Back To School

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

 

Professor Cassio Werneck traveled all the way to Danbury, Connecticut this past weekend to compete in the Fight 2 Win 83. His dossier is packed full of accolades from over 20 years of competing. From Brazilian State Champion to Pan American Champion, and from World Champion To Masters’ World Champion, Professor Werneck has won them all. He could easily rest on his laurels, yet he continues to lay it on the line; rather than taking the easy path, he chooses to challenge himself again and again.

This is the indomitable attitude of a warrior. It is the willingness to push one’s self past the comfort of the known; it is the self-disipline to embrace the day-in, day-out grind of never-ending improvement. It is the internal fortitude to commit to excellence, even when surrounded by a society full of those who settle for mediocrity. A warrior chooses to strive for more; win, lose, or draw, they will know that they gave it their best.

As summer comes to a close many of us find ourselves shifting gears – children head back to school, and parents re-adjust their shuttle schedules. This can be a time of excitement, and of a bit of trepidation; children can be a bit intimidated by the prospects of new teachers, and moving up a grade. It is a great time to remind ourselves, as well as our children, of the power of accepting the challenge – just dive in.

  1. Based on past experiences, make a plan of action, and execute.
  2. Stay focused on the task at hand, the potential for victory, and the many benefits of success.
  3. Remember that stumbling, sometimes even failing in the attempt, is still an opportunity for learning and growth. Learn the lesson and move on.
  4. Surround yourself with a good team. Your family and friends should be like-minded and support your efforts

We should approach the rest of our lives just like we train in BJJ. Play all in; push past comfort zones – sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and always learning. In the end we will know we gave it all we had.

Let the nay-sayers worry about the risks from the side-lines.

See you on the mat.

Bad, And Getting Better

Do you feel the world is becoming more dangerous, that violence is on the rise, or that more and more people are dying from disease? You’re not alone. Every year since 1989 Gallop has asked Americans whether there’s more or less crime, and every year except 2001, the majority said it’s on the rise. Even though the statistics clearly prove otherwise, most feel the opposite. Americans aren’t alone; when polled in 2015 65% of British people (and 81% of the French) said they thought the world was getting worse.

If you find yourself in this majority, it’s time to change your focus, (check out last week’s post). By every metric of measure humanity has made, and continues to make, great headway in improving the lives of an ever-growing majority of the world population. Hans Rosling presents an enjoyable, easy-to-read argument in favor of a more realistic world-view in his book Factfullness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He also has a number of great videos on Youtube; here’s one of my favorites.

Now this isn’t to say that everything is just fine. That would be as inaccurate as thinking everything is getting worse. We still need to remain vigilant; we face serious problems that require us to continue forging ahead as we work to find solutions. It’s simply acknowledging the reality – contrary to what the media and our politicians may tell us, things have improved drastically, and continue to do so. As Mr. Rosling points out in his book, we need to remember that

“…things can be both bad and better.”

This same mind-set can be helpful to the aspiring jiujitsu practitioner as well.

When we first start training BJJ everything is new, fresh, and invigorating. It’s easy to see our progress as we learn new techniques, and feel our bodies getting stronger. We see how much better we are than when we started. Over time, it can become more difficult to see our progress. Our perception shifts as we begin to realize how much more there is to learn. We can focus on our defeats, and lose sight of our victories. Our perspective can leave us feeling inadequate; compared to what’s possible, our BJJ is bad.

A key to the Jiujitsu Lifestyle is maintaining a healthy, optimistic perspective. If you catch yourself struggling with motivation, or feel like you’re just not making any progress, double check your perspective. Consider how much you now know compared to before you began. Remember that as long as you’re putting in your mat time, whether it’s two, three, or twelve classes a week, you are improving. Forge ahead having faith in the process. You can be both bad and getting better at the same time.

See you on the mat.

Perception

We recently took our family to Hero’s Virtual Reality Adventures, and had a great time immersing ourselves in the imaginary worlds of the various games. It is truly amazing how engaged you become, as you lose touch with “reality.” While your logical self knows you’re simply in a room with your family & friends, your senses are telling you a different story; you find yourself flinching in response to an orc-thrown battle axe. Your heart races and your legs get weak when you step out of the elevator onto a wooden plank some 40 stories up, even though you know it’s a 2X6 lying on the floor.

The reality we perceive.
The reality she perceives.

Of course it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that our senses could so easily deceive us. In a very real sense, we already create our own virtual reality. A limited amount of information further distorted by our own psychological biases leaves us with a perceived notion of the actual reality of the world around us.

One of the most powerful is the Negativity Bias: the tendency to focus on the negative. This bias stems from our ancestral past, where recognizing imminent danger (negative) could mean the difference between life and death. While modern society has greatly reduced the existence and severity of such threats, for many of us the tendency to focus on the negative remains.  (here’s an earlier post on this)

What do you see in this image?

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Copyright: Krisdog / 123RF Stock Photo

Initially, most people will see a broad canopied tree with a crooked trunk. How many see the two faces? Once we see the one image, it can be difficult to see the other, but with a bit of effort, we can direct our mind to see both. In this manner, it is important for us to strive to look for the positive in our daily lives, in order to balance out our tendency to focus on the negative.

As a martial artist, do you focus on your successes or your failures? Do you focus on how far you’ve come, or how far you have to go? Do you see problems as insurmountable barriers or challenges to be overcome? Do you dread an upcoming workout because of it’s difficulty, or anticipate the feeling of accomplishment? Do you dwell on the “boring” redundancy of yet another class, or look forward to the exhilaration of adding a powerful skill to your arsenal?

As with any great endeavor, becoming a good Jujiteiro/a is a difficult undertaking, requiring much time, effort, and sacrifice. By staying focused on the positive, we can avoid the many self-inflicted pitfalls that would otherwise keep us from success. A positive attitude helps us see past temporary discomfort, and enticing distractions. It helps us work through short-term feelings of boredom. It gives us the perspective to avoid self-doubt. Just like a great arm-bar, it only requires a bit of practice.

See you on the mat!

Hammers and Nails

“Sometimes you’re the hammer, and sometimes you’re the nail.”

Everybody who trains in Brazilian Jiujitsu gets it. There are those days when everything “clicks.” Our defense seems impenetrable, and our offense unstoppable. We are the hammer. Then there are those days when nothing seems to work. Our opponents pass our guard like the proverbial hot knife through butter, and we spend the day on the run, while fine-tuning our arsenal of various tap-outs. We are the nail.

This is the nature of Jiu Jitsu: we are continually pushing our limits, as we work to build a better, stronger self. In order to improve, we need to fine-tune our strengths and improve our weaknesses; we need strong partners to train with and put those skills to the test. Just as one needs both a hammer AND nails to build a house, we need to experience the full spectrum of training in order to build ourselves.

We learn to rejoice in our victories with a bit of gratitude and humility, while we accept our defeats with an appreciation for the learning opportunity it provides. This is a great corollary to our daily lives, in which we will experience both success and failure. We should enjoy the rewards of our successes, while being grateful for the people and circumstances that helped us get there. On the flip side, it’s important to remember that we can survive those times when things don’t go as planned; even when it seems our life is in a shambles, we can not only survive, but come out stronger. Often these lessons are the most empowering of all.

Whether you’re the hammer or the nail, embrace the grind. We’ll all be that much better because of it.

See you on the mat.

What Can You Do?

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is a highly motivational piece of our American history which you should read here: jfklibrary.org. (or watch it here) His is a great manifesto of Strength and Honor, praising the value of standing up for what’s right, even in the face of adversity. Perhaps the most well-known part of his speech is our focus this week.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

-John F. Kennedy

This admonishment applies just as well to those of us who might be too young to vote or have any comprehension of the politics of our day. It could just as easily read, “ask not what your family can do for you – ask what you can do for your family.”

As very young children, obviously our parents take care of everything. As we get older, we start to help out, and generally get assigned some “chores,” or responsibilities. Assuming my own childhood, and more recent experience as a parent are pretty common, this means that parents still spend quite a bit of time and energy reminding, cajoling, and/or bribing their progeny to clean their room. It is a sign our children are growing up when they start to accept their responsibilities, and perform their given tasks on their own accord.

At an even more mature level, a person identifies what needs to be done and takes care of it without guidance. Here is where asking yourself what you can do for your family comes into play. Develop the habit of looking at circumstances from the perspective of, “how can I help,” as opposed to “somebody else will take care of it.” This is about much more than just being helpful around the house. Having a proactive mindset is a key to success, as it leads to independence.

When faced with adversity, some people spend their time and energy blaming circumstances and others for their predicament. They also look to others for the solution, essentially behaving like a little child whose parents do everything for them. One thing that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teaches us is that in the end, it’s up to us. Your professor can teach you the moves, your training partners can help you drill, but once you’re out there rolling, it’s all on you.

Is life much different?

Let’s teach our children to be independent thinkers – to be problem solvers. Let’s teach our children to “ask not what we can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.”

See you on the mat.

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.