Inverted Gear Blog

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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Why Knowing the 3 Types of BJJ Schools is Important

I got to visit a lot of schools over the last 10 years. While every school is different, I feel they all tend to fall into three categories: traditional, formal, and informal. Before I go into my criteria for these categories or why I'm even making these distinctions, I want to point out how interesting it is that the same sport—we all do the same thing, wrestle in pajamas—can produce a wide spectrum of school and teaching styles.

The amount of rules and customs some schools choose to follow can be completely foreign to a student from an informal school, and a student who has known nothing but the structure of a formal school can be equally as lost at a school where students don’t bow when they come in the door and students don’t line up according to rank.

Let's break down these categories.

  • Traditional: Lots of these seem to fall on the Gracie lineage side of things. Traditional schools have carried over many practices from traditional martial arts—bowing on and off the mat, lining up in belt order before and after the class—and some have strict rules in the way lower belts interact with upper belts. No asking an upper belt to roll, turn around in order to not face a black belt while tying your belt, keeping your belt and gi on at all times while on the mat, white gis only, call the instructor "professor" and so on.

  • Formal: Formal schools still hold on to some of the more traditional rules but are much more relaxed overall. While they may line up before and after class, you are allowed to wear different color gis, ask upper belts to roll, and you can call the instructor by his or her name. If your belt falls off during a roll, you’ll be allowed to continue and tie it once the roll is over. You can take your jacket off and stretch at the end of class too.

  • Informal: Informal schools have much more of a club feeling to them. No pictures of Helio looking out over the classroom, the atmosphere is relaxed, there are no special rules about rolling with black belts, and for the most part everyone is treated as an equal, so no need to move to make room for the upper belts next to you. 
I want to emphasize I am not criticizing any of these. Some people truly enjoy the more rigid and controlled atmosphere of a traditional school, while some choose to train at places where the culture is just the opposite. Really, most schools fall somewhere in the middle.

Personally, I find myself gravitating more and more towards informal side of things. I still feel weird when I am called "professor" or "sir", specially from people older than me. I don’t mind being asked by lower belts to roll, just like I don’t mind turning them down if I am nursing an injury or am too tired. And I don’t think there is a need to line up by belt color every single class when sitting around on the mat we are able to talk just as well.

When visiting a school—and this is where thinking about schools in terms of categories has been really useful for me—knowing what category they fall into makes things much easier so you know the answer to questions like "How should I address the instructor? Do we line up before practice? Can I wear a blue gi? Can I ask an upper belt to roll?" Knowing those things can make your visit much more enjoyable. You can outright ask an instructor or an upper belt at a school some of these basic questions to get a sense for the school’s decorum, or you can take a few minutes to observe and pick up on the hints that reveal what category your school for the day falls into.

This isn’t about right or wrong, as I said before. This is about being a respectful visitor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any school style and the variety is good for the sport. If you’re visiting, however, being aware of how a school does things can save you a few awkward moments and let you focus more on training.

What category does your school fall into? What category do you prefer, and why?
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Ask a Panda: Dealing with the Jiu-Jitsu Blahs

Question: I am a brown belt, and I love jiu-jitsu. I am in it for the long haul—there is no question about that—but sometimes I find myself feeling ambivalent. I look at some of my teammates, particularly ones who have not been training for as long as I have, and they seem so excited. I know I used to feel that way, but nowadays it feels more like a slog. Lately I go to class, get in my reps and my rounds, and am out the door at the end while some people are still tinkering and asking questions, or even just chatting. These are all things I used to do, but no more. I do not feel enthusiastic or inspired, though I know I am still committed.

My question is: What do I do? I know I will always train, but how do I get through this slump? How do I get back the excitement I used to feel about training?

Answer: I suspect all of us ask this question of ourselves at different points in our lives, regardless of whether we train. Even the most exciting times in our lives eventually end or even out. This is not always bad. In fact, a heart-stopping level of excitement is usually unsustainable for the long haul. Consider the feelings people often have for a new crush. That person may permeate all their thoughts and disrupt their normal functioning—they cannot eat, they cannot sleep, they cannot concentrate, all because they are consumed with thoughts of this special someone. Eventually, though, if this ardor is to be sustainable, it must mellow out; otherwise it is impossible to see to the rest of life’s demands.

A longstanding couple may not always feel that giddy, crush-y feeling for each other, but in the best-case scenario, that feeling becomes more of an accent to a deeper, stronger connection. It sounds like you might have the same kind of relationship with jiu-jitsu: it started out like a wildfire and morphed into a steady blaze, but sometimes it feels that blaze is in danger of dwindling to an ember. Read on for some suggestions for feeding the flames.

Ask some teammates what excites them about jiu-jitsu. People who have not been training for as long as you are more likely to demonstrate youthful exuberance because they are less likely to have accumulated injuries and experienced the cumulative physical and mental effects of years of the jiu-jitsu grind. Ask some of them what excites them; you might awaken some reminders of your own early enthusiasm that have become muted by years of dedication.

Switch up your game. After years of training, sometimes our worldview narrows. We invest time and effort in certain sequences and go-to moves, and/or we find ourselves in similar situations roll after roll. This can certainly become repetitive at times. One cure for this is to branch out. Got a teammate who leglocks everyone? Looking to try more smash-pass tactics? Rusty on the feet? Find someone whose game incorporates these aspects of jiu-jitsu and become a new student all over again. You may experience the wonder of learning something new, and you will have the added benefit of being able to learn more quickly than your white belt self, thanks to your years of training.

Teach. Another way to combat the blahs in your training is to teach. Most teachers, of jiu-jitsu or of other things, will tell you that being a teacher requires an orientation to a subject matter that is different from that of a student. As a simple experiment, think about one of your favorite sequences to execute during training. Now, think about how you would explain to a novice how you do it and how they could do it. Extend the experiment by delivering your explanation to someone, and think about how your focus and energy compare to those of your student perspective. By teaching, you can develop an even more sophisticated understanding of techniques in your arsenal, and you also get to experience the satisfaction of helping someone else achieve a goal. If you like the feeling, talk to your instructor about opportunities to teach a class here and there.

Go to a tournament. Even if you do not compete and have no interest in competing, the energy at a jiu-jitsu tournament is a marked departure from what you are likely to experience at your academy. Take it all in: the matches, of course, but also the comments and reactions of the spectators, the activity in the bullpen, the commands of the referees and coaches. Observe the preparation of the competitors and their intensity in competition. Even check out the interactions at the snack bars and gear tables. Do some serious people-watching. All of this spectacle is part of the world you have chosen to participate in, and perhaps by watching a competition you will be inspired by techniques you see or the camaraderie of teammates. Go and observe. See what moves you.

Visit a different academy. Experiencing the environment at a different academy can be a shot in the arm in much the same way going to a tournament can. Everything from the way instructors run warm-ups to the kinds of techniques the students tend to go for can provide different stimuli. So, whether you are traveling for business or taking a field trip, investigate how the other half lives. Just make sure to clear it with your instructor first.

Take some time off. Sometimes lethargy and ambivalence are a sign of burnout. If it has been a while since you have taken an extended period of time off (we’re talking days or weeks, not hours, people), consider unplugging. Yes, I know, you may fear that on one of the days you are gone your instructor will divulge the one simple trick that will make you a jiu-jitsu master the likes of which the world has not seen since <insert name of person you believe is the GOAT>. But if you are burned out, you will be no good to anyone anyway. Rest is a vital part of training, and if you do not schedule breaks into your training, then you are not training as effectively as you could.

Embrace a new normal—for now. You are a brown belt, which means you have likely been training for upwards of six or eight years. Chances are that when you started jiu-jitsu, your life circumstances were different. Perhaps back then you did not have children and now you do. Perhaps you have a more demanding job. Perhaps you have acquired additional interests, which is allowed. It simply means you will need to allocate your available time differently.

It sounds like you still enjoy training. Perhaps you simply do not have time to linger anymore because you have other things to get to. This could be your new normal—for now. You come to class, get your work done, and go on your way, because right now that is what your life demands. Then the cycle will continue, and perhaps you will find you have a bit more free time. Such is life, and variety is one of the characteristics that keeps it from becoming too blah, which is where we started in the first place.

You are bound to experience the blahs if you train long enough. If you find yourself struggling a bit with motivation or inspiration, try one of the tactics described above to jump start your energy. Good luck, and thank you for the question!

Have a question for Val? Submit it here!

Photo credit: CAM Photos & Design

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My Rules as an Instructor

Over my career as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor, I have decided on a set of self-imposed rules for how I run classes and how I manage my relationship with students. If you’re not an instructor, you might slowly become one unofficially as you rise through the ranks. Sure, you might not have your own class, but you will probably mentor a few white belts in your time, and these rules can help you too. Here are the top 6:

1. Students are free to train wherever they want with whoever they want

All of my students are free to seek out the best instruction and training available to them. I don’t believe in the old school “creonte” culture. I do not rule my school with a cult-like “us vs them” mentality. BJJ schools aren’t rival gangs or warring ninja clans. They don’t need to ask my permission to cross-train or hide the fact they go to other schools.

Yes, it gets complicated when we get into which team gets repped in competition, what patches go on their gi, or if the other school is actively trying to poach students. The solutions to those problem are still not to force students to worship you as their master and ostracize students who dare betray you by dropping in to open mats across town.

When a student leaves to join a different school, I may miss them because I like seeing my students, but I don’t feel possessive over them. They are adults who can make their own decisions and go where they want to go. Instead I have to ask myself if it’s because of a problem at my school, or something mundane like the other gym being closer to their house, cheaper, offering a different vibe, etc.

Just because someone has a black belt and has a following of students does not make them morally superior to others. Adults should be free to associate with whoever they want as long as it does not harm others or the school.

2. You’re not running a strength and conditioning bootcamp so don’t pretend to

Warm-ups should not destroy your students and leave them gassed and exhausted. That’s not a warm up -- that’s a poorly designed workout. Old school instructors often believe that tough “warm ups” will make their students more technical because they will have no strength left when they spar. That is true in its own stupid way, but the research on motor learning and athletic training says your technical training and your conditioning are both better when done separately. Tough warm ups may give you tough students through Darwinian survival of the fittest, but it’s not because it’s the smartest way to run classes.

3. Show the whole technique before talking too much

This is a simple rule: when teaching a move, first just show the whole move first, then talk about it.

Many instructors (myself included) are guilty of over-teaching techniques because we want to share every detail. We need to realize those details don’t mean much if the student isn’t even sure where the move is heading. Now I will show the move, then explain its most important points, then go into greater detail only after the students have had a chance to practice it. You don’t need to frontload the drilling time with 15 minutes of small details, possible variations, counters, and re-counters.

4. Don’t forget what it’s like to be a frustrated beginner

BJJ instructors, like experts in every field, take many things for granted. That’s how mastery works: you get good enough to not have to think about every little thing you’re doing. The problem is that when working with students at a lower level, you can forget they are still struggling with those little things.

Here’s how this rule works in practice:

  • Explicitly state the names of positions and techniques where possible
  • Explain why one position is better than another (this isn’t always obvious to beginners)
  • Take a moment to explain the theories and concepts that underly the techniques
  • Have regressions a student can do instead if a technique is too hard for now

5. Don’t blame a student for not knowing something you’ve never shown them

This point relates to the last one, but it’s worth discussing in its own right. Instructors are often guilty of blaming a student for not doing a technique or knowing how to handle a strange position only to have the student say, “You never showed me that.” As instructors, we’re walking around with a billion techniques floating around in our head, and we tend to overestimate how often we show any single technique.

6. Don’t apologize for teaching the basics

As an instructor, giving in to the temptation to show the hottest, coolest moves or sneaky, next-level techniques is easy. You want to keep class interesting, maybe as much for yourself as your students, but what is really going to make the biggest difference to the most students? 99% of the time the answer is “the basics.” (The other 1% of the time is when the higher belts are hanging out and geeking out over current competition metagame tactics.)

I’ve given this advice to wrestling and judo coaches who come into BJJ schools. They often preface lessons with “I know this is basic but…” as an apology. They are so tired of seeing these drills since they have done them since childhood. They expect us to be disappointed too, but it’s honestly what we need most. The truth is that the real fun does not come from seeing fancy or novel techniques, but from a well run class with live games, situational drills, etc. that put those simple skills to use.

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Those are the main rules I gave myself that relate to how I run classes. Of course more exist, like ethical codes like “don’t bang your students” (a lesson a lot of instructors seem to have trouble with) but we’ll save those for another day!

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The "L Word" of BJJ - How I Started Training for Longevity

I am getting close to my 10 year anniversary with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Over the last year, I finally changed my mindset of how I look at my training, and started to think about longevity. I remember being a twenty-year-old white belt, training like a madman, often tapping too late, or barely getting out of submissions I should have tapped to. Older guys in the room would just shake their heads at me and tell me do it while you can.

Of course I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Then I turned 28, and suddenly all those little injuries from hard training and competing suddenly would not go away. It's a completely different game once you turn 30.

My knees, specifically my MCL, were sprained and partially torn more times than I care to count. My hands were a swollen mess – so much so that I had given up wearing shoes with laces on them. And my ribs seemed to never heal. Every few months I was “due” for another rib injury. Thankfully my PT friend was always ready to pop my rib back in.

So I had to start thinking about the L word, you know the one young guys like to ignore: Longevity. It was clear to me that I would be doing BJJ the rest of my life, but at this pace I was not sure my body was going to allow me to.

This is what I have been changing to improve my longevity in BJJ:

  • Started training more no-gi. I needed to give my hands a break, and training no-gi more than my typical once a week allowed my hands some rest from grip fighting while still getting my BJJ fix in. Over time I found I enjoyed no-gi just as much as I do the gi. I try to schedule my weekly training with an even split between the two.
  • Limited the amount of inversions in my game. While I never had back problems from playing inverted, I had recurring issues with my ribs. Berimbolos, rolling back takes, and inverting to re-guard had become a big part of my game. If you ever been sidelined with a rib injury, you know how painful it is. It took a bit to break out of my upside down habits, and while I have not taken them completely out of my game, I use them sparingly now, and my ribs problems have all but disappeared.
  • Developed a less grip-dependent game in the gi. I stopped playing open guard using double sleeve grips. My hands had thanked me and my game has expanded. I’ve also changed the way I pass, using my footwork and body positioning in order to set up folding passes. As an added benefit, my passing and guard game translate to no-gi much better.
  • Mobility work. My friend Matt got really deep into mobility and stretching in order to alleviate his own hip problems. I’ve been able to pick his brain, and he has helped me improve my mobility. Even though I complain non-stop when he makes me do some of the more advanced drills, he showed me how bad my hip mobility had become. Once I got that taken care of, all my knee problems disappeared. After years of recurring MCL injuries, I am back to training takedowns and leglocks without any issues.
  • Cut back on my training volume and intensity. I was training more than I should have. I wasn’t recovering correctly, and it just lead to more injuries. I have become much better at managing my intensity and training volume, and listening to my body when I need to take it easy or rest a day. I had gotten caught up in “get ready for the next tournament” cycle, and even when I stopped competing I was still in that training mindset. 

My friend Kari says that once you turn 30, you no longer get injuries, just small permanent disabilities. And I have to agree with him. Injuries that I would not even think about resting for sideline me now. They don’t magically heal now like when I was 20. We only get one body and you gotta take care of it so you can continue training. I have been very fortunate to avoid any surgeries in my 10 year run with grappling. I hope the steps I have taken keep me on the mat so that twenty years from now gray haired Nelson still has some left in the tank to roll around with his fellow old timers and the occasional young gun.

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