Every time we train, we grapplers get an object lesson in the fluidity of circumstance. This principle is as true for our personal lives off the mats, as it is for any given spar. At some point in our grappling journeys we may find ourselves in need of a new club. Relocation, changes to work or school schedule, the arrival of children, intra-club bullying or harassment, the breakdown of an intra-club romance, or a change in one’s training goals – these things and more can lead to the need to find a new place to train. This isn’t an easy task. So what are some tips on how to change BJJ schools?
How to Change BJJ Schools
Up until January of this year, I had been lucky enough to have trained with Dave Birkett at Dartford Academy throughout my 10 years in BJJ. In February 2015, after 17 years living in the UK, my family and I moved back to my hometown of Rochester, NY. For me, a big part of making this city my home again, has been finding a new group to train with. This process has given me some experience in how to change BJJ schools.
Let’s start with some parting advice from Dave Birkett:
observe a class
have a private with the head instructor
do a trial class
Now, this is good advice and it assumes that you’ve done some initial leg-work, perhaps online, looking into what schools and teams are available in your area. Firstly, by observing a class before mucking in, you can determine if you feel safe and welcome in the environment and if the material is the sort of stuff you’re interested in. Secondly, by having a private with the head instructor, you can get a feel of his/her degree of professionalism; this person will be setting the tone for the club and if you feel good about how they teach and behave, you’re ready for the next step. Thirdly, do a trial class. Train and roll with the students. Perhaps from here you can do 2-3 more classes ‘a la carte’ before committing to a membership. Likewise, if after this process finishes, you feel a particular place may not be quite the right fit, no biggie, you haven’t bedded in too much with a group, so no hard feelings. All very reasonable and a rational and methodical way to change BJJ schools. I’d add to this, if you do discover a school isn’t quite right for you, be sure to communicate this frankly and clearly to the instructors who kindly opened their doors to you. Ours is a small community and there’s no point in burning bridges; some folk may take it personally while others will see that we each have our own path and welcome you to the local scene, regardless of where you might end up training.
From ‘BJJ’ to ‘GJJ’
Rochester has some great options and the BJJ scene has really evolved in the years of my absence. There’s something for everyone from the ‘sportier’ side of things to a bigger focus on the fundamentals and ‘punch proofing’. I tried my hand at a few places. All were welcoming and showed technical proficiency. After weighing my options, I’ve decided to join Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor, a Gracie Academy Certified Training Centre.
GJJ Victor is run by John Ingallina, owner and operator of United Martial Arts Center in Victor, NY. John, though relatively new to GJJ/BJJ, is a veteran martial artist with in-depth experience in traditional martial arts including Japanese jiu jitsu. He runs a clean, respectful and welcoming facility that attracts men and women of a wide age range. His teaching is clear, methodical and professional. He and his students have been very open to some mad purple belt coming in off the streets and I’m delighted to have met John and his students.
GJJ, or the fundamental and basic core of BJJ, is what appeals to me. I have some reservations about the Gracie University approach. I also recognise its strengths and I hope to discuss this topic further when I have greater experience with the Gracie University method of teaching and learning. What I do know, right now, is that material branded ‘GJJ’ is what I want to train. Dave Birkett and Marc Walder, my instructors back in the UK, focused on GJJ material to a very fine degree of detail. This is not the post to dwell on the community’s divisions over the relative merits of BJJ versus GJJ (you can see a nice post by Dave on this here). I will assert now that ‘GJJ’ represents the bread and butter of ‘BJJ’. These are the techniques that I have drilled since coming into the art. They have helped to ‘save my bacon’ when rolling with bigger, stronger, younger, faster players. I love this material. It is what I want to continue to drill and hone. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Victor can offer me that and I am excited to be joining this group of detail-oriented and careful practitioners.
Many of the folks at GJJ Victor have significant Japanese jiu jitsu experience and there are opportunities to spar in the traditional classes and open mat sessions. The GJJ classes, as currently offered, do not include sparring. (This probably represents my central gripe about the Gracie University approach, though, again, I can see some benefits as staving off sparring does seem to entice a wider range of folks onto the mat and perhaps once players are a bit more seasoned they can handle the ‘realness’ without the drop out rate – would be interested in some data on this!). Happily, I’ve been invited to attend a regular open mat at another local BJJ club, and as both instructors are cool with me sparring around town, this can help me get in some extra sparring while meeting more practitioners here in Rochester. Very impressed to have found some dedicated professionals running clubs here in Roc City.
It has been a bit of a process choosing a club. February weather in Western NY is no joke and there was promptly 35 inches / 90cm of snow upon our arrival. This messes with travel, not to mention waiting to close on our house, get jobs, bank accounts, and set up the rest of one’s mundane life infrastructure all while handling a child and trying to eat clean and get to the gym. As Spring sprung and we settled into a routine, I had the opportunity to trial a couple clubs. I knew GJJ Victor was the place for me as soon as we started drilling those good ol’ basic techniques. I can’t speak on how to shop around for a club without BJJ experience, but as someone who has logged a respectable number of years in this game, I think it is reasonable to suggest that one can expect a love at first sight feeling when one has found the right club. While you may find great people at many dojos you’ll know, as an experienced hand, what style of instruction and what material you’re after. The new-fangled, finely-grained positioning for competition is cool and challenging. That’s a great thing to study if that’s your bag, but for me, I want core basics, the fundamentals. GJJ and GJJ-style training can offer that. GJJ Victor, specifically, I believe, can also offer a respectful and mature training environment managed by humble and committed instructors. So, as the rest of GJJ Victor did when entering the Gracie University system, I too will put on a white belt and work my way through the GJJ belt system (more on this as we go!). It is early days, and I miss Dave and my team at the Dartford Academy everyday. As a grappler, dear reader, you know change is the only constant and one must adapt or tap. Onwards!
Photos reproduced here with permission of John Ingallina, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Victor.
Friday 30 January was my last class with my first and only BJJ instructor for the last 10 years, Dave Birkett. After 17 years in the UK, I’m moving back to my hometown of Rochester, NY with my husband and son, tomorrow. Martial arts has been a big part of my life during my time here, and BJJ the star of the show for the last decade. Readers will appreciate how hard it is to leave a dear BJJ-family, and this has been an emotional couple of days.
My last class was fun. We worked on one of my favourite techniques, a ‘punch proof’ triangle from closed guard. Felt some good mojo in my final rolls with some club mates, and managed to defend some issues I’d had trouble with the week before. While, in my opinion, my fitness and skill is not quite at pre-natal levels, it is pretty close. This last year of training has helped me to claw back a lot. My last class was made a little extra special in two ways. A new young woman came to her first class. We trained together and she was great and showed an excellent willingness to give it a go. It was nice to see a new female face on the mats and I do hope she’ll stick with it. I also received my third stripe on my purple belt. It feels a little too heavy for me to carry, to be honest, but I’m confident Dave would not have given it to me unless he was confident that I am at the right level for it.
I’ve done my Rochester-BJJ reconnaissance and have contacted the club I think is most likely a good fit for me. I’m hoping to observe a class this week and perhaps have a private with the main instructor before doing a class myself. Want to take it slow and feel confident it is the right sort of training environment. Readers appreciate what a commitment joining a club can be, and I’d like to do what I can to ease into it. With any luck I’ll be rolling with a new group of folks in a fortnight or so!
What I’m looking for in a club is – foremost and beyond considerations of doctrine and style – is a place where I will be treated as a ‘student’ and as a person, rather than as an ‘female student’ or other. Being accepted as a serious and capable student, regardless of gender, has been a big hallmark of my experience with Dave and my club mates at Dartford BJJ; I know this is not the case for some women in some clubs. For me, this is the thing that makes all the difference. Teaching-style and BJJ-style are also important considerations, but these things are irrelevant if there’s a sense that I’m viewed as an ‘other’ vis a vis a male ‘norm’. Sure my attributes – physical, intellectual, emotional – play a part in how my journey plays out. That’s not something confined to being a female player. Everyone’s unique collection of attributes contributes to the advantages and challenges they take on the mats. The sign of a superb teacher is that s/he can tune into how to guide each individual based on his/her needs, rather than fall back on stale stereotypes. In my experience, there are plenty of ‘good apples’ out there working as BJJ instructors and I’m feeling good about finding a new BJJ-home.
While we are really looking forward to a fresh start, old friends, some nearby family and capitalising on new opportunities for our businesses and lifestyle, it isn’t easy to leave our home and culture. Knowing that BJJ will be there for me, one way or another, and that we’ll get our routine of weights and mat-time up and running swiftly, helps to ease the anxiety and sadness of leaving our home and loved ones in the UK.
I had the pleasure of training with Erik Paulson at Dartford BJJ on 17 December. This was the first no-gi session I’ve done since the pregnancy; I attended Monday night CSW class at Dartford BJJ prior to that. Every grappling diet needs a bit of no-gi, sweaty and gross though it can be. And work up a dewy sweat, we did!
Erik ran the seminar with professionalism and good humour. After warm-up drills to get the blood pumping we worked a nice flow of techniques, recapping them at the end of the seminar to aid retention. Too often seminars are lots of talk and less action. I really liked the opportunity to learn from a master in his field and actually get the reps in.
We started with a pair of heel hook attacks:
‘Snake legs’ to heel hook
Heel hook versus an open guard
For the ‘snake legs’, the opponent pops up to their feet in your guard. You kick through one leg to snake around and opponent’s leg and choose one of two variants to sweep them to the floor.
Against, an open guard, your opponent is on the floor with feet on your hips. You shuck both feet off and use a cross grip against an opponent’s leg while coming to the floor and applying the heel hook.
In both cases, ideally, one is applying the heel hook (with the bony part of the forearm) during the sweep/transition to the floor. Easier said than done! Practice, practice, practice.
Breaking Down the Turtle
Next we looked at a trio of attacks against the turtle:
Arm trap to short choke or bulldog choke
Face lift to hip through bulldog choke
Roll to crucifix
This was a fun series, which I’d had some exposure to from my instructor, Dave Birkett, himself a long-time student of Erik’s. The CSW training we’ve done together has been particularly helpful in this area of my game, and it offers positioning and movement applicable to work in and out of the gi.
For the arm trap, from a side-on position to their turtle, you cross-face your opponent and hook their near-side arm with your northern-most leg. From here you can take your time to get a nice position for the short choke, or transition to the bulldog choke.
For the face-lift, start with the cross-face and transition to the face lift to create space to move to the bulldog choke. Send your southern foot forward as hips turn up.
Finally, for the absolute LOLs cuz it is supremely fun movement, start from the arm-trap position and roll over the opponent’s far shoulder – whee! – figure-4ing your legs as you come to your back. Get opponent’s free arm under your inside underarm, 10-finger grip on their head, pull at a 45 and, ‘tap tap’.
Kesa Gatame and Fist Chokes
We finished the evening’s drills with fist chokes from mount, side control and kesa gatame and 4 submissions from kesa gatame:
Arm bar with legs
Pillow arm bar (kesa gatame)
Pillow arm bar (side control)
These attacks harmonised nicely with the drills against the turtle. These drills applied a similar theme of submissions in a different context, ie opponent on their back rather than in their turtle. Don’t you find this aspect of grappling incredibly obvious and simultaneously opaque?! The idea that there is a relatively narrow set of positions and submissions. The real art and skill is in seeing the positions in different contexts. It is cognitively simple to recognise the basic positions. In practice, it is hugely challenging to see and adapt to the ever-changing landscape of a roll, find those positions, control and submit.
This was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of training with Erik Paulson, one of my teacher’s teachers. I’ve been training with Dave for 10 years and he’s been training with Erik since the ’90s. It was really eye-opening to see another of my teacher’s teachers in action, and recognise the legacy of some of the material in the mix of Dave’s instruction. I could see parallels in their approaches to teaching too, and perhaps this is more the mark of a seasoned and earnest teacher than anything else: building up a logical flow of techniques; highlighting the importance of writing notes and visualisation; emphasising personal development alongside and through practice.
If it’s grappling, learn it. ~ Erik Paulson
Erik Paulson discussed the importance of an eclectic and open-minded approach to grappling training. He noted that every teacher adds his/her own nuances to any particular technique. You may have seen a triangle demonstrated by a dozen different instructors. It is important to seek to distinguish the different flavourings each practitioner adds to his/her triangle recipe. Every take on a technique may not be for you, but by being open to the possibility, you might discover unexpected gems that you can incorporate into your individual game. Quite right. Good reminder of a fundamental truth in all learning. With that in mind, where ever you fall on the grappling spectrum, I heartily recommend checking out an Erik Paulson seminar in your neighbourhood. He and his wife and business partner, Tonya Paulson, put together a well run seminar that shows earnestness and respect for the attendees. As with any seminar, some of the approaches may be more or less to your liking, and you’re certain to take away some nuggets to integrate into your own special grappling-brew.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.