Ups and Downs

My friend Daniel recently posted a blog article where he dissected some of his feelings about being a grappler and the stagnation that sometimes accompanies this. Go and read it, then come back here.

I’m sure it’s a topic that I’ve written about before, but in the interest of not polluting my current views, I’m not going to re-read any of my writing, or direct you to. I want to investigate it now (as a purple belt with a single brown stripe who’s been training for about 8 years).

Many grapplers will tell you about the walls that they hit during their career where they feel like progress has stalled and the grind isn’t worth the gains anymore. It might be following a belt promotion or unrelated, but it often starts with a day away here and there that turns into a week off the mats, which devolves into a month and then it’s Christmas and you’re commenting to others about how you’ll be back next year. I’ve seen it happen numerous times, to various types of characters with a multitude of daily pressures and stresses. It’s a common occurrence around the blue belt promotion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is considered the first significant coloured belt. This belt is often earned after two or three years of training and the effort required to achieve it is often compared to a black belt in a more traditional art like karate or taekwondo. It’s a big deal, and for some, it provides a good opportunity to exit the sport with an accomplishment in hand. I’ve heard it thrown around that 50% of the grapplers who get their blue belt don’t begin working towards their purple the next day, which seems about right to me.

Like anything, 8 years is a long time to devote yourself to any pursuit, be it sports or otherwise. BJJ is no different. How many people do you know that have played football for 8 years, or cricket, basketball or any other sport? None of my friends outside BJJ have consistently devoted themselves to their sporting endeavours as much as I have to BJJ, that I can think of. I know a few climbers but at best they get up a wall or outside once a fortnight. It’s not a critiscism – life gets in the way, as they say.

And I think that’s an important thing to remember – life gets in the way of everything. Unless you’re training BJJ full time (and that would mean you earn a living teaching, most likely) then you will have work, family and a myriad of other things jostling for your time, and in many cases, getting it.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to always remember that BJJ should always be providing you with a challenge and equally rewarding you for attempting to solve its puzzles. Note that I believe the rewards should be attached to the losses as well as the wins and in many cases it’s not even an on-the-mat reward. My biggest reward last year was a sorry drive home feeling like I didn’t represent myself accurately and let my ego get in the way. That led to a conversation and a cleansing of sorts, which is now blossoming into a mutual respect on and off the mats. It was a serious growth in my character and one that I attribute to BJJ alone. It wasn’t a new technique; it was a genuine growth realisation. Ask me about it some time.

If you’re not getting the love from BJJ, maybe it’s a good time to take a break. Think of BJJ like a relationship – maybe you’re just not that into her anymore, even though you really want to be (on some level). Maybe a few months apart will reignite the spark or maybe it’ll prove to you that space is a good thing.

BJJ still challenges me and rewards me and it’s because of this I’m certain I’ll be back after my son is born. That’s certainly a time I want life to get in the way. When I do come back, I know I’ll see you there Daniel.

Running the Gauntlet

A successful grading in jiu jitsu results in a promotion of rank, be it either a minor promotion (stripe) or a major promotion (new coloured belt). It’s a big deal and is something that is normally celebrated, especially for those being awarded new belts. In my eight years of training I’ve received two belt promotions – firstly to blue belt in early 2008 and then to purple in May of 2011.

Over the years I’ve seen my coach and my club change a lot, and this is a good representation of how jiu jitsu itself is constantly growing and evolving. My very first lesson at The Academy resulted in my learning a basic armbar from mount. This is jiu jitsu 101 – a really basic movement that you’ll learn within the first few months.

Skip to 2:00 to see Rorian Gracie demonstrate this basic armbar, the way I first learnt it.

Except nothing in jiu jitsu is really basic; other than your understanding of a technique. As a result, I’ve seen this attack change over the years, and the way it’s been taught by my coach has evolved. The way he was taught seems so ancient and ineffective compared to how we’re doing things these days. I don’t think I’d enjoy training anywhere near as much as I do if I was at a club that didn’t grow as the sport grew.

This embrace of change has meant we try out lots of new things, and most of them are great. For example, our gradings (affectionatly called “Smash Sessions”) have changed format several times and now settled on a style that people love. It brings the affiliate clubs together and is an event everyone looks forward to. Everyone’s on the mat and everyone rolls hard, and we all love it. The old way of doing a grading was very systematic and very planned; now it’s much more free-flowing.

But not everything that changes I enjoy. A few months back a new practice (new to our club; not new to jiu jitsu as a whole) was trialed, and in my opinion, failed. The “running of the gauntlet” is a practice whereby new innitiates are welcomed to their rank. Two lines are formed and as the graduate walks through the passage they’re whipped by everyone else’s belts. It reminds me of American college hazing, and it’s not something I can relate to.

This isn’t our club, but you get the idea:

As a senior rank I took the opportunity to set an example, and partook in the exercise but specifically protested by lightly tapping the gauntlet runner on the back. Some people followed suit but too many for my liking took the opportunity to actually try and hurt someone. A free shot and a cheap shot.

That’s the exact opposite of what I want to get out of jiu jitsu, and to be honest I was embarrassed for our club. As an expectant parent, I was thinking about how I’d feel if my child was wanting to join a club that did this kind of thing. I later heard that there was serious protest from the women in our club too, who declared that under no circumstances would they be running any gauntlets. I can understand that, and considerin the serious gender bias we have towards men I’d like to see us lower as many barriers to entry as possible, rather than raise more.

Although there were rules around the process (don’t hit the face, no wild wind-up swings) these were largely ignored. Although most people showed some restraint and control it wasn’t always the case.

I don’t want to hurt my training partners; they’re people I genuinely care about (even the ones I don’t like ;) I don’t want to perpetuate the myth of the martial arts psycho. Or even worse – the bully.

A day later I spent half an hour on the phone with my coach after he invited me to discuss what I thought about the gauntlet. I told him everything I felt, and at the end of it he declared that it wasn’t something he saw the club doing again.

Was I just being a pussy? Maybe. I joke that if I wanted to hurt people I’d have started kickboxing instead, but there’s always some truth to every joke.

For me, there are two take away points here that are worth highlighting. Firstly, as the owner of the business and (now) an Australian black-belt champion, Adam is under no obligation to consider my opinion, but he did. I appreciated that a lot. I feel like it’s “my” club and he certainly reinforced that. Secondly, it’s important to note that unless we try new things we simply won’t advance. If we didn’t try new grading styles we wouldn’t have the awesome Smash Sessions we have now, and if we didn’t adapt our techniques to consider new grappling styles or trends then we wouldn’t advance jiu jitsu. Making the decision to try new things means you also run the risk of making mistakes. You can’t be scared of making mistakes, but you have to be able to admit them.

Making mistakes and learning from them is jiu jitsu. Nobody does jiu jitsu better than Adam Metcalf, and The Academy of Mixed Martial Arts.

A novel approach to motivation

I tend to spread myself fairly thin sometimes, juggling multiple hobbies and interests alongside my work and family commitments. This is especially apparent with health and fitness. In the last few months I’ve trained Brazilian jiu jitsu and MMA, taken up ballet, learnt to skydive, lifted weights at the gym, competed in a handful of triathlons, run an unofficial half marathon and ridden the Freeway Bike Hike. Some of these were free, like my midnight run around the river, but for everyone hobby there’s a fee attached.

Unfortunately it’s hard to fit all that I want to do into the time I have available, and that’s meant that my gym membership has been dormant for probably close to a few months. In our household we typically have the family money cover health and exercise related expenses, and whilst my membership is only $25 per fortnight, it’s money that I was wasting. It doesn’t come out of my weekly allowance, which I spend on things like coffee, comics and Lego, so I don’t feel it personally.

Inspired by Nat and Lisa‘s hockey team, I now fine myself $15 every Saturday if I don’t lift during the week. If I want to avoid the fine all I have to do is a few sets in the gym and I not only get the exercise benefit, but I save myself some cash.

Smash Session

In the 7 years that I’ve been training Brazilian jiu jitsu at The Academy of Mixed Martial Arts I’ve partaken in many grading nights. These sessions are one of the few times you’ll see formality at the club and represent the time when students are assessed. For a student, the result of these gradings is normally either minor progression, in the form of a tip, or a full progression to the next coloured belt.

Belts in Brazilian jiu jitsu are coloured from white to blue, then purple, brown and finally black. There are other belts beyond black, namely a red-and-black belt, and a red belt, but they’re so rare they may as well not exist. The five coloured belts are what most BJJ practitioners are familiar with and will encounter.

Each coloured belt has a number of tips (coloured stripes of fabric) that can be applied to show staged progression from one colour to the next. A white belt can gain up to four blue stripes before grading to a blue belt; a blue belt can gain three purple stripes before grading to a purple belt; a purple belt can gain two brown stripes before grading to a brown belt and lastly a brown belt can gain a single black stripe before grading to a black belt. Tips are not always issued, and instead students may jump from a single coloured belt to another, but that’s not as common.

Grading sessions at The Academy have never been used to determine a student’s position, but rather I’ve seen them as proof or evidence that a student is worthy of the next level, be it a tip or a new coloured belt. I haven’t heard of a student being asked to grade and then not passing, but it may have happened. If you’re asked by Adam to grade it’s because he believes you’re at the bottom of the next level.

When I graded through my white and early blue belt ranks, the process was much more formalised than we see these days. There was a formal syllabus and a student was required to demonstrate each move separately, be it a transition, sweep or submission. Upon reaching the full coloured belt, a student would demonstrate all the movements from the previous tip-gradings that led to the full belt. The grading for my blue belt comprised of me sitting a white-1, white-2, white-3 and white-4 grading back to back. They took a while.

Of late though the grading formats have changed. It has a much more laid-back, “Brazilian” approach. The mats are bursting at the seams with students of all rank and ability. As many as 15 pairs of grapplers take up a space usually reserved for half as many combatants, and all around the edge of the mats sit the overflow people awaiting their next roll. The expansion of the AMMA empire means that grading nights draw the satellite and affiliate clubs also, providing a lot of new people and new challenges. This is the part I like most about the current style of gradings – affectionally names “Smash Sessions.”

Typically during class if there’s a new person on the mat they’ll be a beginner. We do get visitors from other clubs, or people travelling through Perth with the best machete reviews, but the majority of new faces I see at The Academy are people wanting to try BJJ for the first time. At a Smash Session, all of the new faces have grappling skills too.

For each four-minute round a specific goal might be set or restriction applied. For example, you might be required to demonstrate a specific armlock or sweep, or only submit your opponent with a choke, or only attack from the mount position. The black-belts will typically wander between the pairs of grapplers, half observing the matches for the required moves and half acting as protective barriers – it gets cosy on the mats with so many people fighting for space and “senior belts always have the right of way.”

A discussion was raised online about increasing the frequency of our grading nights because of their popularity. At the moment we have them about once every three months. My opinion on this is that if we have Smash Sessions too often, be them grading nights or not, the appeal and fun will fade. We’ll have people justifying to themselves “it’s OK, I’ll go to next month’s session instead” if they have the option. I don’t want to see Smash Sessions become so regular they lose their charm. I also don’t see the affiliate clubs, some based as far away as Bunbury, making the trek to Perth every month. As I said, it’s these clubs attending that I like the most.

My vote: keep the sessions every three months, or introduce an additional event to partly cater for people’s desires. My current thought, which I might develop further: a whole-day event (maybe on a Sunday, or maybe over a weekend) where multiple coaches run multiple “streams” or sessions. Think of it as a BJJ conference. The goal would be to cross-pollenate between clubs and schools, and even styles.

If you train at The Academy, what do you think about the current grading sessions? What are your memories? If you train elsewhere, how does your club grade its students, and how do you feel about that?

Bookending my Jiu Jitsu – adding the concept of 5%

Back in 2006, John Will was in Perth teaching a jiu-jitsu seminar at The Academy. Whilst I enjoy John’s BJJ teaching (he’s Australia’s most prolific BJJ instructor), I find his relaxed and informal conversations to be the real highlight of his visits. He tells incredibly interesting stories, and over the years he has developed a keen insight into  how people learn and develop. I think that this is what makes him excel as an individual within the BJJ community, more than any of his on-the-mat accomplishments.

It was during this seminar that he presented an idea which has stuck with me, and is largely responsible for forming my view of progression with respect to jiu-jitsu. I wrote about it then, but it has further solidified in my mind over the last 5 years.

Specifically, he highlighted that the difference between a beginner and an expert (a white belt versus a black belt) is their ability to acknowledge and respond to situations faster. His example revolved around a person wading into quick sand. The white belt would be up to their neck before they realised that it was dangerous, and from here it’s much harder to escape. In contrast, a black belt would dip their toe into the quick sand and immediately detect it as being unsafe. As such, their escape is much easier (or rather, is comprised of less steps).

I think this analogy really works well with jiu-jitsu, but I’ve used it personally to represent other situations in the past 5 years to great effect – it describes software development too. I think the visual images that are conjured are very easy to absorb and relate to.

This weekend John added what I consider to be the reverse analogy to his initial point, and whilst it’s not a new concept, it seemed to really click with me.

The idea is that nobody wakes up 40kgs overweight; it’s a gradual progression which results in you one day looking in the mirror and asking yourself “how the hell did I let this happen?” (I think this is another way of phrasing the “quick sand” analogy).

When you make the conscious decision to tackle your problem, it can seem insurmountable. It’s impossible to lose 40kg in a day, no matter how hard you work out (and presuming amputation is out of the question). However, it is possible to go for a run, watch what you eat and lose a kilogram by the time you go to bed. Wash, rinse, repeat and you’ll find yourself chipping away at the problem.

Another way of thinking about it is within the realm of finance – you can’t get out of $100,000 worth of debt in one day (unless you rob a bank), but you can save $200 fairly easily. Now the problem is only $99,800 and you’re making progress.

John labeled this as being a 5% improvement (don’t do the maths – it’s just an approximation ;)

When you’re up to your neck in quick sand, imagining yourself clear and free might be impossible, but imagining yourself in a position that’s a 5% improvement is well within your reach. So make that one little adjustment, and then reassess the situation to determine what the next 5% adjustment is.

I think the power in this is even more than John highlighted, because these adjustments will potentially reveal other pathways or opportunities that you didn’t see from the start.

Consider this: as you’re backing out of the quick sand you make your 5% adjustments and then bump into a tree root, hidden below the surface. Now you have a strong escape option that you simply couldn’t have foreseen when you were up to your eyes in trouble. It was the small escapes; the small adjustments that led to this saving option, but you’d have never found it unless you started that 5% journey.

Again, whilst I don’t think any of these concepts are necessarily revolutionary, they had a revolutionary impact on me back in 2006, and then again yesterday. Considering my hard work and effort was acknowledged with the awarding of a purple belt yesterday, it felt like that story – of getting into trouble, but then getting out again – was complete.

It felt like John gave me the other bookend.