Just Stay Alive

Jiu-jitsu, my instructor says, is about survival. This is one of the things he says that resonates most with me.

Since I’ve started training I’ve said that my philosophy on yoga, jiu-jitsu and life is that as long as I’m breathing, nothing can have gone that wrong. This is an aspirational thing to say, too: it reminds me of how good I have it. Even when times are darkest, I’m surrounded with hope and possibility.

Let me come right out and say that I’ve always had friends who struggled with depression. If you’ve ever been in that particular mud, you know how hard it can be to see the world from the perspective I’ve just described.

What I am trying to stay here is that it matters very much to me that you stay alive.

I’m not trying to make a grand proposition of this statement — it matters very much to me that you stay alive — I’m just trying to state a fact. And it’s true basically whoever you are. Maybe you’re a close friend of mine and you know this already.


[I thought about walking out to this song tonight, because the Mountain Goats are from Durham, and because the song is great, and because this stuff has been on my mind lately.]

 

Maybe we’re not even close friends. Maybe you’re an acquaintance, and there are dozens of people who know you better than I do. Maybe I don’t even know you. It still matters very much to me that you stay in the world. And think of all the other people who know far better than I do what unique contribution you make to our human experiment.

When I’ve lost people to depression and the self-destructive behavior it engenders, I’m always struck at how the people who felt most alone were always surrounded by people who really cared. It can be hard to see, just like you can’t always see the shore when you’re in a boat. The shore is always there.

Jiu-jitsu is about survival. Jiu-jitsu is life, and life is jiu-jitsu, and sometimes your life has to be about focusing on survival. That’s your jiu-jitsu for the day.

If you do nothing else today — including coming to my match tonight, although you should do that too — read this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Nye describes a scene where a father is crossing a rainy street carefully, holding  his son on his shoulder as he crosses the wide expanse.

She intricately describes the care he takes protecting his cargo — until the end of the poem, when you realize she’s not just talking about one father and one son.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling. We’re not going to be able to live in this world without taking care of each other.

Jiu-jitsu is about survival. How you do in jiu-jitsu matters very much to me, and probably to a bunch of other people you don’t even know. Think about it.

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Metamoris Needs Women

I love Metamoris. I buy every PPV. And I’m excited for Metamoris 6. That said: we’re gonna be 36 matches into Metamoris with only one women’s match having happened? We’ve got to fix that.

Can we get Beatriz Mesquita on the card? Or Luiza Monteiro? How about the legendary Leticia Ribeiro, who I have photoshopped here? Hannette Staack? Whether you want to go with the best current competitors or with legendary folks, or a blend, you could easily fill a card with *just* excellent women’s matches.

Metamoris Needs Women

Or, how about this: they declared Josh Barnett the Metamoris Champion after he won one match. Michelle Nicolini v. Mackenzie Dern was awesome on Metamoris 2: how about declaring Michelle the champion and having her defend the belt against Tammi Musumeci in a rematch? Dern deserves another match, and I’d love to see Luanna Alzuguir, Penny Thomas, and/or Kyra Gracie, just to name a few.

Like Mars, ‪#‎metamorisneedswomen‬. Book it.

Life is one long training session

Why does it matter if you win or lose?

This is a semi-rhetorical question. I want to acknowledge right up front that I am a competitive person, and so it matters very much to me whether I win or lose. By offering up the question I hope to provoke a thought experiment rather than to imply that it doesn’t matter.

For most of us, the answer is that competition is a measuring stick. It matters whether we win or lose because we are testing ourselves. This is, incidentally, why it’s important that we take on opponents for whom we have respect: if we win over competition that is sorely lacking, we have failed to challenge ourselves. Our achievement, such as it is, is much less valuable against lesser competition.

Simply put, we want to win because it means we’re on the right track, and we want to beat good competition because it means more than beating easy competition.

But let’s go a level deeper. Let’s say you achieve a primary goal, whether it be to take gold at a US Grappling tournament or beat a specific opponent. You’re not going to retire from jiu-jitsu. Presumably you’ll set new goals: you will ask yourself, “What now?” This is exactly what you should do. You’re also not going to quit after a disappointing loss. You’re going to analyze where you need to improve and aim at another goal.

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The best I’ve ever prepared for a tournament was for last year’s worlds. I lost in the first round.

 

When I was playing poker regularly, the best players all advised me to treat your poker experience as one long playing session.

The bad players chase losses during single sessions: if they have a bad run of cards, they’ll stay at the table all night trying to get even. This is a terrible idea, since your sharpness will suffer and you’ll play worse than you would have otherwise. The good players realize that over the long run, the cards even out. The better players will get more money over the long run, and the worse players will lose it.

Instead of pushing to get even if you’re down money, you should play for as long as you planned on, stop, and start fresh during the next session. That way you’ll play your best, and if you really have an edge against your opponents, that will come out the longer you play. The bigger sample size will show you the way. Instead of viewing Saturday as one session and Monday as another, the best viewed all their time spent at the poker table as one long session.

Life is like that. Life is one long training session.

A win doesn’t matter if I stop training. A loss doesn’t matter if I keep training. My answer to the semi-rhetorical question “Why does it matter if I win or lose?” is this: my goal is to have the best possible jiu-jitsu I can have over the long term. I’m less concerned with one big win or one big loss that I am with constantly working to improve and refine my skills. I want to keep my focus on the Jeff of 2025, not the Jeff of Wednesday, March 25.

Getting triangled as a no-stripe white belt.

Getting triangled as a no-stripe white belt in 2011. Experience is the best teacher: if you get frustrated after losing, you don’t learn as well.

It matters if I win or lose because if I keep training, I keep improving, and if I keep improving, the wins will come more than they would have otherwise. Again, I believe strongly in the value of competition: competition is a system that we use to provide motivation and focus, and by and large it works. I know it works to motivate me.

I’m thinking about this lately because I have a gi match against Ze Grapplez at this Friday’s Bull City Brawl. I’m looking forward to it for many reasons: he’s a great competitor, it’ll be a good, tough test for me, and it’s a cool opportunity to compete in the cage in front of an audience. Tim’s someone I respect a lot for his approach — he trains all the time, competes regularly, and whatever outcome happens, he’s back on the grind the next day. (I also share his antipathy for the term “superfight” as applied to jiu-jitsu matches, by the way).

This is a terrific opportunity for me, and I’m training hard to take advantage of it. Generally speaking, I train like crazy for tournaments. I’ll never cop out and tell you I wasn’t giving it my all. If you’ve beaten me in a tournament, you got the best I had to offer on that day, so congratulations. I’m always glad I put myself out there, win or lose.

Winning is affirmation and losing is information, as my instructor likes to say, so both competitors get something out of the experience. Ideally, you win and learn, but no matter what happens, you’re better off than the timid souls.

Won a gi division at no-stripe white belt. Was never tempted to "retire undefeated."

Won a gi division at no-stripe white belt. Was never tempted to “retire undefeated.” Also, yes, I am as tired as I look.

Jiu-jitsu is like life. It’s one long session. However important one day is to us, to focus too much on the results of any one competition is a mistake. If your goal is to win the worlds and you fall short, of course you’ll be disappointed. That’s normal. Such luminaries as Saulo Ribeiro, Felipe Costa and Caio Terra had far less success early in their careers at lower belts. All became black belt world champions.

It’s not the short-term disappointment. It’s what you do with it over the length of the long session. You can win every competition you enter, but if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re losing the long session.

The Bull City Brawl match with me and Ze Grapplez is this Friday. One of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose. And we’re both going to be back in the gym the next day training, because we’re both going to be better in 2025 than we were in 2015.

Ask a Stupid Question

I asked a stupid question the other day.

I knew it was stupid a few short minutes after I’d asked it, as the patient upper belt’s explanation kept going over things that I really should have known or at least guessed.

We’ve all done this, I imagine: had an unexplored thought, blurted it out in the form of an ignorant query, and quickly felt the hot red blush of embarrassment

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t regret it.

I don’t regret asking any of the litany of dumb, addled, ridiculous and flatly absurd questions that I’ve asked Seth Shamp, Jake Whitfield and Roy Marsh over the years. (Those guys might regret it, I don’t know: I haven’t asked them, since I don’t really want to know the answer). I’ve probably asked two or three dumb questions today already, and I plan on asking more tomorrow.

Seth and Detroit aren't reacting to the fight decision, they're reacting to a dumb question I asked.

Seth and Detroit aren’t reacting to the fight decision, they’re reacting to a dumb question I asked.

Questions — and the answering of questions — are among our most powerful tools for learning.

If questions come from a place of ignorance, then answers help dispel that ignorance. (“Hey, why do I need an underhook when I do that guard pass?” “Well, you don’t, if you enjoy having your back taken”). If questions come from a place of some knowledge, then answers and dialogue can help flesh out our understanding. (“If I want to improve my self defense, how should I approach tournaments?” “… well, let’s talk about that.”)

The learning doesn’t just go one way, either. I’ve learned a lot from having to explain seemingly basic concepts and techniques.

Magic Johnson was a legendary basketball player, but a terrible coach. I believe this was because he never really had to think about basketball strategy: it was just so deeply embedded in him that shockingly perfect passes happened whenever he had the ball. I’m sure you can think of an incredible jiujitsu practitioner whose idea of technical instruction is “the arm is right there: just take it. … OK, let’s drill it, guys.”

When someone asks you about a fundamental technique, it forces you to go back to that original position and see it from their perspective. Drilling reinforces the right movements, helping our bodies learn how to react correctly. Answering questions does something similar for our minds.

Having to answer “why do you do this when you’re in guard?” makes me think “… yeah, why *do* I do that?” I might have a good reason or I might not. Thinking about it helps me figure that out. Because of conversations like this, I’ve fixed some of my mistakes and also deepened my understanding of why the correct things I do are correct.

Americans’ biggest fear, outranking all others, is public speaking. This is because people are afraid of saying things that will get them laughed at.

People are weird, but it’s true.

 

This impulse is as understandable as it is counterproductive. Nobody likes to embarrass themselves in public. Even if putting yourself out there is the best way to improve your skills, it can be difficult. Which just makes it more important.

One of the great things about being a nerdy guy who was on the debate team is that I’m used to both public speaking and getting ritually mocked. Due to this early conditioning, it’s easier for me to laugh at myself. There’s an Amanda Palmer song with the line “I still get laughed at, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m just so glad to hear laughter around me.” That’s basically how I feel.

Or, as pop-punk band Jawbreaker said in a different context, there are times for being dumb.

The people I ask the most questions are the people I respect the most. Because their time is valuable, I always try to be conscious of not overstaying that welcome. But I know I gain a lot from it, and that courtesy is something I want to pay forward.

So I never want to discourage people from asking me questions. I love talking about jiujitsu and I love helping people who I have the ability to help. Questions, discussions and even disagreements are productive, as long as we keep an eye on the outcome we want — which is deepening our knowledge base. As the philosopher Karl Popper said of debates, “I may be wrong and you may be right and, by an effort, we may get nearer the truth.”

There’s a reason this blog is named what it is: it’s important for me to keep that white belt mind. We need to keep learning and re-learning to develop a full understanding of anything, but especially something as vast as jiujitsu.

When Dave Camarillo signed Roy Marsh‘s copy of “Submit Everyone,” he added an inscription that I thought was revealing: “To Roy: Never Stop Learning.”

Dave is a legend, and both he and Roy have done far more in martial arts than I ever expect to. But after 30-plus years of training, this is the message Dave chose to convey to another accomplished black belt.

Think about that. And maybe even ask somebody you respect a question about it.

The 20 Good Ones Challenge

You should drill more. You should. You know it, I know it, and the American people know it.

I should, too. To inspire us both, here’s a challenge.

The next US Grappling tournament in North Carolina is April 19, which is not quite 40 days from now. If your school is anything like ours, we have several people competing — including many who are competing for the first time. It’s important for everyone to drill, but it’s especially important for those who don’t already have a slate of options from every position.

When I did my first tournament, I set a goal to have at least two moves that I could try from every position with some confidence. This helped me focus and prepare, and it’s something I’d recommend. For my first tournament, I certainly didn’t have more than 20 techniques at my disposal. And now that I’m trying to be more focused, I want to whittle down the things I do as well. Picking a set of moves and working on them is good for everyone, regardless of experience level.

Hence, the 20 Good Ones Challenge:

20

Let me explain. If we’re trying to become proficient at a discrete array of techniques, a little extra drilling can go a long way. But that drilling should be precise: I don’t want to bang out sloppy reps of a move I’m going to rely on.

That’s why I want to set a very realistic goal: picking a series of moves I’m likely to use and then doing 20 high-quality repetitions of them for at least 20 of the next 40 days. If you train with me, let’s do this together. (If you don’t, feel free to glom onto this idea anyway).

Of course we need to be going to class during this time as well, so this should take place before class, or after, or at a time and place of your convenience. I lead a 6 a.m. class twice a week, so perhaps we can add a day or two of drilling in the lead-up to the tournament.

The steps are easy:

  • Make a list of 10-20 moves
  • Set a time to drill those moves
  • Don’t let yourself off the hook for drilling those moves
  • If you mess up a few of the reps, do extra reps until you can’t get the move wrong.

Your armbars will thank you. Your guard passes will thank you. If you let me drill with you as a partner, I will thank you.

Here, I made a ransom note:

ransom note

The upshot: if you’re competing at this tournament, you have 38 or 39 days to train. Every other day, get a little extra work in. Show up a little early or stay a little late and get 20 good reps in of the techniques you need. If you’re not competing at this tournament, surely there are many ways in which you’d benefit from a little extra drilling.

It’s just 20 reps. Once a day for 20 days. You should drill more. I should drill more. Let’s do this.

Four Ways To Get Better At Purple Belt

It is sometimes said that if you ask 10 different black belts to show you the same technique, you’ll learn 10 different ways to do that technique — and they will all be correct.

That’s why it’s important to learn from multiple sources. Different people have different perspectives, and we all process information in different ways. While the fundamental principles that make a move work will never change, the details about how best to execute that move can vary from instructor to instructor.

This also holds true for concepts and approach. Just as travel offers you access to other points of view, tapping into sources of training knowledge can help you answer the big questions.

When I got my purple belt, I started to think about whether I should approach training differently. To answer this question, I did what I’ve done at every belt level: ask a black belt, or in this case, four of them.

When you take that next step, getting good advice from black belts is gold.

When you take that next step, getting good advice from black belts is gold.

I asked four different Royce Gracie black belts variations on the question, “how should I alter my training at this new belt level?” I got four valuable, distinct and related answers. I’m going to tell you what those answers were.

My bet is that, whatever your belt rank or goals, you find something to think about here.

1. Let Them Get Further

Jiu-jitsu is fundamentally about survival. Because our art is designed to give smaller, weaker people a chance to defend themselves against larger, stronger and more aggressive attackers, it’s essential that we have a top-notch foundation in surviving, defending and escaping from bad positions.

One of the great things about training consistently is that you get better. One of the only bad things about getting better is that you find yourself in these bad positions less often: when you start, you’re in danger all the time. As you improve, and as new white belts join the gym, getting put into dangerous spots is more likely to be a choice than a necessity.

So make that choice, and don’t just make it against the white belts who present minimal threat of submission even from dominant spots. You’re not getting better letting them crawl all over you, and if you get tapped, it’s clear you were letting the white belt work.

Instead, let mid-level and high-level blue belts get further toward putting you in danger than they have before. In fact, let them pass your guard and engage their attacks sometimes. If you get submitted, you know what to work on.

Note to self: work on back defense.

Note to self: work on back defense.

This requires you to check your ego, too: when you get promoted, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that you should never “lose” to lower ranks even in training.

But this is silly. Training is meant to help everyone improve, and no one improves if we keep having the same old rolls in the same old positions. The only way you lose at training is if you don’t use the time to get better.

My instructor says that getting better after purple belt is an art unto itself, and making sure you maximize training benefits is a good start.

2. Focus on Timing

So you know some techniques. That means you understand the component parts of, say, an armbar. You can go step-by-step and identify each of the dozen or so details that are necessary to complete the armlock.

Now take those dozen details and improve your timing so they blend into one motion. By and large, you won’t be armbarring purple belts if you go one step at a time.

The scissor sweep used to be one of my highest-percentage moves. I’d painstakingly work my setups and hit it regularly. Lately my success rate has decreased, and class last night showed me why: I have to drill until what used to be three moves becomes one fluid motion.

(I’ve never understood people who don’t want to drill, either, but that’s another story.)

3. Sharpen Your Sword

At blue belt, your job is to see and learn techniques. Focus on the fundamentals, but absorb and learn everything, including the stuff you don’t have a natural affinity for.

At purple belt, you start to have a game. There are things you excel at, things that come naturally to you. These are the techniques that serve you best in rolling, or in tournaments if you compete.

The advice: take the stuff you’re good at and make it deadly. Really define your strategy, tactics and setups. Make yourself complete (which we’ll get to in #4), but focus on the techniques that make you most dangerous.

A quote from this piece of advice: “Your instructor gave you a sword: now it’s time to sharpen it.”

One of my training partners won one of these NAGA swords. It's pretty boss.

One of my training partners won one of these NAGA swords. It’s pretty boss.

4. Address Your Weaknesses

Full disclosure: this is the only bit of advice that was modified by a follow-up question. Typically, I try to ask black belts questions and then shut up while they answer me.

When I posed this question, though, I was met with the quite valid response: “Well, what are your goals?”

My answer was that I want to be well-rounded, to learn all aspects of jiujitsu. I enjoy competing, but I enjoy learning most of all. With that in mind, here was the counsel I got.

Take this list and rank your proficiency at them from best to worst: unarmed self defense, weapons defense, striking, takedowns, bottom mount, top mount, back defense, back offense, bottom side control, top side control, guard bottom, guard passing, and leg locks.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a very easy time separating out the things you feel good about from the things you need to work on.

When you have this information, you can combine your list of A-game techniques from #3 and your list of things you need to work on. That way you can ensure your top-level game is as refined as possible — while the rest of your knowledge lacks major holes.

To take a step back, I’d like to extend on the travel analogy from earlier. When you’re planning a trip, you consult with experienced travelers who have been to that area. When you get to the area and want to understand the culture, it’s helpful to ask locals.

If you want to learn anything, it’s best to ask the experts. That’s why, when I try to understand something about jiujitsu, I ask the black belts I know.

Jiujitsu is a long journey. It helps to have good guides. I know that the answers I got were useful for me, and I hope they were for you, too.