The hardest thing that I do is jiu-jitsu. It is the hardest thing I have done. It is not the hardest thing I expect to do before my life ends. Any reader who has followed me along this journey can understand the ups and downs that I have enjoyed and endured. Last night, after my 63rd class, I was awarded three stripes by my professor. While stripes are simply stepping stones along the way to mark progress and keep students interested, these stripes meant the world to me, even if they are not the reason I practice jiu-jitsu. Perhaps like the bronze medal I won at my first competition, they symbolize more to me personally than they actually represent in the real world, and I think that matters just as much as any true accomplishment I can attain.
Looking back on the first stages of learning I can now see how completely my approach to rolling has become. When I started last October, I would use all of my strength and gas out after two to three minutes. I pushed and pulled as hard as I could and it took me nowhere. Much like a swimmer caught in a current I would drown because I depleted all of my power at the wrong moment. As time passed, partners would say that I was improving my “feel” but I had no idea what that meant. After my serious groin injury in May, I pretty much lost use of my leg power and often even the ability to lift my legs was mine to use. But I wanted to go to class, I refused to give up, and I decided to focus my attention on learning how to survive armbars, triangles and chokes. For the entire summer, as I visited different academies, I simply accepted that I would be easily passed and then the fight would begin for my survival based on my hips and arm positions. I might catch a submission here and there from another beginner, but that was no longer even my focus. I simply wanted to enjoy the experience of practice, knowing that it would lead me somewhere and that I would meet some pretty cool people along the way.
After competing in my first tournament the previous week, I came to a new place on the road: calm. I reasoned that if I could survive five minutes against a stronger, more proficient opponent, then I no longer needed to fear the roll or its outcome. My ego had lost its power, and I think I came to realize that the tap was no longer as relevant as a measuring stick as I had once thought it to be. What was relevant was whether I was able to use my time on the mats to improve my game building. During our private lesson, my coach hinted in a wise way that what I needed to do was find a few repeat partners that I could work with to sharpen a specific set of moves that I was naturally good at doing under pressure. Wise words that did not totally make sense until I returned after the competition and tried to put them into action.
To build a jiu-jitsu game that is built upon solid technique requires for me to let go of control so that I may actually gain control. I needed to take risks in practice to make my game fluid, which meant that I would probably get caught over and over again in submissions until the moves gained traction. I am not going to improve my guillotine, a kata gurama takedown or a hip bump unless I try those moves over and over again in the pressure of rolling. Classes help learn the options, but unless I can choose which options fit my attributes, then classes are just fun exercises.
The flip side to this notion is that I also need to help my partner build his game and learn to defeat mine just as quickly as I build it. In the photographs for this blog we can see my partner defend the areas of attack. In some cases he easily avoids my guillotine attempt, whereas in others I was able to lift him through a soft kata garama [fireman’s carry]. What the photos do not show is how he worked on his kimura and how he submitted me in a heel hook and a high mount triangle. The photos do not show how we slowed down in high mount so that the photographer and I could walk him through options in high mount so that he could tweak his move to ensure submission. I did not just give the sub up, rather I found a place where I could help improve my partner’s game in a small way which seems to go completely against the idea of defeating and submitting my opponent. In a competition this would be true, but Stewart is not my opponent; he is my partner and a damn fine one at that. Ironically, he is also how my groin was injured in a kneebar a few months back…but that is exactly how the universe works its mysterious magic. We find our path through engaging with the people placed in front of us and realizing that only the ego would make us opponents in training when we could exponentially improve our own games by improving each other’s games. Such is the way of things….
I am now three stripes of four into my white belt. I have a pretty solid idea what I need to work on to reach my final degree on this belt and then move to a blue belt. This part will not be easy, and I am not certain how much time it will take, especially as I become a new father in November, but I now feel like I have earned my seat on the bus. I now feel like I am a small part of my academy’s experience, and I have the courage to see the work ahead through to its destination. I can begin to see how my quarter guard connects to the dogfight which connects to a sweep and then to side control and then…my game begins. I also have a few tricks up my sleeves, so this will be fun until Christmas. In the mean time, I get to look forward to the synchrony being created on the mats. I hope to make it to Friday’s gi class, and then to a full day seminar with Rorion Gracie at Bravado MMA Academy on Sunday. Looking at my photos, taken by a new friend on the mats, I could use some of the Gracie Diet plan to reduce the extra weight around my midsection. While no one looks good in white spandex, I can and will continue to look better if only to improve my rolling experience.
Did I mention that my legs work again and that the power therein is ready to be put into a a few key areas that I have had to abandon? Game on.