Helicopters and Snowplows

I’m often struck by the stark differences between life here in the burbs of NorCal and my childhood back in Montana. We live in a day and age in which we’re able to invest so much into raising our children. We are fortunate to get to participate so much in our children’s lives – to volunteer in the classroom, to watch them play sports, or to simply walk them home from school. I can’t help but ponder, however, if too much parenting may be detrimental to our children’s development.

I have vivid memories of biking to school with my friend, Steve. As fifth/sixth graders, we covered the entire two miles completely unsupervised. On summer break, my siblings and I left the house after breakfast with the admonishment, “be home before dark,” and spent our days out and about with friends, riding bikes & horses, shooting tin cans with b.b. guns, exploring “the woods,” or abandoned lumber mill, with nary a parent in sight. We crashed our bikes, fell off the horse, and got into arguments & fights. Occasionally, we came home with cuts, scrapes, bumps & bruises, and hurt feelings.

Growing up this way taught us to be independent, to think for ourselves, and to be proactive. We learned that we weren’t immortal, but that our wounds would heal. We also learned that our feelings were temporary. We could stomp off in anger, but be back playing the next day. We learned how to settle disagreements without a referee, to compromise, to apologize, and how to forgive – not because we were told to, but as a matter of course.

Fast forward to the here and now. Very rarely do I see children walking or bike riding, to/from school, or playing at the park unsupervised. At the park, the parents are ever-vigilant. They warn their children of imminent danger with a “be careful,” when the child tries to climb the rubberized, sanitized, age-appropriate play structure, and intercede like a referee anytime there is an interaction with another that isn’t completely joyous and cooperative. Indeed, it is becoming so rare for children to be unsupervised, that people are calling the police, and families are being reported to C.P.S., simply because their children went to the neighborhood park alone!

As parents and teachers, we play a vital part in our children’s development, however the largest part of learning comes not from being told or shown, but from the experience of doing. We can give our children information, tell them right from wrong, and explain cause and effect. We can teach by the example we set, and we can offer counsel when needed. We must also allow them the opportunity to do things on their own up to, and including, failing. We must restrict our natural desire to protect our children to when it is absolutely necessary. They need to fall down, make mistakes, feel the sting of failure, and savor the pride in getting it right.

See you on the mat.

Grappling With Your Ego

I absolutely love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, as a practitioner and as a teacher. It is a powerful martial art which can help us come to grips with who we are, both on the mat and off. As Joe Hyams so eloquently wrote in Zen in the Martial Arts,

A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves – our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world. The conflicts that take place inside the dojo help us handle conflicts that take place outside.”

Part of the beauty of BJJ is randori, free-sparring, or what we normally refer to as simply “rolling.” The nature of the art allows us to go all-out with our partners every class, and with minimal risk of injury. This assures that our technique is effective, while also honing the psychological requirements of combat. This is when we get to let loose our inner-child and just play.

Naturally, competition demands an emotional investment on the part of the participants. Thus, we’re jubilant when successfully executing a new technique, coming to a higher level of understanding, or “getting the tap,” but on the flip-side, can find ourselves greatly frustrated, or even angry, with our apparent lack of progress, when we find ourselves continually tapping on the receiving end.

Tap early, tap often, and train longer! We all want to win, but it’s vital that we learn to check our ego. Realize that even when we tap, we are still working toward whatever goal we’ve set. In fact, not tapping can be counterproductive – if we’re sidelined with an injury because we didn’t want to lose, we’re not making any progress on any level.

“I never lose. I either win or learn.”

– Nelson Mandela

Often our competitive nature leads us to hold out too long when defending against an arm-bar or choke. If our partner has the submission sunk in, and we’ve exhausted our counters/escapes, we’re better off tapping and moving on rather than trying to just power through. While strength and sheer will are both powerful attributes, unless we’re training for an upcoming competition, relying solely on them means we’re not developing the technical side of our game.

Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We all have our reasons for training: fitness, self-defense, sport, camaraderie, martial art, etc.. Our purpose and goals for training must align with our changing lifestyles, and our obligations to family and profession. As we get older, we must also adapt to our body’s shifting needs and capacity. Just as we refine our jiujitsu “game,” so too must we learn to modify our expectations and find a healthy balance between family, work, and BJJ.

Brazilian jiu jitsu reminds us to celebrate victory with a bit of humility, while accepting defeat with dignity. Our wins come not only from our own efforts, but from the help of our teammates and guidance of our coaches. Tapping from our “mistakes,” gives us the opportunity to learn, and to continue pursuing our goals with intensity.

See you all on the mat!

Beware the Gonna’s

“Often we are caught in a mental trap of seeing enormously successful people and thinking they are where they are because they have some special gift. Yet a closer look shows that the greatest gift that extraordinarily successful people have over the average person is their ability to get themselves to take action.”

-Anthony Robbins

We all have dreams and aspirations of who we’d like to be or where/how we’d like to live. We’re also fortunate enough to live in a time and place where the opportunity to actually achieve those dreams is available to anybody willing to put in the work. Yet there are those who spend their days trudging in mediocrity, waiting for their dreams to magically come to fruition. These poor souls get trapped by the bad habit of “I’m gonna.”

“When I’m older, I’m gonna be rich.”

“I’m gonna travel the world one of these days.”

“Once I’m not so busy, I’m gonna start working out.”

Days become weeks, weeks become years, and before they know it, they’re older but no richer, still financially unable to travel, and still too busy to start working out.

If we truly wish to turn our dreams into reality, it is vital that we take action.

“The critical ingredient is getting off your butt and doing something. It’s as simple as that. A lot of people have ideas, but there are few who decide to do something about them now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But today. The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer.”

Nolan Bushnell

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Why wait? Turn your dream into a goal, and make a plan on how to achieve it. Then get busy. Don’t think you have the time? Surely you can find ten minutes somewhere – any progress forward is more than none. Move!

Ready, Fire, Aim!

Too often we get stuck planning, trying to cover every contingency for the fear of failure. Not sure where to start? Start anyway; you can adjust as you go. Look around you for inspiration or a mentor.

Dream big – and then take action. You deserve it.

Know Your Enemy

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu

One of the reasons most of us train in the martial arts is self defense. We want to know what to do in the event someone tries to harm us. There are other threats to our well being besides so-called bad guys, and any serious look at self defense would be remiss if it didn’t address these very real threats. While we are taking steps to protect ourselves from being the victims of violence, we should also consider how to prevent becoming victims of poor lifestyle choices, and the chronic diseases that follow.

Of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. (this holds true world-wide) violent crime doesn’t even make the list. There were 13,455 homicides in the U.S. in 2015, the most recent year for which we have the statistics on chronic disease. The FBI just came out with the 2016 crime statistics, which sadly show another increase, with 15,070 homicides.To be fair, it should be noted that these numbers only represent the worst outcome of violence (death). More often than not, victims of violent crime survive. A more accurate number to compare, therefore, is total violent crimes, which in 2016 came to 1,248,185. In a country with a population of 323,127,513, that works out to about 386 incidents per 100,000 people.

Compare that to just five of the top ten killers in the U.S., namely, heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and diabetes. Over 1.5 million United States citizens succumbed to these killers in 2015. This number only represents those who died. It’s estimated that nearly 1 out of 2 people are suffering with at least one chronic illness! That’s about 50,000 cases per 100,000 people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) further estimates that up to 80% of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, as well as 40% of cancer could be prevented by eliminating the risk factors. Even if we were to take a much more conservative approach, say just 10%, that still works out to 144,963 lives saved in one year. Four of the major risk factors are things we have complete control over: lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption.

Boil all these numbers down and we’re left with this realization. For every victim of a violent crime in the U.S., there are 130 people with a chronic illness, and up to 103 of those could be prevented simply by living a healthy lifestyle!

If we’re serious about protecting ourselves and our families, training in the martial arts is a big part of the picture. It can give us the physical skills, and the mental capacity to “take care of business.” Here’s a five point plan to help us build our bodies like a fortress, ready to defend against all adversaries, including the ravages of chronic disease.

  1. Train like a warrior every day.
  2. Eat a healthy diet with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, nuts, and lean meats.
  3. Avoid highly processed, sugary foods with little nutritional value, smoking, and drinking alcohol in excess.
  4. Drink a lot of water.
  5. Get plenty of sleep.

By choosing to live an active, healthy lifestyle we are developing the most powerful self defense skills we can.

Winners and Losers

Through the month of January we focused on Stephen Covey’s first three Habits:

  1. Be Proactive.®
  2. Begin With the End in Mind.®
  3. First Things First.®

Developing this personal skill set, helps us recognize our purpose and makes us more effective at achieving our goals. If we want to increase our capacity exponentially, however, we must recognize the power of teamwork. The Fourth Habit from Stephen Covey’s treatise The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is “Think Win-Win.” Simply put, it’s recognizing that the most effective relationships are those in which all parties come out ahead. Here, Jiujitsu is the perfect allegory.

In Jiujitsu we simply cannot develop effective technique without a partner, and it requires a bit of skill to be a good one. Borrowing terminology from Japanese budo, the Uke (receiver) is the person tasked with getting thrown around. The act of being thrown, Ukemi (receiving), is an art in and of itself; it takes skill and understanding to be repeatedly thrown without injury, and to do so in a manner that helps the nage (thrower) learn the technique. While drilling a technique, a good uke doesn’t just flop on the floor like a limp noodle, nor do they resist the technique by countering. They have to provide the appropriate response in order for the nage to practice their technique. This is dictated by many factors including how experienced their partner is, and whether the technique is new. This cooperation is vital; if we don’t work with our partners to help them develop strong technique, they won’t be able to help us improve ours. We must strive for a win/win, in which all parties are benefiting.

Sometimes losing is winning.

People who are afraid of “losing” when drilling, who’s egos prohibit them from finding this cooperative balance, will struggle to learn the nuance of technique. They are also frustrating to the partner who’s trying to learn, only to be thwarted every time they try. This isn’t a win/win; it isn’t even a win/lose – it’s a lose/lose. Nobody is able to improve much under these conditions. Allowing ones partner to practice a move, thereby developing better technique, makes them a better partner for us.

Stay focused on the Big Picture

Additionally, if one’s ego is too big to “lose” and tap out when necessary, they will eventually be injured. The severity of the injury will dictate the amount of healing time, but this win/lose mindset will once again become a lose/lose, as their injuries affect their ability to train. This is a good example of when losing is winning. Tapping out (short-term loss) means more training longevity (long-term win).

Steel sharpens Steel.

There is time and place in Jiujitsu where each student should be striving to win. Whenever two individuals are engaged in competition, whether during the rolling portion of a class, or at a tournament, somebody is eventually going to win and their “opponent” will lose. While nobody likes to lose in these moments, there is still a win/win silver lining. Oftentimes, we learn much more from our losses than we do our wins. It’s important to remember the adage, “you’re either winning or you’re learning.”

“I never lose. I either win or I learn.”

Nelson Mandela

See you on the mat.

Be Like a Child

Young children crack me up. They are curious, joyful, exuberant, and playful; their youthful vigor provides them the spirit and energy to conquer the world. All of that is combined with inexperience, and zero impulse control, rendering them irrational, foolhardy, and short-sighted. Add to this the ability to externalize pretty much everything, and you’re left with a boat-load of random, all day long. For adults accustomed to a more organized, methodical approach to their day, this kid energy can be disconcerting. I find it refreshing, and quite amusing.

All of that curiosity and vigor are advantageous to their ever-growing understanding of the world around them. The more they experience, the more they learn. As they learn to recognize cause and effect, the less irrational and short-sighted they become. Provided their random actions don’t lead to great bodily harm or death, they are surely making progress. As parents and teachers, we need to allow them the space to make mistakes and learn, while guiding them to avoid those which would be catastrophic.

Come to think of it, this is also a pretty accurate description of new white belts, regardless the age. They come in with the enthusiasm of trying something new, but their unfamiliarity with the art leads them to make mistakes. As instructors and upper belts, it is our responsibility to provide them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, while guiding them to avoid those that are detrimental to their training. (Being sidelined because of injury doesn’t help anybody) Of course, as their mat time increases, their experiences will be the most powerful teacher of all.

This is part of the beauty of life on the mat: it is a direct reflection of life in general. The lessons we learn in the finite sphere of our dojo, or training hall, correlate to the bigger world of our daily lives. These ultimate “truths,” if you will, cut across all boundaries, whether one is an athlete, CEO, or parent.

“A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves – our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world. The conflicts that take place inside the dojo help us handle conflicts that take place outside.”

Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts. 1979.

We’ll cover a number of these truths over the next few weeks.

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.