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.
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.