Several years ago, I was warming up at an open mat. I was a black belt at the time, and the person nearest me was a large male blue belt, maybe 220lbs. I asked him if he would like to pair up, and he responded by looking back at me with what could only be described as discomfort and saying, “Uh, sure.” Not sure what he was concerned about, I smiled and cracked a joke to try to put him at ease. We slapped hands, squared off, and started training.
Or, I started. My partner did very little, lying mostly still while I climbed around him trying to get a reaction. He was paying attention, keeping his elbows tight and his chin tucked, but he did not try at all to advance. After about a minute of this, I tapped and disengaged. I was a bit annoyed, wondering why my partner refused to move, and assuming for a split second that his discomfort stemmed from some manifestation of sexism. I was tempted to voice my annoyance, vehemently.
Instead, I theorized about what might be motivating his behavior. I said, “I want to thank you, because I get the sense that you are trying hard not to hurt me. I want you to know I really appreciate you being concerned for my safety.”
He almost sagged with relief. “I thought you were going to yell at me for not going harder with you,” he said. “I get that from some women and smaller men. They think I am dissing them. But my parents taught me to be aware of my size and to watch out for others’ safety. I’m not going to stop doing that anywhere, even on the mat. Even though you outrank me,” he added, then looking down, worried he had miscalculated with the last comment.
I used to be the woman who would yell, or at least who would want to. For many years, I believed that the only way for a man to show me the respect in jiu-jitsu that I craved was to go all out with me, show me no quarter. Especially if I outranked him. Anything else was sexist and disrespectful. Over time, though, I came to realize that there is something to be said for the “feeling out” period of a roll, where you take a few seconds to experience your partner’s energy, tension level, and skill set, AND that after that there are choices besides going full-bore to try to reduce him or her to a grease spot. This becomes even more important as I age. I am still willing and able to go hard, but first I need to learn more about the nature of the hurricane coming at me so I can adjust accordingly.
That day, with that 220-lb male blue belt, I took the time to listen to him, and it turns out his rationale was one I appreciated and could work with. Since we were talking, maybe we could come to an agreement about how intensely to train together. I replied, “I completely understand. I do want to make sure we both get something out of this round, so would you feel comfortable going a little bit harder?”
He agreed, and I reiterated that it was okay for either of us to tap if we thought the energy was problematic in either direction. We spent the five minutes of that timed round figuring out a pace that was comfortable for both of us, and then we decided to train again the next round to take advantage of what we had puzzled over together. As with many things jiu-jitsu related, I learned more from training with him than just how to advance against a larger opponent. Here are a few of my takeaways:
It is okay for us to use our words, especially before they become heated. You would think it would be more common for pairs to have conversations on the mat about pacing and energy level, given how much trust we must place in our training partners to allow them into our personal space. Using our words when doubt exists is not generally modeled, however. If I had to guess, I would say the reason is twofold. First, newer belts may not feel comfortable speaking up and may not even know what they need to ask for, and second, upper belts, socialized in an environment where these kinds of conversations do not often happen before the boiling point, do not have practice naming the various elephants in the room even though they are better able to identify them. For this reason, teachable moments may pass unnoticed, and misunderstandings may occur and persist when they could have been nipped in the bud.
It is important, then, for instructors to watch for problematic dynamics and address them before they spill over. It is also important to model the use of conversations to make sure both people in a pair are on the same page, and to encourage everyone, white through black belt, to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. These do not need to be lengthy discussions, but sometimes even a few words can make all the difference. This leads to the second thing I learned.
Upper belts are in a better position than lower belts to set the tone. I relearn this at least once a month, usually when I have missed an opportunity to help a student learn something or to learn something myself. We will never know, but I am willing to bet that if I had not stopped to talk with my blue belt partner, he would have continued to do what he believed was right. He would not have had a chance to explain why, though, and he might have continued to believe he should take heat for it. As the higher belt, it was appropriate for me to take more responsibility, and it was also tacitly expected that he would defer to me.
Big people have feelings too. A training session between a large man and a smaller woman, for example, is not just about making sure the woman feels comfortable. If I had not asked my blue belt partner about his motivation for (not) moving the way he was, I would have assumed he was being disrespectful or disengaged on purpose. Instead, it turns out he had very strong beliefs about how he should behave with others, and it was I who was in danger of being disrespectful. I did not get to corner the market on getting my training needs met simply because I was smaller.
Now. Lest you think I am advocating for people coming at each other a million miles an hour or for bigger people squishing smaller people, rest assured that I am not. It is still no fun to be on the receiving end of a Tasmanian devil of any size or gender. I would rather be partnered with a sloth than a wind-up monkey with cymbals, at least at first. Sloths can move when they want to, but wind-up monkeys with cymbals will keep clanging until they wind down.
My point is that it benefits us to assume the best of people when they are going slowly with us, even those of us who are highly-ranked women or smaller guys. Even before that, it is never a bad idea to proceed with caution when we train, especially with people we do not know, except perhaps in competition, which may require a different kind of caution. It is also important for us to communicate with each other, assume responsibility for the tone of a training session, especially if we are the ranking belt, and recognize that we and our training partners are in it together.
So, use your voice, use your authority, and use your compassion every time you roll.
Photo credit: Charles Smith