Inverted Gear Blog
The other day I was talking with a student who had recently competed for the first time. He recounted how anxious he was as he waited to compete, how fast he started to experience the adrenaline dump so common for inexperienced competitors once his match started, and how frustrating it was not to be able to apply his game effectively (he lost via a collar choke at about the 3-minute mark). “It really exposed some of my shortcomings,” he said.
I started thinking about the concept of exposure and how often it is linked in my mind with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I can share countless times during my jiu-jitsu career when I felt completely exposed—embarrassed, frustrated, frightened, anxious, disappointed—because of something I said, did, or did not say or do. Times when I got so frazzled at not being able to drill a given technique correctly that I just wanted to go to bed and never get up. Times when I was the uke but did not provide the correct reaction, which made me look stupid but also annoyed the instructor. Times when I was convinced the rest of the class was communicating silently with each other about how hopeless I was or how needlepoint would be a much better use of my time.
And, more recently, times when I must acknowledge that, while I still have many active years ahead of me, my prime performing days are over. Times when I have explained a technique incorrectly or had to say I did not know the answer to a technical question. Times when I am on the defensive while training with someone I “should” be able to handle.
When I feel exposed like this, I become convinced that my soul is on display for the world to judge. It is as if my top layers have been peeled back, but instead of the goopy, bony stuff inside a normal person’s skin, it is all my shortcomings and insecurities about my worth as a person that are revealed. Dramatic sounding, I know, but there is something about the combination of physical exertion and mental gymnastics that jiu-jitsu requires that can leave me feeling vulnerable and, well, exposed.
You might wonder why I keep coming back, if this is what I can expect to happen. It is a question I ask myself before every competition class, every visit to a strange academy, every time I teach a series of techniques for the first time. I have tried to explain it elsewhere, as have many of my fellow long-suffering contemporaries. Suffice it to say that, as a good friend of mine has said repeatedly, I can’t not train. And that tells you something about how compelling it is, if I am willing to lay myself bare so completely and so often.
Or to feel like that is what I am doing, at least. One truism about feeling exposed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is that it is usually worse in our minds than it is in reality. It can feel like everyone is watching or judging, and maybe in the moment that even approaches the truth. But people have a short memory, and eventually, it is likely that the only person who will remember how exposed I felt during that painful jiu-jitsu moment is me. When it comes right down to it, there is an element of self-centeredness to our feelings of exposure, and it does not hurt to try to refrain from taking ourselves too seriously. As other friends have said, it’s only jiu-jitsu.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Feeling vulnerable and at the mercy of others’ good will is stressful and unpleasant, even if we like and trust those others. The student I spoke with about his competition experience is obviously still processing several weeks later, for example. I, too, carry those exposure memories with me, and they do not soften as much with age as I would like. So I tried to be supportive while he talked through some things, and I reminded him that it takes brass ones to take ourselves outside our comfort zones on purpose. This is something jiu-jitsu requires each of us to do on a regular basis, whether in competition or at the academy. None of us who steps on the mat gets away without having to expose ourselves, in all kinds of ways.
This provides a bit of comfort. As does the fact that we are not likely to die from this kind of exposure, though sometimes we may want to.
Have a memory to share about a time you felt completely exposed in jiu-jitsu? Post to comments.
About Valerie Worthington
Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.
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.
We are constantly talking about optimizing our learning. We want to squeeze out every ounce of progress from every moment on the mats. The Inverted Gear blog is full of articles about doing just that, and I have written many of them. What can be lost in that conversation is a realistic, healthy perspective on the detours and setbacks that are unavoidable (and maybe even necessary).
Your progress will not be a smooth, straight line upwards.
We may like to think someone who has trained twice as long is also twice as good, but that’s not how real life works. Different people learn at different speeds. The longer you train, the slower you improve. Some skills come fast, others come slow. You will make breakthroughs, and you will hit plateaus. This was the first point I made in 5 Tips to Keep You on the Long Road to Black Belt and Beyond. Goals are good and keep you moving forward, but accept that they may change before you reach them, and that is okay. Just keep trying to be better than you were yesterday, and even if you fail, there’s always tomorrow.
When you measure your progress against your teammates, realize they are improving too.
Beginners are especially guilty of overestimating how well they can gauge their progress by how well they do against their teammates. This is normal since you test yourself against them every time you spar, and we all do it to some degree. But do not forget that your teammates are getting better all the time too. They are a moving mile-marker and they do not give you a clear measurement.
When you started, everyone smashed you. Six months later, everyone is still smashing you. You do not feel like you have changed much. But one day a new person walks in the door and you get to smash them. That’s when it really hits you how much you were learning all those days where you were getting smeared across the mats.
Much of the learning process happens outside your conscious mind.
Your body and mind take time to process and incorporate new experiences. Most of the work your brain is doing is largely beyond your awareness. Totally unconscious processes like sleep are vitally important to learning new skills. Those days where it feels like you are just showing up to go through the motions still contribute to the sum total of your experiences, and they all matter in the end. I explored this more and talked about the science behind it in You Learn Even on the Bad Days.
A new technique or position may not “click” until you develop another aspect of your game.
Techniques do not exist in isolation. They need to fit into your game. We can lose sight of this fact when we learn a cool new technique but have trouble making it work in sparring. In addition to the learning curve for any new material, there is also the issue of whether or not it complements your existing game. You could learn an amazing technique that a world champion used to win gold, but if it happens in a position you never use, then what good does it do you? Coaches talk about the importance of training transitions or even “micro-transitions,” which is to say, you need to figure out the connections -- not just the endpoints -- of your game plan.
Life will get in the way of training.
Life is full of surprises, both good and bad, and unfortunately many of them can knock you out of training, at least temporarily. Accepting this as inevitable will spare you from unnecessary frustration. Sometimes you need to skip class. Sometimes you need to skip many classes. Maybe you even need to take months off. BJJ is important to us, otherwise I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it, but you need to balance it with all the other aspects of your life.
My purpose for writing this was to help you see that your path through jiu-jitsu will not be as simple and straightforward as you may like, but that by being aware of the hangups we all face, you can feel less frustrated and keep working toward your goals, whatever they might be.
Speaking of goals, I would love to hear what you are working on right now in your training. Please leave a comment below!
The Panda Nation has many awesome citizens, like black belt Frederico Silva, who we introduced in the previous installment of Meet the Pandas. Today, we like to show what drives Kyvann ‘Guapinho’ Jimenez: purple belt competition monster, former bone breaking skateboarder, and videographer extraordinary.
Purple belt Kyvann Jimenez (26) was dragged into jiu-jitsu kicking and screaming by his dad. After years of skateboarding and Muay Thai, that ground-fighting stuff just seemed silly. But once ‘Guapinho’ (a nickname for ‘little handsome guy’) finally got obsessed with the art after an unexpected tournament win, he went on a dominant winning spree, while at the same time working a fulltime job and graduating from college.
So, you didn’t think jiu-jitsu would work?
Kyvann Jimenez: I just thought it was silly and weird. My dad got into it way before me. He started training when I was around nineteen years old. And at that point I was really deep into Muay Thai. I trained in that art for about six years. My dad got hooked on jiu-jitsu and wanted me to try it out, and he kept nagging. I’d done three years of wrestling in high school but I was pretty mediocre, so I didn’t want to start in a new grappling art. I think my 19-year old ego just couldn’t handle it. I’d figure that I’d be able to punch anyone in the face who would try that stuff on me. Finally, my dad wore me down. It took him about three months to get me on the mat. On my first day, I rolled with Dave Phimsipasom, who’s an unassuming little guy, probably a blue belt at the time. Well, Dave beat the ever-living crap out of me. I fell in love right away. When you experience a small guy kicking your ass you REALLY realize that BJJ works.
Did you become a mat-rat right away?
KJ: Not really. I can’t say I was a dedicated student right off the bat, but the main thing that fascinated me, was that I realized I could train with 100% intensity without going home with a concussion. So that was great. For the first year and a half, I trained maybe once or twice a week because I was still doing Muay Thai, but one night I had a rude awakening. After an especially grueling session my dad picked me up, and I was so concussed that I didn’t remember anything about the 45-minute ride home. Pretty scary. That’s when I realized I was done with getting hit in the head.
Where did you start?
KJ: It was a just a small club in a small room here in New Jersey with a handful of guys. Me, my dad, my first instructor Kevin Sheridan, Dave Phimsipasom, and this dude Evan. They merged with North Plainfield Fight Club, and that’s where I first met Nelson Puentes. That place eventually became Maximum Athletics. It’s still my home base. I got all my belts from Kevin Sheridan, and now I do a lot of training at Marcelo Garcia’s in New York. It’s a room full of killers, man. Every roll is a dogfight. I crave that feeling of being totally drained, leaving everything on the mat.
When did you decide to dedicate yourself to jiu-jitsu?
KJ: I got serious after I won the Boston Open at blue belt. Before, I didn’t think I was good enough, and I’d lost tons of tournaments back-to-back. I competed every month, and I just kept losing. After finally winning that tournament, I went on a nine-competition winning streak. That was a great confidence boost. When you first start out, you just can’t see how you reach a black belt level. But by training at Marcelo’s I met a lot of people who actually live the BJJ lifestyle, and who can manage to keep up with a super intense training schedule, while still working a fulltime job. It showed me that it was possible with the right amount of sacrifice.
What are some of your other memorable wins?
KJ: It’s been a struggle, but I got second at the No-Gi Pan Ams. And that’s probably one of my best performances ever. I ran through four opponents and submitted three of them. I lost in the finals to an advantage to a really decent opponent. So I’d say that’s probably the second biggest one. And again at blue belt I did pretty well at the Worlds, although I didn’t win. I did the same thing last year at purple. I beat four opponents before I lost to Cobrinha’s son, Kennedy Maciel. I met him in the semis, and he just destroyed me. I think I let him in my head because Cobrinha was on the sidelines yelling at us. And he’s one of my all-time idols.
Can you describe your routine?
KJ: I wake up at around 6:00am every day. For the first hour, I’ll do hot yoga. After that I’ll do about an hour of drilling, wherever I can. I’m a jiu-jitsu gypsy, so I head out to any gym that has drilling practice at that time—Like my friends the Main Brothers, two black belts under Renzo Gracie. I’ve been visiting their school pretty often. Then I go to work at the Apple Store. After I get home, I train again, every night for sure. On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday I do morning classes too.
That’s insane. How are you not a broken man?
KJ: Actually, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been seriously injured in jiu-jitsu. But in skateboarding I broke close to 23 bones. Just from the top of my head I tore my ACL, broke both ankles, all my fingers, I jacked up my elbow, my collar bone, my clavicle, and my shin. But I rehabbed everything. Thank God I’m doing pretty well now.
How did you get into filmmaking?
KJ: So, on top of everything I actually went to school and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and Media Arts (with a focus on film) from Montclair State University. In my skateboarding years, I was always making highlight reels. It was a cool way to make myself look a lot better than I was. Four years ago, I got this job at Apple, and I started to dive deep into Final Cut Pro. I spent hours on end working on that program to figure out all the little configurations that most people don’t know about. Now I can make anything I conceptualize. So far, I‘ve done a couple of really cool projects for Inverted Gear.
You did the cinematography for Reilly Bodycomb’s new instructional, right?
KJ: Yeah, that was a blast. His mindset of blending passes with leg attacks really sparked my fascination for leg attacks. It was a game changer. Everyone’s been talking about the Danaher guys with their heel hooks, but Reilly emphasized that you don’t just have to go for that submission in isolation. A lot of things, like guard passes, present themselves once you go for the legs – and vice versa. I’ve never been so inspired by a seminar.
Who are your idols in the art?
KJ: Marcelo Garcia is number one when it comes to mentality. When I started to refine my game, I fell in love with the berimbolo, and in that area Gianni Grippo became a big inspiration to me. And as far as the physical game goes, I study Guilherme Mendes closely because we have a similar body type. And finally when it comes to work ethics, drills, and execution, or my training regimen I look up to Cobrinha a lot. I really admire his no-excuses-just-drill-mentality. The man is relentless, and just won the adult division at the Pan-Ams. That’s crazy.
Somehow, you also found time to start a clothing company.
KJ: Yeah. Bolo Brand is my attempt at giving something back to the BJJ community. It was directly inspired by Nelson, who changed my whole perspective on jiu-jitsu as a vehicle to help others. When he started Inverted Gear he was working out of his mom’s basement, and I was there helping out. At first I assumed it was about making money, but his main idea was just to make something cool that people would enjoy. Something that wasn’t this big-boy-macho-skull-and-flame nonsense. After that he contributed to Tap Cancer Out and gave sponsorships to people that really deserved them. Eventually I’d like to do a similar fundraiser or project for a good cause with Bolo Brand. I’m less interested in selling a specific product, but I’d like Bolo Brand to be more of a media-hub. A cool brand for content production.
How have you applied jiu-jitsu to your life?
KJ: I’ve always loved problem solving. But in my day-to-day life, I was unable to do that. My first instructor Kevin Sheridan changed my outlook. As soon as I started training jiu-jitsu and understanding what it took to improve in the art, I found some direction. I went to school and got a better job, and it blossomed me into the person I wanted to be. The biggest thing he used to say was: “Don’t knock the door down. Pick the lock.” See, I never thought of sh#t like that before. It’s a simple little mantra that I repeat to myself daily, and it’s really helped me out in everything that comes my way. Before I used to say: “Oh well I didn’t get that job, so I won’t work for it. I’m just not qualified.” As opposed to saying: “There’s definitely a way for me to get in there, if they see what kind of person I am.” It’s a little shift in mindset that changed everything.
Also the destruction of my ego helped me a lot, because I used to be super arrogant in everything I did – and being totally unaware of it. I used to say: “Well, I already know that detail, so I don’t have to listen” in every part of my life. Jiu-jitsu makes you realize that you might already know a certain technique, but there might be one little thing that another person does differently, that might be extremely helpful. Jiu-jitsu just opens you up. It makes you like a sponge instead of a dried-out rock.
What did you struggle with the most?
KJ: Letting go of my ego. I would always roll super hard and use my A-game. But I would never adapt or explore other positions. I would only stick to the stuff I knew would beat the others in class. Developing the weak aspects of my game would mean that I’d ‘lose’ – and I couldn’t handle that mentally. It was Nelson who had to beat that out of me, by wrecking me every day he made sure that my ego was broken. But in a good way, in the best way.
You made a hilarious video of your mom making fun of your cauliflower ears. Does the whole family give you grief?
KJ: Yep. The entire family joins in. Whenever we eat empanadas, everyone likes to point out how much they look like my ears. My dad’s a purple belt too, but he’s barely got any cauliflower. I got mine mostly from Muay Thai. The inner ear blew up from me catching hits and clinching. Jiu-jitsu just exploded them. It’s all good though.
What are you focusing on now?
KJ: I’m training super hard for the Worlds. I even took some time off work. I’m debating whether or not I should cut weight so I can face Kennedy again, because I really want to fight him. Perhaps I’ll stay at my natural weight, which is Feather. It’s strange. I’ve never ever had the urge for a revenge match, but I’m itching for this one. The first time we fought I didn’t perform to my level. Just want to prove to myself that I can do better. At the very least I want to be there mentally and put on a good show.
Why do sacrifice so much for this art?
KJ: There’s nothing in my life that allows me to bond with other individuals as much as jiu-jitsu. On the mat you encounter people from all walks of life. Truthfully, what keeps me coming back is the people and the good vibes. I’ve yet to come across ‘that’ bulldog douchebag jiu-jitsu guy. We just beat each other up, and we learn and grow together. That’s priceless.
Follow Kyvann Jimenez on Instagram @kyvannjj and @bolobrand.
Daniël Bertina is a journalist, writer and BJJ black belt based in the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram at @joyofirony.
As I train more and more and I get a better idea of what “my game” is, I find myself using a similar principle more often. I like to call it “funneling.” What I mean when I use this term is getting to certain positions that dramatically reduce my opponent’s options. Since I am familiar with the positions, I can react accordingly, and I will pick positions where I feel I have the advantage, whether that advantage is mechanical or simply a matter of my being more experienced with the position.
It all started with closed guard. I was tired of being triangled and swept by one of my main training partners from his closed guard. I realized that while I sometimes got swept when I stood up, I rarely got submitted. Sure, I would get caught here and there in crazy omoplata scrambles, but for the most part I was able to stand up and open his guard.
So I started standing every time I found myself in closed guard.
This dramatically cut the amount of attacks I had to worry about. Triangles and armbars were almost out of the equation if I broke grips correctly and I kept my posture on my to my feet. Now all I had to worry about were lumberjack sweeps, sucker sweeps, and some kind of hail Mary omoplata attempt which could all be prevented by being aware of what my opponent’s options were and positioning my feet and arms accordingly. My success rate of passing the closed guard skyrocketed, so I started applying this principle to other areas of my game looking for options that narrowed my opponent’s options and made him more predictable.
Eventually, I started to apply this concept to my entire guard passing game and not just my response to closed guard. When I was a purple belt (and that seems like forever ago), I went to Atlanta for a Pans training camp at Alliance HQ. I rolled with Chris Moriarty, and he kept passing my guard by setting up different folding passes. Then he would choke or wristlock me repeatedly from mount.
This left an impression. My later purple belt years and brown belt years were spent funneling my passing into the folding pass position. As jiu-jitsu continues to evolve and more and more guards come into vogue I find some tranquility in being able to use footwork and grips to get my opponent to give me an angle where I can get both of his knees onto the mat and sprawl on them. Here his options are very limited, and I have an incredible mechanical advantage -- not only is all my weight pinning his hips and knees, but his knees are facing away from me, while all my big muscles are facing him.
The folding pass is a funnel for my guard passing game. I have a strong mechanical advantage, and I can consistently predict my opponent’s reactions.
Here is me teaching the folding pass at a seminar:
Today, I have built myself funnels for virtually every aspect of my game. I always enjoyed the guard for its variety, and over the years I have gravitated more toward butterfly guard and single leg X-guard variations because I can them in both gi and no-gi, they let me rest my mangled hands, and the mechanical power of these positions for sweeps consistently open the doors I need to either advance my position or attack with leg locks. I’ve also done the same for my takedown game, spending more time on tie-ups and gripping sequences that are less open-ended for my opponent and give me the control I need to press the attack.
As I simplified my game and worked so I could do similar techniques in both gi and no-gi, I am able to do same things over and over and react faster when they become available, keeping me ahead. My friend Reilly Bodycomb has been a huge influence over the last few years, not only in the stand up and leglock portion of my game but his approach to “always grappling the same.” His influence has helped me feel comfortable competing in gi, no-gi, and even sambo. Even if a ruleset bans heel hooks, I can still use my same entries for anklelocks or kneebars.
(If you haven’t checked out Reilly’s new Top Rock Turbo 2 instructional, do so now.)
Funneling can be applied at every belt level. The easiest place to start is simply insisting on getting to a position you like, like forcing half guard when you are on top trying to pass. As you get more advanced, the idea of funneling starts to look like a more complex strategy, like Bernardo Faria’s deep half guard for example, but the core principle is still the same: Get to the positions where you are comfortable and can easily predict what happens next.
What position do you find yourself funneling your opponent into? How can you build on that to improve your game?