Sunday, December 26, 2010

Setting New Goals in the New Year

Focus on One Area of Your Game

With the new year approaching, it serves as a great time to step back for a moment and reassess your BJJ game.  Like most of us, your gym will be closed for a few days over the holidays and you will be too busy making the cross-town travels visiting family and attending the usual parties with friends.  Realistically, you may not step back on the mats until 2011.  Now would be a good time to take a moment and pick one area of your game that you would like to focus on and improve.  The trick to this exercise is picking an area you are NOT good at already.

Think of your typical sparring session in the gym.  If you are a great guard player, how often do you find yourself pulling your sparring partner in your guard and working your vast array of chokes and sweeps until you are able to finish them from that position.  Only to start again and end up in the same position?  What happens if you are now matched against someone who may have an even better guard game, or is especially great at passing the guard?  You find yourself in an uncomfortable position and unable to work your usual game.  Again, pick an area of your game you may not particularly like to drill from and make it a point to work on it.  That is truly the only way to get better.

I may have mentioned this quote before, but I often think of it when people talk about how great someone is from the guard, or they can guillotine anyone from any position.  Rickson Gracie said something along the following: "You have guys that are great at an armbar from the guard.  They can catch anyone in this position, and they are a 'black belt' at the armbar from the guard.  But once you pass their guard and mount them, they are defenseless."

Allow yourself to learn to become a black belt in every position and situation.

Back in 2011

The Mental Dojo will be back in 2011 and my first entry for the new year will be a ground breaking one...  I will teach you the one secret to getting your black belt.  That's right, you heard it correctly... ONE thing you need to know to get your black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  I could charge thousands of dollars for this secret, but I will be giving it away free for a short time in the new year.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Being Thankful

Take a Moment to Reflect

I wanted to take this time to urge us all to take a moment and reflect back on all the GOOD things that have happened to us and remember all the NICE people we know and have in our lives.  With so much that goes on in our lives we often get stuck in a pattern where all we focus on is the negative.  Think about it... If you have an exceptionally rude checkout person at a store, or a bad experience at a restaurant, how many people do you tell about that experience?  How about if someone did something nice for you?  Let's say that someone picked up your wallet you dropped and gave it back to you, or perhaps you had an exceptionally pleasant person waiting on you at the bank.  How many people do you relay this story to?  We may mention it in a passing story, but rarely do we let the positive experiences affect us the way we do the negative ones.  That is probably why the business world follows the belief that if a customer has a positive experience, they'll tell one person.  But, if they have a negative experience, they will tell six people on average.  All of us have let a single, simple negative experience snowball into the "worse day ever."  What if we let the positive experiences have the same effect on us?

The Hill

When I was in college, one of our conditioning exercises for football was to jog to a local park near our practice field.  In the park was a short hill, less than 100 yards long, that had a very steep incline.  Looking back on those days, I am convinced this was more a mental exercise than it was a physical one.  We would start with a few simple jogs up and down the hill to warm up.  Surprisingly, the trip down the hill was just as exhausting because you had to slow your momentum down as you got to the bottom, or you would end up in the river.  Sometimes that seemed like an okay thing.

Then the fun started.  We would have to run backwards, sideways, and keep both legs together and hop up the hill.  This would go on for what seemed like forever, with little instruction from our coach other than when to start and what we were doing this trip up the hill.  Eventually you would start to hear the moans, and the swearing of teammates as we trotted back up and down the hill.  Time and time again the coach would promise us this was the last one.  Only to have him play out possible scenarios and say "The defense gave up a long touchdown, offense you have to go back on the field!"  Or possibly "Offense just fumbled, defense you gotta go back out and get the ball back!"  and we would have one more trip up the hill.  Each time we sprinted up the hill hoping it really would be the last one, only to have the coach waiting for us at the bottom of the hill with his whistle resting on his lips.

Here is where I learned what positive thinking can do, and how strong of an effect our thinking has on our brain as well as our body.  Our coach's tone would change and even though he was barking his commands out, it was in a seemingly calm manner.  He would say to us "Complaining is like a cancer, it only spreads.  Maybe the guy next to you wasn't feeling so bad until he heard you complain... all of a sudden he realizes he's tired, and sore, and now he's complaining and wanting to quit."  The team's moans would turn into words of encouragement as we lined up for another trip up the hill.  The swears turned into cheers and hand clapping as those at the bottom waited for the last of the team to come down the hill.  After a few more trips up the hill, the exercise was finally over, though no one really believed our coach when he said this was the last one up the hill.

In four years of football and visiting "the hill" I never saw anyone quit.

Being Thankful

I am extremely thankful for all that I have in my life and would not change one thing that has allowed me to get to this point in my life.  I am convinced that I have gotten to where I am by not giving up on knowing what I want, and not expecting anything else.  I have a great job that I love waking up for everyday.  I am a part of a great Jiu Jitsu school that has filled my life with great friends, relationships, and more importantly, my beautiful wife.  I am thankful that I am healthy and strong enough to compete, learn, and teach in the sport I love so much.

Hopefully, you too can take a moment and think back on all the good you have to be thankful for.  When we sit back and reflect, I'm sure we will see that there is much more to be positive about than negative.  By focusing on the positive and letting that feeling guide us through the day, it will only attract other positive experiences.

Trust me...the trip down the hill is much easier when you have a positive attitude.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What it Means to be a Black Belt

Old School
I am honored to have received my black belt from Master Carlos Enrique "Caique" Elias.  When people use the term "old school" in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, they might as well include a picture of Caique.  Caique was not born with the last name "Gracie" and he didn't start BJJ until his teen years.  A childhood friend of Relson Gracie, Caique tells the story of how he and Relson were surfing buddies and after a few "scuffles" on the beaches of Brazil, Caique decided he wanted to learn whatever it was that Relson was doing.  Caique was known for being one of the toughest students under Helio Gracie.  Caique would go on to train under legendary Rickson Gracie and receive his black belt from Rickson and Helio Gracie.

When we go to tournaments with Caique I'm in awe of how many of the "big names"of BJJ come over and always give him respect and listen intently as he speaks or gives his views on anything related to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  In one of his first interviews when not many people outside of Brazil had heard of Saulo Ribeiro, Saulo was quoted as saying that he "molded his Jiu Jitsu after Caique."  To me, that speaks volumes of Caique and what it means to be a black belt... Having people really interested to hear what you have to teach, and take your advice and teaching to heart and make it a part of their lives.  As if he needed more validation, Caique recently received his red/black master belt from Rickson Gracie himself.  That my friends, is "old school."

It's Not Old, It's Not New... It's Just Jiu Jitsu
A few years ago Caique made some shirts with this saying on it.  This was around the time that all these new videos and instructionals came out claiming to be the newest. latest and greatest in Jiu Jitsu.  Caique and some of the older teachers took offense to this and Caique made shirts with the saying on them as a way to subtly stand up against what he felt was disrespect to the black belts of his generation.

Even though Caique is from the old way of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, his techniques, thinking, and teaching have not stayed in the past.  He is constantly adding to and changing the way he teaches even the most basic moves of his curriculum.  Above this, he always has an answer for whatever question we have about a new move that seems to hit the tournament scene.  Caique doesn't hide behind "basic" techniques and he has developed a strong team of competitors.

Being a Martial Artist
My respect and admiration for Caique deepened about a year ago when Caique was conducting a seminar at our school, Warrior Way.  Caique started the seminar in a different manner than usual, and gave a small speech.  Caique talked about how it's great to compete and that may or may not be for everyone.  However, Caique went on to explain that it doesn't matter what we learn or can do in the gym if we go out in the world and are unable to defend ourselves (god forbid) or loved ones on the street.  His tone became more serious as he looked at the line up of students and said that no matter what else, we are 'martial artists' and being a martial artist has it's responsibilities.  We have the duty to teach those around us that we care about how to live a healthier, stronger life and, if the need be, defend themselves.

For so long I felt that getting my black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was a selfish goal.  I had to become the best I could be, and that meant that I must be better than everyone I competed and trained against.  Obviously, I knew being a good teacher was part of that goal, but I never looked at the big picture of how much it really meant to "be a black belt."  After hearing Caique's talk before that particular seminar, I took a step back and made the decision to live my life like a black belt.  Winning tournaments, and being a better athlete is definitely a goal to strive for, but I feel the true measure of a black belt is how we effect those we come in contact with and how we can help them live a better life.

We get people of all walks of life at our gym.  Some might be a former athlete looking for a good workout.  Some have dreams of becoming a professional fighter and begin their journey by learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and/or Muay Thai.  Then there's another unique group.  This is the person who might have never played a competitive sport in their life, or maybe even worked out regularly.  They may happen into our gym by chance, or perhaps they are a friend-of-a-friend and come in just to observe.  Eventually however, they stick with it.  They may get tapped out more times than they tap anyone else out, but they just get up off the mat with a smile, shake their partner's hand and quietly go back to training.  It's nothing to take an athletic, muscular, former athlete and teach him some techniques and make him a force on the mats.  It's the meek and timid who need our guidance and attention, for they are the ones that our instruction and guidance will have the most positive effect on.

Our head instructor, Harvy Berman, gave a speech once where he said that BJJ is for everyone.  He explained that we are all "fighters" in life and have our own goals and obstacles.  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and martial arts should give people the confidence to face whatever battle they may face.

What Does it Mean to You?
Please take a moment and leave a comment below and share what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu means to you and what you hope to get out if.  I'd love to hear how our sport has made a difference in your life...
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Friday, October 15, 2010

Changing of the Guard

A match between Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelts...                               

Perhaps no other position best symbolizes Brazilian Jiu Jitsu than “the guard.”  Most BJJ athletes will spend a great deal of time drilling and sparring to sharpen their skills and create a guard game that will both frustrate and, hopefully, eventually wear their opponent down until they are able to sweep or submit the opponent who is unlucky to end up in their guard.
When I work one-on-one with students and answer questions about the guard I often have to make the person take a few steps back and look at what they are doing, why they are doing it, and when they are doing it.  As a new blue belt I remember the frustration I would feel not being able to submit a lower belt when they were in my guard.  This frustration would lead to panic after I was unable to submit them and they eventually passed my guard, got mounted on me, and, in more than a few occasions, submitted me.   What I eventually realized was that I had a “list” in my head of all the sweeps and submissions I knew and I would run down this list as soon as someone ended up in my guard.  I assumed that since I was a higher rank I would know more moves than they did, and I would eventually submit them when I attacked them with a move they didn’t know.  Same with sweeps… I would work through all my submissions first and then I would try all my sweeps if I was unable to catch my opponent.

Timing is Everything
There are a few things to keep in mind as you attack from and develop your guard.  First, as with almost anything else in Jiu Jitsu, timing is everything.  The best way to use your timing is to execute your sweeps and submissions off the movement of your opponent.  By doing this, you make it hard for your opponent to stop a move since they are already moving in a certain direction.  Also, setting up attacks off of your opponent’s movements allows you to use less strength and therefore flow from one move to the next effortlessly.  I often use the analogy of a good guard being similar to being trapped in a net.  A net’s effectiveness is due to the fact that it’s loose, and envelops its prey.  The more the prey struggles in a net, the more it entangles itself.  Resist the urge to force moves while in the guard.  Learn to set up your opponent by attacking with one move so that you can get them to move or react a certain way.  Then use that movement to set up your next attempt.

Check Mate
An effective guard should be the same way…  Every move your opponent makes should place them in a worse position, until their last move leads to one final submission.  It’s this mentality and approach that leads many to refer to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a “chess match.”  In chess your goal is to maneuver your pieces in such a way, strategically, that your opponent has no move, offensive or defense, to counter with (i.e. check mate).  Jiu Jitsu is the same.

So, how do you practice this?  The first thing you must do is let loose of any motivation to catch your opponent.  You should still try to put your opponent in submissions, but you should focus on letting off just enough to allow your opponent to escape.  For obvious reasons this seems counter intuitive to what most people focus on in the guard but think of the reasoning… By letting them escape by whatever means they think is right, you get the opportunity to see, feel and learn what people will do when caught in a bad position.  I recently read an interview with Marcelo Garcia where he says that he learns most by rolling with white and blue belts.  Obviously Marcelo could catch these lower belts with almost anything he wants.  Instead, he lets them escape positions so he can see how a person will react when getting caught to study their movements.  This is what builds your timing.  Jiu Jitsu is what happens in between moves and positions, and by learning to anticipate your opponent’s next move, you can better develop your timing to a point where you are able to be one move ahead of your opponent and get them in the most vulnerable position possible… Check mate.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Apologies and Updates...

First, I would like to say sorry for not updating my blog in a while.  That is exactly what I wanted to NOT happen; come out of the gate strong and then let the blog fade away.  In checking the site hits of my site, I noticed that I had at least a few followers who checked daily to see if I had added anything new... and to those few who have stuck with me, "Thanks, and I'm sorry."

I received an offer to fight for the King of the Cage middleweight title belt on September 11, 2010.  The situation and circumstances were perfect for me.  I would be on summer vacation from school and would have all summer to train for the biggest fight of my career thus far.  I trained hard and for the first time in my fighting career, I stepped out of my comfort range and focused on my weakness, which has always been my striking.

Unfortunately, the fight did not go my way and I lost by TKO in the 2nd round....

I took some time to process everything that happened, heal up some bumps and bruises, feel sorry for myself, and spend some much needed down time with my wife, Aimee, who is my biggest supporter and feels the pains and stress of my training every step of the way as I get ready for a fight.

Ironically, I watched Rocky III the morning of my fight. In this installment of the series Rocky decides to retire but comes back one last time to fight a young, brash Clubber Lang.  Rocky loses their first outing due to the stress of losing his trainer, only to come back and recapture his title and glory.  Funny, I remember seeing Rocky III in the theaters when I was a young boy.  Immediately after coming home from the movie, I changed my clothes, wrapped my hands up with some ACE bandages I found in the bathroom cupboard, and proceeded to 'shadow box' and work out in the basement.  Of course I had no idea what I was doing, but "Eye of the Tiger" kept playing in my head and I wanted to be Rocky Balboa.  I never would've thought that almost 20 years later, I'd be testing myself against another man and fighting to capture a belt and glory... if even on a much smaller scale.  Life has a funny way of being poetic like that sometimes.

I guess this a great way to get myself back into my blog and share my experiences, happiness, and disappointed surrounding the biggest fight of my 11 year career.  Wondering if I "still got it".... asking if I still want it.... and contemplating if it's time to hang up the gloves for good or give it one more shot.

Look for a new posting soon..... Promise.  Until then, in the words of Rocky "Just keep punching Apollo, just keep punching."

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Progression in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu...Part III Purple Belts

In the next few entries I will discuss what everyone can expect at each step along the way as they progress in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from white belt to, hopefully, one day, black belt.  In my previous post, I discussed how there is an unavoidable path of progression in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  What I wanted readers to get out of my last entry was to realize that we must all experience each step in the progression of our learning if we hope to lay a foundation with which to be successful on in the future.

Purple Belt
“You Have to Learn the Rules Before You Can Break Them.”
A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is truly a major accomplishment.  I remember when I started in BJJ, a purple belt was almost unheard of.  Most of the BJJ schools, or associations, were run by blue belts with maybe a stripe or two, tops.  It wasn’t until I went to my first Gracie Jiu Jitsu Training Association tournament in California that I saw purple belts compete.  I definitely noticed the difference in their styles and approach to applying the same moves that I knew as a blue belt at the time.  So, what makes someone ready for their purple belt?

While at blue belt you are still fine tuning the technical aspects of moves and positions.  Your instructor teaches a move or a position, and you should be practicing and repeating it.  Blue belts should not be trying to “reinvent the wheel” at this time in their progression.  The goal of blue belts is still to learn the moves and how they work together in sequences.  Blue belts should also be focusing on defense and countering moves, so that they can survive bad positions and counter attacks from their opponents.

As I mentioned in my previous blog entry on blue belts, a major pitfall for new blue belts is to feel like they’ve already mastered the basic moves of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and they are ready to move on to more advanced moves and positions before they are ready.  I spoke to a friend of mine about this once and he put it into words perfectly.  He said: “You have to learn the rules first before you can break them.”

Due to the success of our gym, we get a lot of visiting students from other schools and affiliates of ours.  Often I will spar with blue belts and I see a disturbing trend.  Some of these lower belts are trying to use new moves, and advanced positions, that they are technically not ready for yet.  Though there is relevance for any move and position, white and blue belts should hold off on using Marcelo Garcia’s “X Guard”, or Eddie Bravo’s “Rubber Guard” until they understand the basic positions first.  If I spar with a blue belt, and he automatically tries to go to a Rubber Guard position, it makes it even EASIER to pass their guard than had they just use a traditional guard position.  Again, I am not saying these moves don’t have a valid place in our sport.  But I am a firm believer that lower belts should learn the basics before they move on to more advanced positions.

“Finding Your Own Way”
As a purple belt, you have learned the basic moves that are the foundation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Not only have you learned the basic moves, you have also learned how some of the moves work together in sequences.  One might think that this is the hardest thing to master about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  However, there is much more that needs to be learned.  The legendary Rickson Gracie has been conducting a series of seminars where he teaches what he calls “Invisible Jiu Jitsu”.  How can Jiu Jitsu be ‘invisible?’  When I teach classes, I try to get beginners to see that the essence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is “what happens in between the moves.”  Teaching someone how to twist a limb, or apply a chokehold is the easy part.  The hard part is getting your opponent into these positions when they know the same moves you do.  Sometimes a lower belt will come to class and be eager to show me the newest move they saw in a video, or book.  They maneuver around and finally end up in the position just as they remembered it.  When they are all set, they’ll ask me “What do you think of this?”  My question to them is always the same; “How do you plan on getting me there?”

This is where a purple belt starts to turn the corner in their progression.  As a purple belt, you’re goal is to now take all the moves and positions you’ve learned and come up with your own strategy and game plan as far as how you plan on getting your opponents into submissions and positions.  The greatest advantage for students at our gym, Warrior Way, is that we have several high level instructors teaching classes.  Each of the instructors are proficient in different areas of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and students have the ability to learn the same moves from different people.  In doing this, they can hopefully find the way that is best suited for them.  If you are fortunate enough to have multiple people to learn from, as a purple belt you can take all the things you’ve learned and rearrange them into a system that works best for you.  You are going into your Jiu Jitsu ‘toolbox’ so to speak and finding out when and where to use all the tools you’ve been collecting at white and blue belt. 

Again, purple belts will still need someone to watch over them and guide their training as they discover and create a system that works best for their size, strength, and athletic ability.  There will be times when a purple belt will get stuck or need help figuring out a position.  This is where a purple belt can turn to brown and black belts and get help figuring out how to transition from one position to another.

Purple belt is where a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner will learn the most during their progression, because it is where they will the most about their Jiu Jitsu.  

Blue Belt
"Opening up Your Toolbox"
There is a great sense of pride that comes with getting that first big promotion in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  A new belt of an actual color, and no longer being "a beginner."  After about a year of training, those that have stuck with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can expect to receive their blue belts.  For some it takes less time and for others longer.  A blue belt signifies that you made it through the initial phase of surviving and learning to not use strength while in bad positions. A blue should have an understanding of positions and be able to execute basic moves using good technique.  During their time as a white belt a person should have learned how to perform basic movements that will lay the groundwork for their development.  White belts usually learn moves independent of each other in the hopes of perfecting the technique and learning how the moves should feel.  As blue belts, they now begin to put the moves together and see how they flow in sequences.

In my post about white belts, I used the analogy that you are gathering tools for your Jiu Jitsu "toolbox."  It is now time to learn how to use those tools.  At the blue belt level you should begin to see how a choke can transition into an armbar, because to defend a choke the person may push away, thus exposing his arm.  Also, blue belts need to see that sweeps and submissions function together.  For example, if I am attacking a person inside my guard and they lean their weight forward to stop an armbar attack, I feel that shift in weight and use it to my advantage to sweep them and turn the position over.

I remember my biggest mistake as a new blue belt was to go through all my moves as if I was checking them off an imaginary list.  I would first start with attacks, going through all my favorite ones first.  If my attacks didn't work, then I would try to sweep the person.  If the sweeps didn't work, I'd go back to my list of attacks.  I realized that as I did this the person would figure out my timing and I could feel them advancing position, and getting the better of me.  Frustration and panic would set in as I was running out of options, and eventually I was the one in the bad position and/or tapping.

"Pitfalls of Being a Blue Belt"
Unfortunately, I see two common mistakes with new blue belts.  Both are just as damaging to the progress of the athlete as they move into a new phase of their learning.  The first group of blue belts in danger are the ones that feel their black, brown, or even purple belt are so far off in the distance.  They think about how hard they had to work as a white belt to get the blue belt and figure they must work three times harder, or longer, if they wish to reach their black belt.  Remember my story about the boy and the Karate master in my post "When You Seek It, You Can Not Find It".  If you focus so much on the final goal, you can not focus on the actual path to get there.  What blue belts in this group fail to realize is that from here on out, the process involves refining what they already know.  There will be few "new" moves that a blue belt, purple belt, etc. will learn.  Instead, what they will be learning is how to use what they already know.  The unfortunate side effect for people who think like this is that they eventually drop out of BJJ, as they feel like it will just be too difficult to finish what they started.  They lose the desire that kept them going as a white a belt and many of these people quit.

The next group of blue belts fall into what I call the "Blue Belt Masters" category.  They feel that they have mastered all the basic things and spend their time on all the latest and greatest moves they find on the Internet or in books.  Don't get me wrong, I find value in seeing what's new in the world of BJJ and trying out innovative new moves or positions.  BUT, the problem I have is when people do so at the expense of neglecting the basics.  Some blue belts figure they know how to do all the "white belt" moves and when these moves are being taught, they may practice it once or twice and stop to talk or work on another position.  Or they may work through the movement by going through the motions and not focusing on what they are doing, figuring they already know this move.  Perhaps they even try to 'teach' the move to other students on how it should be done.  I can see the look in blue belts faces when we practice a simple bump-and-roll or elbow escape mount defense.  They feel as if this move doesn't relate to them since it's a "white belt" technique.  Immediately their mind loses focus and they are off in other directions.  Yet, when I watch them perform the movement, their technique seems to be worse than a white belt that is actually focusing on learning the move!

As a blue belt, you are still learning.  You still need the guidance of an instructor as you fine tune the skills you have.  The most basic move can have a new detail reveal itself to you even though you've seen it a dozen times, or more, already.  Do not lose focus on how you are learning and what you should be doing in class.  There is still more to learn as you begin to understand the moves you developed as a white belt.  In his book A Fighter's Mind, author Sam Sheridan refers to what's called the 10,000 hour rule.  This refers to the belief that you can not truly expect to master something until you've spent 10,000 hours practicing it.

Until that time, you are still learning

White Belt
“Fill up Your Toolbox”
When we first start out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu there is so much going through our minds that we might seem overwhelmed with how much we don’t know.  A white belt’s goal should be to just come to class and gather as many tools for their Brazilian Jiu Jitsu toolbox as they can.  You may not know how, when or why to use these new tools, but it is just important to gather them and have them for later.  White belts should not worry about what the higher ranking belts are doing, or how they are doing the techniques.  White belts will learn techniques differently than higher ranking belts and will need to practice them at a different pace.  Moves are often taught to white belts in a way that breaks down the movements into specific parts.  It is necessary to practice the correct movements as shown by the instructor.  Each movement will relate to something else that you will learn later.  You may not see the relationship between different techniques or positions yet, but you will be surprised to learn that when you break down each move or position, there are a lot of similarities.

“Look, Listen, Feel”
Some students learn by listening, others by watching, and others by doing.  It is important as a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu student that you use all your senses to be able to learn each new move and position.  Watch how the instructor moves when he is doing the technique.  Listen to how he is describing key points to each position.  When training with a higher ranking belt, feel how they do the move or where their weight is distributed.  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires an extreme level of sensitivity and connectedness with the moves and the practitioner. 

“Survive and Move on”
The biggest mistake I see a white belt make is when it comes time to spar in training.  They may be sparring with a higher belt, and their strategy seems to be to try and match their partner move for move.  This does not make sense, you are trying to submit someone who has had more time to practice the moves, and defenses, and has probably developed their timing to a level well above yours.  Of course things happen and you could get lucky, but more than often the white belt ends up putting themselves in a worse position by constantly attacking.  

When most of us think of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu we might picture a submission, or choke hold and obviously those are the key ingredients of BJJ.  However, more than half of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is NOT getting submitted yourself and put into a bad position.  I can teach anyone to twist an opponents limb, or choke them into submission, but if you are constantly fighting off your opponent’s attacks, or always find yourself in a bad position, knowing 100 submissions will not help you.  Surviving should be the main focus of any white belt, especially when you start sparring.  Building a good, defensive base will allow you to set moves up better, and above all, that is what we are learning isn’t it?….  Self-DEFENSE.

Above all else, have fun with coming to class and learning something new each day.  Don’t get mad if you forget or can’t remember moves, you will see them again and taught a different way.  Master Caique has a saying posted up and around his school and it is the simplest and easiest formula to getting your black belt:

“A Black Belt is Just a White Belt that Never Quit”

Saturday, July 31, 2010

When You Seek It, You Can Not Find It

One of the most asked questions when people start out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tends to be "What do I need to know to get my _______ belt?"  People are always looking forward to their next belt and what they need to do to get it, or how hard they have to work to get it.  What most people fail to realize is that they need to focus on building on what they have already learned and refining it, to take them to the next level.

When I discuss our Brazilian Jiu Jitsu program to prospective students I explain the "good news / bad news" about BJJ belts when the topic of rank comes up.  I explain to the prospective student that there are only 5 belts (plus stripes) in BJJ.  Where in some traditional martial arts you might have a dozen or more ranks until you finally get to black belt.  I explain that the good news is you only have five belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but that's also the bad news.  You are obviously going to spend a bit of time at each belt and should not focus on the simple goal of reaching your next belt.  I can already see a defeated look in their eyes when I explain to them that it took me approximately 10-12 months to reach my blue belt.

Focus on the Journey, not the Destination

The title of this entry, "When you seek it, you can not find it."  is from a Zen riddle and is illustrated perfectly in the book Zen in the Martial Arts (I have referenced this book already, and often will.  I highly recommend it to everyone).   The book tells the story of a young boy who happens upon a Karate master:

The boy tells the Karate master "I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land.  How long must I study?" 
"Ten years at least," the master answered.
"Ten years is a long time," said the boy.  "What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"
"Twenty years," replied the master.
"Twenty years!  What if I practice day and night with all my effort?"
"Thirty years," was the master's reply.
"How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.
"The answer is clear." said the master.  
"When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way."

How many times have we heard "stop and smell the roses," or that "life is about the journey, not the destination"?  If your sole purpose for participating in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is to get the next belt, then you are going to miss out on all the great experiences and opportunities for personal growth our sport has to offer.  Of course it is everyone's goal to succeed at whatever they do and earning rank in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no different.  However, we can not become so focused on the goal that we lose sight of the process of our learning and the way we actually reach our goal.

I referred to the learning of BJJ as a process... meaning that we can not go from start to finish, without experiencing all the steps along the way.  Think of anything else you've learned to do in your life, there is always a crawl-before-you-walk process that takes place.  This is only natural.  Like a house, a foundation must be laid down to build upon.

Too Many Masters, Not Enough Students

Nowadays there is no shortage of instructional material to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  There are books, videos, websites, tournament footage and an over abundance of videos on YouTube put out by anyone with a video camera and some mats.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for spreading the art of BJJ and the more people that are exposed to it, the better it is for all of us in the end.  However, all this information gives beginners a false sense of learning.  A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu white belt will watch hours of video and read all the latest books, and go the gym and try out the latest techniqes.  They may be able to surprise some of their training partners with their new moves, but what happens when their training partners are able to stop this new move?

For hundreds of years, martial arts was about a student coming to his master to gain knowledge and learning new skills and techniques as they progressed through the style.  Each day a student would practice a technique, and then build off of that technique for the next one, and so on and so forth.  However, in today's environment, everyone is trying to find the quickest way from point A to point B, without talking the time to actually learn and create a foundation with which to build upon.

In the next few entries to follow, I will discuss what a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu student should expect for each belt level from white to black.  By understanding that we can not speed up the learning process in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it is my hope that wherever you find yourself along the process, you will be able to keep both eyes on the way... and not just the destination.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unpack Your Bags

The office of our gym, Warrior Way, overlooks our parking lot. About 20 to 30 yards beyond the parking lot is the road our gym is on, and a few yards beyond that lies yet another parking lot. For years I noticed a particular habit of one of our students. Though he was one of the first students to arrive for class, and even though there was plenty of parking spots right in front of our facility, he would always park across the street and make the 100 yard or so walk to our front door. Time and time again I would witness this, and though I found it odd, I never questioned him about it. It wasn't until a few months ago that I finally brought it up to the student and asked him why he does this. The answer I got was amazing! When he exits his vehicle, throws his gear over his shoulder and begins his walk to the gym he goes over all his thoughts and stresses of the day. As he makes his way closer to the front door he imagines dropping off his "baggage" of the day and visualizes setting down his concerns along his path to the gym...

In my previous post, Lifelong Learning, I discussed the need for students to have an empty mind as they journey through the process of learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We can not keep our "cups empty" if we allow thoughts of our stress and concerns to flood our minds as we step on the mats. I was teaching a class recently and when I looked out in the class I was troubled to see a few of the lower belts day dreaming, looking around, and otherwise allowing their thoughts to drift off. Whatever they were thinking about at the moment, I definitely could tell it was not the technique I was demonstrating. I stopped and discussed the importance of what I call active learning. Again, this is a catch-phrase I came across in teaching and I use it with my 7th graders all the time. Learning is a two-way street. I can teach all I want, but if a student does not focus their efforts on taking in the knowledge I try to give them, they are not going to be successful. We may all know someone like this in our Jiu Jitsu classes. When class is going on and the instructor is teaching, they run off the mat to get a drink of water, check their cell phone, or otherwise take themselves out of the learning environment. Perhaps, while the instructor is teaching, they too allow their minds to drift, daydream and wander. Or maybe they are the person that is talking or otherwise not focused on the technique or drill at hand. Don't get me wrong, one of the main reasons we all love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so much is that is after all a social activity and most gyms have a close-knit social group off the mats. My point is that for a student to reach their fullest potential, they need to commit themselves to active learning for the one or two hours they are on the mats.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's greatest advantage is that it allows it's students the ability to practice techniques at full speed in sparring situations. Allowing partners to "tap out", gives us the ability to practice the effective submission holds without hurting ourselves or our partners. This, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's dynamic nature, make it necessary for the student to give full attention to the task at hand. Countless times I have come to class stressed or worried, only to allow myself to put my trouble aside for an hour or two as I train, spar and get a great workout. Remember my Jiu Jitsu class full of daydreamers? After I discussed the importance of active learning to the class I assured them that whatever troubles they set aside for the hour they are in class will be waiting for them when they leave the gym. Just like the techniques they practice in class, they need to practice clearing their minds to allow them to take in all the information being taught with each new position and technique.

We know that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires more than just size, strength and athleticism. It requires the practitioner to "feel" the nuances of each position and upcoming transition. As BJJers, our minds and bodies need to be in tune with the task at hand. If you've ever competed in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament you can relate to the feeling moments before a match. Almost as if you are donning armor, getting ready for battle, you cross the lapels of your gi, and tighten your weathered and torn belt around your waist. Both your body and mind are so focused at the upcoming battle that when you step onto the mats you can actually feel the texture of the mat under your feet. As a sign of respect, you bump fists with your opponent, trying to size him up as you barely pay attention to the referee giving final instructions. The referee motions you to step back to your starting spots and you shake your hands out or bounce up and down as you try to get the last bit of nervous tension out of your body... Imagine at this exact moment allowing your mind to drift to thoughts of what groceries you need to pick up tomorrow, or remembering duties you need to complete at work first thing Monday morning? What do you think the outcome of your match would be?... Life is about balance and in no way am I suggesting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, or should be, more important than anything else in our lives. Obviously responsibilities to our families, friends and loved ones should come above all...

For many people just getting to the gym or dojo to train is a task in itself. Leaving work on time, dropping the kids off at practice, running errands, etc. are all tasks we must complete before many of us can even think about grabbing our gi and our belt and running out the door to Jiu Jitsu class. However, once you do make it to class, do yourself a favor and take a few moments to clear your mind of stress and concerns as you focus on your learning and practicing.

Even though they'll be waiting for you outside, allow yourself the freedom to unpack your bags for an hour or two.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lifelong Learning...

In the book Zen in the Martial Arts the author tells of a student talking with his master over tea about his difficulty to grasp new techniques. With both their cups already full of tea, the master began to pour even more into the student's cup until it ran over and onto the table. Confused, the student asked the master why he poured more tea into his cup when it was already full. The master made the comparison of the student's mind to the tea cup and stated that if your mind is already full of what you think you know, there is no room to be taught that which you do not.

As a school teacher the term "Lifelong Learning" is a catch-phrase I come across often. As an educator, and in hopes of bringing the best education possible to my students, I am expected to continue my education beyond all my required certifications and degrees. We find this in almost any profession we come across, don't we? As new techniques and technologies become available, one must keep up with advancements if they wish to stay competitive and/or knowledgeable in their field. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and martial arts in general, should be no different.

On my journey with this blog I will often cross over between the worlds of both student, and teacher. It is my hope that everyone will be able to take something away from, or perhaps add to, the topics I address here, from a beginner white belt, to brown and black belts. A good friend of mine named Steve is fluent in Japanese. We were talking about Japanese terms once, and I was intrigued to find out that the Japanese words for student (seito), and teacher (sensei), share the common character sei- for "living" or "life". It is my understanding that the only difference between the two terms is experience and/or age. Notice where the shared term comes in each word. In the beginning for the younger, less experienced, student and at the end for more experienced, wiser, master. The Japanese see that the teacher and student both travel on a parallel path. There should be a very thin line separating the student from the master. I jokingly tell all the white belts in our Jiu Jitsu school that the only difference between them and me is that I've tapped out more than anyone else, and that's why I got my black belt. I see myself as a student, just like them. It is not uncommon for me to learn details about a specific move or position, that I have not realized before, only after I was asked a question about it. For example, I conduct private lessons with a purple belt student on a regular basis. As a higher level BJJer, his questions tend to be a little more detail oriented and we are literally analyzing a move or position down to the smallest detail or fraction of an inch. I am often asked a question that I may not know the answer to off the top of my head, but as we discuss the issue and begin to breakdown the position, the answer is revealed to me.

How is this possible? Am I a some sort of Jiu Jitsu prodigy or genius? Hardly. I simply have never put up the image that I know or have all the answers. If I am faced with a question I don't know the answer to I am comfortable saying so, and try to find a way to work towards the answer with the student. This is the same thing I do in my classroom. If a student asks me a question I don't know the answer to, I thank them for asking a great question and tell them that I will find the answer and get back to them, or welcome the class to beat me to finding the answer (they love the challenge). I make sure I ALWAYS follow up with an answer to their question. Same in Jiu Jitsu. I am fortunate to be surrounded by talented and experienced teammates, and of course, our master, Caique. I always have a resource to find a solution if I am stuck in a position or need an answer. With new technologies, I am even able to video tape a position I have a question on, email it to Caique and receive a video response a few days later! If only Bruce Lee had the Internet...

The biggest mistake for any martial artists is to say "I've made it!" after they've reached a certain point. The day I received my black belt I realized that this was just the beginning of the journey for me, which was both an exciting and scary feeling. There is not one day that I step on the mats that I don't learn something new (Here's where the obvious analogy of "that's what life is all about" comes in.) I have seen it time and time again with people in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, at all belt levels. I will address this later, when I talk about each belt and rank, but for now I'll just speak of it in general terms. I see students who make it to a certain rank and literally stop learning. Sometimes it's at blue belt, sometimes it's purple, etc. etc. It's as if they set a goal for themselves to make it to a certain level and once they reach it, they are satisfied. I see them come in time after time and literally make no improvements in their own Jiu Jitsu game plans. They are more focused on the sparring and rolling, and seeing how many people they can tap out and who they can keep from tapping them out. The result is their progression literally coming to a screeching halt and they get stuck at a certain point, while other pass them by.

The death of any martial artist is when they think they know everything they need to know. I am often reminded of a phrase a friend told me once: "Good enough usually isn't." It's difficult, but necessary, to remind ourselves that sometimes we need to "empty our cups" if we wish to learn anything new.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Welcome... To the Mental Dojo.

First, I must admit that I stole the name for my blog from a friend of mine named Tim. Like me, Tim was a school teacher and had a great sense of humor. A lifelong martial artist, Tim would often tell his students how when they were entering his classroom, they were entering his "Mental Dojo." I always thought that was a funny story, and when I was thinking what I wanted to create for my own blog, this phrase kept popping up in my head... Tim, if you ever come across this blog, contact me and let me know how much I owe you for the name.

There is no shortage of "how to" videos and "instructionals" from Internet-Masters. Any blue belt with a camcorder can, and is, putting out a ton of videos, showing you how to do everything from a scissor sweep to a go-go plata (if you don't know what either of those terms mean, then move along to the next blog). The purpose of this blog (or my hope at least) is to provide a forum to discuss the mental aspect of our sport and how the way we approach our training affects how we perform on and off the mats.

I suppose this is the part where I list all my credentials and why you should care about what I have to say. Well, for starters, I am a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I am proud to say that my black belt comes from a very short lineage leading back to Helio Gracie. I received my black belt after 10 years of training from Master Carlos Enrique Elias, better known by his nickname of "Caique". Caique, now a red/black belt master, received his black belt from Helio Gracie himself and his red/black belt from Rickson Gracie. Caique's best friends and training partners growing up were none other than Rickson and Relson Gracie. I have competed in BJJ tournaments, submission grappling, as well as fighting professionally in MMA. I suppose it is the latter that has forced me to think more about the mental aspect of combat sports, thus, leading me to creating this blog. Perhaps a way for me to think out loud if you will, and when possible, receive feedback from anyone who has the same experience I am going through or can offer words of wisdom.

As far as education goes, I received an economics and business management degree from Albion College and and my teaching degree from Wayne State University. I currently teach middle school as well as help run the biggest and most successful BJJ and Muay Thai gym in the state of Michigan called Warrior Way Martial Arts. I am married to an incredible woman named Aimee who is the most supportive person I've ever known and puts up with all my hours of training, cutting weight, injuries, fights and tournaments (thank you sweetheart!)

You are now about to enter The Mental Dojo....