Making the Mind Empty in the Surf

Surfing and martial arts share much. Top-level practitioners, for one thing: a healthy percentage of the Brazilian black belts I met grew up surfing, and professional surfers like Joel Tudor have taken up the gi with great enthusiasm and success.

You can see why, since both arts require adaptability and grace in the face of powerful opposing forces. The ocean’s tougher than all of us.

Another point of commonality: the experience that surfers (and psychologists) call “flow,” that optimal experience of life. Jiu-jitsu people use the term “flow” sometimes, too, but it’s more typical in the circles I run in to hear it called “mushin,” a Japanese word that roughly means “empty mind.”

There’s really no experience like it. I got it when I was doing competitive debate during high school and college, and haven’t had it since — until jiujitsu.

Putting this type of experience into words is a weighty task. I won’t make too strenuous an attempt, because it seems contrary to the very notion of an empty, flexible mind. I’m merely going to describe how it seems to me during a perfect sparring or competition experience.

They come for you and grab you, hard. You off-balance them and then you’re on top and they don’t know what happened. Things are slow, slower than life ever is.  They try to grip you again, and you watch their hand come open as it reaches for you. It could take what seems like a second or what seems like a year, and you know where on your body it will land precisely.

But you’re not there any more. The hand’s efforts are useless. Then you let them grip you, just to show them they shouldn’t grab you there, and suddenly they’re tapping.

I don’t use the word sublime a lot, but not much else qualifies. The world is gone. Life is right here.


We often talk about martial arts as a practice, and other disciplines from sporting to religious to philosophical use that same terminology. The end results you’re aiming for with these disciplines differ widely. It’s the practice that brings focus, clarity, and the ability to experience what we call flow. It took me years to get there in both debate and jiu-jitsu, and I’m certainly not there every session. But, as with yoga or music or whatever your art of choice is, it’s the practice that matters.

Buddhism talks about emptying the mind in the context of meditation. This is a painting by the Chinese artist Gao Qipei:

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 1.06.12 PM

You’ll notice that a poem is inscribed at the top of the painting (about which there’s another fascinating story, involving Bertolt Brecht, but that’s for another time).

The poem is about using a quiet mind to tell the difference between good men and evil ones. Here’s a rough translation:

“The deep clarity of the empty mind
corresponds to the vast emptiness of the sky. 
All these malicious and evil men
can be seen in the stillness of contemplation.”

There is a difference between using mental clarity in evaluating someone’s personal ethics and in knowing intimately whether the kimura is available, but how you get there is the same: slow progress over time, culminating in the acuity to know instinctively what to do when the time is right.

Besides, every discipline has different aims, some of which exist beyond good and evil. To paraphrase Ash from the Evil Dead films: “Good, bad. I’m the guy with the heel hooks.”

The idea of mushin is divergent from daily life experience for most of us. We work day jobs that require constant attention. Whether you’re sitting in an office or waiting tables, your mind is active and thinking about minute details. If the world slows down in these spots, it’s not because of the flow, it’s because the quotidian is making you watch the clock.

What does this all mean? It means that the New Year is almost here, and with it, I’m thinking my annual thoughts about what to improve during the next trip around the sun.

I always play the Lawrence Arms song “100 Resolutions” at this time of the year, because the chorus is something to aspire to. You can see why it’d make me think of mushin:

This year I’ll try not to think too much.
This year I’ll try to stand up for myself.
This year I’ll live like I’ve never lived before.
This is my year, for sure.

This year I’ll practice more. Not just jiu-jitsu, but all the things that get me away from clock-watching and toward quiet. This year I’ll flow more and force things less, and I’m not talking about while rolling. The world will always make waves in my life, but I will learn to surf them better.

These are all things I wish for you, too. Happy New Year, everyone.



What Were The Top Submissions of 2015?

There are two reasons I wanted to analyze all the matches from US Grappling‘s points tournaments last year. The first: examining big-picture trends can tell us a lot about what works in practice, what people are doing, what we need to be drilling and what we need to be alert about defending.

The second reason is that I am a giant nerd, and I love data, and I wanted to talk about data on the year-end Cageside ConcussionCast. I go way more in-depth over there, and you can listen to the archived show here or subscribe on iTunes. What follows is a breakdown of all the matches for which we have information in 2015.

To get this, I went through all of the scanned brackets that were available (thanks, Brian & Chrissy Linzy) and put the results into a Google Spreadsheet for ease of data manipulation. There are some caveats about this data, but only super-nerds care about that, so I’ll save them until the end. What you really care about are the results, so let’s get into them.

Generally speaking, about half of US Grappling matches go to points. Of the 2091 matches I analyzed, about 1100 ended in submission, so slightly more than 50 percent end with taps. If you’re betting on whether a match will have a submission or not, you’re slightly better off betting “yes,” but keep in mind that you’re better off betting on points than on any specific submission. Even the armbar. But if you’re going to bet on one submission …

The arm bar is the most common submission in every division group except one, which is 30+ men’s nogi, where it runs a close second to the Rear Naked Choke (RNC). The armbar is still king in the Men’s Purple to Black belt gi divisions, but it’s close: the arm bar beats the bow & arrow choke by a narrow margin.

(To avoid confusion on something I say below, when I say “division group,” I mean “Men’s NoGi, Women’s Gi,” and those larger groups. The arm bar isn’t the top submission for Men’s Advanced NoGi, for example, but it is the top submission for Men’s NoGi generally. I broke the data down this way for sample size purposes.)

Here’s the chart of all the most common submissions, in order, with the top 15 in red:

US Grappling submissions

Of course, the arm bar is allowed in every division, so that gives it an advantage in terms of pure numbers. We’d expect the main submission to be something that every division, gi or nogi, white belt to black belt, can do. We wouldn’t necessarily expect the arm bar to be this far ahead of everything else, though, so that feels significant.

A related point: chokes using the kimono can only be done in half of the divisions, so they’re way more powerful than they look from this chart. The good old-fashioned collar choke performs very well, as does the bow & arrow, especially in the upper belt divisions. The same applies to leg locks. Aside from the straight ankle lock, only upper belts get to use them.

And if you break the data down into specific sub-divisions, you see how powerful the heel hook is. It’s only allowed in adult advanced NoGi, and yet there were 22 heel hook submissions — more than twice the next-most common submission. By the way, there were also 10 toe holds and a couple of calf slicers, so hide your feet in adult advanced.

Here are the top five submissions. Let me know if you see a common thread.

Armbar: 279
Rear Naked Choke: 105
Triangle: 102
Collar Choke: 88
Guillotine & Kimura (tie): 68

That’s right: the most common submissions are all moves you’re going to learn in the first six months. That stuff doesn’t stop working. Keep drilling it.

Yes, fancy stuff happens. We had an electric chair submission (what’s up, Marcel Fucci?). A gogoplata (what’s up Alec Cerruto?). And two Peruvian neckties, in the beginner division and white belt division (stop watching YouTube, guys). But for the most part, it’s the basics that get it done.

To give you an idea about this: the 6th most popular submission is the bow & arrow choke. There were more bow & arrows than the bottom 17 submissions combined, including all the funky stuff.

Wrist locks. The dandy is back with a vengeance, getting 13 submissions. That’s twice as much as the baseball choke. Cutter chokes are also more popular than I would have guessed: there were more cutter submissions than the North South choke and the Anaconda choke combined.

Three omoplata submissions all year. Yes, most people use the omoplata as a sweep. And maybe this is because it’s one of my favorite moves, but there were as many bulldog chokes (3) as there were omoplatas, which surprised me.

There were four taps to pressure last year. The surprising part about this: three came from blue belts, one from a purple belt. There were more taps to pressure last year than taps to clock chokes (3, two by Jake Whitfield) or loop chokes.

I rolled injury, default and disqualification into one category (and there was only one DQ that I remember counting) so this number tabulates matches ending in injury and people not showing for the next match, either due to injury, fatigue, or whatever.

The realities of our bodies: they get more fragile as they age. Another reality: one gender pushes out babies. Thus, it should be no great surprise that older guys (like me) get hurt at a higher rate and women just don’t default from matches at anywhere near the rate guys do.

Let’s start with the old guys: of the 47 total men’s division defaults, 17 were 30+ men. There were 441 30+ men’s matches. One in 26 of those matches had an injury default. This is still not a huge rate, given that we try to bend each other’s joints the wrong way, but it’s far and away the highest rate of the groups I looked. By contrast, the total injury rate for men is one in 38.5 matches.

What about the women? 282 matches, four defaults. FOUR. That’s about one in 70 matches. And it gets more impressive: I was reffing the tournament where two of those defaults took place, and at least two of them were closeouts. That’s when two teammates meet in the finals and choose not to compete against each other, meaning those were non-injury defaults as well. In reality, that number is more like 1 in every 140 matches.

Granted, this is a small sample size. But still, it’s worth noting. Women of jiu-jitsu, Kathleen Hanna and I tip our caps to you.


So, when you break the data down further to just a few advanced divisions, the picture changes slightly. I grouped the information from adult advanced NoGi and brown & black belt gi divisions.

The results: armbars are still powerful, but leg locks really change the game. Heel hooks are very common, and toe holds aren’t far behind. (Also, big surprise: in 219 matches, zero rear naked chokes or straight ankle locks.) Consider this, too: advanced grappling matches are slightly more likely to end in submission than other matches, from this sample. Out of 219 total matches, 131 ended in submission. Interestingly, in a fairly small gi sample of 51 matches, there were twice as many taps as there were matches that went to points (34 to 17).

US Grappling Advanced Division Stats

To close this out, let me show you the broad division groups I put the numbers into. I combined them this way for sample size purposes.

Here are the top five submissions for each broad division group:


Men White & Blue Belt Gi  Men Purple to Black Belt Gi  Men NoGi Women Gi Women NoGi 30+ Men Gi 30+ Men NoGi
Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar RNC
Collar Choke Triangle RNC Collar Choke Americana Collar Choke Armbar
Triangle Bow & Arrow Guillotine Americana RNC Bow & Arrow Kimura
Kimura Ezekiel Heel Hook Bow & Arrow Guillotine Triangle Guillotine
Bow & Arrow Collar Arm Triangle Ezekiel Kimura Kimura Arm Triangle

By the way, if I put “Default” on here, it’d be the No. 3 submission for men’s 30+ in the gi.

Any project has limitations, and I want to acknowledge them. For one thing, this only tabulates the points tournaments, not the US Grappling Submission Only tournaments. If there is enough interest, I’ll do a post about those as well. Also, some data is missing: the majority of table workers did a great job with writing down results, but there were many brackets with either no information about how someone won, or the information was vague (“verbal submission,” but not what submission). So I didn’t include the information if it wasn’t reliable.

There are also issues with terminology. Some of this is easy. I rolled “keylock” and “Americana” into one category, which is obvious, and “Darce” and “Brabo” into one category. But there is also the more vague “shoulder lock,” which ended up getting counted as a kimura. And the whole “collar choke” category includes all collar chokes, because the brackets don’t specify from mount or from guard. That’s information I’d like to have, but we just don’t have it. Then, you have the possibility of transcription errors, so we should take this for what it’s worth: a fun look at big-picture data.

I guess I’m saying this: Before you use it for your master’s thesis, maybe hit me up with an e-mail. Thanks for reading!

Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward All

Have you ever seen the spy comedy “Sneakers,” starring Robert Redford and a stellar ensemble cast?

I won’t entirely spoil it for you, but the good guys win, and as part of their victory, they are able to extract certain promises from an agent of the US government, played ably by James Earl Jones. Some ask for favors for themselves, small or large. One member of the protagonist team, the blind Whistler, asks for something different. He asks for “peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.”

It’s a great phrase, despite its use of “men” as a generic for “people.” The phrase is drawn from the King James Version of the Bible, and is used in Christmas Carol. I’m a secular person, but it’s tough to deny the power of ritual and symbol, especially when it’s supposed be used to build togetherness. When the holidays work right, whatever your faith tradition, they make you happier than you were before, remind you of your connection to your fellow humans, and make you grateful for all you have in your life.

Yet the holidays can be a tough time for people, religious and secular alike. Not everyone has a family experience that resembles a heartwarming film. Not everyone has the capacity to celebrate. And while religious texts are supposed to be preaching unity, it seems like all we see in headlines is division. During these holy days, this seems wrong.

I have a charity project or two that I’m not quite ready to announce yet. But it’s Christmas Eve, and the project might be thematically related to this, so I want to say something about it. Also, I want to do my part in reminding you that while people are capable of doing great harm, we’re also capable of incredible acts of compassion, self-sacrifice, and love.

All I can say about the project at this time of year is this:  When I think about the world’s religions — and, in fact, the world’s people — here’s what I want to be thinking about.

These stories have a common thread: at enormous personal risk, human beings stood up to protect others who were ostensibly not like them. That’s powerful. Like I said, I’m an avowed secularist, but these examples weren’t hard to find, either. Human history is replete with stories like this, of those truly courageous souls who welcomed the stranger and chanced losing their lives — in many cases, to save someone they didn’t know.

Look in all the holy books, too. You’ll find it. Love your neighbor as yourself. Whoever kills an innocent will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity. What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow human.

That’s not about the specific religion, of course. It’s about the people, and the way we interpret text. If you’re looking for excuses to hurt people, you’ll find them. (Truth be told, I wish you wouldn’t). If you’re looking for reasons to see the better angels of our nature, I hope you find that, too — whatever your faith or lack thereof.

One of the things I love most about jiu-jitsu is that it, too, can be a unifying force. I believe that, or I wouldn’t be doing it. That’s a hint about the project, too. We should find more items of significance that unify us.

Everyone has difficulties that come into their lives, and this time of year can amplify those feelings in the same way that it can amplify good feelings. You might not be in a war zone at this time of year, and I hope you aren’t, but you don’t have to be in order to make a real difference in someone’s life. That same King James Bible, I recall, has some passages about giving gentle answers, turning the other cheek and loving those who might consider themselves your enemy.

My New Year’s Resolution is to respond to hard things by getting kinder, and by thinking about new ways to help the world. This is easy to say. Harder to do. Like most hard things, it’s worth doing. Jiu-jitsu is like life: it’s a constant struggle between what’s right and what’s easy.

I want peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. I want us to do that and I believe that we can.

Happy holidays, y’all.


Gifts For Grapplers: 2015 Holiday Edition

With only a week left until Christmas, it’s finally time to start shopping. At least, it is if you’re me. Is this because I’m lazy, irresponsible, or because I’m distracted by training? Yes.

But you can benefit from my sloth! Behold the 2015 Dirty White Belt Grappler Gift Guide, featuring sweet ideas for presents that will benefit the jiu-jitsu practitioner in your life. Some of these are gear suggestions, which I wholeheartedly recommend. Because it’s so late in the game, I’ve also listed some gift ideas that don’t need to be delivered, so you can be sure to have something to stick into your beloved’s grubby, mat-burn-laden hands.

A lot of these are from Cageside Fight Co., which has a new website. That’s not only because it’s a great company that has supported me a lot throughout the years, but because I *know* they’ll take getting your order to you by Christmas seriously. Cageside and Toro BJJ get the uncritical endorsement, deservedly so.

That said: on with the commerce!



The first run of the Toro BJJ JS 2015 sold out super-fast. But they’re back in stock, and believe me, I’d be telling you that this is a great gi even if I hadn’t designed it. It’s been my primary gi since it came out, and I love the look, feel and fit. It’s the first gi I’ve designed for Toro, and we plan to do one each year. Please help me out and get a terrific value in the process.


Speaking of first runs, Toro also made its first Navy Blue gi, and man, does this thing look sweet. I’ve seen a few folks around wearing it, and it’s a striking color. If you’re more of a black gi person, the new Dark Horse is a killer gi, too. I haven’t seen the horizontal lapel embroidery style before, and I think it’s a very cool innovation.


Rounding out my gi recommendations: Meerkatsu’s Orchid Dragon gi is gorgeous. Blue gis are typically not my thing, but this is an artist who really knows what he’s doing.


The 8-Bit Jiu-Jitsu rashguard I designed for Toro BJJ was a pretty popular item when it was released, and we did a quick re-release for the holidays. At $23, that’s a steal, and it’s one of my favorite rashies I’ve ever done.

Also, Guard-Zilla is loose! I’ve been wearing this one around and getting lots of nice compliments on it. I’m stoked to have mine, and your grappler pal will be stoked to get theirs, too.


Scramble is doing a pre-order of a killer new rashguard that will benefit Paul, and I just ordered mine. It looks sweet, and it’s a great cause, so buy it and leave a “look at this awesome rashie I ordered you” card under the tree.



There are many great aspects to private lessons: you can learn directly from a tremendous teacher, you can tailor your training to what you need most, and you can use it basically any time you want. Plus, you don’t have to worry about delivery.

To give one of these as a gift can be simple — you can just buy a private for your grappler from her or his instructor. Everybody can benefit from personalized attention.

Or, to go that extra mile, find the one person they’ve always wanted to train with and buy them a private with that person (if they’re local) or during the time when they’re coming through town for a seminar. Watch their eyes light up, and thank me later.



Want to make your grappler happy — and not worry about the present arriving in time? Get them a subscription to an online site!

I’ve been watching fewer instructional videos these days, but I’ll always recommend two online sites based on my experience with them. Marcelo Garcia’s site is the OG on the block, and has an incredible library of techniques being taught and implemented during live rolling. You can’t go wrong.

But my personal favorite site is the Mendes Bros. You get tremendous instruction, drilling suggestions, technique breakdowns and amazing sparring sessions featuring the best in the world. And it’s delivered right into the privacy of your own home.

Finally, consider a subscription to FloGrappling. I have one, and have generally positive things to report. If you like to watch your friends compete (and, y’know, the big names, too), it’s a great thing to have in your pocket.

Let’s be real: I could go on forever with the wish list. In the interests of time and in the interests of being light on your wallet, I’ll stop there.

One item I’ll leave you with: if you know me in person, you know that I’m always thinking of new charity projects. I have a very exciting one that might come together soon, so if you want to save a little money this season with the intention of helping support that … just keep it in mind.

Thanks for reading. Happy holidays to all!

Check out these podcasts

Hi folks,

Been working really hard on the The Cageside ConcussionCast, so although I have a bunch of written posts planned, I haven’t had time to complete any yet.

Fortunately for your audio entertainment purposes, we are on SoundCloud now, which has all but one of the podcasts archived. If you’re interested in jiujitsu, MMA, and other combat sports (especially in and around the Carolinas), check that out.

You can always listen to the episodes archived permanently on the website, but you can also subscribe via iTunes and Stitcher, and here’s our Feedburner.

However you’re listening to us, thanks so much for doing so. We have some really fun interviews planned in the future.