Relax, We’re Like Family

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.

What to Know Before Starting to Train Jiu Jitsu

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.

The Holidays are Over: My Soundtrack to Getting Back on the Mats

Between Christmas vacation and the hellish Polar Vortex that rendered everyone’s car motionless, I haven’t been to Jiu Jitsu or Core Cardio in almost three weeks.
While getting back to fitness after a long layoff is inevitably tough, it’s noticeably tougher for me without music. Besides motivation, music also drowns out the sounds of my groans and labored breathing—constant reminders of my own mortality and probably constant annoyances for everyone who just wants to swing kettlebells in peace.

Below are ten songs that get me ready to train, each for different reasons. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.

AC/DC: “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”

The battle anthem for beginners. This song was the first track on their first record you could by in America and you can really hear their growing pains. “Getting had, getting took, I tell ya folks: it’s harder than it looks.” If those aren’t Jiu Jitsu lyrics, what is?

Black Keys/Rza: “The Baddest Man Alive”

Confidence is critical when it comes to training because, even though you haven’t mastered anything yet, you have to know you will if you stick with it. This is also a great one to help you find that extra gear when rolling.

Funkadelic: “Get Off Your Ass and Jam”

If this doesn’t get you going, check your pulse. You might be a robot.

John Legend: “Who Did That to You?”

This was written specifically for the Django Unchained soundtrack, so you know it’s tailor made for getting down and handling business. Get ready to stand your ground.

Kendrick Lamar: “Backseat Freestyle”

On the surface, this is pure aggression. A layer down, it’s effortless flow. Exactly as it should be.

The Kinks: “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”

Even with a great team, Jiu Jitsu is a hyper-individual pursuit. Your training partners can help you become the best version of yourself, but it’s up to you to define those terms. You have to figure out what works for you, what doesn’t at the moment and then try to improve at everything.

Lupe Fiasco: “Kick, Push”

A lot of people like to train to real heavy stuff, but I’ve always preferred something with a good rhythm that I can tune into. I love this one for visualizing techniques while I’m on the treadmill. Way better than just staring at the wall.

MIA: “Bad Girls”

I don’t care if it has the word “Girls” in the title—this song will bring out your inner bad ass no matter what chromosomes you have. At least one writer called her song “Paper Planes” one of the top ten UFC Walkout songs of all time, but it’s a little played out for me at this point. Talk about a worthy replacement.

Oasis: “Roll with It”

“You’ve gotta roll with it. You’ve gotta take your time.” Translation: “Flow like water.”

The Smiths: “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby”

The Smiths are most famous for making crybaby music (which I love without shame), so this is a good one for the ride home after an hour of getting tapped by high-level grapplers. It’s important to remember that the best guys and girls weren’t born that way—they worked at it. You’ll get there too if you work as hard as they did.

The Three Ways We Learn: Jiu Jitsu Edition

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.

Gearing up: What gear do I need to start training jiu-jitsu?

Compared to other combat sports, the equipment investment for jiu-jitsu is pretty low. You still need a few things though and, with the holidays just around the corner, there’s no better way to show that special person in your life you care than a gift that says “I want you to get real good at choking people.” Bring them with you next year in case Black Friday gets out of hand. Win-win.

Gi: Sometimes referred to as a kimono, this is the uniform of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and also a key piece of equipment. Many techniques involve gripping the Gi for control, which is why they are often more expensive than Gis for other martial arts (i.e. Taekwondo) that don’t involve grappling. If you’re looking for that high-quality, high-fashion look that’s super hot on the mats these days, Neutral Ground is practically best friends with two local companies that make excellent Gis: BJJ Life ( and Combat Corner ( Tell them we sent you and they’ll be like “Niiiiiiiice.”

Belt: The belt is used to track your progression from beginner to bad ass. You’ll start with a white belt, work your way up to blue, then purple, then brown, then black. In between belt colors, you also earn stripes to show how close you are to that next level (four stripes per belt color). Your instructor will promote you to the next belt color which, be prepared, may take a while. Jiu-Jitsu has one of the most rigid belt promotion systems, so it can take more than 10 years to achieve a black belt. Unlike other martial arts, you’ll never see a child that’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu. If you do meet a child that’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu, just do what they say.

Rash guard: A rash guard, originally worn by surfers, is a tight-fitting spandex shirt that can help protect against cuts, mat burns and even skin diseases. Though not essential, it does provide some added mobility off your back—particularly when you’re sweaty. Plus, it shows off how buff you are. Whaddyabench?

Shorts: Though you’ve probably got at least one pair of shorts that will work just fine, two styles that really caught on in the grappling/MMA communities are Vale Tudos (very short, very tight) and board shorts (long and loose). Personally, I try to avoid anything with pockets. When feet weren’t getting caught in them, I’d always be pushing them back in. Save yourself my headache.

Mouth guard: This is optional and worn by about 50% of grapplers according to a survey that I just made up. A basic boil-and-bite mouth guard only costs a few bucks, but they can get pretty costly for a pro-level, custom job. If you’re not doing any striking, there’s no reason to get too crazy with the cost. I like the Tiger Claw Single Mouth Guard (sold on Amazon) which is very thick, forms much better than other mouth guards I’ve tried and only costs about $4—a very cheap investment compared to missing teeth.

Cup: Again, optional—but preferred by many for obvious reasons. Combat Corner sells a Muay Thai-style steel cup that provides awesome protection even if it’s not the most fun thing to put on. You’ll see what I mean.

Water bottle: Even if it’s below freezing outside, the inside of a packed jiu-jitsu gym will feel like Miami in July. Stay hydrated.

Neutral Ground shirt: The equivalent of a “Beware of Dog” sign for your body. Off the mat, we don’t want no mess.

No shoes: No shoes on the mat. Don’t even think about it.