The Long and Winding Road: Learning to Belong



New head guard to protect my fragile ears. I hate cauliflower.

One of the greatest feelings in the post-modern world is to be in a place where the people surrounding you do not expect you to be a rock star. With the evolution of the digital native through social media, all lives must be curated online; every human being must participate and appear to be extraordinary. If you choose to not participate, then your curation will be done for you in absentia by algorithms and bloggers. During our careers we have professional development programs, performance evaluations, team building and leadership cults. With family and friends, we need to show our bucket lists emptying, shoot selfies with the famous and become skinny while indulging in craft beers and decadent desserts. The pressure to be perfect with every step punctuates our self-worth and perceived value to others.

Jiu-jitsu is different. In class, I am just a white belt. I am not supposed to be good at anything. I tire easily. I walk into guillotines and arm bars in seconds. Watching me roll is akin to watching a bad game of Twister go wrong. If I do learn a skill, like tying my own belt, then it is greeted with a nod and we all move on. Yet…it is in the padded classroom that I feel most appreciated and most safe. Appreciated, not for what I can do or who I am, but rather because I am there and I continue to be there to the best of my abilities. Safe, ironically, because while I am being choked, tossed and submitted in moves that could maim or kill me, I am being protected and taught by my partner to survive.

But…I am still there in the padded room to learn and evolve. The journey is my own, however, and while it will be peopled with a high number of inspiring individuals, it will also be peopled with a few egos yet to be weeded from the garden. As a professional educator, I am always interested in the learning process and how to transfer new approaches to my own classroom. I do this not because I am aiming for an administrative pat on my head, but rather because I believe that reading a wide variety of literature is critical to human development: dangerous men only read one or two books and take them as gospel. Such learning is being phased out by governmental agencies and educational task forces, but it has never been a viral skill.

What I have learned about learning from my classes is the value of goal setting, working in collaboration with partners, class notes and concept-based learning approaches. I want to improve my jiu-jitsu, and while training every day would be the best way, that is a luxury of time that I cannot afford. Therefore, I need to be smart. One of the most useful techniques I have taken to is to keep a concepts journal. It is handwritten in a Moleskine journal, and I carefully write down the big ideas that I take away from classes or online subscription videos. I look at positions and break them down by noting the hierarchy of each position, the escapes and submissions I have learned in that position, and possible ways to transition from one to the next superior position. I do this work in coffee shops and before bed. I find it solidifies my abilities and I can review key points when I have time at home or on city transit.


Next, I write down everything I learn in a class, and I also note what drills and exercises we did in the session. I do this, without fail, as I ride home on the streetcar. My purpose for this action is to keep track of how many classes I have attended, because 25 hours of total training makes more logistical sense than four months. When I learn a concept, then I write it down as a rule. I note my rolling and training partners’ names, so that I start to know the community. I try to review this before each new class, especially if I can get to two in the same week.

I also write down goals that I want to accomplish. These can be based on dreams, next steps or thoughts I have on the mats about what might work for me in the future. These are checked off and deleted as they happen; goals should be in constant flux versus these long-view monoliths that may never be achieved. This is why I would never write down: “Get my purple belt”. The goal is so far in the future, and based on my age and skill level potential, it might not be possible. Whereas, “Get my first stripe on my white belt” does seem attainable within a time frame that will not discourage me. But goals change; I had put down that getting my blue belt was a goal first. After training since November and seeing just how strong the blue belts are at Toronto No Gi, though, I see that what I initially perceived as a short term goal was much farther away than I hoped. Goals, however, are not the journey nor are they the experiences that I go to class for each week. I am not there to gain in the current sense; I am there to gain in a traditional sense, which is in the act of doing.

Robert Drysdale Seminar

Finally, I was able to attend a seminar with Robert Drysdale last week in Hamilton at 5th Dimension Training Academy. It was a transformational experience for my training, as I was able to learn from my own head instructor as my partner while being supported by Drysdale himself. The seminar was just the confidence boost I needed after the previous week’s tournament, and I was able to ask questions about how to specifically fix the giant holes in my basic game. The sequence taught by Professor Drysdale was a little too complex for my ability, but I did take away pieces from the sequence and simply being around a group of enthusiastic jiu-jitsuka made the three hours seem like thirty minutes.

This week has me taking 120 thirteen year old boys on an adventure through the wintry, historical city of Quebec. Four days and nights at full tilt: dog-sledding, indoor rock-climbing, tubing, museums, and bus rides. Then, it will be nine days in romantic Italy. We have a wine tour through Chianti, a hike through Cinque Terre, museums in Florence and the halls of the Vatican to inspire us. The journey is never over, and who knows what can be done with whatever remains? I turned 43 years old on March 2nd, and I am uncertain if the cup is half full or empty, but let us see what I can do with what I do have.



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