Thank The Monsters

I wanted to quit. I’m not going to lie about it.

It was last summer, and the teeth of the North Carolina heat had sunk deeply into our training space. The humidity made it tough to get air into your body under normal circumstances, and these weren’t normal circumstances. A black belt — my instructor’s instructor — was mounted on top of me at the end of a session.

The pressure was suffocating. I couldn’t get space. Sweat had crept into every fiber of my heavy gi, and I was starting to get that dreaded claustrophobic feeling where all you want to do is something, anything that will get him off of you. You know you need to hide your arms and protect your collars, but your lower brain functions are screaming at you to buck wildly and push at his chest. Worse, in the back of your mind there’s always that little voice reminding you that you can tap, even though tapping to pressure isn’t allowed.

I managed to shut these voices up until the round ended. I don’t know how long it took. My only answer to that question is “too long.”

Jiu-jitsu is fun. This was misery. But I thanked him for it afterward, and I thank him for it now.

Why? Because training hard feels bad, but is good for you.

My instructor, mounted on me, in the longest minute of my BJJ life.

My instructor, mounted on me, in the longest minute of my BJJ life. I don’t have a picture from the incident in the first section, thankfully.

This comes to mind because of my last match in the absolute division at the Pans last week. I lost in semifinals to the eventual silver medalist, a very tough guy with a suffocating top game. He took me down straight into half guard. I found myself in a deep crossface and facing considerable downward pressure from a strong guy with good technique. He had my head turned the wrong way, making it difficult for me to bridge, and used the position to set up a tight Darce choke.

Why do I mention this? At no point did the thought of giving up cross my mind. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than getting back to a decent guard position where I could defend myself and, from there, get some attacks going.

That’s not because I wasn’t suffering: it was because I was used to suffering. Because I had trained for it. Powerful and skilled as my opponent was, he wasn’t a black belt coming after me at the end of a long, hard training day.

Don't get me wrong, this is still very uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still very uncomfortable at several junctures during this match.

I still lost the match by points, but I survived and escaped the position. I didn’t get submitted: I recovered guard and got some attacks going. And I have no doubt that my performance was better than it would have been had I not experienced that type of hard training I just described. Training intensely prepares you for these terrible spots.

When I say “training hard,” I don’t just mean “going all-out, until exhaustion” or even “putting yourself in awful positions.” I mean challenging yourself by training with people who are appreciably better than you. Jake Whitfield, the black belt I wrote about above, can submit me more or less whenever he wants and however he wants. When he was smashing me under mount, he was teaching me to endure a terrible spot. That’s a vital lesson.

This not as fun as it looks. But I'm glad I did it.

Stuff like this is not as fun as it looks. But I’m glad I did it.

There are other lessons to be learned, though, from training with high-level guys. I just finished the Pans camp at BJJ Conquest, where I was fortunate to train with some fantastic black belts. No one there was trying to smash me in the traditional sense: guys like Kail Bosque or Super Dave Zennario don’t have to. They were able to utterly dismantle me using pure technique with minimal effort. Just getting the chance to observe jiu-jitsu players on the level of Samir Chantre, Quiexinho and Vicente Junior helped me learn. Having them effortlessly pass my guard or sweep me — essentially drilling positions on me while I was rolling — was inspiring.

These scenarios presented a different type of challenge than the situation I described earlier. Instead of just trying to survive a spot, I had to try to figure out how these guys were breaking me down so easily, and how I needed to evolve to improve. That forces you to improve your technical understanding. Whenever an upper belt asks me to roll, in my view they’re doing me a huge favor — especially a black belt. Yes, I’m going to get owned. No, I can’t prevent that. Yes, it helps me grow.

I was one of least skilled people at the camp, which helped me learn a lot.

I was one of least skilled people at the camp, which helped me learn a lot.

The camp was a special opportunity, of course. But there are opportunities to train hard every day, though, wherever you are. Training with people of different skill sets and body types, people who give you problems in different spots for different reasons, can present its own challenges. There are several white belts who were good wrestlers that can give me problems when they get on top: if I don’t let them get on top, how can I prepare for competitions where I will face guys with similar skills?

I just want to say one more thing. It’s easy to say this and hard to do it. It sucks to get beaten up. It can be demoralizing to “lose” constantly, even in training. That’s one reason it’s so important to control your ego and gain perspective.

The guy that regularly crushes other white belts easily in training probably feels great at the end of the night, like he could take on the world. The guy who just got eviscerated over and over and saw his partners smiling and not sweating may not even feel like he deserves the belt he’s wearing in the moment.

But who is learning more? If this pattern of training is repeated, who will be better in the long run?

Back to the story I started this with: after the round ended, I was exhausted and relieved. Jake turned to me and said this: “The fact that you didn’t freak out down there is a credit to the monsters that you train with.”

That’s the fundamental truth of it. Our teammates and training partners help us succeed, even if — especially if — they are dominating us. It feels great to win all the time, to be the best guy in the room with regularity. It’s just harder to improve if that’s all you do.

Train with monsters. Thank those monsters. Even when they’re compressing your chest, they might just be the best friends you’ll have in jiu-jitsu.

I’m going to make this quick, because I have another long post ready to go, but I wanted to get this out there. This weekend, my teammates and I went to the No-Gi Pan Jiu-Jitsu Championship in New York City. This was my last big competition of the year, so I really wanted to finish the year right.

Happily, things went very well. I was able to win gold in my weight and take bronze in absolute. My finals match in weight was a close, tough one, but I’m actually happiest with my performance in absolute: I had three matches against very strong opponents, and was able to win two of them. I’d been concentrating on improving my showing in the open class — I’d gotten close to breaking through but hadn’t quite done so until this weekend.

Look for the smiley, nerdy little guy.

Look for the smiley, nerdy little guy.

My squad did great as well. My coach, Seth Shamp, and my teammate Kim Rice took double gold, and my fellow blue belt Sean McLaughlin won his weight class also. Jason Mask and Hameed Sanders shared a division and took silver and bronze, respectively.

I'm standing a stair up from Seth and he's still taller than me.

I’m standing a stair up from Seth and he’s still taller than me.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: my coach, Seth Shamp; Jake Whitfield; Roy Marsh; Vicente Junior, Samir Chantre, Quiexinho, Kail Bosque and everyone at BJJ Conquest, Super Dave Zennario, Brian Stuebner and everybody from the Pans camp; and especially every one of my training partners at TJJ Durham and TJJ Goldsboro NC.

AND NOW, AN ALMOST-FINAL REPORT ON THE CHARITY CHALLENGE

Quick recap for those who are new to the blog: I’m donating $10 for every match I win this year to the Women’s Debate Institute. But to encourage others to get involved, I asked people to vote on a second charity to benefit as well. I’ve told some folks this, but the winner of that vote was anti-cancer charity the George Pendergrass Foundation, which is run by the twin black belt instructors at PAMA, edging out other worthy causes like Reporters Without Borders, RAINN, the Wounded Warrior Project and Carolina Basset Hound Rescue.

A few gracious people offered to match my donations, meaning every win this year is worth $35 to charity so far. I think all the rewards  are ready to be handed out at this point, and I’ll be distributing a bottle of the rarest and best beer in the world, Westvleteren 12 to someone soon. Check out all the ways you can still get involved and help.

I plan on distributing the money at US Grappling’s next Pendergrass classic, and I’ll do a full wrap-up post then.

I won three matches this time around, adding to the total from before. Here’s where we’re at:

CHARITY PROJECT STATISTICS
Matches Won This Tournament: 3
Total Won For The Year: 16
Money Raised For Charity: $105
Total Raised So Far: $560

REWARDS UNLOCKED
One bottle Westvleteren 12
Custom Photoshops: 2
Private Lessons: 1

Camp is For Cool Kids

How often do you get the chance to be on the mat with seven or eight black belts, many of whom have won the worlds, Pans, Brazilian nationals — or all of the above? For me, the answer is “never.”

When Vicente Junior announced some of the people who would be training at his camp for Pans at BJJ Conquest, I knew I had to do it. It meant a round-trip nine hour drive, but I figured it would be worth it, and it has been. We train three times a day, and each time we get instruction from the likes of Samir Chantre, Quiexinho, Caio Terra, and of course Vicente himself.

I’m competing at the Pans this weekend, and this seemed like a fantastic way to prepare: by seeing how some of the best guys in the world prepare, and learning as much as I could from them.

Training session, take notes, training session, take notes, training session, take notes, sleep, repeat.

Training session, take notes, training session, take notes, training session, take notes, sleep, repeat.

Beyond that, though, it’s just been a great life experience. I’m not going to say too much about the specifics of the training sessions here. We’re doing a lot of drilling, a lot of rolling, and a lot of positional work. The most valuable thing for me, though, has been soaking up the way these top-level guys approach their own training. As Yogi Berra once said, you can observe a lot just by watching.

photo (2)

As an older guy, I have to admit I was worried about the toll that training three or four times a day would take on my body prior to a big tournament. But I’ve learned a lot, both about techniques and about how to approach training in way that challenges you and keeps you fresh.

It’s also been a humbling experience. It’s an amazing privilege to roll with guys on this level, and it’ll also show you exactly where you’re at on the food chain. Feel good about your top game? Have fun trying to stay on top. Feel good about your guard? They’ll pass it over and over, effortlessly, in multiple ways.

I'm putting out an APB for my guard. It doesn't exist up here.

I’m putting out an APB for my guard. It doesn’t exist up here.

In the strictest sense, this is a vacation for me. I took a week off of work to do it. It’s also a vacation in a broader sense: I walk around the mat and think that there’s no place I’d rather be. However I do in the tournament, I’ve spent most of each day on the mat. I’ve learned a ton from some brilliant jiu-jitsu minds. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

995165_10151650937198483_2098853056_n

And now for some MMA GIFs

Although I don’t train for MMA fights myself, a lot of my good friends and training partners do. It’s exciting for me to take part in their camps. It feels amazing when they win and like I’ve been punched in the gut when they don’t.

Fortunately, two of my friends finished their fights by TKO this week. This is always going to be a primarily jiu-jitsu blog, but I thought this was worth noting (and I expect to write about MMA again when three of my teammates fight in the Bull City Brawl on Oct. 12.) For more regular MMA stuff, check out Carolina MMA.

Both fought on the InkaFC card in Peru. Harold Hubbard was making his MMA debut, and D’Juan Owens, an active pro, was looking for another win. Me, I was watching the Internet for video so I could make animated GIFs like these:

Harold wins by ground and pound.

Harold wins by ground and pound.

Harold simply outclassed his opponent, standing and on the ground. The guy took him down (which is hard to do), but Harold’s jiu-jitsu meant he couldn’t do much afterward. And once Harold got on top, well, you see the GIF.

D’Juan had a tough fight against a skilled opponent, but managed to get the TKO finish in round three.

D'Juan knocks the taste, and mouthpiece, out of the guy's mouth.

D’Juan knocks the taste, and mouthpiece, out of the guy’s mouth.

Since this is a BJJ blog, I really should have made GIFs out of D’Juan’s two omoplata sweeps. But everyone wants to see finishes, so here y’go.

Only slightly sped up.

Only slightly sped up.

When Do You Stop Feeling Incompetent? Five Answers.

When we finished up with a 6 a.m. drilling session the other day, one of my white belt training partners asked me a poignant question. “So,” he said, “when do you stop feeling incompetent at this?”

I laughed, and gave him a glib answer: “I’ll let you know when it happens to me.”

I feel like I owe him a better answer, though. This is a dedicated guy we’re talking about — not everyone gets up at 5:30 to drill with me — and honestly, everyone has felt that way. Jiu-jitsu is so complex and multifaceted that there is always some aspect of it giving you trouble.

This post is my effort to get past that flippant first-thought answer and think through five legitimate responses to that question.

1. Even The Basics Come Hard: Accept That. It took me three classes to learn to shrimp. Not shrimp perfectly. Not shrimp well. To understand the basic mechanics of one of the art’s most fundamental movements enough that I could actually do it. Seriously, that took me three classes. It took me several nights and personal attention from the instructor before I could participate in the very first warmup.

Eminem's reaction to watching my first attempts at shrimping.

Eminem’s reaction to watching my first attempts at shrimping.

I tell this story for two reasons: first, take heart! Even if you totally brainlock on the simplest things, a little patience can get you where you want to be. Second, get some perspective. These movements are counter-intuitive. We don’t grow up moving like a shrimp does: it has to be learned. It takes some of us (like me) longer than others, and that’s fine.

2. Everything is Relative. I was fortunate enough to go to the Mundials as a white belt after training a little over a year. I hadn’t competed outside of North Carolina, and it was an incredible experience.

One remarkable aspect of watching the best in the world: you’d see a guy mow through competition with a smile on his face. You’d think that he was invincible.

Then you’d see him get schooled in the next match. Then you’d see the guy that beat him lose. And then you think again about that first guy, and how he could tap you 10 times in a five minute round without using his hands.

It’s all relative. Even now, I’ll hear an incredible instructor remark after training with someone like Royce Gracie or Gui Valente: “Wow, he really makes me feel like I don’t know jiu-jitsu.” Compared to a day-one white belt, a very good white belt can feel like a fount of information. Compared to someone who has been training 30 years since childhood, a very good black belt can feel like a white belt.

1011343_10151555296083483_2112042903_n

Either of the two guys on the end could submit me 10 times, blindfolded, with each hand in their belt. BJJ has levels.

There will be days when you feel like you’re getting this. Then there will be days when you feel like me during my second class, trying to shrimp.

By now my training partner is probably saying “enough with the platitudes. Give me a number.” OK. Done stalling. I’ll give it a shot.

3. About 18 Months. Once you train for about a year and a half, you’ll feel like you have a good handle on the basics. Depending upon how much you go to class, you might earn a blue belt slightly before or slightly after this time. Again, everyone is different. Some people have natural aptitude for grappling, and you can get there faster by spending more time on the mats, taking privates, watching videos, reading books, or whatever supplemental effort is best for your learning style.

But if you go to class regularly (say, three to five times a week) and do your drilling, you’ll build a solid foundation for yourself. You’ll start to recognize mistakes other white belts are making. This will help you first stop making those mistakes yourself, and then start exploiting those mistakes.

This is a really fun and exciting time in your development, and I think you’ll really enjoy it. I had an absolute blast when this happened for me, and it happened probably around the 18 month mark. That’s the good news.

Yes, there’s bad news.

4. … And Then You’ll Start Feeling Incompetent Again. Right after I got my blue belt, I felt euphoric. And so should you when you level up! It’s the result of a lot of work, sacrifice and effort, and you should be proud of it.

And then you should forget about what belt you have on and get right back to training. Because after you’ve had that belt a year, you’ll look back and can’t believe how little that dude who got that belt knew.

Everyone is making progress all the time. Other people — your training partners, your opponents — are getting better. You’ll feel good about where you’re at, but the rising tide means you’ve got to keep learning or get left behind.

Hey, I got good at the double under pass! I'll just keep doing ... ah, crap.

Hey, I got good at the double under pass! I’ll just keep doing … ah, crap.

That’s a beautiful thing, though! If you get good at the triangle choke, let’s say, your partners must adapt. Eventually, they will stop you from triangling them. Then, you’ll be forced to either figure out new setups or use a different technique. This, in turn, forces you to learn and improve.

The down side to this is that you end up feeling like a doofus. But that’s why the wise jiu-jiteiros tell the new guys that it’s important to keep the ego in check.

The art will do that for you, don’t worry. Last weekend I had perhaps the best tournament I’ve ever had. This week I got back and trained with some guys so good, they thwarted everything I was doing and submitted me multiple times without breathing hard. It’s inspiring, and humbling, to roll with people whose technique is at the level where it makes you feel utterly ineffectual and incompetent.

This brings us back to:

5. I’ll Let You Know When It Happens. Sorry, man, we’re back to the beginning.

Maybe, as the Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche told Allen Ginsberg, the first thought really is the best thought. Or maybe jiu-jitsu is just so rich and complicated that I’m always going to feel like a novice.

If you saw me try to shrimp, you’d probably bet on the latter, and I probably would too.

That’s the thing, though: ultimately, you’re competing against yourself. The you of today is no doubt miles more competent than the day one version. And you’re only getting better.

There will always be people that make you feel like you have no technique compared to them. But when I think back on the version of myself that walked into the gym about three years ago, I have no doubt that I would tune him up without him even realizing what I was doing.

We all feel lost sometimes. Part of why jiu-jitsu is so interesting is that there will always be more of it to understand. Embrace that, and enjoy the ride.

Atlanta Open Recap

It was a weekend of firsts in Atlanta. For the first time, I worked a table at an IBJJF tournament (more on that below), and for the first time (spoiler alert), I took gold at an IBJJF event!

1269065_10151607007913483_121904831_o

Shane, you’ve looked better, homie … but then, so have I.

Working the table was actually a productive and fun experience. For one thing, I got to work with some incredible black belt referees, guys like David “Rock” Jacobs and Marlon Loor Vera. You learn a lot seeing how knowledgable and accomplished black belts approach matches — and it was fun. I also got to work a Lucas Lepri match and get a front-row seat to watch Bruno Malfacine.

The picture above was taken right before the adult blue belt final, and I’m including it because it was represents the weirdest table work story of the weekend. Usually, the matches come bang-bang-bang, one right after the other. But the final was delayed. The match runner came by and said “we’re going to give this one 10 minutes: we’ve got some puking happening.”

“Which guy?”

“… both of them.”

The run through the division had gassed both guys so much that each of them vomited not once, not twice, but roughly two dozen times. When we thought we had the match ready to go, one of the guys had to rush off the mat for one final stomach evacuation. Good times!

This is what happened in the match. (Don’t worry, it’s safe for work and life). This is probably the best way it could have finished.

The other reason I enjoyed working the table is it gave me something to do other than sit around thinking about my matches. A common problem I wind up having is getting stuck in my own head and winding myself before matches. Having something to focus on only helped. (My mental strategy was to think like this: hey, the worst that can happen is I lose a jiu-jitsu match. I’ve lost lots of jiu-jitsu matches! Been there.)

The only unfortunate part: I really enjoy hanging out with my teammates and taking pictures. I didn’t get to do almost any of that. Next time!

A few notable things from the tournament:

* I’ve been a blue belt since June 2012. During that time, I’ve trained so much that the IBJJF declared my belt too worn and frayed for competition. This made me almost as happy as the medal, at least after I was able to borrow a belt from another Team Royce guy (thanks, Braxton). Some people say it’s frayed and worn because I wash it too much. I prefer to think it’s the training, but it’s true that I’m anti-belt-microbes.

* In the gym, I play around with all kind of new, fun and risky techniques. I’ve been known to berimbolo on occasion. But in this (and most) tournaments, I didn’t do anything that isn’t on the Triangle Jiu-Jitsu blue belt basics curriculum. This was exactly how I’d hoped it would go: the fundamentals work and you can never drill them too much.

1274100_10151607014393483_1209939923_o

Good things happen when you put a hand in the collar.

I had two matches in my division and one in absolute. All three were against good guys and accomplished competitors. Unfortunately, I lost my absolute match by advantage in the last 30 seconds — the guy tried to pass and forced me to turtle, giving up the advantage. But that match taught me a lot and gave me some things to work on in the future.

I felt good about both matches in weight, too. I pulled guard in one match and played top in the other after getting an ankle pick takedown, so I got to work both top and bottom game. I’d give you the full play-by-play, but no one really cares about that but me and my mom. And mom’s visiting in three weeks, so I’ll get to tell her in person.

You can also read my awesome teammate Kim’s recap as well. So let’s get straight to the photo and the Charity Challenge update!

First IBJJF gold!

First IBJJF gold!

Quick recap for those who are new to the blog: I’m donating $10 for every match I win this year to the Women’s Debate Institute. But to encourage others to get involved, I asked people to vote on a second charity to benefit as well. I’ve told some folks this, but the winner of that vote was anti-cancer charity the George Pendergrass Foundation, edging out other worthy causes like Reporters Without Borders, RAINN, the Wounded Warrior Project and Carolina Basset Hound Rescue.

A few gracious people offered to match my donations — and, in fact, another person has pledged since my last post — meaning every win this year is worth $35 to charity so far. There are still a ton of cool rewards you can win if you get involved, including a bottle of the rarest and best beer in the world, Westvleteren 12. Check out all the ways you can get involved and help.

And now, let’s tally the results! I won seven matches this time around, adding to the total from before. Here’s where we’re at:

CHARITY PROJECT STATISTICS
Matches Won This Tournament: 2
Total Won For The Year: 13
Money Raised For Charity: $70
Total Raised So Far: $455

REWARDS UNLOCKED
Custom Photoshops: 2
Private Lessons: 1