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

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(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.

#SubmitTheStigma: Mental Health on the Mats

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(Screenshot/Vimeo)

A quick prologue:

A few months ago I wrote this piece about #SubmitTheStigma for the good folks at GOOD Magazine. #SubmitTheStigma is a campaign to get jiujiteiros talking about mental health issues, both with each other and in the broader community.

In some ways, even though there’s no mention of me or first person writing in the article, it was one of the more personal things I’ve ever written. I don’t talk about it much in public, but I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. (I probably suffered from depression and anxiety as a child, too, but they didn’t diagnose kids back in the ‘80s.)

In the second half of 2016, I had one of the worst depressive episodes I’d had in some time. It was mostly a sort of numb blankness that occasionally plummeted into pits of really dangerous despair. It went on for six months.

During those six months, training Brazilian jiu-jitsu was one of the things that kept me from completely spiraling out of control. Even if I could barely get out of bed, even if I only got out of bed to go train and then went back again, getting to the gym made me feel like a human being, and like I’d done something.

In writing this article, I discovered I wasn’t alone, that BJJ is part of a lot of people’s treatment regimes. If we’re brave enough to step on the mats with someone who is going to try and choke us out, we can be brave enough to have some awkward conversations about our own mental health. And if we can do that, we might wind up getting the support we need, as well as helping someone else.

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

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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.