Inverted Gear Blog / Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A Reflection on 10 Years of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

In October, I passed the ten-year mark for my BJJ career. As cliche as it sounds, I feel like I was a white belt yesterday, but as I look around, the friends I came up with are mostly black belts now or stopped training altogether. Some of my favorite tournaments are not around anymore, many of my favorite grapplers have either retired or moved on to MMA, and furthermore the sport itself looks different, and it’s not just the fancy new blue mats IBJJF uses at Worlds. The techniques being used have sure changed. Fearing sounding like a crotchety old man—Here are 10 things that have changed in the last 10 years:

  1. IBJJF has become a monster organization. When I started, IBJJF held Pans and Worlds in the US that was it. Now they have multiple tournaments gi and no-gi all over the world. Their rule set has become the standard for not only smaller tournaments but also for what is taught at many BJJ schools. Blue belt divisions at Worlds have some 100+ competitors. Recently I have been impressed the amount of masters athletes competing in the IBJJF circuit, a big change from 10 years ago.

  2. Smaller regional tournaments are disappearing. Some of my fondest memories from coming up were driving to high school gyms to compete in smaller regional tournaments. Sadly, I feel those days may be numbered. As IBJJF calendar events increase, smaller regional tournaments just get smaller.

  3. Women’s BJJ has arrived (mostly). It is much more common to see women train BJJ than it was ten years ago. Schools have adapted to be more inclusive and are overall much cleaner than they were ten years ago. Thank you, ladies. Not only are women's only BJJ programs are successful, but BJJ schools led by women instructors such as Hannette Staack, Leticia Ribeiro and Emily Kwok are starting to flourish. Ladies are competing and have matches at their own belt. Long gone are the days of combined belt divisions.

  4. No-gi has become much more popular, though your experience may differ if you trained at an MMA school. I feel like training no-gi once a week and gi the rest of the time was pretty normal back then, and more than once I remember asking people to roll no-gi after gi class, usually coming up to a tournament, only to hear “I don't do no-gi.”

  5. Bottom vs. bottom—Double guard pulls and extended periods of both players being on bottom was rarely seen in competitive BJJ 10 years ago. 50/50 was not around much let alone the berimbolo. Extended leg pummeling battles we see while two players fight for their berimbolo/leg drag sequences or footlock battles in no-gi were almost nonexistent back then. There was always an element of top vs bottom. Guard vs, passing. I think the rules are still catching up to this newer element of the game.

  6. When I started in 2007, the X-guard was the newest toy everyone wanted to play with. Deep half guard came soon after, along the way 50/50, inverted guards, and the berimbolo came as well. The game looks much different as a result. If you look at matches from 1997 and matches from 2007, they look closer to each other than if you look at matches from 2007 to 2017. While we still have old school players, even modern guys that play X-guard need to catch up and learn new things like how to deal with lapel guard tricks to stay relevant.

  7. Professional BJJ events were extremely rare. Back then, besides the odd show that featured super fights and ADCC, there were very little tournaments and shows paying athletes. Tournaments like EBI, Copa Podio and Polaris are doing great things for the sport and are making it more popular than ever.

  8. Gi brands ten years ago gave us very little to choose from. A handful of American brands and a few imported gis from Brazil were the only thing available, cuts varied widely (sometimes within the same brand), and half sizes were unheard of. You had 5 sizes to fit the entire gamut of human shapes.

  9. Access to instructionals and matches is much easier as well. I am old enough to remember borrowing instructionals and matches on tapes, yeah, VHS tapes. In 2007, YouTube was just becoming popular, and most people did not have access to high-quality cameras on their phones, so most of the footage found on YouTube was either grainy or converted from a VHS tape and all jumpy. Now, tournament footage and instructionals are accessible from the cloud at any time.

  10. Finally, the face of the sport is changing. The Brazilian stranglehold on the IBJJF World Championships is starting to loosen. Mikey Musumeci joined the likes of BJ Penn and Rafael Lovato, and other American competitors are reaching the podium more often. Beyond Americans, we are starting to see more European, Australian, and Japanese competitors become marquee names as well.

If anything, the one thing that has remained constant in BJJ is change. I am sure more things will change in the coming years, some good and some bad. But at the end of the day, there is nothing else I would rather be doing with my friends. For someone with a short attention span, there is no other activity that has kept my attention for this long and shows no signs of slowing.

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The Illusion of the Super Athlete Upper Belt

Chris Henriques was a purple belt when I was a white belt. A tattoo artist and professional fighter, Chris was tough-looking in that he had tattoos up his scalp and a fight record to match, but he had a Hawaiian smile and a friendly melody to his speech. A regular at many of the noon classes I attended, he often had the patience to be my partner and the kindness to answer my questions before and after training.

Chris was nice to me, but spider guard was not.

For an entire month we drilled spider guard, starting class with the same set of fundamental spider guard movements and drills. The hardest movement drill—a sort of forward shrimping where you alternate extending and retracting your spider guard hooks to close the distance between you and a retreating opponent—was beyond my comprehension. I simply couldn’t get the coordination right. Five days a week, for four weeks, Chris watched me jerk and bumble my way down the mat with a seemingly unending reserve of understanding and perhaps a little pity.

At the time, what frustrated me more than not being good at jiu-jitsu (still working on that part actually) was seeing upper belts like Chris almost instantly do the movement correctly, even the ones who had not seen it before. They seemed to have some athletic gift that I did not, and this gift allowed them to casually stroll through the world of jiu-jitsu, picking up new techniques for their games as easy as one might pluck a flower.

I now realize that I mythologized upper belts. To me, as a white belt, they all felt god-like. They moved effortlessly, and even when I was significantly larger, they took my game apart and crushed me with physics-defying pressure.

When you are a white belt—or any lower belt really—all you can see is the gap between you and the upper belt. You see what they have in terms of ability, and you see what you don’t have. When you look at the difference between yourself and higher-level grapplers this way, it creates the illusion of those grapplers being super athletes. After all, who but a super athlete could jump a gap in physical ability so mind-blowingly large?

And that’s just it. The distance between you and someone better than you is not a chasm. When you look at jiu-jitsu in terms of have and have not, you ignore what was likely a long and arduous training journey. You don’t see the journey. You just see the end result, so the grappler ahead takes on this aura of super human athlete when in reality he or she is a regular person that has devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to learning and improving.

Yes, there are super athletes turned super jiu-jiteiros among us, but the vast majority of instructors and training partners would not describe themselves as such. That’s surely the case for me. I have no natural talents beyond a stubbornness to not give up. In high school soccer, I sat the bench until midway through my junior year. Literally, I didn’t play a varsity game where we weren’t ahead by four goals. After games (where I didn’t play), I’d come home, turn the outside lights on, and practice until someone yelled at me to go to bed. I brought that mindset to my jiu-jitsu, and I was fortunate to have people like Chris who understood that not everybody gets it on day one or even day twenty.

I tell these stories not to lament my lack of ability or to brag about my work ethic (truthfully, my work ethic pales in comparison to many of the jiu-jiteiros I know). Instead, it’s because I see my own students get frustrated by their progress and get frustrated by the same spider guard movement that once frustrated me. I see myself in those moments—their instructor demonstrates the move with little effort, and their upper belt training partners take to it quickly—and I worry that their enjoyment of the art is tainted by some perceived inferiority.

You are not inferior. You are not surrounded by super athletes. Your training partners and instructors are people just like you. They are not examples of what you can’t have, but rather they are proof that a normal person can accomplish incredible things through persistence, practice, and patience. It just takes time.

Don’t give up.
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Game Sense in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Thanks to Black Friday deals, I built a new PC and started playing Overwatch, the team-based competitive shooter. While I’m still a dirty scrub at that game, I have enjoyed looking into the world of professional players to pick up tips. A concept that comes up frequently is “game sense,” and it has applications to BJJ that I want to talk about here. Stick with me even if you're not a gamer -- it will be worth it.

Game sense is the ability to understand the current state of the game and predict what the opponents are going to do so you can act accordingly. Your mechanical skills are your aim, movement, positioning, reflexes, etc., while game sense is the overall awareness that guides you to pick the right strategy to win the match.

In BJJ, a kind of “game sense” is what allows you to pre-position yourself to be ready to stop attacks while giving opportunities of your own. Your "mechanical skills" are how well you execute your techniques, while your game sense is your experience telling you what techniques to go for in the first place. It also includes knowledge about the match itself, like the score, how much time is left on the clock, and the ruleset.

Like the pro gamers and BJJ competitors will tell you, game sense or awareness cannot be easily taught. It is developed through experience over many thousands of hours of practice and hundreds of matches. “Experience” is mostly trying many different things to see what works, learning from your mistakes, and cleaning up bad habits.

That said, you can maximize the amount of “experience” you squeeze out of your training. Mindlessly rolling a lot will not get you as far as you would if you put more thought into understanding what you are doing and identifying and correcting your mistakes.

Try these 4 tips for speeding up your improvement:

1. Keep a training journal
    This simple piece of advice is the easiest to implement but one of the most valuable. You just need a journal to write in or a computer to type at. Ayanthi wrote about this in 6 Tips for Taking Notes in Jiu-Jitsu.
    Here are two specific questions that will help you get started in your journal:
    • Do certain types of opponents give you more trouble (e.g. wrestlers, leg lockers, modern guard player, etc)?
    • Are certain positions a bigger problem for you?
    Give it some thought and write down your answers. Odds are high many other jiu-jiteiros have had those same problems, and you can ask around your gym or search BJJ forums online for help.
    2. Review footage of yourself
      Set up a camera to film yourself sparring (make sure your training partner is OK with it too) or competing. Watch the footage and look for mistakes. Try to stay objective and don’t just watch yourself beat up scrubs. Pick a tough match and ask yourself:
      • What led up to the moment you tapped or got scored against?
      • Did you make any big mistakes?
      • If you didn’t make big mistakes, what did they do to “outplay” you?
      3. Ask for critique
        Often, we are not even aware of the things we are doing wrong (otherwise, why would we keep doing them?) The obvious first choices are the person you just rolled with and your instructor. You can also take that footage you filmed in the previous tip and ask for critiques online at places like reddit’s /r/bjj.
        4. Analyze footage of competitors
          YouTube is bursting at the seams with BJJ match videos these days. Find a competitor whose style is similar to yours or who you would like to emulate and study their matches. The key here is to not casually watch for entertainment, but to put thought into figuring out why they do what they do. Pause frequently, use slow mo, rewind and review, keep notes, and look for details that are not immediately obvious. Marshal wrote a good article about this, titled Supplement Your Training with Competition Footage.

          Whether or not you are a gamer, my hope is that you can see how raising your awareness of what you are doing and how you are winning or losing your matches will develop the mental traits it takes to keep improving your game.

          Do you enjoy the mash up of gaming and BJJ? Check out How to Pwn Mat AwarenessRebuild Your Jiu-Jitsu DeckReal Learning is Not All Smiles, and Parallels Between BJJ and Magic: The Gathering.

          If you want to play Overwatch with the author of this article, add Aesopian#1325 on Battle.Net and send a message to let him know what you thought of this article.

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          Geeking out on Teaching Jiu-Jitsu: How Instructional Design Tools Can Enhance Your Classes

          One of the many hats I wear says “instructional designer” on it. Instructional design is the process of creating and coordinating all the moving parts (content, interactions, expectations, assignments, assessment) of a given learning experience (e.g., a college course, an ethics course required by all employees of a law firm) to increase the likelihood that learners will be engaged and successful. It is a long-standing field, but it has become more popular since more and more different types of institutions have moved toward putting their content online to reduce overhead and attract more geographically diverse learners. There is an art and a science to instructional design. Some of it can be tedious, but some of it is pretty cool, and all of it is intended to enhance the learning experiences and performance of the student.

          I do instructional design for colleges and universities, working with faculty and administration to help them streamline their syllabi, assignments, resources, and expectations, particularly for delivery online. Since jiu jitsu is a learning experience—arguably the most profound one many people have ever experienced—and since instructional design is all about using effective tools to create effective learning experiences, I have become increasingly curious about how, if at all, other jiu-jitsu instructors and program designers use any of these tools or imagine they might be able to use them to enhance the instruction they provide for their students. So, the goal of this article is twofold: 1) to summarize some of the major elements of instructional design for instructors who are interested in learning more, and 2) to reach out to instructors who may be using elements of instructional design, or would like to, so we could share ideas and learn from each other.

          Sound geeky? I resemble that remark. Maybe some of you do too.

          Below are descriptions of a few components of instructional design: theory, learning outcomes, assessments, and evaluation. Keep in mind that these should be congruent with one another, which just means they should make sense when used together. For example, if one of your learning outcomes has to do with students learning to pilot an airplane, the assessment(s) chosen to determine how well students had met that outcome should somehow involve them actually flying a plane as opposed to explaining the history of flying or critiquing the business practices of a current airline.

          Theory: Instructional design is influenced by theories, each of which has a different take on how learning does and should happen, and what we can predict in a given learning situation with given variables. An example of a theory related to instructional design and learning is constructivism, which states that learners do not simply absorb new information; rather, they actively construct meaning in a manner that is influenced by their prior experiences and prior knowledge. This means two learners might interpret the same information or skills differently from each other if they have different backgrounds and perspectives, and instructors must account for this potential variation regarding information and assessment delivery.

          Learning Outcomes: Instructional design typically starts with an articulation of what we want learners to know and be able to do by the end of the learning experience. This may be obvious, but getting the wording right can take some work. It is not enough to say that upon completion of a biology course students will “know biology,” for example. This is vague and difficult to assess. Rather, we would want to think of five or six overall outcomes we would want to see for learners related to biology that fall under the umbrella of “know biology.” We also want to make sure we use language that lends itself to helping us create appropriate assessments to determine the extent to which students are achieving these outcomes. In other words, clear goals and clear language are very important.

          Assessments: These are the activities an instructor assigns to learners to determine the extent to which those learners have achieved the learning outcomes. Common examples of assessments in formal education settings include tests, papers, and presentations. In recent years, assessments in these contexts are increasingly accompanied by scoring rubrics, which are explanations of the criteria the instructor is using to assign a given assignment a given score. Rather than trying to read the instructor’s mind, the student can refer to the scoring rubric for details about what s/he needs to include in order to earn a high mark on the assessment. Assessments should be aligned with learning outcomes and with the theory that is providing context for the learning experience.

          Evaluation: Evaluation is the process by which stakeholders for a given learning experience (e.g., administrators, instructors, students, parents) determine how well the learning experience is meeting its stated goals. Whereas assessments are opportunities for students to show how well they are doing, evaluation is an opportunity for stakeholders to show how well the program is doing.

          What do these concepts make you think of when it comes to teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? How could you incorporate them into your teaching, or how do you already do so? Post your experiences to comments.

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          Two Poses for Happier Hamstrings

          When you think of places that hurt after a long day of training, hamstrings aren’t always the first to come to mind, but you should be aware of how tight hamstrings can affect the rest of your body. Having tight hamstrings can greatly contribute to knee and lower back pain as well as limit hip mobility, which can lead to discomfort and an increased risk of injury.

          Visualize your hamstrings as rubber bands that run between the hip and the knee, which end up pulling and putting tension on the knees, hips, back, and rest of your body when they are overly tight. When you work to loosen the hamstrings, the effects can be felt widespread throughout the body and substantially improve your overall mobility.

          For jiu-jitsu, having flexible hamstrings will help you to better retain guard, ease post-training pain, and even improve your posture on and off the mat. Get started with these two poses:

          Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)

          This may seem very straight forward, but trust me, touching your toes is actually important.

          1. Begin by standing upright, with your feet hip distance apart with a strong posture. Engage your core & lift through the pelvis while you draw your shoulders back to help create a straight spine.
          2. Bring your fingertips to your hip crease (where your thigh connects to your pelvis), palms against the hip bones
          3. Take a bend in the knees as you begin to hinge at the hips, folding over your hands, making sure to be only moving from the hips and not the back. Your back should be staying as straight as possible. You can draw your shoulders back to help you keep posture.
          4. Once you are comfortably able to lay your stomach on your thighs, you can release the hands to the floor and let your head hang forward.
          5. From here you can slowly begin to straighten the legs, keeping your back flat and lifting the pelvis and letting the crown of your head draw towards the floor.
          6. Only go as far as feels good. You should experience discomfort but not pain. Over time, you will be able to extend further and further.

          Advanced option:

          If this pose is easy for you, try walking your hands behind your feet with your legs fully extended or try other variations of this pose by grabbing the big toes with your index and middle fingers and folding deeper, or place the hands under the feet palm up with your toes at the wrist crease.

          Reaching behind your legs

          Grabbing your big toes

          Hands under feet

          Common mistakes to avoid:

          • Be aware of avoiding hyperextension. Lift through the kneecaps instead of locking them out.
          • Make sure not to round the upper back and shoulders. If you find yourself rounding, just roll your shoulders up and back to realign your posture.

          Half Split or Runners Stretch (Ardha Hanumanasana)

          This pose reduces risk of injury to your lower back & hamstrings while improving your mobility through stretching the hamstrings, thighs, lower back, and groin.

          1. You can begin by stepping back from the forward fold position above or simply by starting in a lowered lunge with one knee up and one knee down. Note: feel free to put a pillow or folded blanket under the grounded knee if this position causes discomfort for your knees.
          2. Bringing your hands down to frame your front foot, slowly begin to draw your hips back and down while straightening your front leg out, bending your grounded knee. Make sure to keep your hips squared forward.
          3. From here, ground the heel on your front foot and flex your toes toward your face to deepen the stretch.
          4. If this either feels too easy or even slightly awkward, slowly move your front foot further forward until you find your sweet spot where it feels challenging without straining.
          5. Make sure to not round your spine toward your legs, and instead keep a strong flat back while reaching your chest forwards towards your toes. Note: If you are having trouble reaching your hands to the ground while keeping your spine straight, you can use blocks under your hands to help.
          6. If you would like to create some movement here, you can gently rock forwards and back from a crescent lunge (front leg bent, back leg lengthened) to this runner’s lunge.

          With movement

          Advanced option:

          If this is feeling pretty good, you can try to walk your hands either farther forward or back to play around with some different angles. You can also continue inching your feet farther apart eventually making your way to full split.

          Full split

          Common mistakes to avoid:

          • Be aware of avoiding hyper-extension. Lift through the kneecaps instead of locking them out.
          • Make sure not to round your upper back and shoulders. If you find yourself rounding, just roll the shoulders up & back to realign your posture.
          • Make sure to square your hips forward and keep them in line

          Always listen to your body first. Be aware of previous injuries and of your own limitations when attempting any stretches or movements. Discomfort is normal, but back off if you feel pain. Just as with jiu-jitsu, yoga is a different experience for everyone. Be sure to be mindful with your movements and take care of yourself.

          Disclaimer: This article is for entertainment purposes only and does not replace the guidance of a medical expert or the in-person coaching of an expert instructor. Talk to your physician before beginning any new activities.

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