Inverted Gear Blog

The Ultimate Guide to Drop-In Training

The holidays are upon us! This time of year can often be stressful, and this is true for grapplers as well. The holidays often mean travel and thus a disruption of our favorite method of stress relief: training. While I look forward to seeing far-flung family members on Christmas, I often find myself dreading missing out on training. The solution to this problem is simple: Pack your gi and visit a local jiu jitsu school.

Visiting other schools is a great experience that every jiu jitsu student should indulge in, but this can also be a stressful experience, so here are few tips to make visiting schools as smooth and enjoyable process as possible.

Know the Rules of the Academy: This is the most important one. If nothing else, know and follow the rules of the school you are visiting. I personally reach out ahead of time when planning a visit, and one of the things I ask about is mat rules. If I forget to ask ahead of time, I talk to the class instructor before rolling for the first time. When you do roll, remember that this isn’t the time to take your personal stand against a particular rule set you don’t approve of. Their house, their rules. If heel hooks are a big part of your game but you end up attending a gi class where they aren’t allowed, then work on a different part of your game. Respect the school enough to follow their rules.

Socialize: When you visit a new school, it’s a good idea to show up a little early. You’ll need to sign a waiver, pay a mat fee, and be shown where to change and put your shoes. So you’ll likely have a bit of time before class where you will just kind of hang out as the regulars drift in. Don’t just awkwardly sit there until class starts, though. Walk around and introduce yourself. This might be difficult for the less outgoing grappler, but you already have one big thing in common with anyone at a jiu jitsu school. Talk to people before class, swap social media information, hang out after class. This will make the visit about more than just the rolling and make it easier to come back because you’ll remember feeling welcome.

Remember You Are Not Representing Your School: Visiting schools can be a lot like doing a competition. You will feel some nerves rolling with new people at a different school, it can expose you to other grappling styles, show you holes in your own game, or even show you aspects of your game that are progressing positively. One big difference between stopping in for a class at an academy and getting on the mats at a tournament, however, is mindset. Don’t put stress on yourself that you need to ‘defend you rank’ on the mat by tapping out every lower belt and dominating those at the same belt level as you. Don’t worry about how your rolling is reflecting on your school. It is a class, and for the day those people are your training partners, not your competition.

Keep an Open Mind: Part of seeing different styles is that they will do things that are familiar to you but are also slightly different. Don’t dismiss it as ‘wrong.’ Work the technique being taught in class. By all means if you have a technique that compliments something being taught and you find a tactful way to share it, do it. The sharing of knowledge is always a positive, but be sure to do it in way that doesn’t feel like you are trying to hijack the class from the actual instructor. Keep an open mind and you might learn something new you can take home.

These are the basic rules I set for myself when I visit a new school and it has led to friendships, new perspectives, and an ever-growing network of gyms I consider a home away from home. I hope that you get to enjoy this part of the jiu-jitsu experience as well.

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You Learn Even on the Bad Days

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is tough -- physically, mentally, emotionally. Most people quit, and those that don’t can still spend years feeling clueless.

If you feel that way, I have good news for you: You’re learning even on those days where nothing seems to go right and you mess up every move you try. We learn a lot from frustrating failures, even when we don’t realize we are. Our brain is chewing on problems, often outside of our awareness, until one day when we have an “a ha!” moment, seemingly out of nowhere.

To explain this, let’s talk about your brain and how it learns new skills.

First, let me introduce you to two terms: procedural learning and implicit learning. Procedural learning is “repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity.” Similarly, implicit learning is “the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned.”

The opposite is explicit learning, where each detail is clearly defined and explained to you. In BJJ, this is when teachers demonstrate step-by-step techniques and explain what they are doing. This is a necessary part of learning too, but it’s not the whole picture.

You need to develop traits like timing, awareness, intuition, instinct, and cunning. Those are hard to teach explicitly. They just take time and experience. A teacher can try to share his or her insights into them, or create games and drills that help develop them, but most of the learning is up to how much time you spend getting tossed around on the mats.

Motor learning and sports science has what’s called the “model of the desired future” or the “future model.” The future model is your brain’s way of trying to match up what is happening now with what is likely to happen in future. It constantly updates predictions based on where you are in space, the people, objects and obstacles around you, in what directions and how quickly you and everything else are moving, and how you need to act to achieve your goals. This is all automatic.

When you first start learning a new activity or sport, your brain gets to work trying to match your previous experience up to future predictions. Through trial and error, it sees how accurate its predictions were. Successes show it was right, and failures mean it needs to improve its predictions. Those failures are especially important because they show you where you have the most opportunities to improve.

The future model does most of its work below the level of consciousness. It’s about swinging at fast balls, dodging linebackers, and hitting a sweep at just the right moment. It’s about action that happens too fast for reason to justify. Its job is to make you take correct actions without hesitation. When people talk about the “flow state,” where you are acting smoothly without thinking about it, that is when the future model is at work.

All this science-y talk is to say that when you are practicing a complex activity like BJJ, much of the learning happens outside conscious awareness, especially during live training like sparring. We give this process names like “building muscle memory,” but muscles cannot remember anything. It’s all in your brain, but not every part of your brain works in words and autobiographical memories. You may not be able to explain it and you may not even know it’s happening, but as long as you put in focused practice, you are learning on one level or another.

Try imagining this:

You’re a demigod flying around over an expansive ocean. Your power is to pour endless amounts of dirt from the sky. (Awesome power, right?)

You want to create islands, so you start dumping dirt into the water. It just sinks down and you don’t get an island. The water is too deep and dark and you don’t know how far down the ocean floor is.

But you are a patient demigod, so you keep flying around, pouring dirt into the water, confident your efforts will be rewarded.

One fateful day, a little mound of dirt breaks the surface. You’ve got the start of your first island. This one grows quickly and it gives you hope.

Soon more islands pop up elsewhere. They expand into each other and form connections.

Before long, your map has expanded to have large continents and you have even started forming mountain ranges.

You still have more ocean to fill and you always will (did I mention the ocean is infinite in all directions?) but now you have firm land to stand and build on.

This concept of “filling in the ocean” is one I have used for years to view the long commitments that you need to make to improving at BJJ. Each day you go train, you are pouring another bucket of sand into the ocean. You cannot be sure when or how you will receive the fruits of your labors, but persistence and patience will pay off in the end.

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Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0: From Participation to Leadership

When I was coming up through the ranks in jiu-jitsu, I was routinely the only woman or one of maybe two or three women in class. I trained with anyone who was willing to train with me: man-mountains, scrawny kids, and everyone in between. I was a curiosity in those days, and the male students who ended up having to pair with me were rarely happy about it, at least at first. I felt stupid and awkward when I stopped to notice, so I tried not to. And the high I got from training—the pure joy and flow, which lasted for hours after I finished a training session—was more than worth the challenges.

It was even worth the casually sexist and uncomfortable comments I heard over the years when I was coming up through the ranks. Here is an incomplete list:

  • “I can’t train with you. I’ll get an erection.”
  • “No f*cking way I’ll ever let a woman tap me.”
  • “Frankly, I don’t think girls should train. My academy split up because two guys were fighting over the same girl.”
  • “I don’t think we should train together because it wouldn’t do either of us any good.”
  • “My wife doesn’t want me rolling with you.”
  • “Wow, I wasn’t expecting you to be good.”
  • “I’m glad you don’t have big tits.”

 And this does not include the stares, eye rolls, and jockeying for position away from me and the few other women that were also de rigeur in those days. Of course, some of this could have had to do with the fact that I was a white belt and, as such, in need of a bit more patience from my training partners. But then I became a blue belt and a purple belt, and the comments and body language from some people persisted.

It was a drag, of course, but I generally let it slide or attempted to deflect with humor. I was having fun, I had learned over a lifetime of experiencing casual and not-so-casual sexism to choose my battles, and I had not yet learned how to capitalize effectively on teachable moments—to hope for the best before I assumed the worst. I kept my head down and kept training, reminding myself that even though there were people who did not welcome my presence, there were others, instructors and students alike, who supported and encouraged me.

From Oddity to Acceptance

In recent years, there has been more focus on how to attract and retain women in jiu-jitsu, which I obviously think is fantastic. More events for women have sprung up: camps, open mats, tournaments, dedicated classes, and on and on. More women have lit up the competition scene with undeniable skill and competitiveness. More instructors (historically mostly male) have taken pains to learn about how to welcome women into their academies and how to equip their male students to do the same. I have even watched some of the men who said things like those on the list above change their tunes and make a point of training with women and trying to attract them to their academies. There is hope, then, for the niche gender in this niche sport.

I look back on the time when I was coming up and before then, when there were even fewer women, as Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 1.0. Back then, the immediate goal was to get women to step on and stay on the mat, amid confusion and uncertainty about how to do so. Thanks to the work of instructors and thought leaders in the jiu-jitsu community, the tinkering and research during the period of Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 1.0 has resulted in a general blueprint for welcoming women into the fold, in the form of articles, resources, and subject matter experts. Of course, there is more work to be done vis-à-vis compiling and applying that blueprint consistently, but many building blocks are now available.

A sign of the ongoing effectiveness of Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 1.0 is the fact that, in increasing numbers, women are stepping on and staying on the mat. And at this point in the history of our sport, a “critical mass” of those women, as well as the men who have supported them, have now been around long enough to help our community transition into Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0. This is the version where women are not just present but are also widely accepted as leaders.

Leadership on the Mat: A New Hurdle

Like many of my male counterparts, I began teaching jiu-jitsu when I was a purple belt, sporadically at first, and then more regularly once I reached brown. There were no women’s-only classes where I was training, so I taught both men and women; if students wanted to train on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6pm, they got me as their teacher. My own (male) teacher had tapped me to teach, so nobody questioned it.

At least, nobody questioned it directly. There were some students, both male and female, who what-iffed, got furious if I tapped them, went to the other instructors (all male) to ensure what I was teaching was sound, and decided they needed to train at times when I was not teaching. Some new students, both male and female, sized me up and communicated to me through their body language that they were skeptical about my capacity in a leadership role. As with the comments and body language I got when I was just training, I ignored it or defused it with humor and continued to teach.

My first taste of overt sexism toward me as a leader in jiu-jitsu occurred when I gave my first seminar as a brown belt. Though I was used to teaching by then, I was equal parts excited and terrified to see in attendance a full house of men and women of all belt levels. It went as well as a first-time seminar could.

Sometime after, I heard the following story from a friend: On the evening of the seminar, a male student had come to the school that hosted me, not realizing the regularly scheduled-class had been canceled. The student said, “No woman is going to be able to teach me anything about jiu-jitsu,” changed back into his street clothes, and left. At the time, I just rolled my eyes.

What started to dawn on me, though, is that even though by then women had generally become accepted on the mat, this guy’s reaction was perhaps indicative of a lack of acceptance of women in other roles in jiu-jitsu, particularly leadership roles. Not everyone was as direct as this guy about their reluctance to be led by women, as evidenced by my own experiences at my academy, but my own experience indicated an undercurrent of skepticism.

The Future of BJJ Leadership

Happily, in my opinion, this has slowly and steadily been changing. There have been capable, talented, high-level women in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for a long time, demonstrating unrivaled leadership ability and commitment to the sport. What’s different now compared to when I was coming up is that there are more of them. Enough, in fact, that from my perspective, the jiu-jitsu community is in the process of upgrading to Women’s Jiu-Jitsu 2.0, where women step on and stay on the mat as leaders and are received as such as a matter of course rather than as a novelty.

As with 1.0, however, while some people may have been early adopters of leadership from women, there may be others of us who are confused or uncertain about what we can do to support this upgrade. So in the follow-up to this article I will outline some specific steps and habits of mind each of us can consider to help us continue to embrace women as leaders in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Photo by CAM Photos & Design

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How to Begin Again After a Layoff

When jiu-jitsu tourism was sort of my job, I was in Hawaii training at the BJ Penn Academy. I was still new to the sport, working on getting a blue belt, which meant that I was simply too fresh to understand some of the sport’s biggest challenges. As a white belt, I thought that the hardest parts of jiu-jitsu were things like training consistently, or getting in shape, or having to get used to upper belts beating up on you.

Then I met Sam (not his real name). Sam was a local, late 30s, and barely taller than five feet. He was comically round and almost always laughed, mostly at himself. Technically, Sam was a blue belt, but he had stepped away from the sport for six years to take care of his family. In that time, he said he always thought about jiu-jitsu. Even though he was out of shape and out of practice, he was happy to be back.

But it wasn’t easy for Sam. If he was a normal white belt starting from the beginning, being out of shape and out of practice would probably have been easier to take. When someone made a joke like, “Brah, you sweat pork grease!” he laughed, but I could catch the faintest glimmer in his eyes that seemed to say “I didn’t use to.”

And that’s one of jiu-jitsu’s greatest hidden challenges. Eventually, for some reason or another, you will have to step away from the mat and make the choice to come back. You might be gone for a month, a few months, a year, or even longer. In almost every case, coming back is hard. You lose that sharpness and that awareness that comes with consistent training, but losing those things is not the worst part.

The worst part is feeling that they used to be there, like an amputated limb that still tingles like it’s there but is just not, no matter how much you might wish it to be.

I’ve written a lot about my long list of injuries, so I’ll spare you the re-run. The short version is that I’ve gone through a truncated version of Sam’s story half a dozen times over, never that long, but I’ve had to come back from an injury or a family issue on multiple occasions. And it sucks every time. Your training partners keep getting better while you’re gone. The younger guys are improving as well. You just can’t catch your breath sometimes. You put on a little bit of weight. You can’t move that joint the way you used to. The doctors stop describing you as a “young athlete” and instead start talking about pain management and joint replacements.

When you love the art, it’s hard not to get angry and frustrated when you go through this.

But that’s where Sam taught me an important lesson. He struggled through warm ups. Fought to remember techniques. Got mopped by white belts who were more than happy to beat up on a blue belt. Sam never yelled. He never punched the mat, and he never sulked. Any frustration he experienced was mostly invisible, just those quick glimmers of a passing memory of what he used to be, but then he was back smiling.

Sam had endured enough off the mat, had been away so long coping with issues far more serious than a young buck white belt coming after you that being on the mat was nothing but a blessing for him. No matter how out of shape or out of practice he was, he knew that he was fortunate every time he stepped through the door to train.

I don’t have a top five steps or a list of tips to give you on how to be like Sam because I’m still working on it myself. What I can say is that it appears that the first step is humbling yourself to the point where you can imagine your life with or without jiu-jitsu.

Even though starting over is hard, it’s not as hard as walking away from the joy that training can bring you.

Photo credit to Ricardo's Photography

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Rebuild Your Jiu-Jitsu Deck

I learned how to play Magic the Gathering in 5th grade. It fascinated me then and almost 20 years later it still does today. Recently I realized the same thing that keeps me going back to Magic the Gathering is the same thing that fascinates me about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

For the uninitiated, Magic The Gathering is a trading card game, the first one ever produced. Yes, it’s similar to Yu Gi Oh or Pokemon (but don’t judge it based on that). Magic has been around since 1993 and as of 2015 it has 20 million players worldwide. Magic can be played different ways, but one of the most popular ways to play involves the players creating a 60-card deck that represents their resources, creatures, and spells in order to battle out.

Here is the interesting part: When you create a Magic deck, there is a lot of room for individualization. With thousands of cards, you can build a strategy and play style that is uniquely yours. In most formats, two of the same deck will rarely face off against each other, unlike a game like chess where everyone starts with the same pieces on the board. Even in ultra-competitive tournaments where a few decks dominate, the random element of shuffling two decks means that any single game is unpredictable.

The customization aspect is what gives the game longevity for me. What cards should I put into my deck, do I want to go for the quick finish, do I want to play a more controlling game, or do I want to slowly but surely impose my game? Now if we step away from lightning bolts and goblins for a moment, imagine your BJJ game as a Magic deck. What cards are going into it? Do you want to be a fast and dynamic guard passer, or are you bringing an old school pressure passing game to the table? What will you choose for your de la Riva game? Will you invert into berimbolos or will you use it to set up single leg attacks?

The more we practice BJJ the more we realize not every move will make it into our game (or deck). And that is okay. Maybe the move doesn’t jive well with our body type. Or maybe we are working around an injury. Or perhaps you admire a particular competitor and are seeking to emulate their game simply because you think it’s fun to use.

At the same time, a move you use today might not be a part of your game tomorrow.

In Magic, just like in jiu-jitsu, innovation is king. New cards come out. New combinations come into vogue. The killer strategy one year could be nerfed the next.

Jiu-jitsu follows a similar evolutionary path, which means that no matter how much you love your game, it’s likely to change. In fact, it almost has to change for you to stay relevant. You don’t have to throw everything away, but you might need to swap out a few moves and add a few new ideas to deal with that new guard or that tricky new sweep. Most of these changes are gradual, happening over a long grappling career.

Just like my favorite Commander deck, I am always messing with BJJ game, adding new things I pick up from my friends, removing old things that don’t work as well anymore, or changing it up as I work toward competing in a new ruleset or against new technique.

Use this lens to evaluate your deck. What makes the cut? What is starting to age? What new strategy should you account for? Let me know how it goes!

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