Meet the Pandas – ‘Positive Mind Tricks’ – Chris Ulbricht
In our previous showcase of members of the Panda Nation, we spoke to videographer and purple belt assassin Kyvann ‘Guapinho’ Jimenez. In this episode, we introduce black belt Chris Ulbricht, owner and head coach at Garden State Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and occasional Tekken aficionado.
Chris Ulbricht (26) got into the art by accident. He wanted to learn Capoeira – the original Brazilian martial art, but he got confused and ended up on a BJJ mat somewhere, learning the upa-escape in his jeans and shirt. It was the best mistake ever. After earning his purple belt, he dropped out of college to train BJJ full-time, and has been on the path of improving himself through martial arts ever since.
You’ve just won your match at Fight To Win, a submission-only event. Do you like that ruleset?
Chris Ulbricht: Honestly, I like pretty much any kind of grappling or jiu-jitsu. I compete sometimes, but it’s not a huge thing for me. Competition is more about setting a goal that I can lock down on. I run a school full-time, so preparing for competition forces me to work on my own mental space. It helps me to control my thoughts and develop myself as a person and instructor. So whatever the rules are, I enjoy the challenge. When Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt of Inverted Gear came to my school a while ago, I fought in the RDojo Sambo League, which is a small round-robin sambo tournament – also very cool. I try to compete under all sorts of rules: submission only, gi, no-gi. It’s just another day out there grappling. It’s truly a pleasure to have a life in which most of my challenges are self-created.
You do this for a living?
CU: Yeah. I wear a lot of hats. I’m the owner and head instructor at Garden State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. So I run the business, teach classes, and I compete as well. It’s a lot of running around, but I love it. I’ve been in business for about four years now.
It must be hard to track your own development.
CU: Yeah, but I want to chase my goals while I’m still young and in my prime. Fortunately, I have a lot of great training partners at my gym, so just showing up for my classes I get good training in. If there’s a will, there’s a way. There are plenty of black belt instructors around that only have blue and white belts to roll with who still do really well at major tournaments. So in my opinion, owning a school is no excuse to get lazy (laughs).
I guess the big trick is to stay sharp mentally.
CU: Definitely. That’s something that I’ve realized in the past year or two – how much of the game is mental. At a certain point, we all know the same stuff, or at least enough to be aware of what’s happening in a match. It really comes down to that mental ability. I was reading a book yesterday called Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack, and it was a huge breakthrough for me. Mack says (I’m paraphrasing): if you tell someone to stand on a chair for a hundred bucks, everyone can do it. But if you put that chair on top of a skyscraper, most people won’t be able to handle that pressure. It’s the same with competition. When you know you’ve trained 2-3 times a day, and you know your techniques and conditioning are sharp, competition shouldn’t be a big deal. But people stress out and think it’s something different when you step on to the competition mat. It shouldn’t be. Standing on a chair, or standing on a chair on top of a building should feel like the same thing.
Take me back to the first time you encountered BJJ…
CU: I’ve always had an interest in martial arts. I’m embarrassed to say I wanted to be a cool pro-wrestler and do acrobatic martial artsy stuff, like cartwheels, flips, and crazy jumps. So I wanted to learn Capoeira and become Eddie Gordo from Tekken. Somehow, I think I got confused about the different Brazilian martial arts, and I ended up at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by accident. Bear in mind I was still a kid, like 16 or 17 years old. When I went to check this place out, the instructor was just about to start a class. I jumped right in, straight off the street, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. We did simple things like mount escapes and he let me go live for a bit. From that day on, I was hooked
You were training in street clothes? That’s crazy.
CU: Yeah, I guess. It was a Karate school that also offered some jiu-jitsu classes. Eventually there were some issues with that place, and the instructor wasn’t really into teaching anymore, so I only trained there for about six months. Then I met Jason Scully, and he’s been a part of my journey from that point on. I consider him as one of my big mentors.
How did you progress through the ranks?
CU: I got my blue belt from my first instructor Dave Lentz, then I got my purple belt from Jason Scully, and I got involved with Jared Weiner of BJJ United. After a while, I moved to Maryland for two years to be part of Team Lloyd Irvin – which was an intense experience. When I got back I started training at a few places, including going back to BJJ United to train with Jared. A few of months after I got back I got my brown belt from Jared. He’s also the one who eventually promoted me to black belt, but I’ve always stayed in contact with Jason who I consider my first instructor. My journey has been kind of circular.
Is you school affiliated with any of those people?
CU: Nope. We’re rogue. Actually, I’m a big proponent of that. I stick to the mentality of BJJ Globetrotters. Jiu-jitsu is great, but I think sometimes people add more on to it – business, politics, hierarchy, and strange affiliation scams. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t experienced any of that with any of my instructors personally, but I have seen a lot of friends and school owners deal with that nonsense. I think it’s important to remember that we’re just people who like to train. Sometimes those ‘other’ things ruin relationships. In my school, I let anyone train with everyone. I believe the more you run your school like a dictatorship and try to control people, the more they’ll want to go elsewhere. If you treat people well, they’ll want to stick around.
What was your biggest challenge in learning jiu-jitsu?
CU: Dealing with this fact: The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. At blue and purple belt, I felt I had all the answers jiu-jitsu could pose. I thought: “Yeah, just do the kiss of the dragon, take their back, and choke ‘em out – duh.” But as you get deeper into the art you realize the subtleties like weight distribution, hip control, and how much the fancy stuff relies on deep basics. Through the course of my training, many times I felt I hit a plateau. The further you get along the more you have to learn. Sometimes that felt like moving backwards. I was just climbing higher up the hill, and then realizing the hill was infinitely higher than I thought. It’s a strange thing to deal with.
Can you describe your game?
CU: I play like a heavyweight, kind of. My big examples are Bernardo Faria and Lucas Leite. I like to use half guard to get on top, pressure pass, and then grind my way to mount and the submission. In the beginning, I was “that” flashy inverted guy. But then you go against people that are extremely good and tight, they can slice through any open space, so I shifted my focus on establishing a tighter, more controlled pressure game. One of my Brazilian coaches used to say: “Make ’em feel DEPRESSURE!!!” I love that expression. It’s its own thing. Depression brought on by jiu-jitsu pressure. That’s what it’s all about.
Take us back to your most memorable competition…
CU: About two years ago I did a Grapplers Quest All Star No-Gi Tournament. In this tournament I realized there’s always an escape, and there’s always a way to win. If you can conceive a way to win in your mind, then you only need a fraction of a second. So, in my first match I won with 10 seconds left on the clock. The second match I won with 15 seconds left. I lost the third match, but that was okay. The lesson was learned. It thought me a mindset that there’s always a way to win, on the mat and in life.
It sounds corny, but that’s something you have to experience to believe.
CU: Yeah, it’s a physical thing that you have to discover. Sure, there’s plenty of information out there that can help guide you to it, like sport psychology books and good coaches that have been there themselves. But I agree that “Just believe in yourself, there’s always a way to win” kind of sounds like a platitude. But you have to live through it.
Do you have a background in sports psychology, or something similar?
CU: Yeah! Actually, no! (laughs). I took a single high school class on that subject and spent one semester in college. While I was doing my first year of my associate’s degree I quit and moved to Maryland to train BJJ fulltime. Around that time, I was teaching jiu-jitsu and competing a lot. My dad had been a musician growing up, and I think he kind of regretted not giving it a full shot himself. He’s still a hippie – make sure you put that in the article. But he said: “Go, give this your all, and follow your dream. If you ever want to go back to school, you can always be the creepy old guy in the back of the classroom.” So I did. People told me back then: “If you leave school now, you’re never going back.” They were right (laughs).
Well, it worked out. You run your own business now.
CU: I think college is a great for some people, but I’m very glad that I decided to do something else before I committed to that path. After I came back from Maryland, I was sure that I wanted to pursue jiu-jitsu for life.
Can you explain why?
CU: Jiu-jitsu is an extremely fun way to develop yourself as a person – physically, mentally, and spiritually. You’re learning the value of hard work and comradery, while dealing with people from way different backgrounds. An 18-year old skateboarder can become best training partners with a 45-year old doctor. I think jiu-jitsu can help you see the world from a different perspective.
Then there’s the real self-defense aspect. Some people get into jiu-jitsu to help them defend against a psycho knife killer stalking them in the shower, which is the least possible thing that’ll kill you. What will get you is obesity. You’re actually defending yourself by working out, being healthy, improving your physique, and lowering your stress.
Furthermore, once you add some goal-setting to your jiu-jitsu – whether it’s competition, getting to your next belt, or losing weight – you’re on a path of subduing negative thoughts by positive affirmations. By believing in yourself. That’s a skill that will help you in all areas of life. And lastly, on the micro level, you can also just focus on working on making your De La Riva guard better. See, there’s a lot of levels to it. That’s what keeps me going.
Who inspires you?
CU: I admire Marcelo Garcia, not only for his competition prowess and his contributions to the technique, but also for the kind of school that he has. I try to visit his place every week, and the way he runs the room is what I want my own academy to be. They train super hard, but when you walk in you feel so welcome. Positive intensity, that’s what I want in jiu-jitsu. Gianni Grippo is also a good friend of mine and a positive influence. Then there’s Jason Scully, he’s helped me a lot. Whenever I feel myself getting pulled into the classic competitor, instructor, and school owner mistakes, he’s there to offer advice. And of course, my father has been a great motivator to chase my dreams – that’s a given. I also have to credit Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt for encouraging me to build a community.
How did you get hooked up with Inverted Gear?
CU: I started training with them, when Nelson was running the school in North Plainfield. At the time, I was really into no-gi, so they called me no-gi Chris. I loved training there. Then they moved to another location, and I followed them, and we all ended up at BJJ United. It’s funny how our paths kept intersecting. At first, I was just wearing their gi’s because I liked them and I wanted to support their brand. The sponsorship kind of happened naturally. They came to my school for a couple of Reilly seminars, and we did the BJJ Globetrotters USA Camp last summer. Nelson has also helped me with different opportunities and he exposed me to different aspects of jiu-jitsu.
There’s something in improv-comedy called the “Yes! And…”-principle. People also use it in business for brainstorming purposes. Whenever someone says something, you’re supposed to say: “Yes! And…” - then you add something constructive. You never dismiss whatever the other actor throws at you. I think positive people in this world are “Yes! And…”-people. Inverted Gear is run by ‘em. It’s great to be a part of that tribe.”
Chris Ulbricht owns and runs Garden State Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (www.centraljerseybjj.com). He loves to have visitors at his academy, and is available for seminars and workshops. He can be reached on Facebook, or at Gardenstatebjj@gmail.com. You can also follow Garden State BJJ on Instagram at @gardenstatebjj
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer, and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.