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.
We are always learning whether we are conscious of it or not. However, we will get the most of our jiu jitsu journey if we are more aware of the ways in which we learn and how they work together.
Let’s do this!
Hey! My name is Michael and this is my first blog post. I’ve trained jiu jitsu for two years and recently earned my Blue belt under Jon “White Trash” Friedland at Neutral Ground Milwaukee. For work, I teach international politics at UW-Milwaukee where I finished my dissertation last year. I also have the same learning/teaching philosophy I had as a ten year old. That last part is the important part and what I want to share with you now.
I played organized football for the first time in 5th grade. That year and every year until high school, our coach ended the season with the same damn speech. So for four years I heard Coach tell the team that people learn three ways in life: the books we read; the people we talk to and the questions we ask; and experience, or “the school of hard knocks.” 20 years later I’ve realized that this applies in life, at school, and especially on the mats.
What We Read and Who We Meet
Reading books seems the least applicable to BJJ, but we still do something like it. You’re doing it right now reading this blog. How many white belts have hated not knowing how to tie their belts and looked it up on YouTube? We have online resources, ebooks, blogs, and even things on paper like magazines and, well, books. This type of learning uses secondary sources of information. Secondary sources can be great—they are plentiful and relatively easy to obtain—but they have accompanying weakness. Recognize that secondary sources are someone else’s analysis of a problem or interpretation of events. When you use this type of information, actively think about what you are seeing or hearing or reading and always consider the source. Question the information. In academia there are journals, Journals, and JOURNALS—the better the journal, (hopefully) the more confident we can be about the information. Evaluating the quality of jiu jitsu resources can be tricky, and even if we are confident that we have useful information, it is best to look for corroborating sources. I’d strongly suggest pairing secondary source research with another learning method.
For example, if I am having trouble with the pendulum sweep, I could look up Jon “White Trash” Friedland’s YouTube video on the technique before trying it again, but I could also ask him. Everyone in the gym / dojo with you can be a resource if you let them. Very few people I have encountered are uncomfortable answering questions or giving you their take, but I’d guess that people other than your instructor or training partner on a given day would be much slower to offer information. So ask questions! Your brothers and sisters love jiu jitsu. They love talking about it and training. And of course, ask your instructors. Not asking robs you of an opportunity to evaluate what you know and what you gathered from secondary sources, and ultimately impedes your growth. Talking and asking questions is a form of primary source research. You are “conducting the interview” and interpreting the information you get. Still, this type of learning requires that you interpret what others have learned.
The School of Hard Knocks
When Coach gave the Three Ways We Learn speech, his goal was to encourage his young athletes to stay in school and listen to their teachers in order to avoid making regrettable decisions down the road. For us “the school of hard knocks” is the most effective, though toughest, way we learn. How many times have I decided to lie down for a short nap before class and not wake up? Enough to learn not to do it. Because of what I do for work, I think of this type of learning as experimentation. I observe myself getting my guard passed, swept, submitted, and so on and I want to change that, but I have to keep getting passed, swept, and submitted until I learn what question to ask. Asking the right question is hard because you have to understand the problem before you can look for secondary sources and ask others.
Sparring becomes the actual test of what you’ve gathered. Getting on the mat, experimenting, and modifying what you’ve gathered from other sources shows you what works and what does not for you. Later, ask for feedback. You’ll often learn that you’ve asked the wrong question and started down a different path. It helps to keep a jiu jitsu journal as a record of all your experiments, especially the failures. We all know this, but it’s worth repeating that we learn as much from our failures as our success. Most importantly, keep repeating the experiments even after you “solve” the immediate problem because jiu jitsu is always evolving.
Keep Your Eyes Wide
It’s funny how things change. In grade school I thought Limp Bizkit lyrics were profound and rolled my eyes at Coach’s speech every year. Now Limp Bizkit is a punchline, and I think about Coach and learning every day. None of this is revolutionary, but I hope this my thoughts help you become more aware of how and when we learn in jiu jitsu. It’s going to happen anyway, but I’d argue that we get more from the journey if we actively pursue all three.