I’m going to try to have very few off-topic posts here, but this is one of them. My best pal Russell the Hound is in a contest for Top Dog of the Triangle. It’s a voting thing run by the Independent Weekly. Russell had a big lead, but the opposition got organized and now we’re only ahead by about a few votes.
To tell you how I feel about belt rank progression, I have to tell you about the one tattoo I’ve ever seriously considered getting. I also have to tell you something about Greek language.
If you’re still with me, oh how I love you. I promise it’ll be quick and painless.
We get our English word synecdoche from a Greek word, συνεκδοχή, that means “simultaneous understanding.” The word is used as a figure of speech or a metaphor.
You know how sometimes people say “50 head” meaning “a herd of 50 cattle,” or “three hands” meaning “three sailors”? Those are examples. A synecdoche is where the thing-in-itself (like a sailor) has the same meaning as something that represents that thing (like a hand). We understand that those two meanings exist simultaneously.
After the Mundials this past year, I started think about getting a tattoo of the Greek letters. The ink would be a reminder that, in life, we should consider both the thing-in-itself and what the thing represents. Also, Greek letters look pretty boss. That was a secondary consideration.
Why did the Mundials get me thinking about this? Because a jiu-jitsu belt is a synecdoche.
Before I got promoted, I spent a lot of time thinking about my next belt. It’ll be so rewarding, I thought, to be able to tie that around my waist every class.
But at the end of the day, it’s a piece of colored cloth. There’s that famous Royce Gracie quote that a belt only covers two inches of your ass, and the rest of it you have to cover on your own. It’s true.
As hard as we work for those promotions, a belt is just a thing, an object. It’s what that object represents that matters.
Discipline. Commitment. Loyalty. The respect you’ve earned from people that you respect (your instructors, your training partners). It might sound corny, but that’s what I think about when I think about promotions: a shared journey that, if done the right way, has spectacular rewards. The new addition to your wardrobe is lovely, but is it really anything compared to what the belt actually represents?
People do think about and talk about belt rank. It’s natural. When jiu-jitsu is a big part of your life, and BJJ people are a significant portion of your social circle, it’s only normal that you would talk about progression with your friends. And I do think that belts serve a purpose: they can be markers along the way of a long, long journey. My instructor is fond of pointing out that there are only five belts in BJJ, and everyone starts with one of them: promotions don’t happen often.
Sometimes, I hear folks get frustrated because they didn’t get a stripe from their instructor, or were passed over for promotion during the head of their school’s last visit. We all know people who have gotten frustrated about matters like these. Frankly, most of us have been those people at one time or another.
If you want a belt that’s a rank up from where you are, I’m sure you can find someone to give it to you. But what would that mean? You’d have the thing itself. You wouldn’t have what it represents. It wouldn’t be a synecdoche.
Training the right way — and doing so with patience and humility — allows you to have both the thing-in-itself and what the thing represents. I don’t want to cheat myself out of having both, and neither, I suspect, do you.
When I did debate in high school, a bunch of us went to watch our best debater — a senior — compete in a final round. We were sophomores, and we watched our best guy deliver a terrific speech to win top honors. Afterward, still suffused with the glow of sweet victory, I told a teammate: “You know, I want to be that good someday.”
This particular teammate never thought much of me, so that may be why she gave me a look of scorn. It may also be that such a declaration came off as arrogant, or implausible, or some combination of all of these. Whatever it was, it was clear that she didn’t think my goal was happening, and she wanted me to know it.
Fine, I thought inside. Out loud, I said: “No, I changed my mind. I want to be better. And I’m going to be.”
I admit it: I’m a competitive person. I will further admit that this type of competitiveness is rooted in ego, and that this is not always my most charming trait. At 38, I certainly hope that I’m more mature about expressing these feelings than I was as a sophomore in high school. But that base impulse — You think I can’t do that? Well, we’ll you’re wrong, and I’ll prove it — remains the same.
Ego can be a mixed blessing at best — in life and in jiu-jitsu training. If your instructor is anything like mine, he or she has probably has probably told you over and over that ego is your enemy.
There are good reasons for this. Especially with something like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where improvement is such a long-term process, conquering your ego is something you simply have to do. Humility is worth cultivating for its own sake. It also has instrumental value: being humble also allows you to be open to what your instructors — and training partners — have to teach you, in word and deed. There are lot of reasons for this, but my favorite is this: if you don’t believe you’re making mistakes, you can’t learn.
Humility is also a recipe for being much happier in life. I fundamentally believe this. As beneficial as competition can be for us, physically and mentally, an all-consuming focus on it isn’t charming. It can also undermine your long-term progress. I’ve seen a lot of people with impressive physical attributes start to rely on their strength or speed to win matches and perform well in rolls, since that’s easier at first than learning technique.
Let me make an uncomfortable admission, though. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a tiny kernel of ego still continues to drive my training. I like getting medals. I don’t like big, strong, new guys coming into the gym and calling me out, assuming they can beat on the little old guy. I like it when they get a nasty surprise.
This isn’t a part of my personality I’m particularly happy with, but I can acknowledge that it will always be a part of me. And contrary to what the great Annie Savoy said, the world can be a better place with a little self-awareness. Knowing our own tendencies can be the best way to moderate them.
Ultimately, I think that moderation is the lesson here: you don’t want to let your ego run you, but you don’t want to completely abandon it, either. You can’t run an engine on a spark alone, but sometimes you need a spark to get started.
Since I’m sure everyone is anxious to know how my debate career turned out, I’ll return that to close this out. (Spoiler alert: it’s actually a pretty good parable for what I’m trying to say in the post.)
Debaters work really hard. I worked as hard as two of them. I kind of had a chip on my shoulder anyway, but I used doubters — real and imagined — to motivate me. Tournaments were most every weekend, and I lived for them.
The work paid off, such as it was: for a few years I was pretty hard to beat at debate. Then, as suddenly as I started obsessing over winning debates, I found myself burning out. I was exhausted all the time and had stopped enjoying something that had been the center of my life.
I had a lot of success, and I had a lot of fun, but I don’t think I had as much of either in the long run as I might have. Tough to admit, but true.
We’re all capable of making mistakes. One of my goals in training jiu-jitsu is to fix the mistakes in approach I made during debate. Ego is a tough opponent, but it can be defeated, too, and the more I defeat it, the happier I am.
If you’re reading this, you probably love a grappler, are a grappler, or both. To you, whatever your station, we say: thanks for the love, but what we really want is presents.
In all seriousness, I sometimes hear those who have grapplers in their lives complain that it’s a struggle to shop for a BJJ player, judoka or wrestler. It’s tough to separate the good gifts from the bad, because it’s tough to navigate the arcane world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for those who don’t train. I’m sympathetic. My girlfriend likes to knit, and if I tried to buy her some yarn I’m sure I’d get the pursed-lip “at least he tried” smile.
Nobody wants to get effort points for gifts. We want to get great stuff for the people we love!
What follows is a guide of 10 types of item you might consider getting your grappler, complete with suggestions of quality stuff and ideas for how to tease out information about what they want. If you don’t want to end up buying your grappler a TapouT hoodie or George Dillman’s advanced pressure points for grapplers (and believe me, you don’t), read on!
I’ve put this together in a truly altruistic manner, with no expectation of anyone getting me any of these. Ahem.
1. Instructional DVDs: This is probably the safest option. I’m a voracious consumer of DVDs, and it’s always exciting to see high-level people teaching you how to do their techniques. Some of my recent favorites are Caio Terra’s Modern Jiu-Jitsu and Ryan Hall’s new Arm Triangles set. Next on my list: Lucas Lepri’s guard passing. Actually, maybe I should get Ryan Hall’s triangles set so I can stop getting triangled in tournaments.
For ease of gift-buying, just check the DVD shelf and you can tell what your grappler has — and what s/he needs next.
2. Membership to An Online Site: These days a lot of amazing instructors have membership-driven websites where they post video instruction. This is a great option that allows your grappler to learn with only an Internet connection, and without the hassle of using Handbrake to rip their DVDs. Marcelo Garcia has perhaps the most comprehensive site, and is highly recommended: the great Rafael Lovato Jr. has a new guard passing website that looks outstanding.And I’m just about to re-up my subscription to the Mendes Brothers site. Unless, you know, anybody wants to hook me up for Christmas …
Also, it’s simple to see what your grappler subscribes to: just click those links and see if s/he is logged in at those sites.
3. A Private Lesson: This is a little trickier to figure out, but believe me, it would be worth the effort. I’ll bet your grappler has a dream “to train with” list. Why not pay for a private lesson with that person? It’ll be easy to drag out of them: just ask them “If you could train with anyone, who would it be?” Then listen to them drone on about jiu-jitsu for 20 minutes without stopping. You know they’re going to do so anyway, so you might as well get information out of it.
It doesn’t have to be a big name instructor to be a great gift, though. Privates are a really effective way for your grappler to work on what they want to work on, with personalized attention from their instructor or another great local person. I’ve been very lucky to get private lessons from terrific local brown and black belts, and every time, I get that incremental improvement that puts a spring in a grappler’s step. Or guard. Or something.
Anyway, if your grappler’s dream private instructor lives too far away, get them talking about who the best local instructors are. Then contact one of those and pay ’em in advance for a private. A gift certificate for a private with a local instructor would make my eyes light up, and I’m sure the same is true of your grappler.
4. A Great Gi: Warning: the degree of difficulty might be high on this one. For many grapplers, the gi is of great personal importance. After all, we spend hundreds of hours in these things. Personal tastes vary widely on style and fit of a gi — all A1s and A2s are not created equal. I can wear anywhere from A1 to a small A3 myself. Hence, it’s best if your grappler has already been babbling about this awesome gi they’d love to have.
If they haven’t, here are some ideas for multiple categories:
Budget: The Cageside Genesis is $85, and is seriously the most comfortable gi I own. It’s my everyday training gi, and if you’re looking for a utilitarian model with a classic clean white aesthetic, look no further.
Classy: I love my Moya White Sand gi. It’s the right blend of distinctive and understated, in my view. You can’t mistake it for anything else but it isn’t going to burn out anybody’s retinas, either.
Flashy: Scramble’s The Wave looks classic on the outside, but the internal rashguard is a piece of art. High-end, but beautiful.
Designed Specifically For Female Grapplers: My training partner loves her Fenom gis. They look great and they’re both soft and durable. Affordable, too. For a flashier model that supports a good cause, the Shoyoroll Her Honor just came out today and supports breast cancer research.
Future: Tell ’em you’ll buy a Green Gi when those come out. Then take them out for some hempseed tempeh.
Remember, be sure to check the size chart, or better yet call the manufacturer to make sure the size you buy will fit.
5. Grappling Gear: I just talked about how fashion choices can be personal, but people also love to represent their sport and their gym. Does your grappler need a hoodie? How about a shirt? Cageside MMA has great selection and the best prices around along with awesome customer service. I get 90% of my stuff there, and I’ve never been disappointed. If they need training gear like gloves or rashguards or fight shorts, you can get those at Cageside, too.
But my favorite thing I’ve bought this past year is the black gi backpack. It’s simple, functional, looks great, and — unlike many gear bags — I can take it to other places without standing out. Plus, BJJ folks can always use a new bag. Gym sandals are always good, and can be inexpensive. Or how about a belt rank keychain as a stocking stuffer?
Also, I have to say that I love my Scramble grappling tights. I get made fun of for them sometimes, but I’ve had my sense of shame surgically removed, so it works out. Plus, mat burns suck, and this helps you avoid them. If your grappler is an exhibitionist or fan of Shinya Aoki, you could always get ’em the rainbow spats, too.
6. Soap. No, I am not a fancy lad or a member of the Flopping Dandies BJJ fight team. (In fact, an ex of mine once ended things by telling me “I want to make you more of a metrosexual.” True story.) Just because I don’t spend a lot of time in Lush, though, doesn’t mean I want to smell like my car gi all the time. I’ve used Athletic Body Care and liked it, although the scent had to grow on me a little. A friend of mine swears by Super Body Care, too. Get your grappler some of this stuff, bar or body wash, and don’t worry about your grappler being nicknamed “Malcheiroso.”
Of course, you might set yourself up for the offended “Are you getting me this because you think I’m smelly?” face. You’re on you’re own navigating that one: I’m just handling the commerce here.
7. Entry to a Tournament: Grappling tournaments are fun, exciting, productive for learning, and memorable. They are also expensive. If your grappler likes to compete, surprise him or her with an entry to a tournament. I’ll bet there is a US Grappling tournament near you. Depending on your location, travel situation and your grappler’s interest level, you could also get them an entry to an IBJJF tournament.
They’ll either weep with joy or give you the mortified “what have you gotten me into?” look. The former is satisfying: the latter is priceless.
8. Grappling Artwork: One of my friends and training partners got me a very cool John Smalls print, and it’s now in a place of prominence in my living room. I also really like Seymour Yang, known more commonly as Meerkatsu. If you’re not totally stoked on your grappler hanging their autographed white belt up for decoration (and yeah, I’m guilty of that), be proactive and get some wall-hangage of your own.
9. GrAPPling: Sorry, I reached for that one.
If your grappler has a smartphone, there are some terrific apps out now. Dave Camarillo has a good iPhone app that’s composed primarily of video. Felipe Costa has a free BJJ referee app that will help the competitors out there (as well as some paid technique apps as well). If you’re intrigued by Caio Terra’s Modern Jiu-Jitsu, those apps are available now too.
Maybe buy an app as a stocking stuffer, or download a bunch and then sync them as a Christmas morning surprise.
10. Donate to a great charity in their name. Yeah, this isn’t grappling-specific, but charities can always use a boost, and you can tell your grappler that his/her karmic power will be amplified nine-thousand-fold by the gesture.
Besides, there are some BJJ-related charities that do great work, like the George Pendergrass Foundation and Tap Cancer Out, both of whom raise money for cancer research. If you donate to Pendergrass, maybe you could even work a deal with Guy and Rob for a private or two in exchange. Double your pleasure! That was not intended to be a “twin” joke, but it just worked out that way.
There you have it: 10 ideas to get you started on gifts for your grappler. Thanks for reading — and I hope your grappler thanks you as well. Got other ideas? Feel free to leave them in the comments.