They’re All About Duty

Note: This is a guest post I did for JiuJiteira, a new online community intended to promote events that feature female JiuJiteiras and encourage both men and women training together.

Jiujitsu has much in common with musical theater, specifically Gilbert & Sullivan.

No, really. Besides being subcultures that inspire completists to obsession, the themes in both essentially run parallel to each other.

If you want pop culture confirmation, consider this clip from the West Wing, where Ainsley Hayes corrects Lionel Tribbey on whether the song “He Is An Englishman” comes from “HMS Pinafore,” which it does. Tribbey insists that it is from Penzance, or Iolanthe, or “one of  the ones about duty.”

Ainsley responds, correctly: they’re all about duty.

If you’ve seen any Gilbert & Sullivan — and really, who hasn’t? — you can testify that this is accurate. In song and story, the Englishmen sailing the ocean blue struggle with what’s right to do. Michael Bisping might represent all that’s bad about the English aesthetic, but “Pinafore” represents all that’s good about it.

We hear a lot about duty in the martial arts. Qualities like loyalty and courage in the face of adversity are embedded in the Bushido code and what traditionalists refer to as jiujitsu philosophy.

But what’s duty? What do we owe other  people? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was perhaps more concerned with moral duty than anyone else, and he came up what called the Categorical Imperative — a single rule more important than any other.

What is this rule, and what does this have to do with how we train? We’ll get to that in a second. If you don’t care about the echoes of German philosophy in martial arts, you might be interested in Sideshow Bob singing the score of Pinafore before trying, fruitlessly once again, to murder Bart Simpson:

The rule Kant came up with — that most important of imperatives — is: “Act only on those maxims (or rules of action) that you could at the same time will to be a universal law.” Or, put more simply, only do things that you’d be comfortable with anyone else doing, at any place and time.

That might sound familiar, like it’s a more detailed version of a rule common throughout the world’s religions and cultures. It also might sound like a good idea, and it is. The trouble isn’t the rule, the trouble is that people aren’t always attentive to it, or don’t apply it to their specific life circumstances.

Let’s apply it to our specific life circumstances. What do we owe to our training partners? What is our duty to them? I came up with three principles.

  1. The most important person in the room is your training partner.
    Your training partner – even if they’re the newest white belt – is doing you a favor. They’re putting their body on the line and using precious minutes of their finite life to help you get better at something you love.

    Let’s say we look at every training situation, in jiujitsu and out, this way: a mutual exchange where we’re investing time in helping each other. If you’re looking  at making universal rules for how people in that situation should treat each other, you’d probably say they should treat each other like gold. This is particularly true in something like jiujitsu, a niche activity where mistakes can have physical consequences.

    Sometimes I hear people complain about training with white belts. I love training with white belts, because making sure white belts have good experiences is the best way to grow jiujitsu. And I learn things every time: new people often react differently than experienced people, which improves my ability to respond in those situations. Even when there is a skill gap between training partners, we can still learn from each other.

    The person you’re drilling with and sparring with is the most important person in the room at that moment. Your responsibility – your duty – is to make sure they have a good experience and get something out of it.

  2. Everybody has a first day. It’s your job to make sure they have a second day, too.
    Duty means that we should always make choices that could be universalized – that is, we would be comfortable with everyone making the same choices we made.

    Imagine a new person comes in that rubs you the wrong way for whatever reason. Let’s say you act like a dismissive jerk: maybe you ignore them when it’s time to pair up and drill. Or worse, let’s say you encourage them to spar with you, and you smash their face for five minutes.

    If that choice is universalized – if everyone makes that choice – jiujitsu dies. Period.

    Jiujitsu is hard, and we shouldn’t shy away from making that clear. When I talk to the toughest of the toughest, oldest of old school folks, though, there’s a common undercurrent in what they tell me: training has to be fun sometimes, too. To help jiujitsu grow and survive, let’s not show new people the first part without the second.

  3. The  more vulnerable someone is, the more attentive you should be to your own actions around them. 
    Fundamentally, I believe in personal responsibility. We are a product of the choices we make.

    We often hear that jiujitsu is for smaller, weaker people. Helio Gracie said that larger, strong people already have nature’s jiujitsu. We all know people who have tremendous jiujitsu skills that would have developed those skills no matter what gym they ended up at — people who are naturally tough and physically adept.

    I am not one of these people.


    I lucked out by walking into a gym that is very thoughtful about how to build people up. If that hadn’t happened, I might not have the chance to even do jiujitsu, let alone have it as a central, rewarding part of my life.

    Since I am, by any reasonable metric, a very lucky person, I think a lot about what I owe. What I owe people, what I owe the world.  Since there were people that kept me coming back, I want to be one of those people for somebody else.

    When people come into the gym that might not feel welcome for any reason – maybe they aren’t natural athletes, maybe they’re women who are worried about training with men, or maybe they struggle with claustrophobia, or are physically disabled in some way — I feel like it’s incumbent on me to make sure they see the possibilities that jiujitsu can represent for them.

Some things are universal. We all want to be treated with dignity and respect. We all want to train in place with people who are true and attentive. We are, all of us who train, a part of the same story.

So, yes, this is something that jiujitsu and philosophy and musical theater share in common.

They’re all about duty. And if we’re decent, so are we.


Margarida, the Forgotten Champion

Have you ever seen the amusing video of a black belt explaining how jiujitsu movements equate to taking off tight clubbing jeans? Don’t worry, I won’t make you use Mr. Google:

Funny video, right? But today I was having a conversation with Jake Whitfield, who is a Royce Gracie black belt with a passion for jiujitsu history, and Jake mused that if you know the name Fernando “Margarida” Pontes these days, it might be because of this hilarious snippet. And that’s a crime.

(Full disclosure: a lot of the information in this post I got straight from Jake. So if you’re near Goldsboro, NC, go train with him, OK?)

Generations change. Some names remain prominent while others fade, and not always based on merit or accomplishment. On the basis of accomplishments alone, Margarida’s record speaks for itself. He was the first black belt to earn double gold at the worlds, and at that time was also the youngest absolute champion in history. BJJ Heroes calls him “one of the most accomplished and exciting fighters to have walked the Earth.”

Besides the gold medals, consider what Margarida’s aggressive, attacking style earned him.  For one thing — and think about how many times you’ll read the following words in this order — he submitted the legendary Fabio Gurgel:

He also tapped Marcio “Pe de pano” Cruz and Saulo Ribeiro, both in their respective primes.

If you’re part of the crowd that just wants to see highlights, don’t you worry: Margarida had an exciting and flashy game. Watch him stick his hand in the collar and make it a constant threat:

If technique’s more your thing, watch him teach the baseball choke here:

You can search YouTube and find full matches with Terere, Saulo, Xande, Roger and more that I haven’t linked here. It’s up to you to decide how to use your time.

But however you use it: don’t watch one amusing minute and think that’s all you need to see from one of the best ever.


Degree of Difficulty, or Driving in Sicily

For the past week, I’ve been watching closely for motorbikes zipping around me in any direction, improbable lane changes and aggressive double parking. I’ve been honked at for stopping at a stop sign, cut off by not one but two pedestrians strolling their children, backs firmly placed to the rush hour traffic. By the time I pulled into the gas station and saw the guy smoking while pumping his gas, I almost welcomed the oncoming explosion.

Here’s a time-lapse photo series that gives you only the barest idea of what this driving experience was like:

But it got better.

Why did it get better? I flew into Catania a week ago with the plan to spend a few days here at the beginning of my driving tour through the largest Mediterranean island. During those few days, I saw all of the above multiple times, plus a guy in a full wrist-to-shoulder cast use his crippled wing to hold his phone while he screamed into the receiver — all the while weaving through traffic in full defiance of lanes, laws and common decency. For obvious reasons, I walked a lot.

Once I got out in the country, the degree of difficulty diminished considerably. Partly, this was because the rural environments were less crowded. Upon returning to Catania it occurred to me that I’d picked the deepest end of the pool to start with: flying in to a busy university town after dark and trying to find a tiny road that even locals hadn’t heard of.

I drove back to Catania in the middle of rush hour today, though, and I noticed something: I was still a tourist, but I was able to get into the flow of traffic better. Little old men were only cutting me off when I let them. I could identify a valid parking space and capture it with minimal trauma.

This made me think about jiu-jitsu. Not just because everything makes me think about jiu-jitsu, although of course that is also true.

Vacation training! A proud tradition.

Vacation training! A proud tradition.

The gym where I train has grown a lot. When I started, there were perhaps 10 serious regulars at the classes I attended. I had no idea what I was getting into, and back then we all rolled after our first class.

My first rolls were with my instructor; a very successful pro MMA fighter (he’d heard I’d wrestled a year in high school, so we started standing); a monster wrestler who was a three-stripe blue belt at the time; and a then-purple belt who has crushed tournaments ever since I’ve known him. I can’t recall if I rolled with the future blue belt world champion at my first or second class, but it was one of the two. There weren’t many other white belts, and there certainly weren’t any that I was better than.

It went how you’d expect. This was the deep end of the pool. This was driving in Sicily.

I trained a while. Got crushed every night. I was having too much fun learning things to be upset about the litany of kicking that my solitary ass took.

White belt life: I didn't know much, but hard training taught me to close that guard pretty fast.

White belt life: I didn’t know much, but hard training taught me to close that guard pretty fast. Not sure what else I’m doing here.

In the coming months, I was still at the bottom of the ladder, but the sink-or-swim situation I was in forced me to get a solid grounding in the fundamentals. First I was still getting passed easily, but I knew when to shrimp. Then I was still getting mounted but I knew to keep my elbows tight. Maybe I’d see my opponent do something that I had no idea about, but I knew to protect my neck and face.

This was real progress! When new white belts came in, even the really big and strong ones had a tough time submitting me. I had a lot of practice trying (and mostly failing) to survive against bigger, stronger, more skilled people. This was a huge help that I’m still thankful for.

Train with lions, and even if you're the runt of the litter, you'll grow.

Train with lions, and even if you’re the runt of the litter, you’ll grow.

[Note: I have mixed feelings on whether it’s good for new people to roll their first week. Generally, I think Roy Marsh has a solid philosophy on this: people wait to roll until they have some basics, and he has a standard safety spiel before each rolling session. But that’s the subject for another post. Anyway, the deep-end experience was good for me, but might not be best for most folks.]

I mention degree of difficulty, too, because it’s important to have training partners that challenge you, push you and tap you. We all know the White Belt Hunter: he’s the guy who gets his blue belt and looks around the room for less experienced, ideally smaller people, never realizing that those people are getting better at a faster rate than he is. Making progress — especially early, but at every stage of the game — requires skilled, tough partners.

The progress in my early jiu-jitsu life mirrors my return to Catania. I’m still overmatched driving here, but I know some basics I didn’t know before. It makes getting around easier, less stressful, and more fun.

The first time I successfully cut off that driver who was trying to get over on me and laughed at the guy who hesitated and was lost reminded me of my first successful escape from back control: yes, you’re better than I am, and yes, this is a small victory in the grand scheme of things. But this small victory is helping me improve — and helping me become a better training partner.

I still train with all of the people who I mentioned at the beginning of the post. They’re still all better than I am. Rolling with them is more fun than it’s ever been, though, and more productive for all of us.

Why am I writing this? Perspective. Our near-term goals don’t have to be to beat everybody, or to speak a language fluently, or to drive like a local (n fact, please don’t drive like a Sicilian local). I don’t miss getting my face smashed every night, just like I don’t miss feeling utterly lost on the roads. That time investment helped me build a foundation, and I recognize that.

Keep focusing on building that foundation, and your journey will get more enjoyable with each step. Even if you have to step into the deep end of the pool.


Letting Ego Go

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.