Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper

How to Impact the Sport Without a Gold Medal

I was going back through the Inverted Gear blog archives looking at some of the more popular posts, and I came across Nelson’s “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu goals that do not involve becoming a world champion.” I think part of why this article resonates with so many people is that it speaks to an unspoken fear in a sport that heaps admiration onto competitors: By not competing (or not competing well) we are somehow not doing “it” right.

Competition is an important facet of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but it’s not the only facet. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but I can understand how the intensity and prowess of fulltime competitors can leave your own jiu-jitsu journey feeling unimpressive and inconsequential. I can understand because I’ve been there (and might be there presently, depending on when you read this).

Based on a recent Reddit thread where a brown belt whom I respect very much admitted to tapping to a highly competitive blue belt, I suspect that this feeling is far more pervasive than many would admit.

My theory is that our community equates championships and big competition victories with impact. It’s an easy and clear way to identify the people who are pushing the technical envelope and taking the sport to new and even more nuanced heights. Deep down, I know that my own desire to be competitive—despite my inability to do so—is driven by a passion for making a difference. A gold medal can signify a meaningful contribution to the sport we care so much about, but what if that gold medal is out of reach for any number of reasons?

You can still make a difference in the sport. And in many cases, I would argue that the impact you can have is far more important than the impact of hitting the top of a podium, even if it doesn’t come with the glitz and the fame.

Here are 5 ways that you could leave your mark on the sport without ever earning a gold medal:

1. Be an excellent teacher. I’ve lamented before about the fact that instructors don’t get a lot of press coverage, but that doesn’t mean that their impact is any less significant. Whether you are training future world champions or leading a great self-defense class, teaching is perhaps the most important and productive thing you could do to build jiu-jitsu up. You don’t have to run an academy either. You could informally mentor other students, pick up a class to help out at your gym, or start to teach on YouTube once you have the chops to do so.

2. Use the sport to do good. This is different from my suggestion to teach in the sense that you use jiu-jitsu as a conduit to address a problem or to serve an underserved population. Tap Cancer Out is a great example of this idea executed to the extreme, and Groundswell Grappling Concepts is an example of this idea executed with a balance of business and social responsibility. You don’t have to start your own organization, though, to do good with BJJ. You could help fundraise as part of a Tap Cancer Out event, or perhaps you could volunteer for youth programs, maybe mobilizing your training partners to join you in the process. There are also roll-a-thons and whatnot. With some thinking, I bet you could channel your BJJ into something positive.

3. Be a positive voice on the mat. Again, there is not a lot of glamor to this suggestion, but there is always a need for people who are outgoing, welcoming, and supportive on the mat. You might not end up in the jiu-jitsu history books for being the first person at your gym to welcome a new student or to be the one that doesn’t let someone else experience the awkwardness of “last picked” when people pair off to train, but I promise you the person you help will remember and will be thankful. Taking on this role is actually more difficult than it sounds to do consistently, but it’s powerful in its own way.

4. Contribute to the discussion. Jiu-jitsu is always in need of more thoughtful people contributing to the growing discussions around the problems and opportunities in our art. Start a blog. Start a podcast. Be an active and constructive contributor in online discussions. Film some videos. The media scene around BJJ is busy and disorganized, but there are still openings for people to do new and interesting things. Your audience won’t be massive, especially when you first start, but if you stick with it your voice can help to guide at least part of the sport. Pro tips: Consider starting local, covering your immediate jiu-jitsu scene and the people in it, and also go easy on yourself as far as production value is concerned. I got my start with a hand-me-down laptop, a bootleg of MSWord, and a $100 BestBuy camera (before smartphones).

5. You don’t have to run a BJJ business. Making an impact is hard, and sometimes our passions can get the better of us, leading us into commitments that we aren’t ready for. I’ve seen a lot of people start t-shirt companies or open gyms long before they were really ready (guilty on this front, myself), so try starting small with one of the previous suggestions before you empty out your savings on a new project. It’s okay if BJJ is your passionate hobby and not your entire life. In many respects, those people are the most important parts of BJJ even if their names never end up in lights.

I hope that eases some of the pressure you put on yourself as far as competition goes, and at best I hope to see your contributions making a difference in the future.

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The Bright Side of Injury is Innovation

 

Injuries big and small have been a consistent theme in my jiu-jitsu writing because for some reason I am a lot like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable—minus the acts of mass terrorism (spoiler alert). As frustrating and as depressing injuries can be, they can also benefit your training. Granted, these benefits probably are not as good as the benefits of just staying healthy in the first place, but there are a few upsides that might make you feel just a wee little bit better about that injury.

An injury can force you to do two primary things: Get your jiu-jitsu game up to speed after a layoff and adapt your game to work around a vulnerable body part.

Returning from a Layoff

When you sit out for a prolonged period of time, you will probably feel slow and rusty when you get back to that mat, and the challenge is more than just a subpar cardio. Your reaction times are dulled, and your problem solving is foggy. For many, this triggers a self-review. You think back on what your A game used to be, and you start drilling, working your way through reps of the fundamentals up through your favorite set ups and counters.

When we are perfectly healthy, drilling the techniques that we do every session anyway will probably never happen, but when an injury forces you to, you might actually find that your A game is better in the long run. Those extra focused reps help you to dial-in the core of your game, bringing details and tactics that might have been subconscious (or overlooked) to the top of your mind.

For me, I feel as if my A game actually steps up a level each time I go through the process of re-drilling my go-to escapes and my go-to attacks, and I attribute that to simply taking the time to take the engine apart, clean all the pieces, and carefully reassemble everything with some updates and modifications along the way.

Adapting to Injury

Whether you do it out of necessity or out of fear of re-injury, babying an injured body part adds an entirely new priority structure to how you roll. You will probably become extra wary of certain grips or attacks, and you may have to omit specific movements or positions from your repertoire because of how they aggravate your injury. The result: You have to adapt and re-adapt your technique, making you hyper-aware of what’s happening and what options are and are not available to you at any given time.

Because of my Mr. Glass mat experience, I have a lot of examples of how this process impacted my own training. To start, my knees are bad enough that I don’t do triangle chokes, which completely transformed my guard. Where I used to insist on climbing into a high closed guard, I now play butterfly hooks almost exclusively because that guard style takes me as far away from triangle chokes as one can reasonable get from guard. When I do find myself in a triangle-esque position, I have to force the omoplata.

Before my knees went bad, I very rarely worked butterfly sweeps and only barely explored omoplatas. Now I’ve gone deep into learning and applying them.

The Opportunity in Pain

As frustrating as injuries can be, try to look on the bright-side. They can be opportunities to transform your training. Getting hurt and sitting out will never not be terrible, but if you can find some joy in the intellectual challenge of rebuilding your game or adapting your technique around your personal obstacles, your jiu-jitsu will benefit. You might still be hurt or not at your best, but you at least have the comfort of knowing your jiu-jitsu is improving.

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I’ve Never Seen Ego Waiting at the Door

Many jiu-jitsu schools have a motto—sometimes unwritten but often scrawled on the wall as well—that goes “Leave your ego at the door.” The sentiment is sincere, and the intention seems to be one of encouraging students to be humble and to have an open mind. Almost anyone would agree that these are valuable traits to have in your gym culture, but the idea that anyone, anyone at all, is leaving their ego at the door is naïve. As much as we want to believe that jiu-jitsu is a great equalizer and that our sport is overflowing with positivity, we should be honest with ourselves about our very human shortcomings.

Instead of acting like everyone on the mat is leaving their ego behind, we should accept that our egos are very much a part of our training and how we interact with our partners. We’re much better off addressing ego head-on instead of acting like it’s not there.

For my part, I spent March and April trying new gyms. I’m super socially awkward to begin with—like please don’t make me actually call anyone on the phone because that makes me really uncomfortable so let’s just email, okay?—but I’m also a brown belt, and I’m also recovering from two major surgeries. I came back from a hernia repair only to blow out a knee soon after, so my physical capacity is still pretty limited. Add that to a year layoff, and, well, I feel pretty terrible on the mat. I can recall times as a blue belt when I felt sharper and more technical.

And here I am walking into a new gym with a brown belt. It’s embarrassing in some respects because I can’t roll how I think I should roll, and oh hey that’s my ego following me in the door, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. And that ego of thinking I should be performing at a certain level has made the process of simultaneously coming back to jiu-jitsu while also being the new guy a special challenge. I feel like I have something to prove, and I’m also semi-terrified of having to call my wife and telling her to pull the crutches out of the closet again.

The other end of this are the instructors and students who have welcomed me into their gyms. There’s the usual sideways glances at my brown belt from hungry blue and purple belts, and those sideways glances can turn into tough rolls if I catch the wrong trainer partner at the end of a long class. And that right there is another example of ego: Wanting to test yourself against someone who outranks you on paper.

Is my expression of ego unhealthy? Are the new jiu-jiteiros that I’m meeting expressing ego in an unhealthy way?

Not necessarily, and this is where I think as a community we might be looking at ego incorrectly. We assume that by default ego is a terrible thing, but we need it, and if accept that it’s there we can express it in a healthy way and perhaps use it to make us better grapplers.

My journey back to being semi-healthy isn’t over, but as hard as it has been, it’s been good for me. Facing my fear of going into new gyms and trusting strangers with my health has forced me to think about my training differently and to be more mindful of how I treat my training as well as my training partners. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great new grapplers, and I’ve had to humble myself. I’m still embarrassed by my ability and conditioning, but I’ve learned that it’s a lot like tripping on stage. You can either slink off into the shadows in a fit of shame and regret, or you can own the misstep, laugh it off, and get on your day.

The latter takes more practice and is harder, but it’s better for you I think. It is how it is, so make the best out of it rather than sinking into self-loathing.

And as for the egos of the people I’ve met training: I get it. Of course a young purple belt wants to see how they measure up. Of course people will look at an upper belt with competitive excitement. By default, this behavior is not necessarily malicious. It’s technical curiosity. Sure, it’s driven by ego (isn’t all competition?), but instead of being salty about it, how about we just address it and have a healthy dialog about it?

“Hey, man. I’m coming back from some injuries, so go ahead and work your game, just give me a chance to tap. That’s all I ask.”

And that typically does the trick. It acknowledges their interest in being competitive while at the same time protecting my own interests.

So maybe instead of trying to leave our egos at the door, how about we try to understand them and tame them? They aren’t going away, and ignoring them won’t help us be better grapplers or training partners. Let’s address them head-on, personally and with our training partners, and try to find healthier, more productive ways to train with each other.

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The Orbit of Jiu-Jitsu Techniques

In even a single year of jiu-jitsu, a student will see a wide range of techniques. At two classes a week with an average of two techniques shown per class, a student will “learn” 208 techniques. Then factor in the odd private lessons, a seminar or two, instructional material, and the casual exchange of tips and tricks that happens at any generic open mat, and you quickly end up with a volume of material that’s just not practical to learn all at once.

The result is that a lot of techniques are left to the wayside, and even the newest jiu-jiteiros adopt a pattern of looking for the moves that they “need.” They naturally want a technique that solves a problem they have when they roll, or they want the technique that elevates their performance by building directly on top of the game they have.

As far as jiu-jitsu goes, all of this is pretty normal. The opportunity that many jiu-jiteiros miss, however, is that they rarely return to the techniques that didn’t make the cut the first time around. And if they do return, it’s because an instructor forced them to in a class (which is a nice stroke of luck for the student, that he or she happened to be in the right class at the right time). 6 months, a year, or two years later, that one technique you passed on drilling extensively could be the linchpin for a game-changing development for you.

The technique that doesn’t seem useful today could be useful in the future.

I say this because I was just reminded me of this fact, and that reminder has me going back through what I can recall from previous classes and seminars to see what else I might be missing. For me, I have been working on my butterfly guard for a few years, and a long time ago I learned an overhead variation of the sweep that just never seemed necessary to me. My bread and butter sweep would either do the trick, or something in my recounter arsenal would mop up the problems I had.

Then I come back from an injury, and suddenly I’m faced with the exact scenario the overhead variation was designed to address. For whatever reason, I didn’t see it often enough before (perhaps my rusty technique means I am making mistakes and allowing it to happen), but now that technique matters.

If I had discarded it completely—which means that I declared it eternally useless and thus not worth recollecting any fashion at all—I would be missing an opportunity to expand my game. Fortunately, I made a mental note of it when I first saw it, so when it made its return orbit I could take advantage of the opportunity.

I don’t have a mega memory that makes this easier for me, but I do a few things as a student that might help you catch a technique you’ve already seen when it’s orbit crosses paths with you again:

  • Identify why a technique would be useful. Even if a move is not a fit for you right now, figure out what situation the technique is best for. It doesn’t matter if you don’t encounter that situation often enough to warrant drilling the technique a lot now, but making that mental observation of “This technique would be good if I start finding myself attacking with front headlocks” is a more positive association than “I don’t need this.”

  • Give every technique a sincere drilling effort. If you tell yourself a technique is useless, you might be inclined to drill it half-heartedly during the class or seminar where you are learning it. Even if you see no clear place for it to fit in your current game, still put the same amount of enthusiastic and thoughtful repetitions into the move as you would with any other technique. Doing the technique with attentiveness can help you recall it later.

  • Context matters for memory. When you learn a move, take a second to mentally observe who is showing you the technique. A year from now, that observation might help you track down the instructor or training partner who can remind you of the details you need.

  • Be a more general student. Having a specific game you like to play is normal for advancing jiu-jiteiros, but try to be a bit more academic about your learning. By that I mean spend time outside of your narrow area of study and maintain an active interest in learning other types of games. You don’t need to master them or even drill them all that much, but exposing yourself to positions you never intend to play (at least right now) will help you identify things you’ve seen before, and will also help your defense down the road.

  • Play the flashcard game when you watch competition footage. When you watch matches, challenge yourself to identify what a competitor is attempting do with their technique or what their options are from a certain position. By trying to predict what a competitor will do next, you force your brain to scroll through the options you have stored away—even if they aren’t ones you use—to figure out the possibilities.

You will hopefully be in this sport for many years to come, so while we can’t hope to remember everything we have ever learned, these tips should help you to recall a few helpful techniques from your own personal archives. You never know when a technique will come rocketing back to relevance, but if you make an effort to be ready for that to happen, your jiu-jitsu will greatly benefit.

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Moving Beyond “Right” or “Wrong” Techniques

Early in our jiu-jitsu careers, we tend to have a problem and solution mindset, and this view of jiu-jitsu is actually pretty narrow. For example, you might get stuck in a headlock a lot, so you ask your instructors (or YouTube) for the solution. This thinking continues as you encounter new positions. What do I do when his legs are like this and my arms like this? Boom, another solution.

And then something weird happens. You run into someone that uses a different solution to solve the exact same problem.

When I was teaching three or four times a week, this got to be problematic because I was not a black belt, and right after teaching a move I’d sometimes hear, “Well so-and-so-black-belt says that you should do this instead.” This is where the problem and solution mindset starts to breakdown. Jiu-jitsu is not a series of simple math problems where the same problem will eventually work out to the same solution. In many cases, choosing one technique over another is actually not about picking the “right” technique over the “wrong” technique.

In reality, your decision is much more nuanced. No technique is 100% effective. Every position or attack or escape is fraught with pros and cons, and being aware of this give-and-take dynamic can help you to make smarter strategic and tactical choices.

Here’s an example: Finishing the armbar from the top.


When you finish the armbar from the top, which arm do you prefer to use as your primary arm hook? Do you use your arm closest to your opponent’s head so that you have a free hand to grab your opponent’s leg? Or do you prefer to hook his arm with your arm that’s closest to his leg, leaving your other arm free to grip fight?

As you can see in the very old GIF above, I prefer to keep the arm closest to my opponent’s head free. But if you flip open someone else’s instructional—say something from Eddie Bravo—you might see a respected instructor teaching you to use the opposite grip from me so that you can hook the leg.

One is not right and one is not wrong. Instead, you have to decide what strengths and weaknesses are acceptable and what makes the most sense for your style.

Let’s break it down:

  • Pros of hooking the leg from the top armbar: Opponent has less mobility, slows down transitions, potentially gives you an opening to transition to leg attacks.
  • Cons of hooking the leg from the top armbar: Both of your hands are occupied, armbar grip breaks will mean using your feet more often which could be an escape risk, the hand that you would use to attack the head or neck is occupied.
  • Pros of keeping the arm near the head free: You can use both hands to break the grip for the armbar, the arm hugging your opponent’s arm is in position for an arm drag motion which could expose the back
  • Cons of keeping the arm near the head free: Your opponent has a stronger bridge, transitioning to a leg attack would be difficult, you have to rely on your leg pressure to control his ability to sit up

For me, much of my game is built around the arm drag. I always to take the back, and I’m very comfortable with the arm drag mechanic from almost any position. When I am attacking for the armbar from the top, I either want to get the submission or use it to take the back when my opponent sits up, which makes my preferred grip positioning pretty handy.

At the same time, I like to use my feet and legs sparingly because of some knee problems, so while I sometimes bring my feet into the armbar fight, I won’t do it as much as someone that prescribes to the Eddie Bravo school of thought might. I used to be a big fan of the biceps slicer from this position, but believe it or not, that pressure actually hurts my knees before it hurts my opponent, so I’ve stopped using it, and I also thread my feet inside for the grip break in a different way as well.

That’s me, and that’s my game. My preference is not better or worse in comparison to someone that prefers a leg hook. I’ve made a strategic and tactical decision based on the strengths and weaknesses of the position and based on my own style.

At a certain point, jiu-jitsu is more than knowing how to solve the problem in front of you. It’s choosing the solution that is right for your body type, right for your game, and right for the opponent in front of you. To make those sorts of choices requires you to collect and assess a wide range of techniques. And when you look at jiu-jitsu this way, you can start to see how two high-level grapplers can have very different games. They’ve taken the time to carefully build their styles, technique by technique.

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