Fortune offered me three opportunities to train in three jiu-jitsu academies outside of my home gym, Toronto No Gi. Each gym had a different approach to classes, a different vibe emanating from students and professors, and each place gave me a positive experience to take home with me as my summer comes to an end. I cannot say enough kind things about the people who I have met along the road. Students taught me so much about myself and how I want to practice this fascinating martial art. What follows are the five concepts that I took away from the summer’s lessons. Maybe they are naive, simple or even plain wrong, but each concept was hard-won through much sweat.
ONE – The most effective way to develop your jiu-jitsu is to roll with other students who either have similar skill levels or to find upper belts who are willing to be positive and supportive while they roll with you. One thing that I have noticed about Gracie PEI is that they have a significant number of white belts who they appear to retain for each offered class. I cannot express how strange, but comforting, it was to see the same people at each class and to have a group to learn with instead of from. In Toronto, a city of over a million people, students come and go through the gym doors for a million different reasons. In my last nine months I have seen many of the people I began training with quit training, move to a different city or simply disappear. I seem to just begin to make friends and they are gone, which is common for any activity in Toronto; people are just too committed to other things.
On Prince Edward Island, however, classes felt different. During the two weeks I attended classes here, I was able to practice with all of the same students because they had committed to the classes for specific reasons: to get back in shape, for health, for a sense of community or because they liked the self-defence component of the class. To visit three classes in a row and have the same four or five men there gave me real comfort. I had a sense of who they were and that I was not going to have my arm yanked out of its forty three year old socket by a random guy off the street.On Maui and in Denver, it was the upper belts who took great care to get me through their classes. At the point of exhaustion, a Maui brown belt just kept me moving through a flow roll and showed me next steps throughout the entire sequence. In Denver, the instructor and professor both gave me specific feedback that improved my approach during escape drills. Going back to Toronto I found the same type of feedback become available to me now that I had improved in my general approach to rolling with others.
TWO – The energy you put into the roll will come back to you with an equal and opposite reaction. When I began my first few sparring sessions on the mats I simply used too much energy and became frustrated with the experience. I would use my strength to hold opponents down or try to make them move. I had no success, but others did comment on how strong I was. After a few months of practice I seriously injured my groin muscles in a knee bar escape, and could barely walk for a few weeks. Still, I did not want to fall behind in my training so I went to class and completely avoided using my legs for anything. The injury demanded that I make a shift from using strength to learning techniques based on my weakness. Therefore, what happened for me was that I quickly began to see how wrong I was to focus on my attribute of strength when encountering an opponent; I needed to abandon strength, accept that I needed to let my opponent waste his strength while I survived, and that only then could I hope for opportunities to make gains. During my visits to other academies this has been my modus operandi, and I feel so much more confident on the mats as my opponent tends to use less strength in opposition… most of the time, and that leads me to my second observation.
THREE – A solid foundation of fundamental techniques is far more valuable than being able to smash others with one or two techniques based on physical attributes. While I have been solely working on survival positioning and building a better posture, I have felt how frustrated I can make an opponent who only knows one or two techniques and submissions. In fact, at each of the three academies I have visited at least one rolling partner has become obsessed with arm barring me. The arm bar is a brilliant submission. It is a submission that I continuously was caught in for the first six months of practice. It is also the one submission that I have worked hard to learn how to defend against for long periods of time against on the mats.
In each roll where my partner was hell bent on getting me in this marquee submission, and usually while his professor watched on, I would keep him at bay for a five minute round with no chance of giving up my arms. As he grunted and dug for my arms, I simply waited, kept slowly improving my position, and then would hear the round bell ring. In each case my opponent appeared confused and a little demoralized because the move that always worked for him was not available. I found those experiences to be quite interesting and little victories despite not catching any submissions myself. I also learned that learning a few good moves would not be a good way forward for the long term because I would need to go back to learn the fundamentals while being constantly tempted to go for the moneymaker moves I had relied on before.
FOUR – Ego is our enemy. When I began visiting other academies I decided that it was extremely important to make it clear that I was an absolute beginner who had nothing to prove. I was not a blue, purple or even brown belt visiting gyms to demonstrate my absolute supremacy. No, I was a zero strip white belt who had been practicing no-gi jiu-jitsu for 8-9 months. Not only was I a beginner, I was visiting gyms where the gi kimono was worn for most classes, while Toronto No Gi focuses on…well, no-gi classes. I cannot imagine that my experiences would have been positive in any way had I shown anything but complete humility to each new set of people. In fact, I imagine that I might find it harder in the future to visit an academy if I do achieve the rank of blue belt. Perhaps I am wrong, but I somehow feel like more is at stake amongst blue belts proving themselves, and I feel like more would be expected from a blue belt visiting another academy in terms of the skills he or she brings to the classroom. At Maui Jiu-Jitsu, I barely kept up with the class in terms of physical fitness, while at Alchemy Combat Club the crew could have been much harder on me when I could hardly breathe from the mile high altitude. Though it would be tempting to falsely remain a white belt while visiting academies, that would clearly be dishonest to hosts who do have your best training interests at heart.
FIVE – The path to promotion is not straight nor is it as important as development. I am kind of done with the idea of promotion, and I believe that is an acceptance that will keep me from becoming discouraged as I chase a belt colour for the wrong reasons. I have had to accept that my path will never be the same as the person next to me. After visiting other academies I saw the redundancy of comparing myself to others via the belt system, because at every gym the curriculum and goals are different. Every student is overcoming unique challenges like age, fitness, impatience, flexibility or even pride. I may be able to tap out a four stripe white belt, hold my own against a blue belt or be arm barred by an absolute beginner. I am not certain that those moments matter anymore. What matters are those moments when I can suddenly understand what I was doing wrong just the class before, when I now see how an omoplata or mount position works in relation to other techniques, or when I feel comfortable beneath a much larger opponent and no longer need to tap due to fear of pressure or because I used up all of my strength and can no longer breathe.
In the end, I head home to Toronto in a few more days. The new school year will begin. Stress is already beginning to accumulate as a whole new collection of tasks and projects face me. Every summer ends in the same manner for me; my life cycles though the academic school year as it has for the past 36 years. The Fall will also bring all of the new challenges of being a father. I simply do not know how I will be able to find time to remain engaged in all of the activities that I do, but I will have to make time if I am going to continue to develop as a human being. Perhaps belonging to the brotherhood of jiu-jitsu practitioners, which has sisters who comprise a large part of the tribe, will continue to offer me a space wherein I can continue to let go of my innumerable obligations just beyond the mats. I can hope. The question, as always, is not what to do with the majority of my life, but rather what can I accomplish with the remains.