Tag Archives: josh vogel

2013 IBJJF New York Open Video and Experience

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.

Megabus awkwardness

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.

Subway musicians

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 CarpenterJosh 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.

Next up

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.

The Logic of Movement

movnat-cat I saw the cat picture to the left on Reddit with the title “We actually had to help him down… Idiot”.

This immediately reminded me of the several discussions I had with Josh about movement (motivated by his work with MovNat).

There are many times in jiu jitsu that I have put myself in a position where I felt very much like the cat in the picture, wondering (1) how the hell did I get here and (2) how the hell do I get out of here?

Kinematics of Humanoid Robots

Relevant side note on my work in computer science: While I don’t build humanoid robots myself, a lot of the research I do brushes up against the immense challenges of programming the kinematics of movement. It’s always humbling to learn all the things that the nervous system takes care of without requiring active cognitive input from us. A lot of the stuff you (as a human being) take for granted (in terms of how you, for example, pick up a cup of coffee) is actually accomplished by an incredibly complicated system. Most of the details of voluntary movement are handled just below the level of consciousness. You just think “raise arm” and your arm goes up.

Learning to Walk Again

In jiu jitsu, we have to return to some of the same problems we had as toddlers when learning to walk. You have to once again actually start actively thinking about minute movements. You have to start thinking about where every part of your body is, and how to get from one point to another against a resisting opponent. Of course, if you have to think about it, it probably means you are going to move very awkwardly. After you solved a particular movement problem in your head many times, it starts slowly drifting below the surface of consciousnesses where it becomes more instinctual and less “cognitive”.

So, in the above example, the cat might put itself in that tricky tree situation a few times, and learn either not to go into that position any more or figure out a chain of movements that get it out of that situation in a safe and consistent way.

Practical Movement in Sport

The discussion Josh and I had that was particularly relevant was “arguing” about what sport trained you to be agile in the widest variety of practical movements. Gymnastics was the one we agreed on. I think that in jiu jitsu it can be easy to narrow your range of movement to just your particular “A game” and in so doing makes you less able to deal with tricky situations that your opponent might put you in by exploiting a moment’s error. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way, if you open up your game (in terms of movement) when drilling and training.

MovNat and Ginastica Natural

I think MovNat is motivated in part by this goal of helping you train a wide range of practical movements that you might not always get to train when focused on a particular aspect of your jiu jitsu game. Of course, it has a few other philosophical underpinnings outside the scope of this post, like keeping the workout fun, interesting, and goal-oriented.

At one of Saulo Ribeiro’s seminars I attended, Saulo emphasized the effectiveness of dynamic movements outside the scope of your jiu jitsu game. His favorite approach was something called Ginastica Natural, but I think there’s probably a lot of different programs of that kind all governed by a focus on a wide range of efficient movement.

UFC Submissions: Armbar, Kneebar, and Facebar

UFC 157: Burrell v VillefortUFC 157, yesterday, had a few interesting submissions and submission attempts. Spoiler alert. Ronda Rousey finished Liz Carmouche in the first round with an armbar. I might be biased but, to me, Ronda is just on another level in terms of grappling. Which is why it was surprising to see her almost submitted with a “facebar” (pictured left).

I am beginning to see more and more that you can’t defend a rear naked choke with your face. The force of the crank and the face crush can be just as effective as the clean under-the-chin choke. I couldn’t help but think that Ronda instinctually was not worried about this choke because she wasn’t used to it in judo (where any choke across the face is illegal).

I think Ronda Rousey is the Royce Gracie of women’s MMA. She is paving the way in a sport where technical brutality is the name of the game. It’s tough to do for a woman, because our culture doesn’t seem to like to watch women bloodying each other. Conveniently, Ronda can finish her opponents cleanly and lady-like by breaking their arm. I look forward to seeing her develop in MMA, but I’ll still be that bitter old man who wishes she competed in judo at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and bring home the gold at both.

Kneebar from Back Control

The other interesting submission was by Kenny Robertson over Brock Jardine in the first round of their welterweight fight. He caught kneebar from top of back control:

kenny-robertson-kneebars-brock-jardine-ufc-157lex-josh-vogel-ufc-157-kneebar-from-turtleI was skeptical and thought that this was just a trick that couldn’t work on a resisting opponent who  knew this submission was coming. But a dear friend of mine offered to demonstrate (pictured left). That’s Josh of (Angela and Josh fame). Speaking of which thanks to them for having us over and making delicious food.

It was a bit surreal to have a black belt kneebar me from back control while wearing jeans and t-shirt. It was like a reminder that this grappling stuff is real and even a seemingly crazy submission might be an effective technique for outside the confines of the sport of jiu jitsu. There was tons of pressure on the spine and tons of tension in the hamstring.

For anyone reading this who is not aware of jiu jitsu, this is the kind of positions that are involved in the sport. Taken out of context, this will probably ruin my eventual bid for president, and increase my mom’s insistence that I find a nice Jewish girl to marry.

Evaluating Your Game Based on Rolling with Killers

Note: By “killer” I mean guys who are MUCH better than me in particular positions. So that might include white belts to black belts.

I spend a considerable amount of time on and off the mat evaluating my game. Every single practice is in fact a process of figuring out details that make a particular aspect of my game work better in a particular situation. For example, any time someone passes my guard, I think about how they did it and what kind of adjustment I need to make in order to prevent that guard pass in the future.

That’s simple enough. The problem comes in with the fact that in some cases it takes time to make such adjustments to my technique. It takes a lot of reps in drilling and training for the details to be internalized. So I have to shut off the skeptical part of my brain that doesn’t give a technique enough time before passing judgments.

The-Black-Night-monty-python-and-the-holy-grail-591464_800_441I had another illuminating experience with (let’s call him) Bob where, through positional training, he armbarred me maybe 50+ times in a period of an hour in the same exact way as I played my favorite guard. I could avoid the armbar if I didn’t play my favorite position and grip combination. But that doesn’t solve anything in the long term. When you see the 50+ submissions, you’re probably thinking “this guy really sucks”. Whether I do or not, I certainly feel like I suck after those sessions. When I get off the mat and walk to work or home, what should be the thoughts in my head? What are my next steps?

I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but my solution to that has been to re-double my focus on the position. By that I don’t mean I’ll try harder in training. In fact, I’ll try less hard. All the effort goes into learning (online and through questions on the mat) the little details around the position that make it work. While 50 submissions sound like a lot. From my limited experience, and my faith in the gods of drilling, I believe that those 50 submissions happened because of 1 or 2 details that I wasn’t doing. My job is to find those details. They are probably obvious. They have probably been taught to me many times. What I need to do is to re-discover them for myself.

This process is humbling, putting my efforts in the world of academia in perspective.

MovNat for Jiu Jitsu

I was introduced to an interesting approach to fitness called MovNat by Josh who had an weekend experience with it recently. As a former addict of heavy weight training, I have chosen (over the last several months) to hop onto the Marcelo Garcia path of no strength training or cardio outside of jiu jitsu. This has worked well for me, but I do think there is value in mixing things up with fun bodyweight circuits of any kind. MovNat provides exactly that. It emphasizes natural movements of the kind you would use if you were just a monkey moving about in a jungle or a little kid moving around the playground.

Like many fitness programs that my former meathead self would surely make fun of, this one sounds like it would not be challenging at all. But, of course, it can be. You are focusing not on the present fact that your muscles are burning but on achieving specific tasks like climbing across a tree branch without falling, jumping from rock to rock, etc.

I only did two sessions with Josh, but I can already see that the part of MovNat most applicable to jiu jitsu is the improvisation I’m required to do using natural movements to deal with particular tasks. There are a LOT of ways to move when I’m passing guard, for example, and the idea of constant effortless movement is essential for keeping the opponent on defense for long periods of time. MovNat has the same structure. I’m faced with a new challenge every 1-5 seconds and have to transition into it while constantly moving with good posture, awareness, balance, etc.

Purple Belt Promotion

I was promoted to purple belt on Saturday. A lot of the people I looked up to (and still do) in my almost 3 years of training jiu jitsu were purple belts at the time. Brown and black belts often seemed like generals brilliantly commanding the unfolding battle from the back of the field (see Josh Vogel’s video take on this). Purple belts, on the other hand, seemed more like platoon leaders, right in the heat of combat with the blue and white belts. And that’s what I aspire to be in my new role as purple belt: talk less, drill more, train hard, and compete, compete, compete.

Purple belt means different things to different people. For me, I want this belt to see a lot of tough tournament matches, win or lose, I know I will come out on the other end a better person, with a deeper understanding of myself and a greater ability to put the highs and lows of life into perspective.

The actual promotion day was a memorable learning experience. There were 20+ black belts there. I got to train with several of them. The matches lasted anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes, they all felt like playing speed chess with the regulars at Washing Square park, like in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Each black belt had a unique style and exhibited a mastery of the art. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. These guys are artists. It was especially cool to roll with Tim Hart. I heard so many tales about his epic technical expertise and power, that I was starting to believe that he didn’t actually exist and the few times that I met him were just an illusion 😉 Here’s a picture of me miserably failing to be able to do anything in his open/spider guard:

One of the things I’m proud of myself for doing is pulling guard on everyone I trained with at the promotion. I’m definitely a top player, and it’s where I feel more “at home”, but I find that when I play a relaxed technical guard against high-level training partners, they play a more relaxed technical game as well. The result is, no matter what happens, I learn more from the experience. Here’s me in a crappy butterfly guard with Frank Ambrifi, who is another man of legend who I heard so much about but have not met before:

Congratulations to everyone who was promoted, including nine new black belts. Josh Vogel and Drew Vogel were two of the nine. I consider them good friends and inspiring leaders on and off the mat. Here’s a picture of the Vogel brothers and the Migliarese brothers with my favorite gang sign: the thumbs up.

Whenever I look at pictures of the universe, I’m filled with awe at the billions of billions of stars that are out there. I feel the same way when I look at the following team picture. It’s just as awe-inspiring to think of how many hundreds of thousands of hours of jiu jitsu wisdom is in this picture alone:

I have to give a special thanks to Josh (pictured right). He has taught me a lot on the mat, but more importantly he has been a role model in philosophy and lifestyle in jiu jitsu training and competition. We roomed together for the 2012 Worlds in a cheap motel that smelled like hookers and smoke, cutting weight and trying desperately not to think about food.

By the way, thanks to Eric Zippe, Angela Vogel, Jennifer Francisco, and Sean Gilliard for the excellent pictures they took during the event. Eric is a excellent professional photographer as many people in the grappling world know.

Train Your Armbars by Breaking Broomsticks

I have not yet run up against a situation where I put on an armbar in competition and my opponent did not  tap. However, it does seem that some people don’t like to tap to armbars. An example of this happened twice in Metamoris last weekend with Xande against Dean Lister and Buchecha against Roger Gracie.

This led to the usual discussion full of absurd quirkiness between Josh and I about ineffectiveness of an armbar for breaking arms, unless… an idea was brought up on how to remedy this obvious “flaw” in our approach to jiu jitsu training…

One of the things that makes BJJ such an effective martial art is that we can train daily at close to 100% intensity. We can do everything including chokes at 100%. The only thing we can’t do is the “breaking” submissions. When I put on an armbar, the person will tap from the first feeling of pain or tension in his arm. So we never get to feel the amount of force required to actually break an arm. The solution, my friends, is obvious… It comes from two YouTube clips below of (1) Karate board breaking and (2) Jeff Glover training with a broomstick. Combining these two, the idea is to practice breaking arms by breaking broomsticks. And eventually, you might even graduate up to breaking 2-by-4’s. This could be a new exercise fad to take over Kettlebells and Bulgarians bags.

PS: Not that it needs to be said, but I’m just joking about the broomsticks. Be careful when putting on armbars in training. In competition, it’s a different story, it’s up to you how far you decide to take it when a medal is on the line.



More Lessons from the IBJJF Chicago Summer Open

I wrote last week about my experience at the IBJJF Chicago Summer Open and some of the “lessons” I took away from it. This post is just a continuation of that with a few more thoughts on the competing experience. By the way, here’s the “video blog” I put together for it.

Here we go, random and wordy, but hopefully useful to someone out there:

Open Class Excuses

My division was on at 9am in the morning and the absolute division didn’t start until 6pm at night. So there’s about a 7-8 hour wait between the two. That’s plenty of time for my body to start providing excuses for not doing the open class division. I was sore, mentally down due to losing my finals match, and also just mentally and physically tired as anyone would be after a hard training session. I went to Starbucks, relaxed and “forced” myself to not think about jiu jitsu or anything related to competing. I just read a little Camus on my Kindle, and enjoyed an excessive amount of fruit that I bought on sale at a supermarket across from the venue. There was a 5 lbs bag of apples on sale for $2.99. I couldn’t resist.

I went from not feeling like competing any more to being curious about how well I’ll do to wanting to kick some ass! 😉 My mind is a damn rollercoaster sometimes when it comes to stressful things like competition. I just try to ride out the lows, and capitalize on the highs. When I was feeling good, I went back to the venue and just watched jiu jitsu for a while. A couple of hours later they called my division, and I said “why the hell not”. I put on my cold wet gi, and went down to the mats with a stupid happy smile on my face.

I think Bill Cooper said in an interview somewhere that he brings two gi’s to a tournament so that he could put on a fresh gi after he fills the first one with the nervous sweat of the first several matches. I think that’s a great idea, and maybe one day I’ll actually be smart enough to go through with an idea like that.

Tired is Good for Learning, Fun, and Winning

I’d hate to make prophetic generalizations, but based on my experience, some of my most fun and educational matches have been when I was tired from having already fought 4-6 matches earlier on in the day. I stop caring about stupid stuff, and just step on the mat relaxed and confident. The first several matches release the nervous energy that I still bottle up as a relative beginner.

One of the things that I notice mentally is that I stop caring about winning or losing, but care more about executing my techniques to the best of my ability, and working towards a  submission. It seems like an obviously desirable state of mind to go to, but it’s not easy for me to achieve on cue without first getting a few matches in.

Big Competition Teams

I’m just a blue belt, and my opponents are just blue belts, but especially for the finals, some guys have roaming armies of loud supportive teammates. It’s cool to see a sea of Alliance, Gracie Barra, CheckMat, Atos, or Lloyd Irvin shirts all really excited if their guy is winning, and all really pissed off (usually at the ref) if their guy is losing. I like going against guys with a big cheering section, because I feel like it gives me an opportunity to earn their respect as a good clean competitor with solid fundamental jiu jitsu.

It’s cool to have friends and teammates there, but to me it’s not essential for the actual match. What is important is that a coach is there or at least gets to break down the video with me after the tournament. Josh has helped me tremendously by breaking down most of the matches I lost in recent tournaments and specifying the things I need to fix. I view tournaments as learning experiences, and that’s why analyzing video of tournament matches is pretty much one of the most important things you can do as part of that experience.

Reffing Ain’t Easy

As a quick closing note, let me mention that I had a conversation with one of the IBJJF refs after my division was done, and he was saying that after attending many of the ref courses IBJJF offers before the tournaments, he still feels like he has a lot to learn about the game of sport jiu jitsu. It made me realize that people who complain about the rules often don’t understand the intricate details of those rules.

It’s important to learn the rules! You don’t have to, of course, but then you better be dominating your opponents on points, or better yet, submitting everyone.

A Private for the Price of One Coffee

Josh Vogel is a jiu jitsu guru, so when he announced that he will review your tournament video for $5, I jumped on the opportunity. He analyzed two videos of mine (check out one of them) and it gave me a lot to think about and work on.

I especially like that his analysis wasn’t “You should quit jiu jitsu because you clearly suck. Please stop.” Instead, he took every situation in the video seriously, highlighting problems areas, provided a bunch of technique options, and discussing general strategy.

I highly recommend that you send Josh one of your competition videos, while he’s giving it away for so cheap.

The benefit I got from analyzing just two videos made me realize that I want to make this a regular part of my competition process. It’s important to analyze your competition footage, but there’s only so much you can do on your own. You need another set of eyes, preferably those of an expert.

Josh noticed a lot of things that I didn’t even consider to be options. Both matches I sent him were losses, because of course I don’t want to ever lose the same way twice. For that, you have to find where you went wrong, and drill those positions until the mistake is much less likely to happen again.