Training Diary: Sometimes a Good Roll is Enough


Triangles, man. (Martial Arts Nomad/CC/Flickr)

Hey! So this is actually a post I wrote 90% of a couple weeks ago and never bothered to finish because I’ve been working an actual go-to-it job while also freelancing, and also having an Olympic-calibre summer cold. (I met with a client feeling like my eyeballs were boiling in my skull.)

Anyway, reading the mostly-finished post I decided I was still feeling those feels, so I finished it.

So, my first training back from injury, toe buddy taped and all, wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I struggled tremendously. Not only was I a little [more] out of shape [than usual], but it was all lasso guard and spider guard and triangles.

I have short legs and almost zero hip flexibility and sub-par core strength. Lasso and spider are guards that don’t really work for me as a result. Triangles are a pretty BJJ 101 thing that I should be better at, but I’ll really only try for one if my opponent is just kind of handing it to me, and even then, I probably won’t finish it in time.

It was mega frustrating.

But then at the end of the class, I rolled with a higher belt. He’s an older dude, by the relative standards of the gym—maybe 10 years older than me?—and he’s just started teaching kids and white belts. He has a real mellow demeanour. He immediately puts you at ease. Now, that mellow demeanour doesn’t mean he didn’t arm bar me three times in six minutes or something, but we were laughing while it happened, and he took the time to show me how he was catching me over and over again.

It was really nice. It made struggling through an hour of lasso and spider guard worthwhile. That’s why I do this.

It’s Injury Time Again


Not my toe, but not unlike what my toe looked like last week. (Tony/Flickr/CC)

When I started this blog a few months ago, I was struggling to return to BJJ after being injured. Now, I’m working on re-imagining it, turning it from a night school project into a thing I’m just doing as part of my life and training. And as per the circle of life, I’m injured again.

Now, it’s not nearly as bad as last time. Last time I had a head injury, which are scary and can be disorienting and leave you messed up for weeks. This time I have a broken toe, which is mostly just a pain in my ass.

(An aside, do you know that for a broken toe all they can do is tape it to another toe? It’s called “buddy taping.” Because your toe has a friend that makes things less painful. How emotionally resonant is that?)

Anyway, every time I get injured, people question why I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is sort of a subset of the response I get to telling people I do BJJ in general, which is “Why would a seemingly sane man in his 30s who is, to put it diplomatically, clearly not a natural athlete, take up a sport where you fight people?” People think I’m trying to prove something, or have some sort of issue I’m trying to work through. And for sure, they aren’t totally wrong. There are a lot of psychological issues that I’m working through that BJJ helps me with: my anxiety, my depression, the sense of helplessness that comes with those things, my feelings of not being “enough.”

But those are all side benefits I discovered after I started training. Mostly I’m just trying to get some exercise.

“But why this exercise? Why couldn’t you do something more reasonable, like running?”

And this is where I start to get annoyed. Because I have some people I love dearly who are runners, and I would never shit on someone else’s preferred form of exercise, but the idea that running is somehow a saner, more reasonable workout than jiu-jitsu is garbage.

Runners are prone to everything from plantar fasciitis to torn glutes. (No, that really happened to a friend of mine mid-marathon. That’s real.) They damage their knees and hips and ankles and then claim that those stupid toe shoes will fix things. Runners have a bizzarro culture in which pain is just a thing you “push through,” and finish your marathon, torn glute and all. The only reason running is considered “reasonable” exercise” is that a) it’s of our culture, so people are used to it and b) it doesn’t LOOK as unsettling as people grappling. (I’m not saying that North Americans invented running, that’s stupid. I’m just saying it’s thoroughly integrated into our culture.) In reality, slamming your feet down on concrete for dozens of kilometres a week is no more or less reasonable than rolling around with your friend trying to catch an armbar.

All exercise has a risk of injury attached to it. Running, BJJ, skiing, yoga, “the gym,” all of them have risks. So does crossing the street. But the greater risk comes from not exercising at all. Exercise is good for you. It makes your life better. And occasionally being banged up is a totally reasonable price of admission for the overall benefits.

(And I want to head this off at the pass, I’m not talking about weight here. I’m talking about metabolic and mental health. There’s not a one-to-one relationship between metabolic health and weight. Also, one of the best BJJ players at my gym has a gut not unlike mine, but is fast and strong and technical as balls, and could for sure armbar every fitness guru out there. Corey, if you’re reading this, you’re my hero, guy.)

Injuries happen, but finding the activity that keeps you healthy and sane is priceless, even if none of your friends understand it.


Training Diary: We Need to Talk About Ginastica Natural

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Alvaro and Raphael Romano doing some Ginastica on the beach in Rio. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Every so often, I go to train BJJ, and either because I really want to push myself more than usual—or, more likely, because I’ve forgotten what day it is—I wind up training Ginastica Natural instead.

So, what’s Ginastica Natural? Great question. The easiest answer is that it’s like what would happen if Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and yoga had a baby, and that baby was a bit bonkers. It takes a lot of the jiu-jitsu movements, and works them into sort of a yoga-like series of poses, with a yoga-like focus on breathing. For me, it’s like yoga in that I’m usually losing my balance and two moves behind everyone else, and like BJJ in that I’m almost immediately very tired and medium confused. It also takes a lot of the things I’m good at in BJJ—physical strength and a good ability to read people—and throws them right out the window.

(If you actually want to learn more about the history of Ginastica Natural, go here. Alvaro Romano is the inventor of Ginastica Natural, a Gracie black belt, and a guy who seems to know a lot of things about the human body.)

The first time I trained Ginastica Natural, I kind of hated it. I spent most of the flopping around like a fish on land, hoping it would all be over soon. After I got over the initial burning embarrassment, though, I realized it could be a really helpful tool in my quest to get better at jiu-jitsu. It highlighted some real weak spots—flexibility, mobility, breathing—and gave me a tool to help fix that. And so over time, I’ve grown to have a respect and understanding of Ginastica. Do I like it? No, not really. Do I understand why it’s important if I want to get better at BJJ? For sure.

But also, maybe it’s growing on me.

Last Friday, I went to a class that was a mix of Ginastica and BJJ. A quick warm-up, about 40 minutes of BJJ, and two rolls. And it felt amazing. The Ginastica was just short enough that I didn’t start to think “please let this be over soon,” and the rolls were amazing. I was aware of my body, I was calm and focused and present, and my breathing was great. I was fully Ginasticaed while doing BJJ. I think that’s how this is supposed to work?


Training Diary: Three Thoughts on My First No-Gi Class


This is what no-gi looks like. If I was one of these guys, which I’m not, I’d be the guy in turquoise. (Marco Crupi/Flickr/CC)

On Monday night I did my first no-gi class. It may surprise my non-Toronto BJJ BJJ friends that it’s taken me this long to get around to trying no-gi, but my school is pretty traditional, so you can’t actually train no-gi until after you get your blue belt. Also, no-gi scared the pants off of me. Or scared the gi on to me, I guess.

Finally, a mixture of a tight schedule, a desire to push myself and me wanting to be less dependant on collar-and-sleeve grips lead me to take off my jacket, get throughly uncomfortable, and train some no-gi.

Here are three quick thoughts:

It’s basically like being a white belt all over again

Like I said, my instinct at this point is to start a roll by going for a collar-and-sleeve. In no-gi though, there’s no sleeve and no collar, so instead I started the roll by staring at my hands and trying to figure out what to do with them while my opponent swept me into mount. It was a bad time.

It’s very slippery

A gi soaks up sweat. That’s why it weight like 20 kilos by the time you’re done training. With no gi that sweat is just kind of around, making everything wet. Including you, your opponent and the ground. The upside is that even if you’re stuck in a bad position, it can be hard for your opponent to submit you because you just keep slipping away. The downside is that it’s harder to get enough traction to get yourself out of said bad position.

Leg locks 

The key difference between gi and no-gi, beyond wardrobe, is that no-gi allows for more leg locks. BJJ is as much a mental art as a physical one. Having to have an added awareness of what your feet are doing adds one more thing to the checklist.

My Professor, Jorge Britto, said that traditional BJJ is chess and no-gi is checkers. I don’t ever want to disagree with Prof. Jorge about anything BJJ related for obvious reasons, but I would like to suggest that if traditional BJJ is chess, no-gi is Central Park speed chess. It’s only marginally less strategic, but infinitely faster.

Training Diary: Worm Guard Reflections


This is what worm guard is supposed to look like (Vince Millett/Flickr)

So, I haven’t been training enough lately. I’ve been sick, and not wanting to plague rat my gym, and I’ve also been adjusting to a new work schedule. In that I’ve been working somewhere with a schedule. (Not unrelatedly, I also haven’t been super diligent about posting here.)

But I wanted to share a quick observation from the last couple times I’ve trained.

At some point when I wasn’t looking, I developed the ability to laugh off being bad at things. This has always been a struggle for me with BJJ, and life.

Traditionally, if I haven’t shown a natural aptitude for something, I’ve just stopped doing it. This is why I write for a living, and still do math at a fifth grade level. BJJ is arguably the first thing I’ve voluntarily stuck with in spite of not being good at it. But I still haven’t been good at not being good at it. I tend to respond to struggle with a sort of furious self-flagellation and self-loathing. I view not immediately getting something as a moral failure.

A few days ago, we were learning worm guard. Worm guard is a pretty complex guard that requires pretty good balance and core strength— neither of which I have in abundance—and also for you to keep track of a lot of different moves in sequence, which as someone with medium-strength ADHD, I find hard.

So, worm guard went about as well for me as you’d expect. I fell over a lot. I got stuck in a lot of weird positions. I’m not sure I ever actually executed the worm guard sweep my instructor was showing us. But what I didn’t do was get frustrated. I didn’t get mad at myself, or my training partner, or the world. I laughed. Because it was funny. I was upside down with my foot wrapped in another man’s gi. That’s funny. And not being able to sweep someone from worm guard isn’t the end of the world. Everyone who loved me before still loves me. This is just something I need to work on.

I don’t know if this attiudinal shift is permanent, or if it will apply to my life outside BJJ, but I’m happy it’s happening at all.

Training Diary: Managing My Concussion Panic

4925947299_98aedd60e4_oAs I’ve mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I started this blog was to get me training again after coming back from a concussion. And overall, it’s been helpful. I’m training more regularly, and I’m feeling good about BJJ in a way I haven’t in a while. But it turns out, there’s still some residual concussion panic inside me.

A few days ago we were doing some self defense drills that involved a lot of judo-style takedowns, and I had a pretty bad time. I couldn’t make myself breakfall properly. I was getting the wind taken out of me every single time. I found myself tensing up as my training partner started to toss me, and kind of hugging my free arm, the arm I should be breakfalling with, around them as I went down. I actually hit the mat and bounced on a number of occasions.

Eventually I realized I was struggling so much because I was terrified I was going to get concussed again. Even though we weren’t training takedowns when I got hurt the first time. Even though I’ve done this before, and trained judo, and done a million other takedown drills, and been just fine.

I wish I could turn this into a numbered listicle post, but I can’t. I didn’t really come up with a solution other than let go of my “training partners ribcage and breakfall properly, even though every neuron in my brain is telling me not to.” I never really managed to get less tense. But I got through it. I didn’t get another concussion. I didn’t even really get hurt beyond a few bruises. Maybe the only way through this is to keep practising takedowns, keep not getting hurt, and eventually get over it?

Training Diary: Two Thoughts on My Great Armbar of Triumph


(Ippon Kumite/Flickr/CC)

After I presented my blog in class a couple weeks ago, someone asked me “If jiu-jitsu is so hard all the time, why do you keep doing it?”

That’s a great question. I think everyone who does Brazilian jiu-jitsu asks that question from time to time. Or possibly all the time.

The answer I gave them was that sometimes everything clicks, and you actually manage to pull off something you’ve been struggling with in a roll, and it all feels worth it.

Last week, I was rolling, and I had one of these moments.

Armbar from closed guard is a pretty 101 BJJ move that most people manage to do in their first two or three months in the sport. For me, though, armbars from guard have been a pretty illusive. I have short legs, and a hard time moving around on the ground, and a total lack of confidence in my ability to keep my opponent where I want them.

Nonetheless, one of the things I’m working on is getting more comfortable with is fighting off my back, so I’m trying to pull guard pretty much every roll lately. I hate it. I’m getting crushed all the time. So I’m rolling and I’m pulling guard, and my opponent is in my closed guard, and his hands are really far up on me. Like recklessly far. So I move my body to one side. And he keeps his hands there. And then I give up the closed guard and I put my foot on his shoulder, because I can’t quite get my foot over his head in one movement, and now I’m expecting him to pull back. But he doesn’t. So I keep going, and next thing you know, bingo. I have the armbar on him, he’s tapping, and victory is mine.

Here are a couple quick takeaways from my great success:

1) Don’t be so conservative

I tend to play a pretty cautious brand of jiu-jitsu, and probably I should be a little more daring. Because you never know, you just might get it, and if not, you’ll force your opponent to defend and open something else up.

2) Keep practicing

I have drilled armbar from guard into the ground. It has been awkward and uncomfortable and annoying. But muscle memory is a thing, and after a while it will actually kick in.

Training Diary: Letting Go of Ego OR Belts Aren’t Magic


(Photo courtesy my bad self)

Belts aren’t magic and you have to learn to fight without ego.

If you’re at a good Brazilian jiu-jitsu school, these are things you’ll hear over and over again. But it’s one thing to hear them, and even to understand them, it’s another to remember that message in the middle of a roll.

Earlier this week I got submitted by a white belt. Twice. Maybe three times, I can’t quite remember. I think I blocked some of it out.

It was subsequently pointed out to me that until a couple months ago, I was also a white belt, and that because of my concussion, I haven’t actually trained a ton since then. It’s also worth pointing out that the white belt in question was probably a decade younger than me, in much better shape, and definitely seemed like he had some sort of previous grappling experience. (If I had to guess, I’d say he was an ex-wrestler.)

Neither of these things mattered in the moment. What mattered was I felt embarrassed and stupid and useless. I was furious at myself for my inability to figure out how to out jiu-jitsu someone who’d been doing this half as long as I had. My ego was hurt.

Because really, no one cares. Belts aren’t magic. A blue belt doesn’t give me some sort of cheat code against white belts. And it doesn’t necessarily guarantee I’ll lose every fight against a purple belt. (The fact I can’t generate offense off my back guarantees that, but I’m working on it.) Higher belts get tapped by lower belts all the time. During the same class where I was submitted by a white belt, I watched one of my black belt instructors get submitted by a brown belt.

Did he get upset? No. He congratulated his opponent and laughed about it. He felt no type of way about it. Because he knows that regardless of rank, some people are better athletes, or have a killer go-to move, or are sneakier, or are just able to catch you on a bad day.

You win or you learn in jiu-jitsu. So what did I learn here?

1) I really need to get better off my back. My mount escapes are exceedingly bad.

2) More importantly, I need to not worry so much about “looking foolish” or “getting embarrassed.” Because those kinds of concerns are holding me back, not only in BJJ, but in life.

Training Diary: Ain’t No Party Like an Ultra Heavy Party (‘Cause an Ultra Heavy Party Only Stops Occasionally to Catch its Breath)


That is neither me nor Luis. That’s BJJ pro Otavio Nalati, an inspiration to big BJJ players everywhere. (YouTube Screenshot)

Every time I get the chance to train with another big guy — someone who competes at ultra heavyweight and, like me, has a bit of a gut on them — I get a little giddy. It’s just great to work with someone who paints with the same palate as I do. I don’t have to feel self-conscious about my bulk, or my inability to pull of certain moves. (Berimbolo classes are every big jiujiteiros nightmare.)

It’s also nice to see how I stack up against the sort of guy I will be eventually be competing against. Am I too dependant on using my strength and size to smash smaller opponents, or is my technique good enough that I can hold my own against another big guy? If my fellow ultra heavy is a higher belt, so much the better. Sure, they’re going to grind me into a fine powder, but they’re also going to show me a few cool pressure-based big man BJJ tricks along the way.

On Monday night, I had one of these glorious experiences. My partner was a purple belt named Luis, who has a crushing side control and a relentlessly positive attitude.

(For the uninitiated, side control day is pretty much every big BJJ player’s favourite day.)

We had a blast. We cheered each other on, tried to give each other tips through a language barrier, and when it was time to actually test what we’d learned against each other, we really went for it. I didn’t question whether or not I was just using my size rather than my technique. And for sure, Luis got the better of me, but I held my own better than I expected to.

Here’s the emotional honesty bit; I had a concussion a few months ago and have kind of struggled to get back into training. BJJ is hard and it’s supposed to be. It’s a hobby that’s not always going to be fun. Sometimes it’s going to be frustrating. Sometimes it’s going to make you question what you’re doing with your life. It’s always going to push you, physically and emotionally, further than you thought you could go. But then there are days where everything makes sense, where the techniques start to click, and you just feel tremendous joy. Those days are the payoff that make the other, harder days worthwhile. I hadn’t had one of those good days in a long time. In the month-and-change since I’d been back, everything had been hard. Everything had been pushing a rock up a hill. This was compounded by the fact that I was promoted to blue belt while I was out, which means that when I came back, I was coming back to new, harder classes that would have gone over my head even when I was healthy.

I needed a good day to remind me why I do this. So thanks Luis.