My coach, Dave Birkett, BJJ brown belt under Marc Walder and owner and operator of
Great production values on this recent video promotion of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, from the women’s self defence angle. A kind reader provided a translation of the introductory text (thanks Hugo!):
Look at what you’re about to learn.
Every second, 15 women are attacked in Brazil.
Every 6 minutes a woman is raped.
3 out of 4 women are victims of at least one violent crime in their life.
These things happen when you least expect it.
Yes, you will succeed.
The inaugural issue of Jiu Jitsu Style, the UK’s first dedicated Brazilian Jiu Jitsu print publication, hit ‘stands’ today. I had the great honour of being involved with the first issue, to which I contributed an interview with Marc Walder for the cover piece and an article on BJJ for self defence; both pieces are beautifully illustrated with pictures by Fighters in Focus. Callum Medcraft, the mag’s progenitor, has put together a stunning publication and it really raises the bar for national and international martial arts periodicals in its professionalism and polish. The JJS team has worked with British-based BJJ-writers such as Seymour Yang aka Meerkatsu and Can Sönmez aka slideyfoot and fulfills the brief to represent and cater to the UK Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community in superb fashion. Not only is the design, layout and content of the mag of excellent quality, even the paper is A-grade; this mag is a class act (yeah, I’m biased, but seriously it rocks!). Go here to order your single mags or a £23/year subscription; JJS will also shortly be available as a digital subscription from iTunes!
In 2009 I attended a seminar with Carmen Janke. I was a few months into my blue belt at the time and while I had respectable offensive success against females of my size and skill level and, on rare occasions, against big male noobs, I was all about survival and escaping against the (almost always) bigger and stronger dudes I train with at Dartford BJJ. Carmen, who also weighs in around 60 kilos, said something that day that struck me and has stuck with me: ‘I really didn’t develop my offence until purple belt’. Snap!
Since mid-2010, as I got closer to purple belt, I began to see green shoots of an improved offensive game and over the three months since my purple belt promotion areas of my offence have really started coming together. Let me quantify what I mean by that. My goal is offensive success against larger, stronger and more powerful opponents, ultimately of my own skill level. For me, evidence of an improved offence is consistent success versus a wide range of heavier, stronger novices. While this may not sound like much to those who had offensive success when white belts, themselves, this has been a long journey for me as a smaller ‘out gunned’ player, so it is a significant step forward in my personal jits journey. I attribute the evolution of my offence to a convergence of several factors: very good instruction, dogged persistence, improved self-belief and the re-introduction of both no gi and BJJ basics/self defence into my weekly training regime.
I have been focussing on my triangle for 12-18 months. In particular, I’ve been refining my ‘shoulder walking’ and transitioning from the triangle to an arm bar/inverted arm bar. I am cracking this on folks of all different sizes now, rarely on people of greater size and similar skill, but reliably on much larger opponents of lesser skill; while I’ve been able to survive and escape from less experienced big ‘uns for some time, it is a recent development to regularly submit opponents with a 20-50 kilo weight advantage. I’m pumped!
From the beginning I have been taught defence first. A basic delineation of the early belts in my Academy is survival at white belt, escape at blue belt. That’s your job. Coach has been assuring me over the years that, with time, I would gain enough confidence in my defence to being to dismantling opponents with my offence. Don’t get me wrong! I still tap like River Dance and I’m not ashamed of that, but, I foil enough attacks and escape enough uncomfortable positions to feel that I have a solid defence, a defence which can now serve as the backbone of an emerging offence.
When I write that I have been working on my triangle combos for some months now I mean trying it in sparring against every sort of opponent regardless of how much they might outclass me in weight, strength, skill, youth or speed. Working this flow in sparring has often resulted in being passed and crushed. Demoralising as consistent failure might be in the shorter term, I play a long game and trust that only through persistence will my game grow over the longer term.
Coach often advises us: ‘You must believe in your offence more than your opponent believes in his defence.’ Confidence in the offensive area of my game has long been lacking and as accurate as Coach’s prediction was that improved defence would make room for improved offence, so too was his insistence on the importance of self-belief. As new offensive skills did indeed reveal themselves, my confidence grew. A month or two before my promotion, I remember coming away from one of many private lessons working through the kinks in my triangle flow thinking, ‘I *can* submit with this triangle!’; I finally believed in it.
When I began my grappling-journey, no gi was a regular part of my weekly training routine. Changes to my training schedule during ’09 meant that this aspect got lost, to be re-integrated in ’10. I believe the speed of no gi allowed me to better capitalise on an RNC-opportunity which was pivitol for my self-belief. Likewise, I regained BJJ-basics/self defence in 2010. Drilling this material, which looks at technique in context of a striking attacker, gave me new perspectives on transitions to the triangle, in particular the utility of controlling the opponent’s wrist while getting the feet behind the opponent and maintaining that control while locking it up. Following on from my earlier discussion of BJJ as a ‘martial art’ or ‘combat sport’, I feel convinced that it is essential to balance training with a competition-focus with training for self defence, and indeed, complementing gi work with no gi. At least for me, this combination of approaches has been essential to consolidating a discreet area of offensive capability, a foundation upon which I hope to build and expand.
I accept that the ideas presented here aren’t original and I have certainly learned the importance balance in all things from teachers and mentors inside and outside of BJJ, but I have progressed to where I *know* these things for myself, on a visceral level, I see how they have contributed to my growth and I am simply here to testify!
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is part of my martial arts journey. For me, to describe (and confine) BJJ as a ‘combat sport’, strips away so much of the value and depth of the art, reducing it to a much less multi-dimensional pursuit of validation through medals and athletic achievement; I see jits as a more esoteric pursuit of personal growth and improvement. While I certainly see competition as a valuable learning tool, to me it is all about emphasis and, to my mind, competition is an important complement to BJJ training, but not the end for which training is the means; my perspective is neither ‘right’ nor ‘wrong’, but it is mine and this blog is my party.
There is no agreement in the BJJ community over whether or not Brazilian Jiu Jitsu should be termed a ‘combat sport’ or a ‘martial art’. Those who prefer the term ‘combat sport’ seem to wish to distance themselves from the douchebaggery popularly associated with martial artists as famously personified by Martin Kove’s John Kreese in Karate Kid or Diedrich Bader’s character, Rex, in Napoleon Dynamite, as well as from the mysticism portrayed by Pat Morita as Mister Miyagi. This is evident from responses to a poll run by the FightworksPodcast questioning whether or not practitioners consider themselves ‘martial artists’, where ‘no’ respondents pointed to the lack of formalised spiritual learning, ceremony and other ‘hokey’ trappings commonly associated with traditional martial arts or at least the popular perception thereof. In this case, a majority of respondents argued for BJJ as a ‘martial art’ and ‘yes’ respondents highlighted BJJ’s capacity to promote personal development on and off the mats:
I can honestly put my hand on heart and say that I have changed thru the training on the mat and that that change is evident off the mat too and that’s why I say that I’m a martial artist. The principles of jiu jitsu influence most of my off-the-mat activities (diet, relationships, work, gym, studying…etc.) and I am very grateful for that. I’m a part time grappler, but I’m a full time martial artist’ – Liam Wandi author of Part Time Grappler
While I empathise with the desire to distance one’s self from pretentiousness and cornball mysticism, for me, Wandi neatly summarises why I embrace characterisations of BJJ as a ‘martial art’ and reject the label ‘combat sport’. BJJ is very challenging and very rewarding. It requires a fully harmonised mind and body for proficient performance and I am absolutely convinced that my struggles and successes on the mats have helped me to become a better human being. While I recognise preparing for and participating in competition to be an important aspect of training and have personally found the experience an invaluable learning-tool, I heartily concur with Rickson Gracie’s assertion that tournament work constitutes 30% of jiu jitsu. My understanding and practice of BJJ as a martial art, where competition is a significant but minority element, is coloured by my roots in the traditional Japanese art of Shorinji Kempo.
A Traditional Upbringing
I started my martial arts journey in 1998, in the year between my graduate and post-graduate studies, in an American ‘ninjitsu’ system called IOMASDA Ryu; yes, I was a big enough douchebag to assert to the man I was to marry, on our first meeting, that I was a member of a ‘ninja clan’, but I was only 23 and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, so forgive the transgressions of the young. Point is, that first year got me completely hooked! My instructors were kind and enthusiastically supportive and I jumped in with both feet, training with an almost fevered passion, dedication and consistency in and out of the dojo. When I moved to Glasgow, UK to pursue my PhD, a major priority was to continue my training; within a month I’d found Shorinji Kempo, fell in love with the club and by 2002 I’d attained the rank of shodan.
Until recently, and certainly while I was active in the community, Shorinji Kempo was a recognised religion in Japan; the art was designed as a system of physical and spiritual progression to develop the individual’s full human potential. Promotion included both a test of the kenshi’s mastery of the syllabus as well as written examinations on the philosophy of Shorinji Kempo. While I have travelled far from those days, the core principles I came to cherish as a kenshi remain with me and very much guide my training in BJJ.
The Fukudoku-Hon – the textbook of Shorinji Kempo philosophy that guides kenshi to shodan-level – defines 6 characteristics of the art, the first of which is ken zen ichinyo (body and mind are the same). The pursuit of a unified and balanced mind and body has been central to my martial arts journey. While I am grateful that Shorinji Kempo articulated this notion, formally emphasised its importance and that I had the opportunity to seek development of this principle in myself through Shorinji Kempo, I find that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu allows me to more effectively pursue this aim and to evaluate my progress.
My BJJ practice – and that practice is shaped by myself, by my training partners and my instructors at Dartford BJJ – acts as a barometer for my life’s equilibrium. Since my Shorinji Kempo days, a personal motto has been ‘balance in all things’. Of course, striking a perfect balance in all things may not be a practical goal, but it is all in the striving. Life is fluid and demands a ceaseless process of prioritisation, re-evaluation, re-ordering, negotiation and implementation; those readers familiar with the mats will recognise that here ‘life’ might be substituted with ‘BJJ’. BJJ practice has taught me that I perform best when fully engaged and present in ‘the now’ both cerebrally and corporeally. When anxious about what I must or mustn’t allow to happen, what I must or mustn’t do, my performance suffers. Similarly, if my mind and body aren’t in balance, my performance suffers: if I eat too little before training, I’m sluggish in sparring and unable to make the best of the opportunities that present themselves; if I train too hard for too many consecutive days, my sparring is loose and lacks intent; if personal or work pressures are getting the better of me it is difficult to let go, get with the program and roll with focus. Because Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is such a physically, emotionally and mentally challenging discipline it very clearly reveals to me when my life’s balance is out of whack; once I’ve re-tuned it is clear from my rolling when the discord has been resolved.
This is the first in a series of three pieces in which I hope to interrogate my own motivation for BJJ practice and to unpack my rather traditional approach to this non-traditional art. This is just one woman’s truth; leave a comment below about how you see BJJ. Is it a ‘combat sport’? Is it a ‘martial art’? What do such labels mean for you?