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.

The First Cut Is the Deepest OR Three Things I Learned From Coming in Third

 

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That’s me on the end. (Photo courtesy David Holman, who won gold.)

Over the course of this blog, there will be a lot of talk about how bad I am at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is for two reasons:

  1. I am not very good at it. I am not naturally athletic. I am strong, but I am fat strong. I have the flexibility of someone twice my age and the speed of a slow loris.
  2. I just got my blue belt. Which means that rather than living in the walled garden of all-white belt classes, I’m now rolling with purple and brown belts. People who really know how to do jiu-jitsu. So I get crushed a lot. Like a lot a lot.

That said, I have had some limited success in this. This is a post about one of those successes.

Back in July, I fought in my first ever tournament. I was terrified to compete. I’m not competitive by nature. It’s one of the many ways in which BJJ is a weird choice of hobby for me. (I’m also claustrophobic. More on that later.)

Much to my surprise, I came in third in my weight class.

Here are three things I learned from coming in third:

BJJ works

One of the core principles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that a smaller person can beat a bigger person using technique and leverage. (Hélio Gracie was a tiny, tiny dude.) Being that I’m 225 lbs., I’m almost never the smaller person in a fight. The exception being in tournaments, where I end up being the smallest guy in the heaviest weight class.

That means I wind up having to fight men the size of literal, actual bears. There is no ceiling in the largest weight class. The first man I fought was enormous, well over six feet tall and probably very close to 300 lbs. And I beat him. Using leverage and technique. BJJ really does work. Thanks Hélio.

Adrenaline management is everything

In my fight against the aforementioned bear man, he came at me with, well, bear-like ferocity. He pulled guard hard, squeezed me until I thought I would pop, and tugged at my arm like it had personally affronted him. But unfortunately for him, I managed to escape those armbar attempts, and after the third or fourth one, I watched him realize there was still two-and-a-half minutes of fight left. He looked deflated. I actually saw his expression change. He’d spent all his energy.

I am not good at BJJ. I have two techniques that work for me semi-reliably against people at my own level. I get mounted with an alarming frequency. I’m very susceptible to triangles. But I know myself pretty well. I kept calm under attack, and when he had burned himself out, I was able to capitalize.

Losing is learning

For my second fight, I fought someone from my own gym. Someone who is both a better natural athlete than me, and seems to have a brain that picks up techniques in a way mine doesn’t. Someone who constantly kicks my ass in training.

I would love to say that on tournament day, things went differently. They did not. It went sweep-mount-armbar. Just like it did when we fought at the gym.
But you know what? I didn’t care. I felt great. I got out, I competed, I beat someone, and then I learned I need to work on my mount escapes. I felt like a winner. Even if I came in third.