The popular and longstanding Men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine Esquire has a regular feature called “What I’ve Learned” where they ask an older man for his life experience and personal philosophy. Passing the 20 years mark of training and teaching brazilian jiu-jitsu I would like to share a few things that I have learned along the way.
What I’ve Learned
1) Ups and Downs
Our bjj training is not a smooth upward trajectory free of obstacles – much like life itself. Ideally, we are injury free, have no work/life/family distractions, our bjj academy stays open with the same professor and we get better every week without any plateaus. Perfect!
However the reality that we will encounter many obstacles along the way that will test our perseverance. On other days, we are on FIRE! The body feels great, your jiu-jitsu is flowing and you are busting out moves that would cause Roger Gracie to go green with envy.
Those are great days when you are at the academy with your friends, get some great rolls in and go out to have a bite to eat at your favorite place near the academy and laugh and talk about jiu-jitsu.
And then there are those rare, special days when your professor calls you up to the front of the class and ties a new coloured belt around your waist.
What a feeling!
I recall an old black belt professor was asked by the student about why they were great on the mat one day and terrible the next? The experienced professor shrugged his shoulders philosophically and spread his hands up to the sky “Is like the weather..one day is raining and the next day the sun is shining!”
2) It isn’t the most talented, it’s who shows up
Having been involved in bjj for 20+ years, I have seen a lot of faces come and go. Guys who were pure natural athletes and could likely excel at ANY sport they decided to try – all the way to the guy who has extreme difficulty learning to tie his belt and keep his kimono pants from falling down during the warm up.
But to this day, after teaching hundreds of classes and many new students showing up, I can’t tell who is going to come back and who is a “one and out”. A student tries the class and pick up the moves sand seems to show great potential. Another is quiet, shy and doesn’t seem to say much at all during the class, demonstrating little enthusiasm.
But which student shows up at the following class with a new kimono?
The quiet student!
Despite my experience, I just can’t tell who is going to come back. It can be revealing to look at the annual club photos form years gone by. You will remember some faces of old training partners “What ever happened to him? He could have been really good!”. But he disappeared from training.
And at the front row of the photo, year after year are some faces who just never quit. Each new club photo shows their belts with a few more stripes and progressively darker belts.
The average guy trained and stuck it out year after year and acquired skills and thousands of hours of mat time transformed from a noob in an ill fitting kimono into a skilled black belt with a ton of jiu-jitsu knowledge.
“It isn’t who is the strongest or most talented, it is who lasts. It is who is left at the end.”
3) There are layers of understanding of jiu-jitsu.
Like those nested Russian dolls each one contains a smaller doll within.
a) Identify techniques – The first year of jiu-jitsu is at once a frustrating and thrilling time.
Frustrating as more often you are getting dominated and tapped in the training and feeling overwhelmed at how many techniques and positions that there are to learn. Thrilling because every class shows you an incredible new move to solve exactly the problem that you are having in rolling. And one you start being able to tap others in training, you are hooked!
b) Variations – Now you go about learning the variations of the basic moves. Love to triangle? You try all of the different setups and angles and variations. Triangle from the mount, guard, turtle, back position,..each with their details. Now when you pass the guard, you know 12 different passes! You accumulate an impressive arsenal of bjj weapons.
c) Combinations – Now that you have the techniques, you realize that to use them against experienced opponents, you need to use some combinations and learn to flow from one submission to another. You discover that threatening a sweep makes the opponent expose themselves for your armlock,…and vice versa. This is analogous to the boxer learning his combinations instead of hitting the bag with single punches.
d) Improvising – You are now improvising with no game plan and less conscious thought while rolling. You react without thinking to your opponent’s movements. Each move your opponent makes to escape seems to get them more deeply trapped in your web. Jean Jacques Machado says that he rolls and his body just reacts. Faster than deliberate thinking, your body FEELS the technique and those thousands of repetitions have ingrained the technique so deeply it just comes out of you…TAP!
Q: What have you learned in your own bjj journey?
read also: Fake It ‘Til You Make It