Prior to breaking my foot I learned two different chokes. Even though you learn them slowly, and over the watchful eye of instructors you’re bound to have some awkward miscues. Mine happened when repeating the choke we had just learned.
I was partnered with a black belt which was really cool, because he could diagnose exactly what I was doing wrong and then dumb it down so my brain could understand. The first three times I did it, I wasn’t keeping the choke tight enough and he slipped out of my arms. I have a fear of hurting someone (weird that I chose a hobby that involves choking people, right?) so often times I’ll try and be as gentle as I can.
The fourth time I performed the choke perfectly. Well, as perfectly as a third-week white belt can, and he tapped. Then a weird thing happened. We were wrapped up so tight, that when I let go, the choke didn’t immediately alleviate. My partner needed a minute to catch his breath. I felt like an asshole and profusely apologized. He told me there was no need and he had me drill it again.
The same thing happened. Regardless of how limp I went with my arms, legs and chest, it still didn’t give him immediate relief when he tapped. What was I doing wrong? I in NO way wanted to hurt this guy, or have him think I was holding onto a choke for an extra second to really be malicious. So I asked.
My partner told me that sometimes it happened, as long as I was letting go, it was completely fine. “People who come here understand and don’t mind it, so don’t worry about it.” We then switched roles and he performed the choke on me. And while the same thing happened to me, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was.
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.
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.