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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Re-commit

Way back in January I talked about New Year’s resolutions, and the difference between being committed to a goal versus simply being interested. If you are seriously committed to your goals, surely you have a plan, and are following through with implementing it. Great accomplishments take a long, concerted effort to achieve, so it is a good idea to periodically take stock of where you’re at.

Now that we’re already into the second quarter of 2018, it’s a good time to assess the progress you’ve made this past quarter. Are you on track, ahead of schedule, or have you fallen behind? If you’re in one of the first two categories, congratulations and keep up the good work! If you find yourself falling behind, or having not even begun, do not despair.

Today is the day to re-commit to success.

There’s an acronym that’s been around since the beginning of time, or at least the 1980’s, that provides a great framework for setting goals. I use it to remind myself to be S.M.A.R.T. about the goals I set. SMART goals should be:

Specific

Measurable

Attainable

Relevant

Time bound

Pick worthy goals and write them down.

First of all, take the time to seriously consider what you want to accomplish. Make sure it is relevant. Identify your core principles; the ideals that make you who you are. Is this goal consistent with your principles? Is it something you truly want and are willing to commit to? There’s no point in wasting your time pretending to pursue something your heart’s not really into.

Be specific in what you want to achieve, and how you’re going to do it.  For example, rather than a general “get in better shape,” a student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu might decide to improve their fitness for better success in training. I find sets of threes easy to remember, so it could look something like this.

  1. Improve shoulder and hip mobility by taking two yoga classes/week.
  2. Increase strength by committing to three days/week of lifting.
  3. Clean up diet by minimizing processed “junk foods” and eating vegetables and lean meats every meal.

It’s important to make a list of measurable results with which to monitor your progress.

  1. Compare shoulder range of motion for Kimura and Americana every quarter
  2. Bench press my body weight, and squat 2X my body weight.
  3. Roll six 5-minute rounds without a break.

Make sure to write it all down! It may seem trivial, but writing down your goals, makes them more real. Putting them up where you see them on a daily basis helps remind you of your commitment. Hanging them in a conspicuous, public place where your friends/family can see them adds another layer of accountability.

Make your aspirations manageable

Make sure your goals are attainable. Sure, it’s nice to dream big, but try to be somewhat realistic as well. A 20 year old white belt who sets out to become a world champion is fully within the realm of possibility. A 60 year old white belt who wants to become the UFC Champion is another story.

Your goals must fit within your personal time constraints. There are only so many hours in the day, and while it would be nice if we could devote every waking hour to such pursuits, most of us don’t have such luxury. We need to work around our jobs, families, and other obligations. With a limited amount of time available on a weekly basis, it’s important to set reasonable timelines in which to accomplish our goals.

Additionally, over-commitment to a short term expectation often leads to frustration on multiple levels. People get fired up when they initially commit to a goal, and can devote too much time/energy to their goal, at the expense of other areas of their lives. Over time, the stress from those other commitments builds, and can lead to the need to abandon the pursuit and “put one’s house back in order.”

Finally, your goals should be time bound. Pick a specific (reasonable) date in the future, say one year out. Then you can break that down into quarterly, monthly, or even weekly increments to create a solid plan of attack.

Ready, Aim, FIRE!

Lose this day loitering—’twill be the same story
To-morrow–and the next more dilatory;
Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? seize this very minute–
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and the work will be completed!

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as translated by  John Anster

All of the preparation and planning in the world is moot if it isn’t backed by action. Once you’ve set the goals, and developed a plan, it’s time to implement. Get busy putting in the time and effort, stick to the plan, and enjoy the success which is sure to follow.

See you on the mat!

Finding the Sublime in the Simple

Recently, I decided to re-read All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum. It’s a fun, touching book of life lessons which I read way back in college, when I first started teaching children’s martial arts classes. (not quite so far back as the paleolithic period I mentioned last week, but pretty close.) His “credo” is a list of the basic rules we are taught as children. The beauty is, these work just as well for us as adults as they did when we were young.

“These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put thngs back where you found them.
  • CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

Each chapter is a little anecdote that simply and eloquently demonstrates an ideal. Through engaging, often humorous, stories of  puddles, vacuums, mermaids, raccoons, and hide & seek, he shows us the powerful relevance of lessons learned in every-day experiences; the sublime within the simple.

One such story is about spiders. Actually, it’s about a specific, traumatic, “life-changing” encounter between the author’s neighbor and a spider; from both his neighbor’s perspective, and that of the spider. (after it’s all said and done, both experiences are really quite the same.) Here’s a much less eloquent synopsis. The two are busily going about their daily routine. All hell breaks loose as their world’s collide.  They re-collect themselves, and go back to getting on with their day. (Mr. Fulghum’s version is much better – you really should read the book)

Remember the itsy, bitsy spider and that rainspout? No matter how many times one sings that nursery rhyme, no matter how many times the rain washes that spider out, the sun always comes out, dries the spider off, and the spider gives it another shot. It’s a cute little rhyme that we use as parents and teachers to pass on one of the most valuable lessons in life: Never give up.

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.     

-Victor Hugo

For martial artists, and anybody else interested in achieving great things, Perseverance is a vital key to success. Big accomplishments take a long time, require much effort, and the path along the way is marked by many obstacles. There will be times when we’re too tired. There will be shiny, new distractions that divert our attention. There will be set-backs. None-the-less, just as the spider dries off, and heads back up that rainspout, we too must dust ourselves off, re-adjust our sites, and get busy working toward our goals.

This week we’re talking to our Lil’ Samurai and Jr. Jujiteiros about “Four Steps to success.” It is a simple recipe, but it’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort to stay on task and put in the work.

  1. Show up.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Rest.
  4. Repeat.

Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.

-Buddha

We humans are survivors. Just like spiders, we’ve been around for a long time. (well, they’ve been around for a few hundred million more years than we have, but who’s counting?) We’ve survived disasters and disease, experienced devastating wars and debilitating famine, and yet we persist. When we find our spirits low, or feel we are unable to continue on our chosen path, it’s important to remember – just like those who came before us, we can push on. Get up, dust yourself off, and get to it. Put the setbacks of yesterday behind, and make the most of today.

See you on the mat.

Character

Over the past few years my daughters and I have really enjoyed watching the movie versions of Marvel’s Avengers. We can’t wait for the hubbub at the box office to die down, so that we can go to the latest installment, Black Panther. I think that part of the popularity in this series is the diversity presented in all of the various characters. Each has her/his own superpower, as well as their own personality. As they evolve under the stress of the various adversities they encounter, both individually and collectively, we see them struggle with their own character, both strengths and flaws.

While we are intrigued by their superpowers, I think the most engaging aspects of the storyline involve their struggles with their own, very real, and very human weaknesses. At different times, it’s reigning in their ego, or coping with self-doubt. Sometimes they must resist the temptation of power. There’s always the weight of doing what’s right for the greater good, versus what’s best for them. In the end, they always find their way through the turmoil, and make the hard choices that lead to success.

Which superhero is your favorite? Which traits do you appreciate the most? Obviously, while we can’t have their superpowers, we can rise to the occasion where it truly matters. While we train to develop our physical skills as martial artists, we can also work toward developing in ourselves the character traits we admire in our heroes, both real and imaginary.

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.

Perseverance

As a youth I had little appreciation for tennis. The whole system made no sense; sets, games, matches, advantages and tiebreaks. Why does the score go from 15 to 30 and then to 40? What does love have to do with it? What a silly sport for the polo-shirt class.

Over the years my perspective has changed. Understanding the scoring system, and how the match is broken down into sets of games helped me begin to realize the beauty of the game. The precision with which they can place the ball is amazing, but for me, the real beauty lies in the psychology of the game. No matter how far behind one player may fall, each successive game and set provides yet another opportunity for the comeback. The epic matches between Borg and McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi, and Federer and Nadal were extraordinary demonstrations of perseverance. To see those guys lose a set, only to come back and win the next, or to battle back-and-forth in extended tie-breaks, neither one willing to give up or concede the match, right up to the end was truly inspiring.

The ability to maintain “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success,” is a powerful tool in the pursuit of one’s goals. It’s easy to work towards something that requires little time or effort. However, most of the things we desire require both. A college degree, a world championship, a beautiful home, an exciting vacation, or a comfortable retirement all take a concerted effort over a long time to achieve. Over such an extended time there is ample opportunity for distractions and hurdles that can make one falter. We need to develop perseverance in order to assure success.

“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. Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam, 1979

Training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu provides the perfect “proving ground” to help us develop the ability to remain poised under pressure, both figuratively and literally. There are times in training when we find ourselves in inferior positions, trapped under larger, stronger opponents. For the uninitiated, this can be pretty intense, as one feels the pressure of being stuck, claustrophobic, and unable to do much other than wait it out, or submit. The beauty of BJJ, however, is that at some point in such situations, if a person can remain calm, and position themselves well, there will be opportunity to make an escape and change one’s fortune.

By developing our perseverance, we can weather whatever proverbial storm may come our way. Life is full of distractions and hardships, but by staying committed to our goals, regardless how difficult, we can succeed where others fail.

See you on the mats!