Not every member of the Panda Nation is a lean and mean competition death machine, like purple belt Abi Pacinelli, who we spoke to in the previous edition of Meet the Pandas. In this new interview, we shed light on Alex Da Silva: purple belt kids’ instructor, full-time dad and working man, photography black belt and aficionado of sneaky-jitsu.
Growing up in Brazil, you sort of assume that purple Alex Da Silva (40) got into jiu-jitsu at a young age. But after immigrating to the United States at nine years old, it took many years and a trip back to the motherland to get his first real taste of the gentle art. Plagued with injuries and with life responsibilities getting in the way, Alex took the long road to develop his jiu-jitsu. In the end though, the art gave him a great way to bond with his kids.
So Alex, what kind of sports were you into before jiu-jitsu?
Alex Da Silva: I was that kid that would go outside and play all sorts of sports with my friends. Soccer, baseball, football, basketball, whatever. Once I got to high school, I actually got involved with competitive swimming. I did a bit of that in college too, but nothing related to jiu-jitsu, like wrestling or other combat sports.
Funny you mention swimming. Carlos Saquic Pérez, the first Panda I interviewed in this series, was also a swimmer in school. Did you get some carry-over from that sport?
ADS: In a way, it’s kind of similar to jiu-jitsu because you’re out there competing by yourself, against yourself. In a race, you always go against your own time and your technique. I was never a really good swimmer because I started too late in life, but my coach used to tell me—and this really relates to jiu-jitsu—‘It’s okay if you’re not the first or the second. Just compete against yourself, don’t worry about what other people are doing. Try to improve a little bit every time you enter a competition. And afterwards pay attention to what you did wrong, there’s always room for improvement.’ That’s what I took away from my swimming career.
That sounds like a blueprint for self-development in jiu-jitsu…
ADS: Come to think of it, it is! (Laughs) That’s a piece of advice I use when I teach kids: ‘don’t worry about what the other kids are doing, just make sure you’re doing the move right. You know how to compete; you know what to do. Just work on you own development.’
We all have to sharpen our own sword.
ADS: That’s very correct.
How did jiu-jitsu find you?
ADS: Well, I’m Brazilian so the art is part of my roots (laughs). My parents immigrated to the States when I was nine years old. They came over as tourists and they decided to stay. In 1996, I finished high school, and one year later I moved back to my home city Curitiba to experience the motherland. My skinny little 14-year-old cousin (named Jay Forte) used to train. Jay would come over to my house after school to how me some positions. I was a very athletic, fresh out of high school 18-year-old, and this scrawny kid just played with me. He dominated effortlessly. I was helpless like a baby. Man, it was a huge mental challenge to learn how to be comfortable in those positions. But I knew this was the right martial art for me.
So, did you become a mat-rat?
ADS: Sadly, no. Training seriously in Brazil never really happened because I started working as a flight attendant, and I had to move out of state. My work schedule was too full to get regular training in. I’d never have the same days off.
When did you finally commit?
ADS: I lived in the States from 9 until 18 years old. Then I tried my luck in Brazil for a while. See, growing up in the States I had very little recollection of what life in Brazil was like. Once I moved back, I found that I couldn’t adapt. I missed everything about America, but I stuck it out for a while and worked there almost three years. At the end of 2000, I had really had enough, and I finally moved back. That was also when I got into jiu-jitsu properly.
Tell me about your first gym.
ADS: After I got settled back in the States my friend Rob Da Silva (no relation) was learning capoeira, and he tried to get me to join the fun. But I wasn’t interested, I wanted jiu-jitsu and nothing else. Sure enough, after a few months he called me – they had started a jiu-jitsu program at his capoeira club. I guess this was early 2001. After the regular capoeira class, they would lay out a bunch of puzzle mats, and we would roll around on the floor.
How did you progress through the ranks?
ADS: My first instructor at the capoeira club was Johnny Guerrero. After about six months of training with Johnny, he was called to military duty due to the 9/11 terror attacks, and Josef Manuel (his purple belt) took over the school in his absence. Shortly after, the school closed down. Josef eventually opened his own place in Harrison, NJ, and I trained with him for a while. Then, I left jiu-jitsu for a bit and occasionally rolled around with a friend. At one point, I had to take a six-year break because life responsibilities took over. I went to college, after that I bought a house and got married. So, I had no time to train. Even when I did, I had no money.
When things settled down, I finally got back on the mat with my old friend Nuno Macedo, who was a brown belt at the time and had his own school. We were able to get about six months training in, during which he promoted me to blue belt, but then he had to close his school because he was hardly making any money. That’s when I found Sheridan Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and I’ve been there ever since. I received my purple belt from Kevin Sheridan after two years of solid training. It’s been a long road.
I respect the effort. Did you have to deal with injuries too?
ADS: I think that anyone who does jiu-jitsu for a while just has to learn how to adapt to dealing with injuries and soreness all the time. In February, I managed to separate my shoulder, and I was out for about three months. I would barely be able to train one day a week, and I would need the rest of the week to recover. I just try to do what I can. Three weeks ago, I sprained my thumb, which also sucks. I see stars with every little touch and every time I close my first.
What do you do to keep fit, besides jiu-jitsu?
ADS: Currently I’m on the mat three days a week, and I try to go to sleep early. I feel that’s the
best way to heal my body. I need at least eight hours of sleep in order to function the next day at work and to have the energy to train and teach. I have two kids, a boy and a girl. They’ll both be nine years old in December. When I’m not training or working I spend time with them. I have no room for anything but family, work, and jiu-jitsu. All my physical fitness comes through jiu-jitsu.
What was the hardest thing to learn?
ADS: Trying to develop an adaptive game is the biggest struggle that I’ve had. See, I have partners of all ages and body types. Some are young, fast, and athletic. Others are way, way stronger that I am. You have to create different types of games for different types of opponents. A one-size-fits-all game is not going to work. I used to think that I only needed one good armbar to catch everyone. But sadly, that’s not the case (laughs). The bigger guys grind their way out, and the little ones are just too fast to catch in the first place. It’s all trial and error. At first, I can pull off my tricky stuff on the lower belts, but eventually they will come up with a good defense. You have to always keep evolving.
What’s your game like?
ADS: I alternate a lot, and I try to analyze the parts that need work. I mostly play guard and I love to sweep and reverse people from bad positions. My game is very open. I’m okay with dealing with pressure. When big guys try to crush me from side control, I love to reverse them out of the blue. Just when they thought they were almost there… It really breaks the spirit. So, I like to play mind-games, and I use a lot of baiting. I love sneakyjitsu.
If you had to pick one, what kind of animal are you on the mat?
ADS: Man, that’s a hard question. I’m always attacking, and I never surrender. Even when I get caught I always try to wiggle my way out. I try to never stop moving until I die, or I’m able to escape. What kind of animal does that? A Tasmanian devil? (Laughs) I’ll go for that one.
You’re one of the kids instructors at Sheridan Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. How did you make the transition to teaching?
ADS: About four years ago, Kevin had just started a kids’ program. As it happens, those classes were being held on my regular training days. I would often get there early, and I started assisting the instructor. After a while, I became the official assistant, and we were able to expand the program. I was already a dad, so I knew how to deal with kids and their short attention spans. I try to break the instruction down to bite-size bits.
What did teaching do for your own development?
ADS: I had to re-learn and study a lot of jiu-jitsu, especially the stuff that I kind of did on instinct. I was constantly pulling off moves that work well for my body type, but might not be suitable for other people. A lot of details were missing. That renewed attention to detail really improved my understanding. Now, I’m able to explain the dynamics and principles behind the moves.
How has the art improved your life?
ADS: Through jiu-jitsu, I’ve been able to create a very special bond with my kids. They started training at four years old, and I’ve been their teacher for four and a half years now. It’s so much
fun being on the mat with them, to see them working their way out of all the positions. It’s very empowering. We’re all so busy with work and school that it’s a great feeling to be able to roll around the mat together. When I train with my kids, I basically get to hug them all the time. And at home, my back, neck and arms are never safe (laughs). I always get attacked! Jiu-jitsu creates a lot of good memories for our family.
You seem to be the resident photographer at Sheridan BJJ. How did you get into photography?
ADS: Ever since my kids were born, I wanted to capture all those precious moments for our family. My brother lives in California, and my parents live in Brazil. Photos become little windows into a memory. I’ve always loved taking pictures, even before digital. When I started, it was really impractical to bring a big analogue camera along, so I don’t have a lot of pictures of myself in my early days. Now, I try to give something back to my teammates. I take lots of pictures at open mats, during regular classes, promotions, and competitions. I’m just trying to capture those memories so they can share them with their friends and families. I’ve been able to document some of my friends’ progression through all the ranks. It’s a special thing.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in jiu-jitsu?
ADS: Don’t give up, and keep training. Jiu-jitsu might enter and leave your life, depending on circumstances, but the bond you build with people is really special and hard to find anywhere else. On the mat, you really get to know each other’s character. And if you have family members training, that’s even better.
Alex Da Silva teaches at www.sheridanbjj.com. Follow him on Instagram: @luckymacaw1977
Daniël Bertina is a writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami