I firmly believe that the road to improvement in any sport should involve the mastery of injury prevention. I am constantly trying to understand what positions may lead to injury and look to avoid those positions or it least avoid the aspects of those positions that result in injury. Let me be more specific with an example from a recent tournament…
A common dangerous situation is when I’m looking to take my opponent down and they are looking to jump closed guard. In most cases, neither person has extensive experience with this exact situation. Most grapplers do not drill (nearly enough) jumping closed guard, and I certainly don’t drill shooting a double while a person is jumping closed guard. Those drilling sessions are too painful to imagine. What has happened to me in the past a few times is I made the mistake of not keeping my knees bent (even just slightly). There are a million reasons not to keep you legs locked out, but when you get tired you do stupid things. So when my opponent jumps closed guard, it’s tempting to step the straight leading leg forward. If they jump too low, this will result in their bodyweight slamming up against my knee. Here’s an example:
When your opponent jumps closed guard, they often pull you forward. This naturally forces you to step forward with as the person does in this video. Injury result when this step is taken on a straight leg not a bent one. The way to avoid injury is to keep a strong base and a bent leading leg. That way the leading leg can support the weight of the jumping person’s body. In general it’s good to have at least a slightly bent leg at all time, kind of like Olympic-style wrestlers do. With a slightly bent leg you can change levels quicker, sprawl back quicker, move around quicker, etc.
To me one the main benefits of judo for a jiu jitsu competitor is as simple as providing confidence in basic movement on the feet, basic gripping, basic posture, etc. That’s how it helped me, but it’s especially cool to see the occasional judoka pull off a textbook throw at the higher level of competition. I’ve seen a few drop morote seoi nage’s and a lot of excellent foot sweeps, but I haven’t yet seen a tai otoshi pulled off quite as nice as it was done in the following clip of a brown belt match from the 2013 Pans:
Here’s Jimmy Pedro breaking down this exact technique. He describes a useful grip variation for a BJJ competitor, but the guy in the above clip didn’t need the variation. He did it the old school judo way.
Seeing people I train with (or am friends with) promoted to a new belt color is always exciting to me. It probably taps into the same neurochemical wellspring of joy I get from leveling up in a video game. (I just realized that it’s been a LONG time since I actually played a game, especially an RPG).
It’s a demarcation of progress. The most exciting one, to me, in BJJ is the white belt to blue belt promotion. There is so much possibility and hope for the future at that point. A new blue belt has not yet been beaten down by the reality that mastery takes a long, long, long time. When I got my blue belt, I still believed that just around the corner, I will begin my meteoric rise to amazing skill levels. In reality, the path to mastery is much more like hiking the Appalachian trail. It takes a lot longer than you think. It’s not glorious. There’s no sparklers or beautiful women (or dudes if that’s your thing) in bikinis cheering you on. It’s just a long daily grind full of simple pleasures derived from subtle improvement of skill and overcoming of challenges.
But again, I think what I like most about promotions is the same reason I like driving a brand new car: the new car smell. When my training partners are wearing a new belt, it feels like I just beat the game at the “normal” setting, and am now upgraded to the “expert” setting.
It’s amazing how a belt can be a canvas to project my thoughts on. A belt color is a set of goals, a set of techniques, a set of injuries, a set of tournaments.
In the rest of my life, there are no belt colors. When I publish a conference or journal paper, I don’t get stripes on my belt. The video-game-playing kid in me wishes that I would be “awarded” a green jacket or something like that for a week after publishing in a prestigious journal. I would wear it proudly, and write a blog post about how much I like the idea of green jackets that my colleagues would read and shake their head at in shame.
It’s been said many times in many ways that “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect”, but I was reminded of it with a particularly good phrasing of this concept in a new book Winning on the Ground by AnnMarie De Mars (her blog):
“The difference between being #1 in the world and #100 isn’t so much the hours on the mat. It’s what you are doing in those hours.”
I think this applies to people who train professionally as well as to people who train as a hobby for different reasons. In the former case, your body and mind can only take so much in a day. Anyone who’s ever tried to drill (really drill) a move for an hour will know the wear it can have on you, not physically, but mentally. The focus required to perform a technique to the best of your ability is as draining as trying to solve a difficult math problem (or puzzle for the non-math-inclined).
For the hobbyist, the reality is that you really do have a very limited amount of time per day that you can train. Ironically, with the higher constraint on time, I find that people do less of the good stuff (drilling very specific techniques, transitions) and more of the fun stuff (rolling in jiu jitsu, randori in judo).
I was always of the opinion that you have to earn the fun stuff. To me “fun” is rolling without any constraints on my game, without a focus on a particular position/technique, etc. That’s very good to do a lot of, especially if you have 4-6 hours a day to train. But if I only have an hour (or less as usual), I have to become my own drill sergeant. I’ll get in 30-60 minutes of hard fast paced drilling on a dummy or a partner no matter what, and enjoy a few sets of training. It’s a balance between short term “happiness” and long term “happiness”. Ultimately, I really enjoy getting a better understanding of the art of jiu jitsu, and that requires the not-so-fun process of drilling and rolling with a purpose.
By the way, I’m also realizing that “drilling” is like “dieting”. It’s a concept that is used by a lot of people to describe a wide variety of activities. So I have to be more specific. I do a lot of kinds of drilling, but the one I refer to as “really drilling” is where I do 100-200+ reps in 30 minutes of one technique. This isn’t some new technique, it’s one that I’ve already done thousands of reps of and most importantly have tried in positional training, live training, and competition. Every other kind of drilling is more relaxed. This is hard work. Productive hard work.
I competed at NY Open this past weekend. I got 1st place after 3 tough matches. First here are some video highlights (with the usual monotone commentary) and then some random notes on the whole experience.
I took Megabus up to NYC, and slept obnoxiously the whole way up, sitting next to a huge dude who kept saying sorry for touching me with his elbow. It made me realize that when two dudes have to be touching on a bus, it’s best not to acknowledge this. Also, “sorry” like “fuck” are words that are good to use in moderation. The more you use them, the more they lose their power to convey a genuine message that they originally carried.
I love the New York subway. It’s a giant grab bag of characters. I took the 1 train uptown to City College of NY and it was stuffed to the gills. And remarkably, a couple of stops into my trip, a group of four musicians got on (with drums, guitar, etc) and started playing a bluesy soulful song. They got a ton of dirty looks for taking up valuable space, but I enjoyed the hell out of the show. Given how crowded it was, it felt like we were all on a sinking Titanic listening to the last band we’ll ever hear. It occurred to me that there are not many cities in the world where I could’ve experienced this. I would’ve given them money but I only had 20 dollar bills. And the show was not quite THAT good.
David Jacobs knows who I am
David Jacobs (see interview) is a well-known and respected long-time black belt competitor. I’ve encountered him only online as basically a voice of reason on the jiu jitsu forums. It so happened that he was the ref for all of my matches. The funny thing is I felt a bit of pressure because of that. I wanted to make sure I don’t stall and that I use clean technical jiu jitsu. If I ever get a stalling call, I’m always disappointed with myself, but especially if the call comes from a competitor I look up to. Anyway, after my matches, he briefly stopped me and said “I just realized that you’re Lex”. More than anything else, that seemed like an acknowledgement that I am slowly becoming one of the “regulars” on the competition scene.
Moving up a weight division
After a full breakfast, two snacks, and nonstop nervous drinking of water at the tournament, I weighed in at a remarkably low 182 lbs with my gi (just a half lbs over my usual weight class of middleweight). But I decided earlier in the week that I will move up a weight class to work on making sure that I will never let myself use “I’m not at my goal competition weight” as an excuse for not competing. My first opponent weighed in at 194. I was proud of myself for taking a step in the direction that I felt was right based on the circumstances. As many people do, I let conventional wisdom influence my thinking too much. Part of competing, is gaining the confidence to explore and figure out what works for you. Luckily I did well, but the biggest challenge is when I fail not to blame it on any one aspect or decision but to continue exploring.
Coaching and competition training
I am lucky enough to train with a lot of top-notch jiu jitsu folks. In the last few months Tim Carpenter, Josh Vogel, and Drew Vogel have been running competition training sessions that helped get everyone mentally prepared for competition. I think these sessions have also helped bring the team together. I’ve competed at many tournaments where none of my friends or teammates were there, but the NY Open was the opposite of that this time. A lot of people I train with were there to cheer each other on. It was great to see Tim watch over my matches. A few times he would gesture what I need to do technique-wise, but mostly he was a reassuring presence which is a huge advantage mentally. Dan Haney and Stefanos were screaming their heads off, all great very technical detailed instructions. Jeremy, Myles, Lollie, Charlie, Barry, Mike, Henry, Alex, and many other buddies of mine were there as well. My judo coach Ray Huxen (and Eric too) were there. Ray is the best human being ever, period.
Enjoying good conversation with good friends
This tournament, like many, allowed me to see some of my favorite people. I’m often too mentally preoccupied (aka nervous about competing) to enjoy myself, but that’s getting better. Ultimately, I want to be the guy who needs zero time to mentally prepare for a match. I want to be able to joke around one second and the next be ready to step on the mat for “battle”. Those are two different worlds, but I don’t see why switching from one to the other should require more than a couple of seconds.
I have an insane month of work with deadline on top of deadline so I’m not committing myself to anything but just enjoying regular hard training, drilling, etc. However, I am distinctly aware of the fact that I enjoy competing more when I compete more. So I hope to get in a couple of tournaments in May (both judo and bjj). I am keeping my eye on Worlds but am likely not going as it is sandwiched between two trips (Chicago and San Fran) for me. But as with a lot of big tournaments, I may just get the stupid urge to sign up one of these nights, and do it on a whim.
I’m trying to make sure that I video, edit, and put up the matches from most of the tournaments I go to, win or lose. Hopefully it encourages other to compete as well, when they see that it’s not much different than training back at the academy.
While my jiu jitsu slowly improves, it’s also exciting to see that my play-by-play commentary skills remain the same at a steady level of mediocrity that I so proudly strive for.
I’ll be competing in the IBJJF New York Open next weekend. If I win every match, I’ll have around 7-8 matches. I’m of course only thinking about the first match, but it’s still good to go in knowing that I very well could have a long day and to be mentally prepared for it. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head at this moment on the week leading up to the tournament…
Moving Up a Weight Class
I have a tough week at work and my experience taught me is that lots of work means I’ll be sleeping less, and that staying on diet will be harder to the point where I very easily could burn out and not enjoy the competing experience. I’m currently 2.5 lbs under without the gi which means I’m probably over by 1-2 lbs with the gi. So I’m deciding to move up a weight class. I am confident I can do well against any size opponent. Most of the stress that comes with competing for me is derived from having to cut weight.
It’s tough to fight up a weight class in a culture that sees weight cutting as an absolute necessity. I’m sure many of the people that train with me will read the fact that I’m “1-2 lbs over” as an obvious case where I should cut those two lbs without question. But I really believe that I need to develop the ability to enjoy tournaments more, and that means doing nothing different than I do in training. I don’t cut weight for training. There are many days after training when I’m exhausted but happy. That’s how I want to feel at the end of next Saturday.
It boils down to this: I want to continue competing into my 40′s, 50′s, 60′s, and in order to do that I want to build a mindset that allows for that while having a more-than-full-time-career, family, etc. It might be different for different people, but from my experience of myself and people around me, a failed plan to “get in shape” is the main reason people stop competing. I want to compete when I’m skinny, I want to compete when I’m fat. It doesn’t matter. That mindset requires practice. I’m starting this weekend.
Bas Rutten: Competing for Yourself Only
I heard Bas Rutten (of all people) give two excellent pieces of advice on the Joe Rogan podcast recently. First, he said “if you fight, you can’t lose”. He explained that to mean that if he gets in there and gives everything he’s got, then he will be proud of himself at the end of the day. The only way to lose is to give less than you can, to give up, to quit. So I’m thinking less about winning and more about putting everything I have behind the techniques I’ve drilled over and over.
Second piece of advice the wise old Bas Rutten gave especially struck a note with me. I don’t remember the exact phrasing but basically he said that the only nerves and stress he felt about fighting is because of others: expectations, judging, etc. He said something like if he was locked in a room with a dude looking to fight and no one would see it and no one would hear the results, there would be no stress and no fear. It’s just another chance to test your technique, your conditioning, and your heart. That’s what I love about competing. The trick is to put myself into that state of mind. That, too, requires practice.
We’ve recently done a bunch of high-paced competition training sessions. That helped me develop a more aggressive pursuit of improving position in terms of wrestling, guard passing, sweeping, etc, but mostly it helped me deal with the feeling of being too tired to keep going. Last two big training sessions I came in mentally tired which was great because I got a chance to hit “the wall” early on and pushed through that.
“Never complain and never explain.” – Benjamin Disraeli
When I fail to do something I promised to myself or others, there is a strong desire to explain why it was so damn difficult to get it done. “X happened, then Y happened. I’m sorry, I hope you understand.” As if a good excuse will somehow patch things up temporarily until I can prove myself next time.
Every time I hear others make excuses (even very legitimate ones) I cringe. I’m starting to understand that if you let your mind go to excuses, then it actually makes quitting easier. The worst part of that is it makes quitting easier NEXT TIME and the time after that and so on.
My goal is that if I can’t do something, I simply provide the fact: “I will not get it done” and nothing else. Step 2 is take quietly the painful reality of that failure. Step 3 is figure out how and work my ass off to not be in that position again.
This is very important in my work, but the great thing about grappling is that it gives me an opportunity to practice that mindset on a daily basis in a very direct way. For example, if I decide to do 8 sets of hard training, and I’m exhausted after 6 sets, I don’t think “I’m exhausted, I don’t think I can do another one”. Instead, I don’t even allow my mind to consider the possibility of quitting. Basically, exhaustion transforms from an excuse for quitting into just an aspect of the reality in which I’m existing. If I make a decision to do 8 sets, then I will do it. If later, I feel that 8 sets is too many, then next time I’ll decide to do 7 sets or 5 sets or 3 sets, whatever, but once the decision is made, it must be accomplished.
It’s not easy to do. I’m struggling with this every day. It’s very tempting to promise to myself and others that I will compete in this or that tournament, or that I will attend this or that training session. But I don’t want to live life on a cloud of promises as many dreamers do. For myself, I want to be the guy that decides, acts, and never quits.
In judo and bjj, being 30+ years old means you have the option to compete with other 30+ year olds in a separate “Masters” division. This year, I have joined the ranks of this group. My first instinct is that of Groucho Marx of not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Early on, in my 3+ years of jiu jitsu, I was forced to acknowledge a simple reality:
I will never be as good as the current black belt BJJ world champion in my weight class.
I know this might seem like an obvious fact to just about anyone who knows anything about jiu jitsu. In fact, it’s pretty embarrassing just to write those words. But I’m human, I’m a dreamer, I have an ego, and I had to ask myself on a few occasions: how good can I get? The answer to that was painful, humbling, but ultimately liberating. I have found simple happiness in the day-to-day learning, hard work, improvement, and a systematic dedication to understanding the art and the sport of jiu jitsu.
Anyway, I’m off to DC for a presentation tomorrow, after several days and nights of programming, reading, scribbling in a notebook, and then more programming. My life is not that of a full-time competitor. For me, my work (research) is the main challenge and the main source of enjoyment in my life. Despite the occasional lack of smile, I’m sincerely a happy dude.
So for major tournaments (e.g. Pans) I’m faced with a choice: masters division or adult division. I know many people from white belt to black belt that go back and forth. The reality is that winning Pans in any age division is tough, but of course there is a reason why black belt masters matches are 6 minutes while black belt adult matches are 10 minutes. The guys that win the adult division don’t just bring technique, they bring an incredible level of physical preparedness (cardio, agility, flexibility, aggression). The 30+ guys have a bit more “old man strength”, wisdom, and experience (theoretically). Still, I believe that “wisdom” (the opposite of “recklessness”) is more of a negative than a positive. Ultimately, competition requires stupid confidence and focused aggression. If your brain is allowed to ask philosophical questions around the time of competition, you’re probably going to lose.
Also the masters divisions are usually smaller. At the 2013 Pans (see 2013 Pans competitor list) the purple belt middleweight division had 37 guys for adult and 25 guys for masters.
In some sense, thinking about age is the very thing that ages you. If you don’t give a shit, then you don’t age. I’ll leave with this quote from Satchel Paige (baseball player from over 50 years ago):
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”
When you take up a hobby or a sport, you join a community by the simple fact that the people you communicate with most often online or in person will be participating in that same hobby/sport. Then, it’s easy to forget that there is a world outside of that community.
I’m part of two such communities. One is the grappling community. The other is the academic community. The latter (academia) loves private gossiping, the former (bjj) seems to love public drama (especially online). I was reminded of this when I briefly noticed the heat that a guy named Sam Osman received after winning Pans in the brown belt masters division. The drama was due to the fact that Sam received his black belt 3 months before the Pans, but still competed in the brown belt division. The reason was because the process for IBJJF to get you approved as a black belt is complicated and takes time. I didn’t read anything more about it than that, but I’m guessing Sam was a bit slow with filing all the necessary paperwork, but still wanted to compete. The picture to the left is of Sam winning the gold and here’s the Facebook comments that the picture received.
The guy was called a sandbagger and a lot more ridiculously exaggerating accusations. I have my opinion on this, but that doesn’t matter. Everyone has an opinion. What’s amazing to me is that in the BJJ community everyone with an opinion feels it their moral duty to make that opinion known. It doesn’t matter if they are an expert or a novice, whether they know anything about competing and whether they know any of the facts in the case, their opinion must be known! The result is often not something I’m proud of associating with. Still, having so many loud voices means that it’s hard to get away with shady stuff. That’s a good thing. The whole Lloyd Irvin thing is an example of that. Keep honest people honest, and jump on anything that looks like b.s.
In the end, I’m happy to be part of this unique bunch of pijama wearing folk, but I do try to stay away from the drama. I’ll admit, it’s often enticing to read and share the latest gossip. But it’s not good for your brain, your soul, and your long term outlook on life.