Big Guys in Jiu-Jitsu

When I started Jiu-Jitsu, I weighed 330 pounds and was strong as an ox from competitive powerlifting. I was by far the strongest guy at the dojo and was the biggest guy there too. If you actually believe the non-sense that people can say or the Internet memes you would think that I came into Jiu-Jitsu with the ability to crush people (I don’t mean by sitting on them). This is so far from the truth and as I have found bigger and stronger guys like myself actually have a few disadvantages when it comes to Jiu-Jitsu the first being the stigma of being bigger and stronger than other guys and gals in the dojo and the idea that we only beat them because of the size and strength difference.

If you are a big guy (or gal) I am sure that you have heard the comment along the lines of “the reason why you beat me is because you are big” or “the reason that you submit higher belts is because you are big.” Every big person has most likely heard this at one point and time (or something similar). In that sense it could be more difficult for a bigger and stronger person to actually get recognition for hard work that they have been putting in (you shouldn’t really be rolling for recognition but you get the idea). Helio Gracie was not a bigger and stronger athlete. He was actually to the contrary, smaller and weaker and yet his system was developed for the little guy to beat the big guy. Take a look at Marcelo Garcia for instance; he is beating opponents that are bigger and stronger than him seemingly all the time. From my personal experience, I still get my ass kicked on a regular basis by guys who can’t even squat what I bench press and I also outweigh them by at least 50 pounds. This has not only humbled me but it has also shown me that size and strength is not as important or even the determining factor to who is going to win a match but flawless application of technique.

If a bigger and stronger opponent beats you, could it possibly be that there are holes in your Jiu-Jitsu game? This is a very humbling thing to admit especially if you have been training for a while. I see rolling with a bigger person the same as rolling with a higher belt, sloppy Jiu-Jitsu or technique that skips key steps isn’t going to work. When someone is beating me or passing my guard etc, I am learning to try to see how they are doing it. This allows me to ask the right questions. When I say, “So-and-so beat me because they are bigger and stronger” I am justifying my lack of ability in technique execution and miss out on the opportunity to learn. At the same time I am minimizing the skill level of the other person. If I get beat, it is because I did something wrong and the other opponent did something right. Sure we are not all the same or even come from the same background. I started lifting weights when I was 12. It has taken me years to develop of level of strength that I have. So yes I am stronger (because of years of lifting) but being stronger does not mean that I will be able to beat someone. It comes down to skill and how I can apply my skill.

I have to reiterate that when I first started I was tossed around by a brown belt who weighed maybe 150 pounds soaking wet. I was thrown through the air by a 170 pound black belt. I was dominated by a 180 pound brown belt and submitted by almost everyone. Wait. Shouldn’t I have won because I was bigger and stronger? If you follow the flawed logic of thinking that just because someone is bigger and stronger than you that they will win then I do not think that you really understand Jiu-Jitsu. Jiu-Jitsu is not powerlifting and it is not a strength sport. It is called the gentle art. So does size and strength really mean nothing? No. One night after class I just inquired to our coaches about this and they were under the consensus that size and strength is no replacement for technique and skill. They did say that if technique and skill were equal then size and strength would be the advantage tipping point though how often is it that you will go against someone who is of equal skill? I am not sure. It seems like the levels of skill vary wildly from place to place.

I guess we can say that my main thought in all of this is don’t just seek to discredit someone’s hard work or justify holes in your game. When our holes get exposed this is a good thing! This means that we are lacking in an area and now have room to grow! This past week I was getting my guard passed by a new guy who outweighs me by 50 pounds (he is also a 14 year wrestler) and it would be easy for me to brush it off as it is because he is bigger than me but that is not the case. I was making a mistake with my guard. I asked questions, fixed the mistake and that pass wasn’t effective anymore. To me that is Jiu-Jitsu. So as you can tell, I am not a fan of justifications or excuses. If I get beat it is because of something that I am doing wrong and something that my opponent is doing right. There is always going to be a bigger and stronger opponent and the only way to equalize the situation is to increase your level of skill. Isn’t that why we train? I train because I want to be a better person today than I was yesterday.

Maybe you agree or maybe you disagree and that is okay. My experience has shown me that size is irrelevant when you are out skilled. I keep pointing to the fact that I was thoroughly beaten by a guy who weighed less than a dumbbell that I would do presses with. That example right there shows me what Jiu-Jitsu is all about.

Self

odin-newbreed-groupAs a human being it is difficult for me not to tie my own self-worth to that of my accomplishments or in some cases the lack there of. I think that this is very societal especially in the way that the media influences us from an early age with the concept of winners and losers. No one wants to be the person that loses even though it is a fact that someone has to lose no matter how many participation trophies are awarded.

Something that I reflect on is, “what is it that defines me?”

Politics define us by voting demographics. The IRS define us through income brackets. Society defines us by class. Though how is it that we are defining ourselves?

In powerlifting you are defined by strength and your strength was measured through your total (the maximum amount of weight that was lifted). This was the measuring stick that was used to compare one lifter to another to determine who was better or worse. Most lifters would take this a step further and say that is only counts what you did on the platform in competition. This is what would separate a powerlifter from someone who just performs the lifts in the gym. So if you wanted to define yourself as a powerlifter and receive acceptance in the powerlifting community, you at least needed to compete in a competition. This was me. I was the person who defined himself by being strong or stronger than others and today I realize that this was a shallow way to define who I was. Strength fades. It is inevitable that we will all age and become weaker. For me this was a false identity.

So why am I talking about defining myself and my self-worth? This week I am preparing for a competition in Jiu-Jitsu and I am nervous and feeling a myriad of feelings such as anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. If I win, would I define myself Jiu-Jitsu as being good? If I lose does that mean that my Jiu-Jitsu is bad? Why am I taking things so seriously with myself? Why does this one competition mean so much? Why does my performance in competing mean so much to me? Am I defining myself by my performance? Is the value of my Jiu-Jitsu based solely on my ability to beat other people? If I lose does that mean that I have been wasting my time training? If I win does that make me better than everyone else? I honestly do not have the answer to really any of these questions.

Since the last time that I have competed, I have progressed so much in so many ways but the one thing that most people do not know is that I carry of level of uncertainty and fear with me. You could even say that the uncertainty is a fear of the future so maybe I carry or have a lot of fear. Maybe it is just part of being human but the fear if left unchecked can be crippling. Fear can stop me from training. Fear can stop me from competing. Fear can stop me from getting out of my own head. So this week in particular there is a lot of fear that I am feeling. That is one of the reasons that I signed up to compete because I want to overcome that fear.

Will this competition define my Jiu-Jitsu? If I were to place my self-worth on my belt rank, number of stripes or even contest wins then yes it would define my Jiu-Jitsu. To be honest it is difficult not to look at those things to define my skills. I don’t know how many conversations that I have been in with people or how many times I have heard the phrase, “Oh you are only a white belt.”

If the rest of the world is going to categorize and judge me then why should I be doing the same to myself and tying my self-worth to things that I have no control over. Unlike weight lifting, I am competing against real live resisting opponents and not just iron and gravity. Anything can happen and even in competition to where there are 30 Black Belts who are all bad ass, someone has to win and someone has to lose. Though if you are like me then the thought of losing is not a welcomed thought. Maybe this is because I am a competitive person or maybe it is because I have been programmed since being young that winning is good and losing is bad. No one wants to be bad. No one wants to lose.

So after writing all of this mumbo jumbo where does that bring me to? It brings me to two closing points:

  1. Always do my best.
  2. My self-worth is not tied to any singular event.

Doing my best has to come first. No matter what putting my best effort into everything that I do is of the utmost importance. When I am able to do my best then I open myself up for the opportunity to learn and to grow and isn’t that what Jiu-Jitsu is all about? It can be about personal growth and learning if I choose for it to be. If I choose to always learn and always do my best (even if my best is not that good comparatively) then I will always make progress and not have to worry about rating my performance because in my heart I know that I did my best.

There will come a day when even the Titans will fall. If I tie my self-worth to that of a singular event then my self-worth will be practically non-existent. I have no control of the situations around me. I can only control my part. What I do with what I have and how I overcome adversity is how I can learn to define who I am in my Jiu-Jitsu and as a person.

 

It is not the end of the world. Do not let fear cripple you. Dig deep believe in yourself and press on whether you win or lose, you will learn and grow. Continued personal growth is the best thing that anyone can receive from embarking on the journey that is Jiu-Jitsu. Thanks for reading.

Strength: How important is it really?

bjj-strongAs a powerlifter strength was king. It was all about getting bigger and bigger numbers for me and once I accomplished a big number then I have to get an even bigger number. A powerlifting competition consists of three lifts, the bench, the squat and the dead lift. You get three attempts at each lift. The largest successful amount of weight that you lift in each one of the lifts gives you something called a total. So your largest squat plus your largest bench plus your largest dead lift equals you total for that meet. Your opponent is gravity. This is the jist of strength sports. You compete to lift the most amount of weight that you can possibly lift at your bodyweight. This is what I did and this is how I trained. My sole focus was getting bigger and stronger. My food budget was ridiculous because you have to eat to get bigger and stronger. Such emphasis was placed on strength that in my mind strength was king above everything else. My ideas on strength have now taken a new turn or shall we say that they have evolved.

When I first started training, all I had was strength. My cardio was crap (I could not even make it through the warm-ups), I was as flexible as the Tin-man, and I was as fast as molasses. Even still I had a level of arrogance that was unmatched solely on the fact that I was bigger and “stronger” than most everyone there. It wasn’t until after a while that I realized that “strength” is no what I initially thought it to be. Sure I could smash the smaller guys and some of the lesser experience people with strength alone but when I would roll with someone who had technique and timing I would find myself tapping and not really knowing what just happened. Now looking back I saw that my reliance on my strength gave me a false sense of security and it was then that the value of strength in my mind began to evolve.

The first moment that I gained an immense respect for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and my professor at the same time was when I was being throw threw the air and felt weightless. In that moment time stopped. I had never been thrown like that in my life before and I was still weighing 300 lbs at the time. It was a Seoi Nage Judo throw. My professor weighed less than 200lbs (probably 180) and executed a beautiful throw that required little to no energy on his part and here I was flying through the air and then I hit the mat. I was stunned. I have never been thrown like that before. Ever. This moment has stood out in my mind since that day and made me realize that skill, technique and experience will trump strength or at least his skill, technique and experience trumped my size and strength.

The realization that I have developed was that I am now in a different sport and that the strength that I had from powerlifting was as important as I had once thought it to be. Remember to me strength was king and I put a lot of value on being strong in the weight room but my Jiu Jitsu was not strong. One of my coaches mentioned to me a few times that his Jiu Jitsu was a lot stronger than mine and I did not grasp the concept of what he meant because my perception of strength was limited to how much I could bench press or squat. What the heck was he talking about? My understanding now isn’t limited to that one sided perception that I had on strength previously. Jiu Jitsu strength isn’t about how much you can bench press, it is more of a testament to ability to apply pressure, secure grips, maintain a solid base from all positions and redirect the force of your opponent to your advantage. This is how I was getting beat by guys would did not possess the amount of physical strength that I had.

Now it is all starting to come together. In the beginning when I was “bull rush” my opponent they would easily pull guard, redirect my force and sweep me into an inferior position. This didn’t happen because they were stronger than me. It happened because they have technique, timing and Jiu Jitsu strength. Even bull rushing an opponent from standing opens you to a guillotine choke or a Sumi Gaeshi type throw.  So what happened? I started to let go of the importance of having my old meat head strength though that does not mean that physical strength is not important, it is just that I am seeing that Jiu Jitsu strength is more important. No I haven’t left the iron alone, it is just that chasing that 1 rep max is no longer important for me because it does not have a direct correlation or application to my training for Jiu Jitsu.

Is strength not important? Of course not. Don’t be silly. You don’t want to embarrass yourself by asking your girlfriend to open the pickle jar for you do you? For me it was the realization that powerlifting strength ie 1-rep max strength is not as important as having a consistent baseline of strength. Throughout the course of a match against a fully resisting opponent, you will have to perform movements over and over again not just for one rep and take a 5 to 10 minute rest. When I first started, after 30 seconds I had such a muscle pump that I could not move effectively and would be completely gassed out. Even during my first competition, it looked like I was going to have a heart attack because all I had really was size and strength.

So what is Jiu Jitsu strength? Haha, I am still learning this one. There are a lot of guys that I train with who have Jiu Jitsu strength and I look up to them. If I did have to try to explain what Jiu Jitsu strength is all I would be able to do is point to examples from my experience like being tapped out every 60 seconds by a 180 lb 4 stripe brown belt or being thrown through the air by a second degree black belt or being tossed around by a 155 lb Judo black belt at last weekends seminar. That is Jiu Jitsu Strong and Judo Strong.

Does this mean that strength is not important? No it just means that strength has a different meaning in Judo and Jiu Jitsu. It isn’t just about how much you can bench press or the size of your biceps. Strength now means so much more.

 

Toni Lettner Judo Seminar Review

In the real world no one is going to start a fight with you while they are on the ground on their knees and if someone does you can just kick them in the head. During most Jiu Jitsu classes very seldom will you start rolling with your partner from standing unless it is a competition class, wrestling class or you are getting ready to compete. Developing a standup game is important to developing a well rounded Jiu Jitsu game whether you incorporate wrestling or judo, knowing how to handle yourself on your feet is quite important.

This past week, I was informed that we would be having a Judo seminar at the dojo this Saturday. Now I am not a Judo guy and have just recently started to add Judo to my training so based on this I decided that this was a good opportunity to add another skill to my toolbox. I tried to encourage others I train with to go and some of them showed up. Honestly I was very glad and satisfied that I attended. Here are some of my take a way thoughts about what I learned from the seminar.

  1. Grips and grips breaks are king. We first started the series of movements with a different grip break (different than the ones I know). This grip break led into a series of movements that would take the opponent to the ground. The movement that the grip break transitioned into was a few different variations of the Sumi gaeshi. (Also if timing is right then Sumi can be a great single leg counter).
  2. Judo seminars are pretty fun. We started with a normal like warm-up of running, sliding, rolling etc. and then had a fun game of belt tag. Wherever you got hit with the belt you had to hold that spot and then chase the other people to hit them. This really set the tone of the seminar (ask Perry where he was tagged). We were here to learn and have fun. (If you haven’t experienced the Neutral Ground atmosphere before then you should. We train hard, roll hard and have lots of fun).
  3. Toni Lettner is immensely knowledgeable. He was able to demonstrate everything with great proficiency and answered everyone’s questions. (He even gave Perry some anti-big guy moves that I am sure that he will attempt to use on me). We are very grateful that he came and gave the seminar.

If you missed this seminar, you really missed out on another great training opportunity but don’t fret there are talks of Toni coming back and doing a monthly Judo seminar. Oh and the really cool thing was that it wasn’t just a Judo seminar it was a Judo for BJJ seminar and it was a lot of fun. I had a great time and learned something new. I am looking forward to Toni coming back and learning more.

Am I Getting Better???

odin-meatheadThis is a question that everyone that has trained (any sport) has asked themselves plenty of times. Learning and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has been one of the most exciting and challenging things that I have ever done in my life athletically. It has been a pursuit that has challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally on a consistent basis and it is a complete paradigm shift from what I have been used to.

When I was powerlifting, seeing if I was getting better or not was easy. The simple question was, am I lifting heavier weights? If the answer was yes then I was improving. If the answer was no then there was something wrong and I need to reevaluate my situation. In BJJ, it is not that black and white.

There have been many days to where I felt completely helpless on the mats like I was some sort of training dummy. At the school where I train at, we have some very exceptional athletes and in class everyone rolls with everyone. Yes, there will be white belts rolling with blues, purples, browns and sometimes black belts. The difference in experience and skill can be vast. A sparring match may go roll then tap 30 seconds later over and over. As a beginner it seems like you are just treading water while everyone else it swimming with ease. It is frustrating because you are just trying (unsuccessfully) not to drown in a pool full of sharks.

I, personally, find myself at times being able to perform a movement or drill perfectly against a non-resisting training partner. This practice gives me the confidence to attempt the movement in sparring. I get a little excited about learning a new move and then when I practice the movement against a resisting opponent I get smashed or stuffed or maybe I pull it off (not likely at first). This process alone can discourage anyone. You spend half of the class learning a movement and feeling good about it and then the other half of the class getting choked out. Trial by fire certainly. Try a move. Fail. Try another move. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Almost. Fail. Fail.

Class is then over, we bow out, slap hands and then I walk back begrudgingly to my gym bag sometimes I don’t even know what happened to me other than the fact that I got my ass kicked again. I change out and quietly walk to my vehicle sometimes with aches and pains. Inside my vehicle I sit in silence trying to process what just happened. Then I ask myself a couple of questions:
“Am I getting better? It sure doesn’t seem like it.”

“What am I doing? I have to be too old for this nonsense.”

“Should I quit? I do have a Netflix subscription.”

I would like to say that we have all been there, consumed with self-doubt thinking about quitting but some people haven’t experienced that. I know that I have. I’ll drive home in silence. I won’t turn the radio on. I won’t answer the phone. I will just drive and go home. Defeated. Completely and utterly defeated but yet for some reason I show up the next day to repeat the process all over again. I keep showing up but am I getting better? How do I measure my progress?

I was told the simplest thing that changed the way that I look at progress, and that is to look at the little victories. The. Little. Victories. What does this mean? Little victories? To start it could be rolling with a higher ranked opponent and not being submitted when previously you were submitted. That is a little victory. Another example of a little victory could be simply performing a movement in live sparring. Maybe you practiced the scissor sweep over and over again and finally you executed it against a real live opponent. Little victory. Keep in mind all of the little things that you are getting better at and give it time. Don’t give up and everything through hard work and consistency will fall into place.

Little. Victories.

Goal Tracking Your Training

odin-tongueA goal is defined as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or a desired result.”

Are you training with a sense of purpose? If you do not have any goals for your training then unfortunately you are training without a purpose. Now to take that idea a step further, if you are not keeping track of your progress then you are also not training with a purpose. Every year millions of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions and most of those resolutions are health related. Hence why come the month of January gyms across the country are full of people enthusiastic about accomplishing their New Year’s Resolution. Fast forward one month and those same gyms that were crowded are now thinning out. What happened? Where are all of those “Resolution-ers?”

Sadly they just left for numerous reasons. One of the main reasons that people quit anything is because they do not have their goals mapped out. It is similar to planning a vacation. Saying that you want to go to Disney World is different than planning out exactly how you will get to Disney World. When you plan a vacation there is an order of things that have to be done to make that vacation dream a reality. Let’s look at this in steps:

  1. Estimate how much the vacation will cost (Travel, hotel, food, fun etc)
  2. Set a budget to be able to save the money to cover vacation expenses
  3. Stick to that budget even when you would rather eat steak instead of hot dogs
  4. Request time off of work (Assuming you have a job)
  5. Pack your clothes and essentials
  6. Travel to and enjoy the vacation

These 6 steps are a very simplified way at looking at how to plan for a vacation. The main point being that in order to accomplish any type of goal it requires you to map out how to get there. Now there is a goal setting method that is taught in most college and high school level Critical Thinking classes and that is the SMART method (SMART being an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results, Time(ly) ).

Specific: Be very specific with the goal that you want to accomplish. The more specific the better chance that you have at accomplishing that goal.

Measurable: The goal should be measurable to be able to track your progression towards accomplishing that goal.

Attainable: You should be able to attain this goal in the time frame set. Going from white belt to black belt in BJJ in 6 months is not an attainable goal. Your goal should challenge you and you should possess the abilities, skills, and knowledge to achieve your goal.

Results: Your goal should have an outcome. For instance if your goal is to lost 25 lbs then the outcome of that goal would be the weight measurement on the scale.

Time(ly): You should have a specific time frame set for you goal whether it be 30 days, 6 months, 1 year or 5 years. Each goal should have a start date and an end date.

As 2015 winds down and I am sitting here looking back over my year and thinking about the upcoming year of course there are a whole list of goals that are going through my mind and most likely they are going through your mind as well too. One of my goals is to become the best martial artist that I can be (this is not a very specific or measurable goal is it?). If you are reading this then most likely you have a very similar goal too or maybe your goal is a little simpler like getting in better shape (round is a shape but not all things round look good).

Bringing it to the realm of MMA how can we set goals to improve our “game?” Honesty is a good starting point. One of the things that I have meditated on over the holiday break is the realization that I am not as good as I think I am. For me this is of the utmost importance because when I acknowledge that I am not that good then I allow myself to be open to instruction from others who are more proficient than me. That is how I can improve my skill set. Another thing is to ask others (who have more experience) where I may be lacking and where I can improve. In any sport, we want to expose our weaknesses and blast them into strengths. Weak on your back? Then start sparring on your back. Weak at standup? Start sparring from standup.

Seems simple but how can we actually track our progress in a sport such as jiu jitsu? Jiu Jitsu is so dynamic that as you get better so does your training partner(s) and sometimes it is hard to see if you are actually getting better. That can be very discouraging too. So how can we measure our progress? Our professors measure our progress with stripes and belts but we cannot give ourselves belts and stripes so how can we know that we are improving and headed towards our goals?

Let’s do a simple example from a Jiu Jitsu  perspective, as a white belt one of your goals should be to earn a blue belt and when I say earn I mean EARN as in have the skill set that is able to be demonstrated to where no one will question it. (Disclaimer: Do not worry about your belt color or train for a belt color. Train because you love it. See my previous article about promotions.)

According to most the average time to attain a blue belt from white belt takes 2 years. Some people earn it quicker (6 months) and for some people it takes longer (4 years). For this example I am going to use the 2 year time frame for the purpose of establishing a training goal and tracking it.  

Goal: Blue Belt

Starting point: White Belt

At the White Belt level, you are a beginner like a baby learning how to roll over (and you do have to learn how to roll over the right way as a white belt), you know nothing and everything is new. So now we have to map out how we can get from knowing nothing to knowing the required knowledge that is blue belt level. Again I really want to reiterate that your progression is largely based upon your schools philosophy on training and skills. Schools vary in testing and belt requirements.

So we have a starting point and we have an end point, so now let’s map up a plan of attack to get there. The first step would be to setup a training schedule of Jiu Jitsu classes.

Training Schedule:

  1. Commit to a minimum of two classes a week. Two classes a week is the bare minimum that anyone would want to do. You will get better and improve but at a slower rate. We get better at BJJ through the amount of time that we spend on the mat.
  2. As your body gets used to two days a week add a third day and then eventually a fourth day. Four days a week for a working adult is still challenging to maintain a work life balance but it is extremely doable and as far as skills are concerned, 4 days a week is a great progression point.

You are now training four times a week and are slowly becoming an athlete. Yeah you might be losing a lot and getting whooped in class but you keep showing up! This is a measurable success and you can track your attendance on a calendar. Each class that you attend brings you one class closer to your goal.

Eating Habits:

  1. Change your eating habits. You are training four times a week and working really hard at improving so let’s feed our bodies accordingly! Replace the candy bars and soft drinks for protein bars and sports drinks. Eating habits can certainly hinder your progression. If you eat like crap then you will perform like crap.

Learn:

  1. Pay attention in class. Ask questions. Show up early. Stay late. Do not just go through the motions. If you do not understand something then it is your instructor’s job to make sure that you understand and if you have instructors like we have at Neutral Ground, they will be more than happy to go over a move and explain a concept to you.
  2. Read books and articles. Watch YouTube videos. Fill your mind with knowledge and come back and ask your instructors questions about what you have read and watched.

Demonstrate:

  1. In open sparring is where you can demonstrate your skill level. When rolling with others try new moves, fail, get stuffed and come back for more.
  2. Compete as much as your body and finances allow you to compete. This is a great way to manage your skills. You can certainly tell how you are progressing when you stack yourself up against others.

Time:

  1. Do this for two years and beyond. Never give up.

This does not guarantee that you will be a Blue Belt in two years.

If you have made it to this point then you have arrived at the place to where you do not care about your belt changing colors because you have stuck around and developed a love for Jiu Jitsu, but if you still want to measure your ability to that of a Blue Belts then roll with them in class and during open mat. If you find yourself not getting submitted and actually getting into a dominate position on a blue belt or even submitting a blue belt who is of equal or greater stature to yourself then you know where your skill set is don’t you?

There are no destinations in Jiu Jitsu only the journey.