Inverted Gear Blog / Nelson Puentes

Make Mistakes

I played three different sports throughout high school – wrestling, track, and football – and I was fortunate to have amazing coaches in all three. Our football games (the kind with egg-shaped ball for our non-US readers) were on Friday night. On Monday, we reviewed footage of the game as a team.

During one of our film study sessions, we analyzed our opponent’s scoring plays from the last game. A new formation had confused one of our defensive players and he “froze up,” unsure where to go, and he stood still for a moment too long, reacting too late, and giving the other team enough space to score. Our coach said, “I’d rather have you make a mistake at full speed than hesitate. If you go the wrong way, we can correct that. If you stand still, we cannot.” This lesson remains true for BJJ.

Being unsure of where to go in BJJ is normal. The amount of positions in BJJ can be overwhelming, and the number of positions only continues to grow. It is normal to see lower belts completely stop when they get to an unfamiliar position.

One of the fastest ways to get better is to go the “wrong way” a few times. BJJ can be self-correcting this way. How many times did you get triangled as white belt before you realized what “both arms in or both arms out” meant? Stopping and refusing to move because you are afraid of making a mistake only slows down your development. If you go the wrong way and end up getting “punished” for trying, you learn an important lesson: don’t do that again.

Another aspect is when upper belts overdeveloped their “spider sense,” like the super power that lets Spider-Man know he's in imminent danger. Many times I’ve rolled with purple and brown belts that would be doing great early in our roll only to slow down and turtle up inside my guard because they knew I was setting them up, or felt it was a trap. Again, the answer here is to keep working through it. Can you reset the grips and start your pass again, can you back out, can you switch to a different pass? You have options, and most times stopping will only make matters worse as your opponent can just keep working whatever got you into trouble in the first place.

A final aspect I wanted to touch on is when you are on offense. Maybe you are in closed guard and are working on your triangles, but are shy about throwing your legs up. Or you are on your feet and hesitating on shooting that double leg. Fear of failing is scary, but you have to be at peace with failing a few times. Eventually you will figure out the timing and things will begin to work. But if you don’t attempt them, they will never improve.

So I invite you to start the year by failing. Whenever you get into situations you are not familiar with, try to work through them. Take some chances on a new technique you are working on. Try to pass that really tricky purple belt’s guard. You will be better for it on the long run.

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Dear 20-Year-Old Nelson

20-year-old me,

Happy birthday! In a few days you will head to Hooters with your friends to watch UFC 79. Besides the epic war that Silva vs Liddell will be, GSP’s win by armbar will plant the MMA and submission grappling bug in your head (spoiler alert, I guess). In a few months your friend Dave will talk you into signing up for a tournament and your life will forever be changed.

You will train and compete as often as you can. Everything in your life will begin to go through the “how does this affect my jiu-jitsu filter.” It will seem strange to a lot of your family and friends, but it will make you immensely happy, so stay the course.

You will struggle with competition. You will get nervous and tense before matches. It will take a long time for this to subside, and it will never go away completely. You will need to work on it. It will not magically disappear by just competing more. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself, and learn to enjoy the moment. You will eventually learn that you are there because you enjoy competing, the outcome of the match should have little relevance on how you feel afterwards, you trained and did everything possible beforehand, don’t stress over the times you will fall short. It will only make the times you make it onto the podium that much sweeter.

Enjoy the journey. Don’t rush to get to next belt. Each belt is special and presents different challenges. Travel to as many tournaments as you can. Some of your times as white belt and blue belt will be some of your fondest memories. Don’t be afraid to go to World’s or Pans because you are not good enough. You will surprise yourself. While you will record most of your competition matches, you are terrible at keeping them organized, upload them to YouTube or they will never be seen again.

For real dude, get it together.

You will have an MMA fight. You will win using your jiu-jitsu, but you should take time and be better prepared for it, so you don’t take unnecessary punishment. Five weeks of striking is not enough time to prepare for an MMA fight. I’m serious. This is an MMA bout. I know you’re thinking that you got this and that it can’t be that hard to hit someone, but please for the sake of future Nelson, put more training into your striking.

Enjoy your high metabolism while it lasts. You will not be able to survive on a diet of cheeseburgers for long (especially when you combine them with large stacks of post-tournament pancakes), though you will probably insist on trying. Start reading up on healthy eating and make better choices sooner than later. Future Nelson will appreciate that too.

You will be busy. Between school, work, and jiu-jitsu you will have very little time for anything else. That is not an excuse to stop reading or trying to learn a different language. You will spend years putting off learning Portuguese, and you will be surprised how quickly you pick it up when you actually put some effort into it. Just like you put daily amount of work into jiu-jitsu and don’t see results for a long time, you will start implementing into everything else in your life.

You will start your own business eventually, and just like BJJ, many people will tell you it is a waste of time. It will certainly feel that way at times. All your savings and whatever money you made on your other two jobs will be flown to Pakistan only to return as gis months later. That little project you started in your mom’s basement will become bigger that you can imagine.

You will be chronically single, and your relationships will fail over and over again. You will not be in a relationship that last more than two months until you meet the women that you will marry. And all that failure and heartache will be worth it. She is everything you ever wanted and more. So while you’re working on your diet and your striking, don’t change this part. We end up in a good place. Trust me, bro.

Best advice I can give you is learn to embrace failure. Fail, dust yourself off and try again. You will eventually succeed, and be able to live the life you always dreamed off.

Keep working.


Future Nelson

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Don’t Forget Your Singlet

It’s that time of the year.

A few weeks ago in the United States, families gathered on a special Thursday to celebrate each other and what their thankful for in their lives. But the Friday that follows is just as important. No, I’m not talking about Black Friday shopping.

The day after Thanksgiving marks the start of winter sports for high schoolers in the US. For me, that means one thing: Wrestling season.

I wrestled for two years in high school. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t very good. I somehow managed to have an above .500 record and make it out of our district to compete in regionals. Even though I didn’t walk away from high school wrestling with a bunch of trophies and a story fit for Hollywood—a story about a Chilean underdog who changes the hearts and minds of New Jersey with his bravery and technique—All of those hours in the wrestling room have paid dividends over the years that followed.

Wrestling seems to wax and wane in popularity amongst BJJ guys. We know we should work on it, especially if we want to go into MMA, but only a few actually dedicate serious time to it.

I don’t blame you. Wrestling can be tough on the joints, and you can get injured if you are not careful with your technique and your training partner selection. Then again, the same hazards exist on the ground (perhaps minus the physics of two people falling from standing), but just as we learn to train safely on the ground, you can learn to train safely standing. When you learn wrestling skills, like being able to finish single legs, how to shoot a good double, or how to stay on top during a scramble, your entire game benefits.

These skills, even though we lump into the category of “wrestling,” are just as valuable on the ground. Single legs abound from guard, and learning to double leg and fight through scrambles is valuable for those chaotic moments when someone is trying to run from your sweep.

Part of learning wrestling is getting reps in with a qualified instructor, but taking the time to appreciate the sport and watch some live matches can help your training as well.

If you are a grappling fan, or an MMA fan, you owe it to yourself to make it out to a wrestling match this winter, whether is college or high school. You will see not only amazing takedowns, but epic scrambles, and turnover and pinning combinations that from time to time make it onto our BJJ realm.

Wrestling meets have an amazing format that might be confusing to an outsider. Here’s the overview: Each team fills 14 weight classes, starting at 106 and ending at heavyweight (weight cap in high school is 285). Each individual match result is added to the team score. A win by points nets you 3 points, a major decision whenever the point differential is between 8-14 nets 4 points towards the team score, a tech fall is reached whenever a wrestler’s point differential reaches 15+, and finally a pin will earn the most points at 6.

This simple system can make for some heart stopping moments during matches. My friends in NJ recently ported over this system into a BJJ duel meet between two schools. Sheridan BJJ and Max Athletics, I was there to ref and had the best seat in the house. Matches were set up for about 18 white belts, 8 blue belts and 4 purple belts. At the end of the day, about half of them got to compete for the first time.

As a spectator it was great to watch. They kept the scoring criteria simple. A submission gave a team 6 points. A win over 10 points 4, and 3 for a decision. It’s a simple way to set up matches between school, and a welcome change from your typical “in house” tournament. I invite you to make it to a duel meet this winter, and if possible port over this format to your own school.

Whether you’re looking at the technique of wrestling or the format, there’s a lot that us BJJ guys can learn from the folks in singlets.

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Rebuild Your Jiu-Jitsu Deck

I learned how to play Magic the Gathering in 5th grade. It fascinated me then and almost 20 years later it still does today. Recently I realized the same thing that keeps me going back to Magic the Gathering is the same thing that fascinates me about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

For the uninitiated, Magic The Gathering is a trading card game, the first one ever produced. Yes, it’s similar to Yu Gi Oh or Pokemon (but don’t judge it based on that). Magic has been around since 1993 and as of 2015 it has 20 million players worldwide. Magic can be played different ways, but one of the most popular ways to play involves the players creating a 60-card deck that represents their resources, creatures, and spells in order to battle out.

Here is the interesting part: When you create a Magic deck, there is a lot of room for individualization. With thousands of cards, you can build a strategy and play style that is uniquely yours. In most formats, two of the same deck will rarely face off against each other, unlike a game like chess where everyone starts with the same pieces on the board. Even in ultra-competitive tournaments where a few decks dominate, the random element of shuffling two decks means that any single game is unpredictable.

The customization aspect is what gives the game longevity for me. What cards should I put into my deck, do I want to go for the quick finish, do I want to play a more controlling game, or do I want to slowly but surely impose my game? Now if we step away from lightning bolts and goblins for a moment, imagine your BJJ game as a Magic deck. What cards are going into it? Do you want to be a fast and dynamic guard passer, or are you bringing an old school pressure passing game to the table? What will you choose for your de la Riva game? Will you invert into berimbolos or will you use it to set up single leg attacks?

The more we practice BJJ the more we realize not every move will make it into our game (or deck). And that is okay. Maybe the move doesn’t jive well with our body type. Or maybe we are working around an injury. Or perhaps you admire a particular competitor and are seeking to emulate their game simply because you think it’s fun to use.

At the same time, a move you use today might not be a part of your game tomorrow.

In Magic, just like in jiu-jitsu, innovation is king. New cards come out. New combinations come into vogue. The killer strategy one year could be nerfed the next.

Jiu-jitsu follows a similar evolutionary path, which means that no matter how much you love your game, it’s likely to change. In fact, it almost has to change for you to stay relevant. You don’t have to throw everything away, but you might need to swap out a few moves and add a few new ideas to deal with that new guard or that tricky new sweep. Most of these changes are gradual, happening over a long grappling career.

Just like my favorite Commander deck, I am always messing with BJJ game, adding new things I pick up from my friends, removing old things that don’t work as well anymore, or changing it up as I work toward competing in a new ruleset or against new technique.

Use this lens to evaluate your deck. What makes the cut? What is starting to age? What new strategy should you account for? Let me know how it goes!

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The Spaced Repetition Learning Technique

Over the last year, I have become obsessed with language learning and have been studying and reading about language learning science as much as possible. I’ve brushed up on my Portuguese, picked up quite a bit of Italian for our stay in Sardinia, and some basic Japanese for our current trip through Japan. I’m a jiu-jiteiro at heart though, so it wasn’t long before I started drawing parallels between learning a language and learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Learning jiu-jitsu is quite a bit like learning a language.

At first you build your basic vocabulary. These are the moves you picked up in fundamentals class: upa escapes, armbars from closed guard, cross choke from mount, etc. Then you start learning common phrases. In BJJ, this means learning common chains, like elbow knee escape into a scissor sweep into a cross choke. As you progress further, you start putting your own sentences together. They are clunky at first but you refine them as you use them in live situations, going back and forth with another speaker or with an opponent.

Finally, you become fluent.

Spaced repetition is a widely used memory technique that helps you keep what you've learned strong in your mind. This is why language learning apps like Duolingo or Memrise are so effective. The way it works is you review each word or phrase you've learned in spaced intervals. Initially it’s in very short succession, and then you do it again the next day. Once you internalize it, you will be able to go a long time without forgetting it.

So let’s go into a the grappling realm with this concept. Have you ever gone to a seminar where the instructor is really excited and decides to cram way too many techniques into a two hour period? You barely get to drill each technique for a minute or two before moving on to a new technique. The next day you are lucky if you remember one. Meanwhile, whenever schools decide to adopt a move of the week, you get a lot reps, which makes you much more likely to remember the technique in the long term.

We can also apply this idea to your personal training schedule as well. If you only train twice a week, you have to cope with long intervals between training sessions, making it much more difficult to retain moves. You always see these types of students stagnate and struggle to move up the ranks compared to students who are able to train more often, and this is one of the reasons why.

What I have taken away from learning languages and learning BJJ is that I need to try and refresh ideas and positions at least once a week. No matter what I am working on, I will pick a few rolls and work on certain things I don't use much on my game at the moment, like closed guard, de la Riva, or spider guard. This way when I come back to them they feel fresh, and I'm not a rusty mess getting passed left and right. Also, whenever I attend a seminar, I make sure to set up some drilling time to go over every move from the seminar a few times and get reps in. Otherwise, I am lucky if I retain even one of the moves.

Hopefully you can put spaced repetition into practice, whether you are picking up Portuguese or trying to finally add leg drags into your game. Th key is repetitions, in quick successions at the beginning and with greater intervals afterwards. Don't let yourself forget something you worked so hard to pick up.

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