeping their cool and their egos and wills out of the equation when going for those submissions. So what can we do to move past our limiting desires to act, to force and to rush?

How to Develop Your Composure in Jiu Jitsu

Throughout the weekend, Ryron discussed ways to increase your composure in jiu jitsu, both through technique and informal group discussion. He had some great advice and I’ll share my takeaways. Note these are my understandings of Ryron’s words. I do not speak for him and any opinions expressed here represent my own understanding or lack thereof! So with that disclaimer… Let’s start with some concepts, then we’ll look at practical ways to develop composure in BJJ.

1. Remember what your goal is

To learn. Simple as that. There is no win. There is no lose. There is no destination. You’ve got one job: develop your understanding of this crazy beautiful art.

Struggle cuddles with a new friend

2. Be vulnerable

Allow yourself to chill in positions you don’t like. Or simply where you feel you need to rush or impose your will. Yes, you might lose the position in the process. What then? Smile and go again! How else will you fulfil your goal in step 1?

3. Be floppy

Likewise, be ‘floppy’. Or exaggeratedly relaxed when on top or on bottom. Stay cool. When it is time to react, GO FOR IT. However, hang loose and bide your time. In this way, your explosiveness can be used more efficiently through surprise and energy conservation.

4. Be still

Similarly, flop into a deep stillness. Bring yourself in close to your centre, wherever you are and just be. No need to rush to do you. Keep your composure and radiate that through your body. Soon enough they’ll give you your chance.

5. Be joyful

Finally, express your comfort in chaos through joy. Big man throw you off? Nimble boy wiggle out of your escape? Savvy dinky lady refuse to be baited? No matter! Remember there is no win or lose. There is no end point. Just a journey to know more. And when your partners help you see holes in the boat. Put yourself there again and again. Celebrate this cycle of testing, failing, learning and developing. Get all scientific method with this, yo! And let that process fill your heart to bursting.

What you can when you can, not what you want when you want.

Marc Walder

These are some of the cornerstones of composure and jiu jitsu that Ryron shared with us. Now, let’s look at practical ways to practice these concepts on the mats.

Techniques to Illustrate Composure in BJJ

BJJ is yoga with choking.

Yours truly

Of course, Ryron illustrated the importance and effectiveness of being present, still and mindful through technique. Working through scenarios of positional control, escape and submission Ryron developed his message. This included the idea of ‘defending the position’. In other words, the idea that ‘defence’ includes consolidating and asserting your positional control, rather than rushing to ‘do something’. This is particularly the case from an offensive point of view. Let’s look at two scenarios:

1. Standard Armbar

So, you’ve landed in a classic two-legs over armbar. Do you rush to finish the submission?! Or do you practice defending the position? Taking time to defend the position risks losing it. Is it worth it?

Depends on your mindset. If your goal is to learn, hang out there. If your goal is to ‘win’ – or to arrive at an illusory destination of ‘success’ – then go for that sub, now! Consider, however, that if you practice defending that position, ultimately your ability to get there and apply the submission can only increase. As Ryron reminded us over and over, if you can hold the position for 45 seconds, you can hold it for 100. If you can hold it for 100, you have a 100% chance of getting the sub, or guard pass, or whatever. In other words, if you can control your need to ‘do something!’ and defend a position, the longer you wait, the higher your odds at ‘doing the thing’. Sure, it takes practice, but composure isn’t going to come overnight.

Staying close: Ryron and John Ingallina

Therefore, when you land in that armbar, consider doing an assessment. Are your hips tight to the opponent’s back? Is your figure-4 locked up and the opponent’s arm glued to your chest? How about those hamstrings, are they active and helping to anchor and curl you into your opponent’s arm and back? Great! Now chill. Opponent tries to sit up! Ride the wave. When your back hits the mat, drive the opponent’s head down with extended hamstrings and get back to your starting position. Wait. Bide your time. Is the fight going out of them after a few more attempts to sit up and rip your tightly pinched and well-structured knees and grips away? Congratulations, victory is yours! You just owned that position. Take the sub now, or don’t, as the situation demands.

2. Thumb-in Choke from the Knee Ride

Let’s think about another offensive scenario: setting up a collar choke from knee-on-belly. You’ve made it to the top! You’ve got great controlling pressure with your shin across the opponent’s hips and your foot curled against their body. Your outside hand has a thumb-in cross grip on the opponent’s collar. The inside hand asserts itself – whack – on the opponent’s outside thigh. No need to rush into that choke. They will give it to you. If they try rolling to turtle, forearm pressure. If they try hipping out, surf along with heavy but relaxed pressure. Now watch. See how they focus more on their frustration over still being under that knee! Okay, they’ve tipped towards the inside. Go for it! Shoot the far hand into the collar drop both knees to the floor and apply the choke. Wasn’t it so much easier to let them get all flustered, forget about the choke and offer up their neck?

Chill on the Defensive

Your composure is just as crucial when in defence. For example, in the knee ride situation above, do you need to try to escape right away? No. If they are simply on you, seeking to dominate and control you, chill. If there is no attack, just a body on you, why bother? Battle their attempt to intimidate with your stillness. Similarly, side control. So many smaller players talk to me about their trouble escaping side control. Why bother? If they are making it that difficult by crushing you, find your T-rex arms, work your Safe Hands and sip breaths. Relax it is just pressure. How else can coal become a diamond?! When your opponent tires of not getting their way, watch that space under their hips appear. Go for it – retrieve that guard!

The moral of the story, as Ryron told it, was recognising you have no where else to be. Again, find comfort where there is none, and chill.

When Everyone Has Too Much Chill

Okay, but what happens when everyone is chilling in all their positions? How are we going to keep these rolls going and learn from them? Someone has got to make a move. Who should it be?

Anyone fancy another 10 rounds of sparring?

The ‘top person’, or the partner with an offensive advantage. For example, if your partner is controlling you from the side, chill. Partner in side control: defend that position with great control for 30-45 seconds. Then, it is on you to loosen the control a bit or start mounting an attack or a positional transition. So, top-person starts with 100% control, loosens to 60% and goes from there to find the level best for their partner. In this way, the defender does not violate the cardinal precepts of GJJ by flailing around for an escape when there’s a) no attack coming and b) tight control and little opportunity for manoeuvrer. Similarly, the attacking partner can practice defending the top position or setting up different attacks and so on. The cycle of learning keeps going.

On a Personal Note

The super seminar weekend had a special significance for me. In addition to being in a room with like-minded practitioners from all around the Great Lakes, I had the opportunity to test for my brown belt with Ryron. While nerve-wracking, it was a great pleasure to have that one-on-one time, with feedback tailored to my game. Above all else, it was a fun experience! Moreover, I have a better view of where to take my practice going forward. I’m pleased to say that I was awarded my brown belt on 5th May 😀

Ryron Gracie, Meg, Toby Reh, John Ingallina #jiujitsuhair #mushroom

This promotion feels different. In 21 years of martial arts, this is the first belt that feels more like a way-station and less like an ‘achievement’. This was unexpected. It feels less like reaching a new rung on a ladder, and more like catching a (very slowly) swinging vine that will carry me down and up through the next series of learning curves. I am surprised by this feeling and I suspect it is related to the self-acceptance I’ve embraced as a BJJ part-timer. That’s not to say I am cavalier or casual about this. Rather I feel really happy and centred and ready to keep moving.

Ryron Gracie Super Seminar, Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor, 4-5 May 2019

Lastly, I’d like to recognise my jiu jitsu families in the US and UK. Especially the people of Dartford BJJ and Marc Walder jiu jitsu, the late-great London Women’s BJJ Open Mat, Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor – special shout out to my fellow morning class jiu jitsu bums and superb coach, John Ingallina – and Wolf Brigade Gym. I appreciate your support, counsel, practice and fellowship. There is no me without you. Let’s go!

Photos reproduced here by kind permission of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor