Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper

The Case for Stubbornness

As a character trait, being stubborn is usually considered negative. Someone who is stubborn insists on a path no matter what, sometimes in the face of overwhelming opposition. They grit their teeth and refuse to be swayed.

In jiu-jitsu—and in sports in general—a certain kind of stubbornness is mandatory to achieve success. If you are not willing to fail repeatedly until you get it right, you will likely find it difficult to progress, especially as your competition gets tougher and tougher. To learn, and to grow, you have to be willing to believe that a technique or a move can work for you and hold that belief over a long stretch of training and through countless screw ups.

Here’s an example: Christian Flores is a skateboarder, and he isn’t shy about saying that he knows he isn’t the best or even the most consistent skater, but he’s passionate. He had a trick in mind that he wanted to land, and it took him two years to get it right. By his own estimation, he went to the same spot 10 times a year and attempted the trick 100 times each go, and on two occasions had to go to the hospital as a result of failing. So that’s a lot of attempts before getting it right.

Flores fell down a lot. No, really, a lot. Watch the video.

Working on one trick for two years sounds insane to me, someone who tried standing on a skateboard once and promptly fell on his face, but when I look at what it takes to advance in jiu-jitsu, two years sounds completely reasonable. Once you get beyond blue belt and move into the twilight years of purple belt, your little technical projects—adding that new technique or strategy to your game—is no longer the one or two month fix that you had at white belt. You start to look at four or six-month chunks at a minimum.

In my case, it took me 6 months to really start nailing arm drags, and starting to nail butterfly guard was another 6 months. Beyond trolling white belts, the majority of those stretches were pure failure. I’d miss a detail or misjudge my timing or use the wrong variation at the wrong time. In jiu-jitsu screwing up might not mean dropping your head on cement like it does in skateboarding, but there can still be a significant amount of pain to mix in with your self-loathing when you realize that your arm drag failed and you are now getting your guard passed.

But that’s how you get really good. You say, “I am working on this thing,” and you insist on going for that thing relentlessly, every class and every roll. You get sick of it. Your partners get sick of it. And your instructor might even get sick of it. But you keep trying it. You keep trying to stick that landing no matter how many times you fail.

There is a little bit of that always get back up when you fall happy go-lucky fuzzy feel good sentiment here, but to me it’s more scientific than a simple moral victory. Yes, you won’t be defeated or denied, but each failure is a little learning experience giftwrapped in frustration. If you are willing to look past the parts that suck, you can learn a lot about yourself and the technique you are working to master.

After a lot of failure, you eventually map all (or virtually all) of the possible scenarios you can encounter when you try a technique. With all of the surprises taken off of the table, you can focus on the known, and gradually refine and hone until you are sharper and faster than anyone else you know with the move.

It takes time, though. And it takes falling down a lot. If you stick with it, you come out the other side a much better grappler, which really just means looking for the next opportunity to fail again.

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Jiu-Jitsu Should Change as You Change

The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world likes to throw around the word “lifestyle.” Live the jiu-jitsu lifestyle, man. Wear flip flops everywhere. Eat some acai. Wear some jiu-jitsu t-shirts that no one but fellow jiu-jiteiros understand. Maybe hit up a camp or two. And that’s about where our thinking about the jiu-jitsu lifestyle tends to stop.

Here’s the thing: We assume that jiu-jitsu will be a lifelong pursuit. That’s the nature of the art, but very few people talk about how your jiu-jitsu lifestyle will need to evolve and adapt to the rest of your life as you add year after year of training. A lot can happen in a year—You could get a new job, you could start a family, you could move, you could get hurt, you could have a family emergency. But, as a community, we don’t seem to put much thought into our jiu-jitsu lifestyle changing. We put it in this little vacuum and hope that our oasis will always be just as it was when we started.

Your jiu-jitsu lifestyle must change as your life changes.

That’s the only way you will enjoy the sport for the long run. If you create this idyllic idea of what it means to be a part of jiu-jitsu, you lock yourself into a set of life circumstances that will inevitably change, and after a few years you will find yourself hating the sport because you can’t train as much as you used to, or your body isn’t holding up, or all your favorite training partners packed their things and moved to another gym. The jiu-jitsu lifestyle should not be some static idea. It should grow with you as you, as a person, grow as well.

This means being willing to reevaluate what the “jiu-jitsu lifestyle” actually means for you. For me, after a series of injuries and a decade of working behind the scenes in the sport, I know I can’t train the way I did when I was 21, so I am learning to adjust my own expectations. Training everyday isn’t in the cards, physically or logistically, so my own expression of the jiu-jitsu lifestyle is rolling a few times a week and getting to that mental place where I am just totally focused on jiu-jitsu. That’s my bliss.

As an instructor and as a longtime student, other life events could trigger a jiu-jitsu lifestyle adjustment. Here is what I’ve seen and how I’ve seen jiu-jiteiros change positively as a result:

  • A new baby. For the normal person with a fulltime job and a marriage they care about, adding a baby to the mix almost completely destroys your schedule. Training three days a week may not be in the cards for the first few months, but with some open communication with your spouse and a healthy management of priorities, you can spend some time on the mat and still be present for your family. It just might not be at the volume of training you’d prefer.

  • A new job. Moving into a new professional role can come with a lot of stress. Your routine changes, your commute might get longer, and your responsibilities might grow. Like the baby scenario, maybe expect to dial back the training a bit for the first few months, but don’t stop training. Insist on making it to the gym at least once a week and consider adapting your training schedule to your work schedule, perhaps jumping into more morning schedules.

  • A new injury. Your body will age, and some form of injury is virtually inevitable on a long enough timeline. Follow your doctor’s advice about recovery time, and consider backing off the super intense rolling sessions if you feel your body not being able to handle it. This is one of the hardest truths to swallow—that you’re not what you used to be—but the good news is that longevity is a bigger topic now in sports medicine than ever, which means that with some smart exercises and some mature decisions about your own capacity, you can train for longer and stay healthier in the process. You might need to make some changes, though.

  • A new marriage. I’m not a fan of people bagging on their spouses not letting them train. If you’re working a full time job and training five days a week, you’re not leaving much time for your loved ones, and that can create problems. Open communication seems to be the key here—at least it was for me and my marriage—and good communication also comes with compromise. If your only solution is that you should always get to train as much as you want, you will probably lose your relationship or your jiu-jitsu.

  • A new hobby. You are allowed to have other interests that are not jiu-jitsu, and you are allowed to be happy with training a few times a week. Every black belt I respect has eased off of the “JIU-JITSU IS EVERYTHING” mentality and picked up other interests to varying degrees. Studying something intensely non-stop for years and year is just not practical. If your goal is to train for your entire life, you might actually want to do something other than jiu-jitsu now and then to stimulate your mind and to expand your personal horizons. That’s okay, and it’s probably the healthier approach.

Adapting to life changes could mean everything from training more or less, training differently, training at a different school, or rethinking what you actually enjoy in the sport. Change is difficult to resist, and with the right mindset, you can make your changes healthy. Let your jiu-jitsu grow with you as you grow.

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Why Writing is the Key to Returning from a Layoff

Around 2010 or so, the training fad of the day was “mind maps,” which were essentially decision trees for jiu-jitsu positions in part popularized by the flowchart in Eddie Bravo’s Mastering the Rubber Guard and championed by a few dozen BJJ bloggers.

The instructional value of seeing a gameplan mapped out with “if this then that” logic was clear. It makes the progression of positions and counters easier to follow by condensing dozens of techniques and tactical decisions into a singular diagram. The mind map champions took this idea and applied it to their own games. By creating a flowchart of your preferred options—what you do when someone postures with grip A versus grip B and on and on—you give yourself a big picture view of your game that you might be missing.

By zooming out and creating this map, you can identify holes in your game. With the map in front of you, you can see that you have six solutions for one problem but only one solution for another (or perhaps no solutions at all), so the mind map becomes a tool for self-diagnosis and self-directing your training.


Photo Credit: Mastering the Rubber Guard by Eddie Bravo

Mind mapping isn’t talked about as much these days—it went the way of the balance ball drills and Ginastica Natural—but there is still value to the process. For me, the biggest value of mapping out your game is simply to have a record of what you like to do and why, which is a powerful asset to have when you’re coming back from a long layoff induced by an injury.

Let me give you an example.

I’m pretty much perpetually on crutches, so I’ll save the sob story, but when I’m not on crutches I write books and shoot a lot of videos. There was even a time where I was filming every one of my no-gi classes and uploading them to YouTube for my students to reference later. In essence, I have a back catalogue of informal mind maps to reference as I start the long process of de-rusting my techniques. What was once second nature can now take a bit of thinking to pull out of the depths of my memory.

Instead of sitting and thinking on it until it comes back to me, I can look back over my notes and my videos and learn my material again from myself.

That might sound strange, but there are many occasions where you are the best jiu-jitsu teacher for yourself, and this is one of them. Having a record of your game, even if it’s not completely comprehensive and not as detailed as an instructional video can save you a lot of time when you’re coming back from an injury. If you’ve never done any sort of jiu-jitsu journaling or mind mapping before, here’s an easy way to get started:

  1. Make a list of the major positions you find yourself in (your favorite guard variations, half guard bottom, half guard top, etc etc).
  2. List your top 3 or 4 techniques for each of those positions and the “trigger” or opportunity you look for as the prompt to use that technique.
  3. Don’t worry about being incredibly detailed for your first pass. As long as you write enough to remember what you mean 6 months from now, you’ll be in good shape.
  4. For bonus points, film a few of your rolls or make a list of YouTube URLs that teach some of the more complicated techniques in your list.

See? That’s pretty simple stuff. You don’t need to map everything to help your recovery process. More is better, of course, but the best solution is one that you will actually follow through with, so small is fine. If you can, come back to the document every few months to update it, and try to put it in a place where you won’t lose it. For me, cloud documents are ideal, but for you it might be a journal on your book shelf.

If you are in the unfortunate position of coming back from an injury, dust off your list of techniques and use it as your drilling guide. As you go through your favorite options, the details will come back to you more readily because you aren’t starting from zero, which will make your ramp-up back to 100% capacity more efficient and less frustrating.

But here’s hoping you don’t get injured in the first place.

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Before You Start Your BJJ Business…

I’m not a giant in the jiu-jitsu industry, but I’ve been writing about and working in the sport for as long as I’ve been training—over 10 years now. I’ve written books with big names. I’ve traveled to cover events, both MMA and jiu-jitsu. I opened and ran a satellite jiu-jitsu gym (and closed it too when it failed). I run Artechoke Media, a jiu-jitsu publishing house, and my business partner Matt Kirtley and I help jiu-jitsu brands with their marketing.

I tell you all of this in the hopes that you take my thoughts on starting a jiu-jitsu business more seriously because I’ve heard lines like this too often (and these are as close to direct quotes as my memory will allow):

“I figure I’ll start a gi company on the side for the easy money.”

“I’m getting mats for my garage so that I can start a competition-focused gym.”

“I started a blog so that I could ask the UFC for press credentials.”

“Running an MMA promotion can’t be that hard.”

I’ve heard these sentiments expressed multiple times and a variety of flavors, and they all seem to harken back to two core assumptions: There is a lot of money in jiu-jitsu, and getting to it isn’t that hard. For an example of how large jiu-jiteiros perceive the jiu-jitsu pie to be, some Reddit users estimated that FloGrappling probably serves “less than 100,000 subscribers.”

Less than 100,000 for a jiu-jitsu membership site? That number, based on the conversations I’ve had with promoters and site owners, should probably be closer to 10,000 if not MUCH lower. There are not as many people buying jiu-jitsu products or watching livestreams as you might think, and some of the biggest names in that end of the industry are fighting through the red mostly out of love rather than business sense. As you might recall, Metamoris went so far into the red that its owner is now trapped in an alternate dimension.

So before you start your BJJ business, whatever it might be, your first step is to dramatically reduce your estimates for potential customers and to recognize that not only are they had to reach, the competition for their attention and their dollars are fierce. Once you’ve completed your preliminary reality check, here are the next steps to take:

  1. Evaluate the investment and the stakes. The old adage goes that over one third of businesses will fail in the first two or three years (exact figures vary, but this estimate persists), and many will fail in the first year. Failure in itself is not a reason to quit, but you should know ahead of time how much your business might cost and whether you can absorb those losses in the event that the business fails. Yes, your shipment of new t-shirts only costs X, but what about fulfilment costs? Web costs? Advertising costs? Customs fees? Yes, rent for your new gym space only costs X, but what about insurance? Membership software? Mats? Utilities?

  2. Accept that you might lose your hobby. Even as a hobby, jiu-jitsu isn’t always fun. When you make it your livelihood, your ability to enjoy it changes dramatically. Yes, teaching the odd afternoon class is enjoyable, but that’s a lot different from managing the entire backend of the gym. You’d be surprised at how little gym owners actually get to train and how much of their time is wrapped up in things that aren’t jiu-jitsu (like sales calls, managing advertising, cleaning the facility, etc). What you love about the sport could very well suffer if you make it a business, so prepare for that.

  3. Be prepared to work multiple jobs. I’ve been to dozens of gyms that appear successful—nice facilities, high attendance rate, talented students—but the owner is still working a “primary” profession to pay the bills or taking side jobs to fill in the gaps. The overhead on maintaining a facility can be surprisingly large—rent alone can be pricey—and some owners would rather work an extra job than find a way to increase their membership dues. Even if your business ultimately succeeds, you will probably need to grind out multiple sources of income for the first few years at least.

  4. Friendships and business rarely mix. When you make your hobby your livelihood, you have to face tough decisions, which often means telling friends no to requests that could negatively impact the income you need to survive. No, you can’t have another free gi. Sorry, I can’t let you train for free. No, I can’t make a product featuring your brand. Nope, I can’t pay for your entry fees. Sorry, I have to do business with this other guy even if you have bad blood with him for whatever reason. It gets complicated, and some friends might hold it against you.

To be clear, my intention is not to deter everyone from starting a jiu-jitsu business. It’s been a weird and wild ride for me, with plenty of downs to go with my ups, but I’m still thankful I work in the sport. However, I walked in blind. For anyone that’s thinking about making that jump themselves, I’d rather that they know ahead of time that it could be dangerous to go alone and that they should pack accordingly. The journey will be hard.

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Your Age in Jiu-Jitsu Years

Last week, I turned 30. That puts me at more than 10 years in the sport, maybe 12 years if you count watching Cesar Gracie DVDs and fighting my friends in the backyard as training.

A lot changes in 10 years. Beyond the normal existential crisis of getting older, aging in jiu-jitsu is a nuanced challenge. I’ve never been a super athlete, but what my body was able to do at 20 is very different from what my body can do at 30. No more rubber guard. Heck, I can’t do a triangle choke without my knees exploding. But accumulating a collection of injuries isn’t the hardest part of aging in jiu-jitsu years.

One of the things the community doesn’t tell you when they throw around quotes like “A black belt is a white belt that never quit” or “How long does it take the average person to get a black belt? The average person won’t get a black belt” is that you have to find a way to cope with a rapidly evolving sport and a revolving door of training partners. Inside the gym—training on the same mats boxed in by the same four walls—the sense of time gets away from you, and then it hits you all at once like a freight train.

Let me give you a concrete example. 9 years ago I moved to Hilo, Hawaii to train at the BJ Penn Academy, and that adventure became the subject of my first book, The Cauliflower Chronicles. Last week, I went back to the Big Island and walked my wife through many of the places and the stories that she had heard me talk about for years. Over sushi, we talked with an old training partner (local Hilo guy) of mine about the gym, the coaches, and mutual jiu-jitsu friends.

If you’ve trained for more than a few years, you know how this conversation goes:

  • Yeah, that guy moved away.
  • This guy disappeared one day and no one has heard from him.
  • This other dude trains sometimes but nowhere near as much as he used to.
  • He got a new job.
  • He had kids.
  • He got hurt and called it quits.

Walking back into the BJ Penn Academy after 9 years and seeing the place where I spent 3 to 4 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week, underscored what has become a powerful truth for me: The physical idea of a gym as a place is mostly irrelevant. What makes a gym feel like home are the people in it. At the BJ Penn Academy, everything was familiar. Sure some equipment had been moved since I was there last and they had gotten a new set of mats, but my experience as a student there is a unique time capsule of a certain set of instructors and a certain set of training partners all existing at a very specific time in the sport.

To me, this is nostalgia at its worst, and it can ruin your enjoyment of jiu-jitsu.

As soon as you start thinking about “the golden age” or “the good ol’ days” you establish an entirely unreasonable expectation of what your current training should be like. You will never be able to recreate the standard for jiu-jitsu perfection—the style of classes, the training partners, the instructors, your own physical ability—that you build up in the Fortress of Solitude in your mind. Life is simply too fluid for that, and jiu-jitsu doubly-so.

You will change. Your gym will change. Your training partners will change. There’s no escaping it, but you also shouldn’t let your love for how things used to be poison your enjoyment of the sport today. In my mind, you have to do the following:

  • Take responsibility for your training and structure it in a way that is realistic for your life while also giving you the joy that a hobby should. This will change overtime, so you probably need to check-in with yourself every year or so. Maybe you move away from competing and spend more time teaching and just playing with technique (that was my journey).
  • Take your role in your gym environment seriously, especially as you move deeper into veteran status. Yes, it sucks that your original class of training partners is all but gone, but you can make new friends and make the gym feel welcoming so that the latest round of new students can have the same enjoyment that you did.
  • Accept change but also be willing to make change. Some changes are good, some bad, and some neutral. It’s on you to be objective in your own evaluation, which means stepping back and deciding if you are judging a situation unfairly or are actually seeing a real problem. If you identify a change as bad (and do so fairly), you have a responsibility to respond or to find a solution so that you don’t end up wallowing in misery. This takes practice because most change in the gym is just generic neutral change—people come; people go.

These are challenges that I’m still learning to handle, and if I come up with some new insights, I’ll be sure to let you know. I also welcome your own insights into aging in the sport and how to keep your love for the art fresh and consistent.

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