What Is A Competition Mentality?

As a visitor to another academy, I never expect high-level black belts to roll with me. They’ve earned the right to train with whoever they want to. But Fernando Yamasaki had heard that I was competing at a major tournament soon, and he wanted to help me.

“Come after me,” he said. “Really kick my butt.” (Yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

My philosophy on sparring with people who outclass me is simple: I try to be as technical as possible, to try to do correct movements. I try not to use much strength or athleticism — partially because I don’t actually have those things, but mostly because this person is going to beat me anyway. I might as well be cerebral about my beating so I can learn from it, instead of risking hitting them in the nose and really taking a whooping. I rolled as well as I could against Fernando, but I wasn’t trying to go at competition speed and he knew it.

After the round was over, he put my hand on my shoulder and said this:

“You’re a very nice man,” he said, not meaning it as a compliment. “But that doesn’t work for competition.”

(It sure didn’t work here, but this was still a fun match)

***

If you asked people I train with to describe me, I think that word would come up, nice. I certainly try to be. I also try to be realistic about my own level — I’m 41 and do this as a hobby, often in the 30+ division — and this type of realism creates humility, because realistically, there are a lot of people that are better at jiujitsu than I am. This isn’t something I have to be convinced of: it’s just naturally how I think and who I am.

Which brings up another story about another badass black belt scoffing at me. When I came out for a major tournament, I got pulled out of the bullpen and went to stand by the mat where I’d compete. Jason Culbreth saw me smiling and laughing and waving to people. He tried to give me a lecture about getting into the kick-that-guy’s-ass mindframe. But I just couldn’t stop smiling. This is what I do for fun, I said, and shrugged.

“Well,” he responded with a mix of amusement and disgust, “you’ve got to be who you are, I guess.”

Part of the way I act before the match is rational, and part of it isn’t. The rational part of my mind says that both me and the other guy have prepared as much as we can, and either I’m better than him or I’m not. There isn’t much I can do about it at the point right before the match, so why stress about it?

The irrational part is something that I don’t admit very often, and now I’m going to admit it in public. What I’m about to admit is odd, and it makes me very fortunate.

Once the match begins and we slap hands, I think I’m going to win. Always. No matter what. No matter who the other person is, no matter how badly the match is going. The other person could be a world-class black belt, and I just wouldn’t think about that during the flow of the match. My opponent could be up 25-0, and I’d believe that I was going to catch a neck or a foot and submit him. (This happened to me at the Worlds, when I was down something like 13-2 and I never thought I was going to lose until the timer went off).

Lost this match, too.

Lost this match, too.

This isn’t something I’ve trained: it’s just something that happens, which is lucky for me, because I think the mental aspect of jiujitsu is critical.In order to compete, you have to get rid of doubt.

By itself, this isn’t even very unusual. Most of the successful competitors I know describe something similar, a preternatural confidence.

What makes my experience strange is that, outside of that few intense minutes on the mat, I think I’m very conscious of where I stand. If you were to ask me about certain guys I compete against, I have no problem saying who I think is better than me (which drives my instructor crazy sometimes). During tournaments, I’ll find myself in a situation where I’m in a match with someone who, objectively, should smash me. But that thought won’t even occur to me. A few minutes after his hand gets raised, I’ll think … “wait a second, how did I think I could beat that guy?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know why it happens. And I don’t feel like this is something I can take credit for, since it’s just happened for me, the way some people are naturally strong, or fast.

This works both ways, of course. We all know someone who is an absolute beast that, for some reason, doesn’t realize that they should be beating up everyone. I know a lot of competitors these days have mental coaches, which makes sense. Mental attributes are just like physical attributes. We all get dealt a hand by nature, and then it’s up to us to maximize what we’ve been given. You might be naturally strong, but you have to do work to maintain and enhance that. A competition mentality is the same: some people are born with it. Some people need to develop it, just like physical strength.

And maybe you’re strong, but don’t have a lot of flexibility: truly training to be the best you can be involves addressing weaknesses as well as strengths. Even top-level competitors admit to competition nerves. It’s unproductive to complain about the guy in the gym with monstrous muscles: it’s more productive to honestly analyze what your own gifts are, as well as the traits you have to improve.

When I compete seriously, I try to visit as many different academies as I can. My own school will always be home, but if we don’t have class or if I’m traveling, it’s valuable to train with people who do techniques differently, who have different strengths than I do, and people who are just plain better.

I’ll keep rolling with whoever will train with me. And I’ll continue to be as nice as I can. Most of all, in terms of competition, I’ll adhere to the advice of Fernando Yamasaki — modified by the maxim of my favorite philosophy graduate from NYU:

For every job, there is a perfect tool. Life is about taking the tools you’re given and applying them as best you can in the correct situations. I’m grateful for the odd little mental switch in me that flips when the match starts, even if I don’t fully understand it.

Leglocks and Jiujitsu

Editor’s Note: Like a gentleman, the only time I ever touch feet is when I’m giving Marcellus Wallace a foot massage. But my good friend Lt. Col. Toehold goes for your feet like a submission-focused Rex Ryan. (Actually, maybe Rex Ryan is submission focused. Let’s not think about that too closely). Anyway, enjoy this guest post, and thanks to Lt. Col. Toehold for writing it. 

ADCC 2015. Thirty-three matches ended in submission. Nine of those were lower body submissions including six heel hooks, two toeholds, and one kneebar. Polaris 2 this weekend saw two incredible battles in Tonon vs. Imanari and Cummings vs. Bodycomb. Both matches ended in heel hook. Ryan Hall just won his way onto the Ultimate Fighter house by an Imanari roll to inverted 50/50, followed by a heel hook. Eddie Cummings won the Eddie Bravo 3 tournament, submitting the entire field with heel hooks.

Without a doubt, leg locks are the fastest growing set of submissions in the sport. They can also be the most dangerous because they are often misunderstood and hence not immediately respected.

I wanted to take the time to share some thoughts on leg locks. First off, let me clarify something. I’m a purple belt. Which means a couple things. Most importantly I’m early on in the learning process. This is important to understand because I’m not preaching years of advice. Rather, I’m explaining the path that I’m on in my education of leg locks. Second, I’m not even allowed to do leg locks in competition. This means my sage advice hasn’t even been tested in IBJJF competitions.

So why should you read further? Because I’ve made many mistakes. I hope you don’t make the same. Continue reading

Why BJJ Lineage Matters

Without a fighter from Japan and a few Brazilian pioneers, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Without a black belt from Vermont, I wouldn’t be competing at high-level tournaments. Without a select handful of dedicated people, I would be a completely different person than I am — a less happy, less tough person leading a less fulfilled life.

That last paragraph is about my lineage in jiujitsu, the teachers that have trained me. We think about that a fair bit in the martial arts.

Interestingly, a new guest article on JiuJitsu Times purports to not see why lineage matters. While I see where the author is coming from — yes, in a fight or a tournament match, no one cares who your instructor is — the piece wildly misanalyzes what lineage is and why it’s important. Continue reading

What Makes a Good Tournament?

Competition is valuable. The experience you get from standing across from another combat athlete who is going to try assiduously to choke you or bend your joints the wrong way is hard to replicate.

A tournament can either be a winning experience or a learning experience, or ideally both. Apart from the matches themselves, though, whether you have a good time at an event really depends heavily on how the tournament is run.

Since I starting training almost five years ago, I’ve been fortunate to compete at a ton of different events run by different organizations. During this time, I’ve developed some fairly firm thoughts on what makes a tournament a good experience for competitors — and by contrast, what undermines a competitor’s experience.

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Follow me through my list, which is organized into “you’ve got to have these things” and “it is nice when tournaments have these things.” Continue reading

Video: DLR sweep from combat base

My friend Roy Marsh asked me to come teach an open guard series at his school last week, and I stuck around to make a video for his YouTube channel. This simple De La Riva guard technique is my highest-percentage sweep when my opponent takes the combat base (one knee up) position, and I hope you dig it.

I had fun doing the video, and I know Roy’s going to be posting a bunch of great stuff from guys better than I am, so if you like this technique, please consider subscribing.

 

Preparing for BJJ Tournaments 101

It’s tournament season, and with both the IBJJF New York Open and US Grappling’s Grapplemania in North Carolina just a few weeks away, I’m sure many of you will be competing — and some of you will be competing for the first time.

Since I did my first competition a little more than four years ago, I’ve learned a great deal. This includes a bunch of material I wish I’d known before my inaugural voyage into choking and being choked for medals. Hence, I wrote several posts designed to help my friends and the other students at the academy get ready.

We’re long overdue for lazy re-packaging of previous content some judicious aggregation and curation of past posts. Here are some of the posts that I think might be interesting if you’re relatively new to tournaments:

 

Be the Clerk, Not the Miller

While reading a technique post on social media the other day, I thought of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You know, as one does.

A very good black belt had posted a technique video with a helpful, fairly detailed explanation of the theory behind the move. Most of the commentary was positive, but one poster sneeringly suggested that the technique would only work in theory, and only against someone who didn’t know jiujitsu, which he called “jits.” He suggested an alternate technique, ending in what he called “kasa katami.”

It should go without saying to anyone who has browsed the jiujitsu corners of the Internet that this individual was a white belt.

spaceghost

Now, I’m not trying to pick on white belts in general here. Really. In fact, I’ll bet that every humble, dedicated white belt out there (and we have a lot of ’em) is making a facepalm pose. And yet, as the Bard put it, this type of shit happens every day.

Reacting to a black belt’s technique video in this manner is as silly as it is disrespectful — from any belt level — for two reasons. First, it assumes that you as the poster know more than the black belt does, which is a pretty bad bet.

Second, a strong statement reaction (“this wouldn’t work”) as opposed to an open question reaction (“I’m having a tough time visualizing how you’d use this. Can you explain why you’d do X instead of Y?”) cuts off access to information.

We’re all in this for different reasons, and so an instructor primarily concerned with self defense may be showing a move for purposes that wouldn’t make sense for competition, or vice versa. A black belt probably has a well-thought-out rationale for teaching something, but you won’t find out if you say something instead of asking something.

That, I hope, is apparent to most of us: respect the black belts. But there’s another element to this.

As someone gains knowledge in jiujitsu, that person feels more comfortable speaking up. Many of these folks want to teach, too, whether that means formally or just helping out less-experienced students in class.

Enthusiasm and passion should be encouraged, not squashed: I’d much rather have an enthusiastic person try to help someone out and make a mistake while doing so than have a selfish person never try. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach teaching and learning.

For guidance on the right and wrong ways, I naturally turned to an influential 14th century text.

***

If you don’t keep The Canterbury Tales beside your bed or commode for light reading, here’s a summary: a group of travelers becomes engaged in a storytelling contest, where the winner will receive a free meal. Along the way, we learn about the characters both from their descriptions and from the stories each of them chooses to tell.

It’s sort of like a medieval reality show, but with more believable characters and only one Kardashian (the Wife of Bath).

This line describing one of the characters, the Clerk, has always stuck with me. It was the inspiration for this post:

Sounding in moral virtue was his speech,
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

Clerk Canterbury copy

The Clerk and his friend on their way to class.

The Clerk is a student of philosophy. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, his words are helpful and virtuous. He’s hard-working and devoted to reading and studying. He’s open-minded in terms of receiving knowledge, and humble about passing on the knowledge he has received.

Training with people like this is great. They share videos with you. They help you break down moves that you can’t yet hit, but don’t condescend to you about messing the moves up. And let’s not forget, philosophy is a part of jiujitsu).

This is the ideal approach, in my view. Gladly learn. Don’t necessarily say much (“he never spoke a word more than was need”), but make what you say count. Help others if you’re asked to. Gladly teach.

I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of black belts. Most of the best teachers are like this. Draw your own conclusions from that.

***

One reason the Canterbury Tales is significant in Western literature is that it popularized the use of the vernacular. And The Miller, in the vernacular, is a dick.

"I'm that dude who bought the fanciest gi I could find after one class. And this isn't a musical instrument, it's a visual representation of me sucking."

“I’m that dude who bought the fanciest gi I could find after one class. And this isn’t a musical instrument, it’s a visual representation of me sucking.”

The Miller is stout and strong. His physical prowess no doubt helped make him inconsiderate and a bully: he interrupts others, even going so far as to upset the host’s plans for the order in which tales are told. (He is — I pass this along without comment — noted as a wrestler in the text).

Oh, and when he tells his story, he does so in a way that denigrates several in the group, especially the nerds. Does this sound like anybody you’ve trained with? I hope not, but I’d bet so.

This is the not, in my view, a good representation of a martial artist. In fact, the Miller is the antithesis of a good training partner. When I think of him, I think of the big, strong guy who calls out the smallest person in the room, keylocks them and celebrates.

Then, when someone tries to correct his technique — to help him improve — he responds with a derisive “well, it worked, didn’t it?” As if that were the point.

There are lessons here for being a good training partner, for being an effective student, and more generally for being a pleasant human being to be around. Those lessons in two sentences:

Be the Clerk. Then go train and tap the Miller.

My happiest BJJ moment

Who is more successful, the single guy who has a billion dollars or the married guy with three great kids who just scrapes by?

I sometimes use this analogy to get across a principle: what success looks like depends upon the criteria you use. If we define success as happiness, which I do, we don’t have enough information to answer the question. Maybe the rich bachelor has only ever really wanted to fall in love and have children; maybe the married guy’s financial stresses blind him to how wonderful his offspring are. Or maybe the single guy is thrilled to have no commitments and enough money to fly in Rickson Gracie for constant private lessons (which is what I would do) and maybe the family man has just what he’s always wanted.

Jiu-jitsu is like life: how you define success depends upon your goals. I think about my own goals a lot, and yet my happiest moment in jiu-jitsu came as a real surprise when I tried to figure out what it was.

If I had a billion dollars ...

If I had a billion dollars …

What was that happiest moment, and why was it a surprise? Well, I’ll get to that in a second. We all know jiu-jitsu can make you happier (and that post I just linked has great strategies for doing so). But the manner in which it does this varies from person to person.

Some highlights are common, obvious even. After I decided I was going to devote a lot of time to jiu-jitsu, competition became a priority for me. At white and blue belt, I entered a ton of tournaments, trying both to get wins and improve as fast as I could. I’ve lost a lot of jiu-jitsu matches, which means I’ve also won a fair amount of jiu-jitsu matches, and some of those wins tasted pretty sweet.

I’ve never been overly focused on belt promotion — I’m a huge believer in “keep your head down and train hard, and that stuff will take care of itself” — but when I got promoted to blue and especially purple, those were great days as well.

Those are common highlight-reel moments for just about everyone, I think. If you’re at the right gym, you probably also have some great memories of camaraderie on road trips or during post-training bonding sessions.

When I read Andrew Smith’s article about happiness in BJJ and thought about the singular moment that made me happiest, though, I didn’t think about any medal or even the day I got my purple belt. I flashed on an otherwise banal moment.

That morning, I’d been teaching the 6 a.m. fundamentals class. A white belt expressed to me that he’d never been able to hit the basic hip bump sweep I was showing, so I offered details on a setup that had helped me out.

During the night class, he showed up again. I was watching him roll with another white belt, and he saw the chance to use the setup. I swear his eyes got as big as dinner plates. The guy actually looked over and said my name as he set the technique up, like he was whispering “watch this!”

He hit for the first time and I have never seen a person smile so big. But that might only be true because there wasn’t a mirror in the room.

It was a super-basic technique and an inconsequential gym roll, but that moment stands out to me for some reason. I finally got some small version of what my instructor must feel regularly.

Why is this? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Some combination of the sheer joy on his face, the direct line between teaching the setup and seeing it work in a few short hours, perhaps. Also, I’ve achieved a lot of my competition goals, which means I generally compete for fun and view those tournaments as an extension of my training. The more I teach, the more I improve at it and the more fun I have.

I started training when I was 36, so long-term I always knew that teaching was a more sustainable path for me than competing full-time. Competition is still something I enjoy a lot, and I still train as hard for competition as I ever have.

Maybe this is part of a mental transition where other “wins” are becoming as important to me — or even more so. Roy Marsh once told me that, in his view, a purple belt absolutely should be able to teach. I’m finding that this is certainly part of the growth curve for me.

There’s something deeply gratifying to me about helping somebody else achieve their goals. Being useful to others in that way, I’m coming to understand, is a critical part of my own goals, too.

How about you? What are your happiest moments in jiu-jitsu?

Get That Funk Out Of Your Gi

It finally happened. I was That Guy.

One of my most beloved gis is my first Toro. It fits great, is comfortable, has just the right amount of wear so I look like neither a first-day guy nor a slob, and it has my team and affiliation patches on it. It was my regular competition gi for a long time, and some of my favorite tournament memories happened in that gi. I still train in it regularly.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when it finally got the funky gi smell. I know because one of my training partners informed me of this in the manner of De La Soul:

Granted, this dude has scent powers comparable to Daredevil or Willy the Nose from the McGurk Mysteries. Still, the lesson was clear. If I wanted to keep using this righteous gi, I had to be a considerate training partner.

I’m a pound-for-pound sweating champion, so I try super-hard to stay on top of the standard BJJ hygiene practices — deodorant, regular showers, nails clipped, teeth brushed, etc. — but my “body as a temple” attitude had to extend to my gi, too. So I returned to a tactic that I’d used for months but gotten away from after I ran out of it. I want to tell y’all about it.

This embarrassing incident caused me to go back to Odoban, which is a product you can get for $10 at various home improvement retailers. They use it in fire restoration, so you know it’s powerful. Throw a little bit of it into the load of laundry and your old gi comes out smelling fresh. I’d used it before (for similar reasons), but had slacked off until being duly chastised.

Odoban

I am not sponsored by Odoban and have not received any compensation for this unsolicited endorsement, although if y’all want to ship a case to the Dirty White Belt Mansion in historic Durham, NC, I promise it’ll get used.

We all know who That Guy is. None of us want to be him. I was him for a session. Don’t let this happen to you!

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.