Not Fine China

Let’s face it, life here in the burbs of NorCal is pretty sweet. We are lucky to be raising our children in a time and place where they are unbelievably safe, and it keeps getting safer, despite what the media would have you believe. While all the improvements we’re witnessing are good news, I fear that in an overzealous attempt to guarantee their safety, we are actually putting our youth in harm’s way. Is it possible to be too safe?

“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Why yes, William, one can have too much of a good thing. Take water for example – it’s not only good for you, it’s vital; we require water to survive, and many should drink more than they currently do for optimal health. Yet too much water is more than a little problematic; water intoxication (hyponatremia) can be fatal. So can drowning.

In this same fashion, the “better safe than sorry” mantra has been taken to an extreme. Our parks have rubberized crash pads under age-appropriate play structures, with nary a treacherous teeter-totter nor merry-go-round in sight. Even with all of this benign safety equipment, there’s always a parent near-by, hovering about like a helicopter from the local news station, waiting to jump in at the first sign of danger. Children rarely walk, or ride their bikes, to school. When I do see them biking, they look geared up for battle – not only sporting a helmet, but also wrist braces, and elbow & knee pads. Once at school, they’re not allowed to play freeze tag or dodgeball for fear someone might get hurt. Just like the public swimming pool, it’s become the land of NO: no running, no diving, no chicken fighting, no pushing, no this, no that, no…..

The teachers and/or parents always hovering nearby are also the new arbiters of all that is right. Not only are we making sure nobody gets physically injured, it is now of vital import that nobody’s feelings get hurt either. Anytime there’s a bit of disagreement, there’s an adult ready to jump in and straighten it all out. Read your local school board policy and you’ll note an emphasis on students’ feelings of safety.

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” 

– Friedrich Nietzsche

In our pursuit to shield our children from any and all physical, emotional, and mental distress, we are also removing valuable opportunities for them to develop into strong individuals. Bumps, bruises, and hurt feelings (gasp!), are all very real, and vital components of children at play. These are opportunities for our children to develop better risk assessment, become more independent, learn to fall and get back up, and fine-tune their conflict-resolution skills. Perhaps most importantly, they will realize that their bodies, as well as their feelings, will not only heal, but be that much stronger because of it.

In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,  author Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks us to think beyond fragility and resilience, and recognize that some things are antifragile; they need to be stressed and challenged in order to adapt and grow. The fine china we received from my in-laws is fragile; it breaks easily, and can’t heal itself. The plastic cups our daughters used as toddlers are resilient; they take a beating and remain relatively unchanged. We need to think of our children as neither fragile nor merely resilient – they are antifragile. Just like our muscles, bones, and immune system, our children get stronger when faced with challenges.

“Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.”

– Mencius,  4th Century BCE

This is the nature of training in jiu jitsu. We are continually putting ourselves under pressure – the pressure of combat, in order to become physically, mentally, and emotionally tougher. BJJ students are antifragile; we are not made of fine china.

See you on the mat.

The Power of The Tap

Training in BJJ can oftentimes seem a bit of a paradox, especially to the uninitiated. We train for fun, and improved health, to develop self esteem and confidence, by getting smashed, arm-barred, and choked by our training partners. Indeed, many of us often wonder ourselves, as we head to the next class with a slight bit of trepidation. Yet we always leave said class feeling better than ever, supremely grateful for the training, and looking forward to the next.

This seemingly paradoxical nature of BJJ is embodied in the tap. We “tap out” when our training partner achieves a successful joint lock or choke, at the verge of damaging a joint or rendering us unconscious. Tapping out is a safety valve which enables us to train in the most realistic manner possible; we can utilize destructively effective techniques while simultaneously maintaining a safe training environment.

The last part of class is reserved for some form of rolling, where we have the opportunity to apply our skills against an “opponent.” Here we come face-to-face with the exquisite nature of BJJ. While we are are engaged in fierce competition with our opponent, each trying to get the tap by submitting the other, we are also trying to learn, and help our training partners do the same. If we train solely to win, we let our ego get in the way of learning. We tend to be too rigid, relying on our strengths, and thus not growing. We need to be more fluid in our rolling, more willing to try new things and make mistakes, and therefore more willing to tap. It’s helpful to remember the admonishment…

“There is no losing in jiujitsu. You either win or you learn.” – Carlos Gracie, Sr.

As Jujiteiros/as we develop ourselves to be strong individuals, physically as well as emotionally. The intensity of our training breeds confidence in our ability to handle adversity, both on the mat, and in our daily lives. Tapping out further reinforces this by teaching resiliency. We can “lose” a match and come back for more. Rather than being mad or disappointed and giving up, we accept the moment, learn from it, and come back prepared to get it right the next time.

In order to achieve the results we want in our training, we must strive for a healthy balance between intensity and safety, winning and learning, ego and humbleness. Tapping out gives us the ability to achieve that balance. Train hard, tap often, learn more.

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.

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.

Are You Comfortable?

I recently came across a blog written by another student of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Grips & Growls chronicles his journey. Anybody already living the BJJ lifestyle will be able to relate. For those considering trying Brazilian Jiujitsu for the first time, his is a fresh perspective from one who has just recently begun. One particular post entitled “Sweaty Floor Karate,” hit upon a key concept of our art.

When you’re comfortable being uncomfortable for a hobby, everything else gets easier.

Let’s face it. We all enjoy the good things in life. We glory in the opportunity to sleep in, look forward to the chance to just sit on the couch and “veg,” and spend our weekdays anticipating a weekend at the lake, or a night out on the town. Daily, we are tempted to just hang out at the local coffee shop. While we’re at it, we can snack on a Snickers® bar, have a soda with lunch, and a little cheesecake for dessert.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying any of these from time to time, too much of a good thing is, simply stated, too much.

Consider as well all of the technology we’re surrounded by, and for the most part, take for granted. It was all designed with the intent to make life easier. There are planes, trains, and automobiles that get us where we’re going. Flip a switch and we have lights. Push a button and we have air conditioning. Push another and we change the channel. Turn a dial and we’re mixing, juicing, and cooking our food. We can open and close the garage door without ever leaving our car. Indeed, with a few thumb clicks and swipes on our smartphone, we can do just about anything, without ever leaving our home!

Remember the people aboard the spaceship Axiom in the movie WALL-E?

Our modern, suburban lifestyle provides us with ready access to every luxury imaginable, and an environment nearly free from discomfort. However, all of this easy living has a downside: it makes us weak. Just like the poor folks abroad the fictional ship Axiom, such a lifestyle can leave us ill-prepared to deal with adversity.

There are moments in our lives that can be less than pleasant. Taking an exam in school, applying for a job, and speaking in front of a large audience are some common examples. Avoiding them isn’t always an option, and oftentimes it isn’t in our best interest to do so. A successful test score, job interview, or presentation could lead to a vast improvement in our lives in the form of college placement, employment, or a promotion. These are times when being able to remain confident, calm, and clear-headed can enable us to effectively deal with the circumstances. (Let’s call these the three C’s of being comfortable.)

Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable is fundamental to the transformational power of Brazilian Jiujitsu.

There’s nothing quite like having a larger, stronger training partner who has gained a superior position to help us understand the importance of the three C’s. In this circumstance, it is guaranteed you are going to be uncomfortable. As the pressure they apply smashes you into the mat, it gradually becomes harder to breath, with each consecutive breath a bit more shallow than the last.

The beauty of Brazilian Jiujitsu is that there’s a way out. If you can stay calm and clear-headed enough to remember your technique, and then execute confidently, you can escape. Not only that, but it can become a total reversal of fortune. It is an exhilarating experience to escape, improve your position, and then submit the person who was smashing you moments before.

Brazilian Jiujitsu is physically and mentally taxing. It pushes us to our limits. This is what makes it so powerful. The confidence gained radiates into every aspect of our being. After training with our teammates, everything else appears less intimidating. Any anxiety regarding an upcoming exam, job interview, or public speaking engagement is more manageable. We can look life’s challenges in the eye and say, “is that all you’ve got?” Our training enables us be confident, calm, and clear-headed when facing adversity.

We can be comfortable being uncomfortable.

See you on the mats.

Steel Sharpens Steel

The age-old maxim “steel sharpens steel,” or “iron sharpens iron” embodies the simple premise that we grow stronger when we surround ourselves with others who are strong. More modern sages tell us to associate with like-minded people, at least in regards to goals, and people who have already succeeded in achieving those goals.

“…avoid the negative influences of other people and surround yourself with successful people who will encourage you to pursue your dreams.” -Zig Ziglar, Born to Win: Find Your Success Code

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins puts it succinctly, “Who you spend time with is who you become.”

In the martial arts this is paramount. As a BJJ practitioner one pursues not only strength, conditioning, mental acuity, and emotional toughness, but more effective methods of combat. While one could conceivably build the first four traits on their own, having a partner and/or coach will greatly facilitate their growth. Developing effective combat techniques, however, simply cannot be accomplished without great training partners.

It is important for each of us to remember that while we’re putting in our time on the mat, working our butts off to achieve our own personal victories, that we’re also there for our training partners. We need one another in order to get where we’re headed. The more like-minded, goal-oriented people we can surround ourselves with, the better.

“Proximity is power… Who you spend time with is who you become.” – Tony Robbins

See you on the mats.

Because sometimes things don’t go as planned.

This week brings us to the fourth part of Self Defense 101. Previously we looked at the importance of awareness, knowing the risks, and avoiding potentially dangerous situations. We discussed how we can further reduce our risk by communicating to predators (bullies, muggers, etc.) that we’re not to be trifled with. Additionally we covered how to use our breathing to help deal with the stress of confrontation. When our efforts to avoid confrontation have failed, we’ve reached a juncture where it’s time to take action.

The action we take will vary as the circumstances of each incident are unique. The level of threat plays a large role in what that response should/must be, while on the other side of the equation, our individual circumstances dictate the tools at our disposal. For example, a child dealing with a bully on the playground has a slightly different set of rules to play by, as well as other available resources, then does a woman being accosted in a shopping mall parking lot.

If the opportunity exists, the best option is always the same: LEAVE! Run if you have to. Unless you’re trapped, or have others to defend, it is always better to leave the scene on your own terms. For children, find someone of authority; a teacher, yard duty, police officer, store clerk, etc. In all situations, remember that well-lit areas with lots of people mean plenty of unwanted witnesses for the predator.

Finally, when the aforementioned forms of physical and verbal communication have failed, and escape isn’t an option, the tone has to shift from trying to avoid and defuse the situation to stopping it. The more calming requests must change to definitive demands. A strong stance, with hands up and palms open,  communicates that a person doesn’t want trouble, but will defend themselves. A loud “NO,” or “BACK OFF,” has the added benefit of potentially drawing the attention of others who can assist. (It’s been suggested to yell “FIRE,” as this tends to be a real attention getter)

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In the end, it all comes down to preparation. Have you thought about your game plan? Have you rehearsed/practiced it? What about the actual physical skills of defense? If one has done everything correctly, the odds of ever experiencing a violent encounter can be greatly reduced. Just like a fire extinguisher collecting dust in the kitchen cupboard, with diligence and proper preparation, it will likely never be used.

In the off-chance there’s a grease fire, however, you’ll be glad it’s there.

See you on the mats!

Be Calm and Breathe

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

-Frank Herbert, Dune 

(It’s a work of fiction, I know, but this mantra has stuck with me since I read it in my youth, so here it is.)

Last week we started our discussion of the “ABC’s of Self Defense” in which we talked about Awareness. Awareness, of course, is the tool we use to avoid danger, minimize the risk of encountering it, or enable ourselves to see it coming when unavoidable. This week we’re going to begin looking at strategies for dealing with the complexities of confrontation.

Fear is a natural reaction to any given set of stimuli perceived as dangerous or potentially so. We’ve all experienced it to one degree or another; standing on the edge of a high precipice, being in an automobile accident, preparing to ride a roller-coaster, or the seemingly universal fear of speaking in front of a large number of our peers. Don’t feel bad. The increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaky hands, and pit in your stomach are all results of your autonomic nervous system doing it’s job.

Fear is a healthy tool for survival. It reminds us to avoid danger, or to proceed with caution when in doubt. It can stimulate us to action in order to protect ourselves; whether to fight or to flee. The adrenaline leads to an increased heart-rate, and heavier breathing, making us stronger and faster. It focuses our vision and hearing, blocking out extraneous distractions. Fear can also render us incapable of rational thought, intelligible communication, or fine-motor skills. It can distort our vision and our erase our memory.  It can incapacitate us, leaving us frozen in our tracks, unable to decide what to do or which way to go. Therefore it is vital we learn to control our fear, and make it work for us, as it should. The key to this control lies in something as simple as our breathing.

Tactical breathing, or combat breathing, refers to a technique used in the military and law-enforcement to reign in our fear, so to speak. It is not unique to these agencies, however, as it is also taught in martial arts, yoga, and even the Lamaze technique. It is a way we can moderate our autonomic nervous system’s response, keeping it in a range that benefits us the most for the circumstances at hand. By controlling our respiratory response, we can stay “in the zone” of optimal performance.

As with all self-defense skills, this is one we should practice at every opportunity, in order to assure we have access to it under the most dire of circumstances. When you feel yourself getting “stressed out” before an exam – breathe. When you sense your anger rising during a discussion/argument – breathe. When you’re warming up before a competition – breathe. When you’re fixing your belt between rounds in a jiu-jitsu class – breathe

While breathing itself isn’t rocket science, here’s a basic method for reigning in your autonomic nervous system, and thereby your fear. As you practice and develop this skill, you’ll find a count that works best for you. In the meantime, just remember “4 X 4:

  1. Inhale for a count of four.
  2. Hold it for a count of four.
  3. Exhale for a count of four.
  4. Hold it for a count of four.

Repeat four times.

See you on the mat!

(**For a more thorough understanding of stress in combat, check out Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Combat. Every serious martial artist should put this book on top of their must-read list.)