Crabs in a Bucket

While on family vacation in Santa Cruz with our Montana peeps, we’ve been enjoying the idyllic lifestyle that the area has to offer. In between hitting the rides at The Santa Cruz Boardwalk, watching the sailboats put in and out of Santa Cruz Harbor, and strolling along The Wharf, the days have been spent building sand-castles, body surfing, boogie boarding, and checking out tide pools at Natural Bridges State Beach.

The crabs, wharfs, and beaches, along with the broad swath of humanity here remind me of the “crabs in a bucket” metaphor. As the story goes, crabs collected in a bucket can’t escape because just as one reaches the top, the others drag it back down. It’s a vivid metaphor for human behavior driven by envy, spite, or competitiveness.

Our Brazilian Jiujitsu community is the exact opposite of this. Even though we’re engaged in a combative sport, in which we “fight” one another on a daily basis, it is a surprisingly communal effort. Our competitive training makes each of us better, and we push to improve ourselves as well as our teammates. We don’t envy other’s successes; we celebrate them.

Congratulations to all of the Werneck Family who’ve recently promoted. Your hard-earned successes are yours to enjoy. You know how hard you had to work, how much you had to sacrifice, to get where you are. We do too – so we’re celebrating your success with you.

belt promotions

See you on the mat!

Martial Arts Belts

Who remembers this iconic scene from the movie Karate Kid (1984)? After the fight in which Miyagi saves Daniel San’s butt, demonstrating some old-school martial skills, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) inquires, “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?” Miyagi replies,

“Canvas. You like? JC Penney, $3.98. <laughs>. In Okinawa belt mean no need rope hold up pants! <laughs>”

Miyagi then goes on to clarify that karate (and by extension, martial arts in general) is about what’s in one’s head and heart, not about the belt somebody wears. I have yet to meet a long-time practitioner, whether in Aikido, Karate, Taekwondo, or Brazilian Jiujitsu, who wouldn’t agree with this sentiment. Training in the martial arts is just as much about who we are mentally and spiritually, as much as how capable we are physically. We want to develop the mind and spirit of a warrior, by conditioning them along with our bodies to be tough, resilient, and ever-improving.

While it isn’t about the belts,  all martial art schools have some sort of belt system, with any number of various color belts incrementally dividing up the years prior to black belt. As tools, these belts can serve a few purposes. They provide a framework for instructors to work within, developing expectations and curriculum appropriate for the different levels, as well as helping track students’ progress. They can also be used to create more equitable divisions in competition. Finally, belts can help students’ motivation by providing shorter-term goals to work toward.

At Werneck Family Jiu Jitsu, we utilize the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation belt system.

BJJ belts 4-15

The above colors are further divided into approximately quarterly stripe tests. Stripes are awarded after a student has attended the required number of classes, maintained a respectful, hardworking attitude in class, and demonstrated the appropriate techniques at a satisfactory level. After enough stripes are attained the student can promote to the next belt.

At the age of 16, and at the instructors discretion, a student that holds a Grey, Yellow, or Orange belt would transition to a Blue belt, and those who have a Green belt would transition into Blue or Purple.

Adult belts

The biggest pitfall of belt systems, as Karate Kid’s Miyagi-San reminds us, is the tendency for students to focus on the belts as opposed to the learning. Students can get caught up in achieving the next belt rather than being a martial artist; they can worry too much about the destination, instead of enjoying the trip. When somebody tells me that “after getting their black belt they were ready to move on to the next thing,” I realize they missed the entire point of the martial arts. Getting a belt isn’t a box on a checklist. It signifies a step up in training; it represents increased responsibility to one’s self and their commitment to excellence.

At the end of the day it should truly be all about living the BJJ lifestyle.

See you on the mat.

The Coveted Black Belt

In the martial art industry, there is a very broad spectrum of what it means to be a black belt, and what it takes to achieve it. Time requirements range anywhere from as little as a few hours/week for two years up to  hours/day for a decade. Some schools require efficacy in sparring; many put more emphasis on katapoomse, or taolu. A student’s character, leadership, and “life skills” are also common qualifiers for black belt. Some systems award black belts regardless of age, while others reserve this rank for adults.

As should be apparent, this results in a tremendous range of skill and knowledge (or lack thereof) within the black belt community. The internet is packed full of video evidence to back up this claim. One can find videos of black belts performing amazing feats, and extraordinary fighting prowess, and black belts demonstrating skills that are, to put it kindly, less than awe-inspiring. This is a natural result of the vibrant diversity of our human condition and the free market.

But should it all be representative of being a black belt?

If everyone understood that a black belt was simply a level of achievement specific to the confines of a particular system, then such diversity wouldn’t be so problematic. However, that simply isn’t the case. As a social construct, Black Belt implies a certain level of expertise. According to dictionary.com, a black belt is “a black cloth waistband conferred upon a participant in one of the martial arts, as judo or karate, to indicate a degree of expertise of the highest rank.” Merriam-Webster says a black belt is “one who holds the rating of expert in various arts of self-defense (such as judo and karate).” 

Let’s be honest. People don’t aspire to be a black belt because it symbolizes “better than average.” They strive to be a black belt because it represents the highest level of achievement – as an athlete, as a martial artist, as a human being, and as a leader.  They want to be a black belt because it represents expertise in the art of kicking butt.

Consider this.

Each of my three daughters has their passion: one loves to run, one loves to dance, and the third loves gymnastics. Each has the same choice to make in pursuing these activities: is it a recreational hobby, or are they going to pursue EXCELLENCE? Each can choose to dabble in their “art” a few days a week. The runner can go out and put in her miles at her leisure, while the other two can attend recreational programs for just this purpose. Over time all three will reap the many benefits that come from such participation. However, at these levels, they will NEVER become experts in these endeavors.

The runner puts in 1+ hours of training six days a week during the on-seasons for high school track and cross-country, and tapers to an hour/day in the off-season. Experts in these fields train/compete through high school and college, which works out to around eight years. Then they put in additional time getting a degree or certification in order to coach. The ballerina puts in 20+ hours/week at the studio during the school year, and does an annual three-week intensive (six hour days/six days/week). By the time she’s considered an expert, she will have been training in this manner since sixth grade. The gymnast is currently just recreating a couple times a week. If she decides to pursue it, the competition team starts out at about 5 hours/week for her age, and builds up from there.

annual training comparison

The average karate/taekwondo school utilizing the standard twice a week, 45-minute class structure promotes students to Black Belt in three years. Throw in six months of Saturday morning intensives, and it’s still less than 500 hours total. Compare that to the 2,250 hours in Brazilian jiujitsu (1.5 hours @ 3/week for 10 years), the runner’s 3000, the gymnast’s 6,750, or the ballerina’s 10,000!

There’s nothing wrong with training martial arts a couple times a week. It’s a fun way to stay active, fit, and learn some cool stuff.  Just don’t confuse recreation with expertise. If  you seriously want to be a Black Belt, you can make it happen –  you’ve just gotta be willing to put in the work. Next week we’ll discuss our Brazilian Jiujitsu belt system, to give you a better idea of what it’s going to take.

See you on the mat.

The Center of the Universe

One of the age-old discussions in the teaching community is regarding the class structure, and whether it should be teacher-centered or student-centered. Each style has it’s pros and cons, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each helps decide which method will best achieve our desired goals. This common desk layout exemplifies the two styles.

classroom layout

Teacher-centered is a very common method of teaching martial art classes. If you’ve ever been in a Taekwondo dojang or a Karate dojo, (or a high-impact aerobics class) you’ve witnessed this methodology. The teacher is a very strong force, loudly directing nearly every movement of the class. They are often counting every repetition, as the students drill. They are constantly coaching the student body, sometimes individually, frequently collectively, with a barrage of corrections, exhortations, and motivations. This creates a very orderly class, and it assures the class sticks to the plan. It is a great way to control and motivate a large number of people, and get a lot of work done in the process.

A Student-centered approach provides greater autonomy for the students. They interact more with their peers, help motivate one-another, and have the opportunity to work through, or even experiment with the techniques being taught. Instead of taking center-stage, the teacher becomes more of a coordinator, directing the class in the direction it needs to go. This style of teaching also helps reinforce self-discipline, as the students become responsible for their own actions.

Rather than an either/or proposition, these two models are more like the ends of a spectrum. A great class will be somewhere in the middle, utilizing a bit of both styles. In teaching Brazilian Jiujitsu we tend towards a student-centered approach. The instructor, or Professor, directs the class, leading warm-ups, teaching and correcting techniques, and coaching in application. The students are provided the opportunity to practice with partners, and collectively work “through” the techniques.

Obviously, the age of the students also plays a role in where the class falls on the spectrum. Our Little Samurai, ages 4-6, need much more instructor guidance, than do the Junior Jujiteiros, who in turn require more than an adult class. That being said, we are continually pushing our younger students to be the best they can be, and expect them to hold themselves to the highest of standards. Learning to focus, stay on task, and work independently are valuable life-skills which we strive to instill in our students; we teach these ideals, in part, by expecting it of the students. Therefore, we strive to shift from the teacher-centered end of the spectrum to the student-centered as early as possible.

The martial arts, whether Karate, Kung fu, Taekwondo, or Brazilian Jiujitsu, are an individual pursuit of excellence. Our parents can’t do it for us, nor can our teachers. They can only support us and help guide the way. We have our teammates to make the journey with, but at the end of the day, it is still an individual pursuit. Each of us has to develop the strength, endurance, focus, and self-discipline to push past our own personal barriers.

See you on the mat.

Why My Daughters Train in BJJ

I am a father trying to do right by my children.

As parents, we want what’s best for our children. We do everything we can to make sure they’re loved, well fed, and have a roof over their head. We’re preparing them to be successful adults. We sign them up for gymnastics, music lessons, soccer, martial arts, little league, science camp, ballet, cheer, and swimming. We try to support and nurture their individuality when it’s in their best interest, but as the adult in the room, we’re left in the driver’s seat, and have to decide when it’s not.

Trying to sort through all these options and pick the best can be challenging. In addition to simple recreation, we look for the benefits; will this help my child be more fit, develop greater self esteem, or learn the value of teamwork? Part of our decision is based on the logistics of somehow getting to and from, in between school, work, and family time. Part of it is financial. While we’d love to give our progeny everything, the bottom line is, we are inevitably limited; there are only so many hours in a week, and only so many dollars in our wallets.

I am a martial artist biased by 35 years training, studying, and teaching.

I believe that martial arts is a “package deal,” providing a one-stop shopping experience for parents. When taught effectively, it is powerfully transformative, developing strength, flexibility, and cardio-vascular fitness, while also promoting valuable life lessons like integrity, self discipline, respect, focus, tenacity, and self esteem. A good martial art program can also provide it’s students with something other activities most definitely do not: self-defense. This full-package should make martial arts especially appealing to parents struggling with the decision of where to enroll their children.

There is one caveat, however: not all martial arts are taught effectively, and thus do not live up to the promise. Self-defense is one area in particular, where many programs fall short. It is a messy affair, and has much more to do with a state of mind than fancy techniques. An individual must be able to function under duress, and have an effective arsenal that will work consistently. To develop this a student needs to train in combat conditions regularly and consistently. It is simply not feasible for the general public to engage in full-contact sparring on a regular basis. Given the current awareness of the detrimental, long-term effects of repeated head trauma, the problem with children regularly punching and kicking one another in the head should be apparent.

However, in Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ), we can safely “roll” (spar) in every class. We learn a multitude of techniques, and have the regular opportunity to apply them against  opponents of varied shapes, sizes, and skill. This hones the fundamentals of BJJ, as well as our own individual “game.” These fundamentals work, regardless the circumstances. A smaller, weaker individual really can learn to control a larger, stronger aggressor. The intensity of this phase of training develops the mental fortitude that enables us to remain “calm” under pressure, to be able to fight through and survive often uncomfortable, seemingly untenable conditions. In this manner, our skills and our mental tenacity are forged in the fires of combat.

I am a biased father who’s daughters will be well-prepared for all of life’s challenges.

My oldest daughters have discovered their passions. (the jury’s still out for the third) Between school and pursuing these, there is little time left for martial arts. It’s currently my job to protect them, but that responsibility is quickly becoming their own. Brazilian Jiujitsu provides them the training they need, in the limited amount of time they have, to become sufficiently well-prepared for the unlikely specter of violence.

For most of us, the odds of being the victim of violence are small. (here’s some perspective) Indeed we’re much more likely to die in an automobile accident, or of heart disease, than to die from a violent crime. Just like those examples, we can improve our odds by being smart about the risks, and developing good habits – prevention truly is the best medicine. As discussed last week, while avoiding violence altogether is our best bet, given it’s critical nature, it only makes sense to be prepared for it none-the-less. The question we must ask ourselves is one of resource allocation. That is, how much time and energy should we devote towards preparing ourselves and our children?

See you on the mat.

Why My Girls Train in Martial Arts.

One of my training partners recently published an insightful post on Facebook that does a great job reiterating my feelings as a martial artist and a father. As a Law Enforcement Officer, his perspective is further sharpened by the realities of the world in which we live.

“My son, due to his age, has been doing BJJ off and on since he turned five – so much so that when he starts again it’s basically brand new.  Last week I took him to class and needless to say it’s been a while. Toward the end of class he was rolling with another kid and got his back taken, ending up face down on the mat. Not knowing what to do and in a panic he yelled, ‘daddy help me.’

It has been a week and that yell is still fresh in my mind, and gets replayed over and over again. It’s a different type of scream when your kid is in trouble, and it hits you at your core. I can only imagine if it were a real life event with drastic implications. I’ll be the first to say BJJ or any type of martial arts is not the end-all-be-all, but I would be devastated if my son or daughter screamed those final words without giving him or her a fighting chance.

I’ve seen a lot of victims in my life – most made it, some didn’t – and I wonder if those were their last words towards the end.

I understand my career gives me a skewed view on life, but trust me it’s better to be prepared then not. Empower your kids at a young age so they have a fighting chance later on in life. I know of a few places to sign your kids up to train.”

As a former part-paid fireman, I am well aware of the risks we face in the home. We take all appropriate precautions, avoid over-loading extension cords, keep the clothes-dryer duct clean, and wash the exhaust fan filters over the stove monthly. The odds of ever having a house fire are slim. Nonetheless, we have smoke alarms throughout the house, and a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. The children have been taught and practiced various evacuation plans in the event of a fire.

In this same spirit, they are learning how to defend themselves as well. They are taught the risks, steps to take to avoid problems, as well as how to fight if they must. If they make good choices and pay attention, they will probably never need the fire extinguisher, nor will they need to fight.

The bottom line is, we live in a pretty safe time and place here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Violent crime has been declining since the early 1990’s, even with the slight upticks the last two years. (Sadly, those increases were due to specific neighborhoods in specific cities!) With a little bit of prevention – being educated on the actual risks, and staying aware of our surroundings – we can all but eliminate the chances of experiencing violence and the need to defend ourselves.

While the odds are nothing will happen, it is critical than one be prepared in the event that it does. Another friend once made this comparison –

“Our need for a car is common, but it isn’t critical. We use them all the time, but if push comes to shove, we can find another way to get around. The need to defend ourselves isn’t common, but it is critical, for when it comes to violence, it is the only difference between being the victor or the victim.”

The skills we need to defend ourselves, to give ourselves a fighting chance in the most dire of circumstances, require a bit of time and effort to acquire. Due to the low risk, most people don’t even consider this investment. Just like a fire extinguisher, we rarely see the need. Given the critical nature of violence, however, don’t you think it’s worth it?

See you on the mat.

What? I can’t hear you…

The Yin and the Yang – we’ve all seen the image; two interlocking circles appear to flow into one another, and at the same time are part of a larger circle. The Chinese Taijitu (太极图) dates back over a thousand years to the Song Dynasty.Yin yang

In the 1880’s what Koreans call Taegeuk (태극) was adopted into the South Korean National Flag.Flag of South Korea

Even as a little kid growing up in the far reaches of small-town Montana I had seen this symbol. It was on the box cars and cabooses of the Northern Pacific Railroad which ran near my house.Northern_Pacific_Railway_Logo,_November,_1952

One doesn’t have to be a Daoist to appreciate the meaning of the symbol. What a simple, yet powerful image of integrity – of “being whole and undivided,” or “being unified or sound in construction.” (Oxford Dictionary) The two opposing colors flow from, and into, one another, thereby creating the whole. Take away either part and you’re left with an incomplete, dysfunctional package. Imagine it as a tire on your car and you get the idea.1:2 yin:yang As Brazilian Jiujitsu practitioners, we’re continually working to refine our skill set. We learn offensive (yang) and defensive (yin) techniques. We also have to continually modify our “game” as we train with a diverse group of teammates. One can’t use the same strategy against a smaller, faster opponent that might be effective against a larger, stronger opponent. We must develop multiple “sides” to our game if we wish to be the best we can be.

“Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just as we work to round out our BJJ game, we should work to have integrity as a human being as well. Just as the Yin/Yang symbol is a combination of all it’s parts, we too are a product of all our parts. Our words should be consistent with what we think, otherwise, we’re simply lying. Our actions should match our words, or else we’re hypocritical. Our thoughts should be reflected in everything we say and do. In this manner, we strive to maintain our integrity.integrityvenndiagram

Ol’ Ralph W. Emerson got it right.

See you on the mat.

Why Teach Martial Arts?

A couple decades back, one of my mentors in the martial arts posited that people teach martial arts for one of three basic reasons: themselves, the art, or the students. He then asked, “which one do you believe would make the best teacher?” The ensuing conversation really became a healthy inventory of all the things that make for a good, or a poor, martial art instructor.

For people who’ve spent a large part of their lives in, for lack of a better term, more traditional martial arts, we’ve all seen the instructor who’s there for themselves. Often they’ve just received their rank as an instructor, and they love the power that comes with the position. While their boot-camp drill sergeant style of barking orders makes for an orderly and often productive class – as judged from the amount of work and sweat produced – the students can be left wondering whether the instructor was really interested in helping, or just in making sure everybody knew who was in charge.

Then there’s the folks who love their art. They’re usually very concerned with tradition, and passing on the art exactly as it was passed on to them. They tend to have a “take it or leave it” attitude when they teach. “This is how it’s been done for the past 10,000 years. This is how my instructor taught me, how their instructor taught them, and so on, and so that’s how I’m teaching you.”

Thirdly, there are those who teach for the students. They recognize the benefits of the training, and want to do whatever they can to pass the knowledge on to their students. They develop their ability to communicate to a broader range of individuals and are willing to refine their teaching techniques in order to facilitate more students’ acquisition of the art.

Upon reflection, and with the benefit of 20+ years more of living, I realize the question is rhetorical in nature. It is fallacious to pose those three reasons as being independent or separate. The fact is every great martial art instructor has a healthy balance of all three.

Everyone who teaches at Cassio Werneck’s schools loves Brazilian Jiujitsu. In fact, many of us have backgrounds in other arts, yet here we are, pursuing the Brazilian Jiujitsu “lifestyle.” We are drawn to it for many different reasons, most notably it’s practical efficacy, it’s challenging nature, and the family-like camaraderie. While we appreciate it’s history, we also recognize that it is a living, breathing, growing art. It’s not hung up on tradition, but focuses on it’s effectiveness.

Unlike the aforementioned arts that often utilize a more formal, militaristic class-format, BJJ is a bit more low-key. Bowing and “sounding-off” are not demanded, or part of some required protocol. We still have, and show, the utmost respect for all who are willing to brave the unknown and step onto the mat for the first time; we respect those strong enough to become part of the family, continually pushing themselves to be better. The respect Brazilian Jiujitsu practitioners have for one another is a natural extension of the training.

While it might seem a paradox, the nature of such close-quarters, one-on-one combat is actually a cooperative effort. As practitioners, we need good training partners. This creates a symbiotic relationship in which everybody wins when everybody gets better. Thus, each of us is motivated to help the next. We all learn from one another, as we work together to assimilate the techniques and strategies, and develop our own individual game. In this manner, every one of us is a teacher, as well as a student.

So why would anybody want to teach the martial arts? It seems the real question is, why wouldn’t you?

 

Go Climb a Mountain!

One of my favorite pastimes is hiking with my family. The fresh air and stillness of the forest are rejuvenating. Hiking is all about the experience in it’s entirety – each footstep, every sound, all the colors, from trail head to the mountain top, all add up to total emersion in nature. As with most things, it’s not about the destination, but rather the whole proverbial enchilada. That being said, the destination holds a special status.

The view from the top of a mountain is breath-taking. It is absolutely awe-inspiring to be able to see out over all else in every direction. The higher the mountain, the better the view. Of course, that also means much more time and effort is required to get to the top. Interestingly, this only adds to the enjoyment. There’s some intrinsic reward in great accomplishments that require maximum effort; in knowing that you were able to do it.

“The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” – Vince Lombardi, Jr.

When it comes to martial art training, Brazilian jiu jitsu is the Mount Everest of them all. It is extremely challenging. It takes a large amount of time and effort. There are ups and downs, peaks and valleys. There are days, as we say, when you feel like the hammer, and others when you’re sure you were the nail.

Ask anybody who trains, however, and each will tell you the same thing: it is worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears. You will get in amazing shape. You will become tough. You will acquire effective skills. You will be challenged, and have a blast doing it. You will become part of an amazing, positive, focused, hard-working and supportive family, all striving to be their best, and helping you become yours.

Ask anybody who trains and they will tell you, “the view is amazing.”

See you on the mat!

The Golden Rule

We’ve all heard it, or some derivation, before. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  The Golden Rule has been handed down through antiquity, from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, India, and Persia. It can be found, in some form or fashion, in every major religion or philosophy. People often adhere to it in the hopes of reciprocity, that is, “If I’m nice to you, you’ll be nice in return.” Parents and teachers use it to teach children empathy. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself asking my own daughters, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

It can also be a powerful tool in leadership.

Back in December, I blogged about Leading by Example, and mentioned the difference between being a boss and being a leader. It’s a common misconception that the two are synonymous. A boss is someone who’s position or title in an organization allows them to tell people what to do. They often have the power to reward and punish in order to enforce compliance. Being a leader, on the other hand, is much more than simply ordering folks around.

“The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing More, Nothing Less”

While there is no single trait that makes successful leaders, there are plenty of lists out there trying to boil it down to a manageable few. In his highly regarded bookJohn C. Maxwell discusses The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. One such law, The Law of Influence states, “The true measure of Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” An effective leader doesn’t need a title, nor leverage. They influence those around them to success. They inspire through word and through deed.

Which brings us back to The Golden Rule. If you truly wish to lead others, you must first lead the way. Telling them what to do just doesn’t have the impact that showing them does.

If you want others to treat you with respect, treat people respectfully.

If you want others to work hard, then work hard.

If you want others to be honest, then always tell the truth.

If you want others to be patient, then be patient.

Whether as a teacher, or as a parent, it’s important to remember that this leading by example thing can go both ways. I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed one of my daughters do something, only to realize exactly where it came from. Be prepared for your students/children to reflect both your best and worst traits.

If you’re impatient, don’t be surprised when your student/child is impatient.

If you’re inconsiderate of others, expect your student/child to be inconsiderate of you.

If you lose your temper, get ready for your child’s tantrum.

If you have unhealthy eating/exercise habits…

As martial artists, we have the power to better our lives, and the lives of those around us. We can inspire one another to greater success on and off the mat. Consider all of the people we get to train with. Who is the most enjoyable to train with? Who is the most helpful or inspiring, and why? What kind of a training partner are you?

See you on the mats!