I haven’t written about my jiu-jitsu experiences for awhile, because I haven’t had too many. On August 29th I fractured my foot while playing basketball. I talked to Jon, who encouraged me to keep coming, just to watch and chat with people. There were days where it was really great getting back to the gym to talk and see people I had gotten to know over the last two months. There were also days where it sucked and it was just a reminder of just how physically limited I was. At the start of November, I started getting bummed out, my foot wasn’t really healing. I stopped going to classes and wondered if jiu-jitsu was just an interest that quickly flamed out.
It wasn’t. A few weeks later I was in physical therapy and then cleared to roll. I’ve been bad at a lot of things in my life, but it’s difficult to describe the excitement I felt driving to my first noon class since my injury. It’s often an overused cliche, but I really did feel like a kid on Christmas. I couldn’t wait to get back and have strangers start trying to choke me or bend my arm at a weird angle.
Given that I had been out just over three months, I was a little nervous. While I was given the greenlight to return to jiu-jitsu, I am not yet 100 percent. But that’s what I love about training at Neutral Ground. Jon personally talked to everyone I rolled with and let them know I was coming back from injury and to take it slow. And they did.
Dealing with injuries really suck. While I had only been a member at Neutral Ground for two months, Jon and a handful of others regularly sent me messages of encouragement and checked in on me if they hadn’t seen me in awhile. It really is like a family.
I’m super excited to be back and continuing my jiu-jitsu journey.
When I was 20 I got my first “grown-up” job as a bank teller. The night before my first day my dad had to show me how to tie a tie. However, the next morning when I was looking at all seven of my tied ties, I realized that all I really had to do was adjust the knot. Way easier than remember those four steps.
I was at work three years later when the initial knot finally gave way. I was mortified. Our computers weren’t connect to the Internet, I couldn’t watch a YouTube video on my smart phone (I’m old, this was before all of that). The only person I could ask was the branch president. He was a former Marine and kind of scary. When I asked him he just stared at me for a moment and then said, “you’ve only been given fish you’re entirely life. Today, you will learn to fish.” It took forever, but I learned how.
The first time I tried my gi on in the changing area, I was hit with that memory, and panicky realization that I had no idea how to tie the belt. I stood there for 5 minutes frantically wrapping and unwrapping it around myself, trying different knots and even attempting to tie it like I tie my shoes. I had one of those panicky conversations with myself in my own head:
Brain: Why didn’t you watch a YouTube video before you came to class? You idiot.
Me: Had the part of me that is in charge of ideas thought of it, I would have.
Brain: Yeah, well, you look dumb, not me.
I Need an Adult!
Red-faced, sweating and muttering to myself I was trying any kind of knot that seemed to make sense in my frazzled state. Someone walked in and scared the crap out of me.“Oh, nice, you got a gi!” “Let me show you how to tie the belt.” I was saved! As I handed him my belt he uttered one of my favorite phrases when learning something new, “let me show you the easy way.” SOLD!
I’ve officially been “taught to fish” two different times, but if you handed me a fishing rod, I’d have no idea what to do with it. Other than attempt to tie it in knots. Thankfully tying a gi is just as easy as tying a tie, I just needed to have a grown-up show me.
It had officially been a week since I joined Neutral Ground, and it was going great. I got to know a lot of the guys in the noon class by their first name along with some basic adult trivia. Stuff like what they do for a living, or if they have kids. On top of that, I learned how to defend (or try to) some of the moves I was constantly falling victim to, like the scissor sweep. And then it happened.
It was one of those muggy Wisconsin summer days where the air is thick and doesn’t move. We’d been rolling for about 20 minutes, so everyone was really sweaty. After the timer went off, indicating it was time to switch partners, I found a guy I’ve gotten to know pretty well. After we rolled for a few minutes, he offered to show me a submission I could do when in full mount. The willingness of the more experienced students to show me new things is something I love about Neutral Ground. So, of course, I took him up on the offer.
After he showed me, he let me try the move out on him. I got into position. As he was talking me through the submission, I saw it. I could no longer concentrate on what he was saying, just on what was about to happen. And there was nothing I could do. Quite possibly the biggest droplet of sweat my body had ever produced slid off my nose on a course for his mouth. It was a direct hit, landing on his tongue.
I was mortified. I immediately stopped what I was doing to profusely apologize. I thought for sure I was about to be fitted with the equivalent of a hair net, but for sweat (in my moment of spaziness, I was convinced something like that existed). My partner smiled and laughed. “Relax, we’re like family. The other day I was rolling with someone, and they put their knee on my stomach and I farted. We both had to stop because we were laughing so hard.” He offered to shake my hand, indicating it was time to start rolling, and it hasn’t come up since.
If you’ve worked out long enough chances are you have an embarrassing story. Oftentimes when you think of a combat sport you think of a high testosterone environment where everyone is out for blood. Neutral Ground is the exact opposite, and every interaction I’ve seen is a positive and nurturing one, just like a family.
I finally broke down and signed up for jiu jitsu. I say “broke down” because it’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a little over a year. When I decided to drive to Neutral Ground to talk to someone about a membership I was nervous for a variety of reasons. I am often awkward around new people, I’m not in the best shape currently and I’ve never done anything like jiu jitsu before. I also kept picturing every dumb thing I bought in my 20s (like a Love Sac). It took a while after I parked to get out of my car and go inside.
When I walked inside, there was only one guy there. He looked at me, smiled and said “who the hell are you?” I thought about giving a fake name, but I am not good at thinking under pressure, and Axel Burgmann sounded too made up. Before I could tell him my name, his smile widened, “I’m just kidding, welcome!” The guy ended up being super nice, and he gave me a small tour, a sheet with pricing information and Jon’s business card.
A few days later I went back and met Jon who was also incredibly nice. He invited me to attend a few free classes to test it out. Terrifying. Sure Jon, contrary to what The Karate Kid had led me to expect didn’t shout “No mercy!” to his students, at least while I was there, but what were the students going to be like?!
In case you haven’t picked up on it, I’m a little neurotic when outside my comfort zone. Walking into my first class I was envisioning everyone there being a current or former bully or guys who had been doing this for years and would be annoyed by my inexperience.
In fact, none of the worst case scenarios I conjured up in my head were true. I rolled with 6 different people my first class. All of them were patient, kind, welcoming and really helpful. Yes, I did get put into a few chokes, but was told what was coming by either the person I was rolling with or a coach. It was really gentle. As gentle as getting choked could be.
The Best Decision I’ve Ever Made
It’s been two weeks since I signed up for a full year. I’m bad at jiu jitsu, really bad, but I’ve never had more fun being bad at something. I’ve also learned a lot since I started. If you’re concerned you’re going to look silly, or that you’re too out of shape, don’t be. Jon, the other coaches at Neutral Ground and the other members (including me) are here to help and guide you and ensure you to have a good time.
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.