I remember the first time I felt the sneaky force of the Baseball Choke: a very innocuous name for such a devastating submission. I hadn’t actually even heard of it until a few seconds after it rendered me unconscious.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, my inner monologue went something like this:
“All right, I’m in his guard. Everything is cool. Oh man, his knee is already on the mat. Such an easy guard pass! What a great day!
Why is his forearm by my neck? *Loud Gurgle.* zzzzzzzz……”
When I woke up a second later, my rolling partner asked me if I was OK. I was too excited to say yes right away.
“What the hell was that?”
It immediately became my favorite technique.
If you’re new to BJJ and you haven’t learned the choke yet, YouTube is full of videos that will give you a primer on what it is (your instructor can show you how to do it properly). Most of the videos will mention how quickly it comes on and how easy it is to apply. They’re not kidding.
Though I got caught the first time with a baseball choke off of a baited guard pass, there are a lot of positions you can finish the technique from. I like the knee-on-belly variation the best. It gives me a reason to work that position a bit more (other than just to pressure someone’s guts).
Sometimes, it seems like the person on bottom is so focused on not giving up the mount that they don’t notice my hand creeping behind their head. Other times, they DO notice and quickly scramble to defend—only to leave a meal of an armbar that even a grappling noob like me can snatch up. Other times, they’re too good and you get swept. Such a heartbreaker.
As a Cubs fan, it’s nice to hear the words “Baseball” and “Choke” in the same sentence without referring to a premature exit from the playoffs (or, more accurately in the past few years, the season all but ending by June). I might never see a World Series win in my lifetime, but that’s out of my hands. This submission, when I’m fortunate enough to get it, is very much the opposite. Play ball!
My high school had one of the best distance runners in the country. He was a state champion Cross Country runner and would have been state champ in track in at least one event (3200m) if it weren’t for some not-so divine intention—an early race trip and fall. He would later become an All-American several times over at UW-Whitewater during which time Fox Sports Wisconsin took notice and did a profile on him. They asked him what his secret was for machine-like endurance. “I don’t know. I just never get tired.”
He and I were running hills in late fall one year, and he muttered something about getting shape for wrestling. In shape? You just ran a 5k in 16 minutes. What the hell are you talking about?
“It’s different,” he said. “I’m not in wrestling shape yet.”
Jiu Jitsu, like wrestling, is one of the best ways to develop functional fitness—a combination of strength, explosion and aerobic threshold that has a laundry list of positives that go beyond the mat. 45 minutes of jiu-jitsu can burn almost 700 calories, which helped me fit into pants that I “outgrew” (read: “out-ate”) just a few months after I started training. Besides fitting into smaller clothes, my strength got better even though I was lifting less. My three-mile pace got faster despite only running once a week. More importantly, I started to enjoy working out again.
Part of the reason Jiu Jitsu is so effective for so many people is the built-in motivation it provides. It’s easy to coast through a workout when there’s no consequence. If you coast through a roll, you’ll get tapped over and over and over again. That reality tends to make makes cross-training—running, lifting, etc.—a lot more intense. Though the treadmill can get painfully dull, it becomes easier when you give it a purpose. Doing five-minute incline intervals at 8 mph doesn’t suck as bad if you’re worried about getting choked. As a matter of fact, I recommend incorporating the fear of being choked into all running programs. Could you imagine training for a marathon and having to watch out for triangles? Wouldn’t that be exciting?
That’s not to say, however, that Jiu Jitsu is all smiles for your body. Black and blue aren’t just belt colors—you’ll pick up your share of bumps, bruises, stiffness and soreness. Hematoma auris—“Cauliflower Ear”—is a common condition in combat sports. It’s caused when the external portion of the ear suffers a blow and swells up. If the swelling is not managed in short order, it can become permanent. Some people see this as a badge of courage, while others see it as gross (though, I argue, even the best ears still look kind of gross—all bumpy and lumpy). In the 19th century, psychiatrists tried to link cauliflower ear to insanity. They were kind of right.
As with any contact sport, jiu-jitsu carries a risk of skin infections (e.g. ring worm). Neutral Ground, like most jiu-jitsu schools, makes sure its students watch their skin and stay off the mat if something develops (which is infrequent if you take care of your skin). Though standard soap, water and shampoo are great, a lot of grapplers recommend Defense Soap (defensesoap.com) which uses natural antifungal ingredients to keep skin healthy.
Even if you don’t think grappling is your thing, Neutral Ground also has a number of fitness classes that are non-contact and plenty of fun. Don’t be surprised when your curiosity gets the better of you, though. If you hang around the barber shop, you’re bound to get a haircut. If you train around the mats, you’re going to have a roll.
The idea that a blog entry could have gotten me ready for the barrage of information that came when I started training is absurd.
But, that’s not to say a little bit of foresight would have hurt either. If I could go back in time to when I first started, these are five things I would have told myself to mentally prepare for the mats.
It’s not about muscle.
I don’t care if you can bench press a house and cheat curl a car—a 140 pound grappler with good technique will wrap his whole body around one of your vulnerable limbs and bend it, squeeze it or torque it until you tell him or her to stop. Remember UFC 1? It’s definitely about to happen to you. Sure, they’re nice people, but the second after you slap hands they turn into Liam Neeson from Taken. They have a very specific set of skills for dealing with people like you, they will catch you, and they will tap you.
You’re not going to get everything right away.
Whether it’s your body type or the fact that most techniques involve a lot of steps, some positions and submissions will be difficult for you to grasp right away. Don’t get down on yourself about it though. If you look around the mat, you’ll probably see about half the people struggling with the same things you are. Watch the people who are doing it well and don’t be afraid to ask the instructor for help.
Don’t stop once you’ve done it well once, though. Do it lots of times—and switch sides so you become as ambidextrous as possible. You’ll have to finish from your less-dominant side eventually and if you’re not prepared, much like Full Metal Jacket, “You will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill.”
If you never work at it, it will never work.
When you do find some techniques that work for you, don’t spend all your time using them. When you’re driving to the gym, think of two or three things you want to focus that day, put yourself in that position and develop a few reliable tools that work for you.
I’m a beginner with a million holes, but my guard is the biggest problem. I’m built like a troll with short legs, so I’ve only finished two triangles—one was on my dad, and I don’t think he was trying very hard. As a result, I’m focusing on improving my sweeps and using good form to get up from bottom. At the very least, I get to take mental notes on how people blow past my guard and apply them later.
You won’t know it until you feel it.
Speaking of UFC 1, a big reason Jiu Jitsu works is because people who don’t understand itreally don’t understand it. Striking (good striking, that is) is very complex and technical, but just about everyone on Earth understands the principle of fist-to-face combat.
On the other hand, someone who has never experienced a Kimura will give their arm away and have no idea how or why it happened. Until you’ve rolled for a few months, always have a tap hand ready to go (or at least know when you’ll have to verbally tap). If a leg or an arm gets isolated, defend—don’t just try to yank it out (which could make it worse). If your defense fails, tap. No shame in it.
They’ll take what you give them.
You’ll quickly notice that safe spaces and certain death are inches apart. If you find yourself in the same bad spot over and over again, chances are you’re doing something to put yourself there. Ask your training partner what you’re doing wrong and they’ll more than likely be happy to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
One of the awesome things about the NG team is that they’re super generous with their Jiu Jitsu knowledge. There’s more than enough to go around.
Between Christmas vacation and the hellish Polar Vortex that rendered everyone’s car motionless, I haven’t been to Jiu Jitsu or Core Cardio in almost three weeks.
While getting back to fitness after a long layoff is inevitably tough, it’s noticeably tougher for me without music. Besides motivation, music also drowns out the sounds of my groans and labored breathing—constant reminders of my own mortality and probably constant annoyances for everyone who just wants to swing kettlebells in peace.
Below are ten songs that get me ready to train, each for different reasons. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.
AC/DC: “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”
The battle anthem for beginners. This song was the first track on their first record you could by in America and you can really hear their growing pains. “Getting had, getting took, I tell ya folks: it’s harder than it looks.” If those aren’t Jiu Jitsu lyrics, what is?
Black Keys/Rza: “The Baddest Man Alive”
Confidence is critical when it comes to training because, even though you haven’t mastered anything yet, you have to know you will if you stick with it. This is also a great one to help you find that extra gear when rolling.
Funkadelic: “Get Off Your Ass and Jam”
If this doesn’t get you going, check your pulse. You might be a robot.
John Legend: “Who Did That to You?”
This was written specifically for the Django Unchained soundtrack, so you know it’s tailor made for getting down and handling business. Get ready to stand your ground.
Kendrick Lamar: “Backseat Freestyle”
On the surface, this is pure aggression. A layer down, it’s effortless flow. Exactly as it should be.
The Kinks: “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”
Even with a great team, Jiu Jitsu is a hyper-individual pursuit. Your training partners can help you become the best version of yourself, but it’s up to you to define those terms. You have to figure out what works for you, what doesn’t at the moment and then try to improve at everything.
Lupe Fiasco: “Kick, Push”
A lot of people like to train to real heavy stuff, but I’ve always preferred something with a good rhythm that I can tune into. I love this one for visualizing techniques while I’m on the treadmill. Way better than just staring at the wall.
MIA: “Bad Girls”
I don’t care if it has the word “Girls” in the title—this song will bring out your inner bad ass no matter what chromosomes you have. At least one writer called her song “Paper Planes” one of the top ten UFC Walkout songs of all time, but it’s a little played out for me at this point. Talk about a worthy replacement.
Oasis: “Roll with It”
“You’ve gotta roll with it. You’ve gotta take your time.” Translation: “Flow like water.”
The Smiths: “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby”
The Smiths are most famous for making crybaby music (which I love without shame), so this is a good one for the ride home after an hour of getting tapped by high-level grapplers. It’s important to remember that the best guys and girls weren’t born that way—they worked at it. You’ll get there too if you work as hard as they did.
Like a lot of people—particularly those that didn’t wrestle in high school—I had to do some self-psyching-up to get to my first jiu-jitsu class.
I wasn’t worried about the chokes, the arm bars or the leg locks. I was worried about sucking. Getting tapped left and right. Feeling embarrassed.
Turns out I did suck. Even the warm-ups were awkward.
I did get tapped left and right. By guys 10, 20, even 50 pounds smaller.
I never felt embarrassed though, and for good reason: everyone has a first day.
Maybe the best thing about jiu-jitsu sometimes feels like the worst thing about jiu-jitsu: it’s incredibly humbling. There are no short cuts. EVERYONE starts on the ground floor—and NO ONE forgets what that was like. What I remember about my first rolls, and what you’ll likely remember about yours if you haven’t had them yet, is that the person that’s putting you in tough positions is also teaching you how to get out of them. If you ask, they’ll probably show you how to stop it the next time—and you’ll probably forget. But who cares? You’re not expected to be good. You’re only expected to learn, and that never stops.
Though the kind of person that’s interested in jiu-jitsu in the first place might have made their peace with the physical nature of the sport, some people are probably asking a fairly obvious question: “Is it going to hurt?” Not going to lie, it might—but probably not in the way you think and (if you’re smart), not nearly as bad as you think. Chances of pain from a submission drop significantly if you tap early and often. Be honest when you’re caught. The last thing your training partner wants to do is cause you an injury, so it’s up to you to save yourself and your partner from that unfortunate experience.
That doesn’t account for wear-and-tear, however, which is almost inevitable. If you roll long enough, hard enough and often enough, sore ankles, knees, elbows and necks are going to happen. They’d probably happen if you were training for a marathon too, so some of those things are simply the cost of any fitness program. Listen to your body and find a middle ground between “being a wuss with bumps and bruises and overtraining an injury” (Jon Friedland).
Whether you’ve got the getting-started jitters or not, it’s always a great idea to familiarize yourself with jiu-jitsu etiquette before you show up, which can be found easily on the Internet (http://claudiofrancabjj.com/jiu-jitsu-dojo-etiquette/).
Neutral Ground has its own specific set of rules, but there are a lot of commonalities that you’ll see everywhere: no shoes on the mat, respect your training partners/facilities, no shoes on the mat, practice good hygiene, NO SHOES ON THE MAT.
Don’t cheat yourself out of what could be a life-changing experience because you’re afraid to try. Neutral Ground offers a free seven-day trial membership (get yours here) so you can experience it for yourself before you make up your mind. Chances are good that, during your first class, you’ll discover jiu-jitsu is way more fun—and a lot less scary—than you might have thought.