Inverted Gear Blog
A friend of mine is a physical therapist. He has years of experience helping people recover from trauma that causes them discomfort and limits their ranges of motion. He has tons of suggestions for strengthening muscles, improving stability, and reducing pain, all based on current theory and best practice. He is highly recommended by area surgeons and osteopaths, and on any given day, he is swamped with clients who want the best care for themselves or their loved ones.
Because we are friends, I bust his chops on a regular basis, pretending to get annoyed with him when he recommends a particularly odious weightlifting rep scheme or joking that if he ran a truly full-service operation, he would do my physical therapy exercises for me. Because we are friends, he usually responds with a shrug and a “Yep, life is hard.”
My friend gives the same caliber of advice and expertise to all his clients. Some of them balk at his recommendations like I pretend to, though they are not pretending. These clients will listen to him and then say they would rather not do what he is suggesting, is there any easier way for them to get the same results? He takes it all in stride, patiently re-explaining to his clients what they need to hear, which seems to be at odds sometimes with what they want to do. He and I have joked that for some people, the slogan for his practice should be, “Do what I suggest, or do whatever the hell you want.”
I get it. People as a species often balk at following advice, even if we believe it is in our best interest. I sometimes do this myself. Still, there is never a doubt that I will do what my friend suggests, because I have committed to certain personal goals that his expertise and support can help me achieve.
The same phenomenon happens with instruction and coaching in jiu-jitsu. The instructors I admire will give everything to their students, going the extra mile if they think it will help someone’s progress. For instance, they will add competition-style training to the schedule, take the time to go to tournaments to coach and support, and share resources and connect their students to others who can help them meet their nutrition or life-balance goals.
It is disheartening, then, when students who claim to want to train for competition fail to show up for those sessions. Or when students fail to make weight because they waited until the last minute, which means the instructor who cleared his/her schedule to be available to attend a tournament discovers there is no one to coach. Or when students pick the instructor’s brain for resources on nutrition, cross-training, and the like, only to leave the piece of paper with all the recommendations on the floor for the instructor to find days later, crumpled and covered in shoeprints.
To be clear, I am not saying I wish students would stop asking questions and requesting assistance. There is nothing more gratifying than being able to help someone progress toward a goal, and conscientious instructors take this on willingly. I know this from experience as a student, and I try to embody it as an instructor.
What I am saying is that I would like to encourage all of us to pursue an additional goal: acquiring the self-awareness needed to set goals that reflect our true desires. A group of sages called the Spice Girls once implored, “So, tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” Perhaps the reason people sometimes have a problem taking advice is because they are not truly committed to what the advice will help them do. I am not making a value judgment by saying so: There are plenty of things I am not committed to, and I find that to be perfectly acceptable.
It is when I claim to be committed to a goal, to the point of requesting that others invest their own time and resources in me, and then phone in my efforts or do not pull my weight at all, that the problem arises. No instructor should have to work harder than a student to help that student meet a goal, and no instructor should have to put up with having his or her time and effort wasted.
The moral of the story is, we must know ourselves and our motivations. If we are not sure of our goals, it is okay, even preferable, to think on it. I suspect most instructors would say that helping a student create realistic and attainable goals is always time well spent, especially if it safeguards against spinning wheels in the future.
So, let us all set goals, but let us also be honest about our willingness and ability to realize them. If we “really really want” to <insert goal here>, we must remember that, again in the words of the Spice Girls, we “have got to give.”
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.
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.
In an ideal world, we would all train at a place like Marcelo Garcia’s academy in New York City or Art of Jiu-Jitsu in California with a multiple-time world champion coach and plenty of world caliber training partners. But what if you live some place more remote, and the nearest black belt is hours away? How can you improve when your only training partners are a blue belt and a bunch of white belts? Are you destined to spend your time in a car driving for hours every time you want to train?
This situation is more common than you think. When you live in southern California or anywhere near New York City, believing that there are places in the world where black belts are scarce and purple belt instructor are commodity might be hard to imagine. Through my travels and camps, I have met plenty of people in this situation, and we have traded notes. At one point, I was a purple belt instructor at a small school in New Jersey and most of my mat time was spent with white and blue belts. I would only train with my instructor Kevin once a week.
So I am familiar with the difficulties of making this work, but the good news is that it can work.
Here is what I would recommend if you find yourself in this situation:
Invest in your training partners. Pick a few training partners, if they are close to your weight even better, and invest time in them. Take a few minutes after every class and show them what they can improve on. Drill with them and show them how to counter and best ways to react to whatever you are working on. If you are working on triangles, show them how to recognize and kill your angles or show them how to escape it once it’s locked in. In the long run, the better they get, the better your training will be too.
Travel to nearby academies, but don’t burn yourself out. I had many training partners over the years that fell into the trap of long commutes to train. Eventually they hated the commute but also started to hate jiu-jitsu by proxy. Many of my friends that chose to commute long hours to NYC to train at premiere academies, for example, no longer train, even after having success competing at lower belt levels. Traveling to different academies to train is a good thing, but like anything it should be done in moderation.
Find what your training partners are best at and put yourself in those situations. If one of the big guys in the room has an amazing mount or side control, let him have it and spend time there. Put yourself at a disadvantage, and get meaningful reps this way.
Get people to visit you. Whether you set up a seminar for a local black belt or brown belt or use your spare bedroom or couch to let a BJJ traveler crash, keeping an open door is a good way to get knowledge flowing through your academy. Extra points if you live in a somewhat touristy destination, but that’s not always necessary. Check out BJJ Globetrotters and Matsurfing.org. You never know what traveling black belt may drop by our academy. As I write this blog, I am traveling through the north coast of Australia teaching seminars and staying with the locals, and it’s a blast.
Change up your game regularly. If you can armbar everyone in the room, it’s time to switch it up. Spend some time getting to the back and finishing with chokes. If you can butterfly sweep everyone, work on half guard for a few weeks. And so on. This will not only give you a more balanced game, but it will expose your training partners to different games, which they can pick up and make part of theirs.
Use your vacations for BJJ camps. Whether you want to visit Europe and go to Globetrotter camp or come hang out with me in Costa Rica next year, BJJ camps are great ways to expand your game and your BJJ network. As you meet more people that like to travel and do BJJ, you have better chances of getting them to swing by your neck of the woods in the future.
Learn from instructionals in any form, from YouTube to DVDs to books to websites. My friends wrote great articles about this:
Living in an isolated area with limited training options is not a death sentence to your BJJ improvement. You can make progress. It may take longer than you would like, but BJJ is not going anywhere, and you might find that having to direct your own training could actually be a big advantage for your long term growth and development.
My last post about my rules as an instructor was well received, but many of you asked for more of my ethical and moral rules, not just ones related to how I teach techniques or run warm-ups.
Treat all students equally.
Every student deserves equally opportunities for an instructor’s time and guidance.
In reality, some students will need more attention than others, but I make an effort to spend time with every student in my class and be available to help them if needed.
The point is to not play favorites or allow cliques to form. Even the clumsiest, bumbling, most clueless white belt deserves your attention.
Show up to class and pay attention the entire time.
This rule may seem obvious to the point of stupidity, but you would be surprised (or maybe not so surprised) by how many BJJ instructors fail at it.
Have you ever showed up for a scheduled class only to stand outside of a locked gym door for 20 minutes until a frantic purple belt rushes over to open up and cover class because the head instructor cannot be found?
Have you ever had an instructor who would just show a move, then walk away to check his phone or chat on the side with a clique of higher belts?
These are common occurrences in the BJJ world, but they should not be. If I cannot get to class, I make sure it is covered or I make sure the students get enough warning to change their plans. Nothing is worse than getting ready to train and driving all the way to the gym just to turn around and drive home. That cannot happen as long as people are paying to train at your school.
Do not get into relationships with students.
In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “don’t bang your students” as an obvious rule, but many readers wanted to hear more on that, which is partly why we are getting this second post.
Let’s look to what the code of ethics for Olympic coaches says about this:
Coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with current athletes.
The code even goes one step further to ban sexual relations between coaches and former athletes for two years after the coach-athlete relationship ends, explaining it like this:
A BJJ gym is not held to the same standard as an Olympic training center, but it is still a bad idea for instructors to sleep with students for the same reasons. The teacher-student dynamic -- like any with one person having more authority, control, and influence over the other -- has too much potential for abuse. Students (especially women) should not need to worry that their coach has other intentions than to teach them what they signed up to learn.
I will admit I know of a few times where a BJJ black belt dated a student and they ended up happily married, but I have many more stories about nasty break-ups, rifts breaking up the gym, jealousy, angry wives, and all the drama you would expect from a Brazilian soap opera. It’s better to just keep it in your pants.
Prepare your students for the physical demands you will place on them.
This is a newer rule for me, but one I wish was more common as I was coming up the ranks. As I said in my other post, I do not turn my BJJ classes into strength and conditioning workouts, and I am not a fan of long warm-ups, but I have come to believe it is an BJJ instructor’s duty to prepare students (especially beginners) to handle the positions and stresses we will put them through. To do otherwise is to set them up for injuries and chronic pain. My training in Functional Range Conditioning has driven this point home, and now I feel that I have the tools to do the right movement prep without turning warm-ups into touch butt.
Share everything you know and keep no secrets.
Just as I do not believe in the old school “creonte” mindset, I do not believe in keeping “secret techniques” from my students. Nevermind that it is nearly impossible to have a true secret technique these days, because the minute it is used in tournament, it will be up on ShowtheART, reddit, and get 4000 shares on Facebook.
Keeping no secrets does not mean that you have to teach literally everything any time you are asked. Students have a limit on how much they can absorb, and they need to learn the basics before you show them advanced techniques. You can still tell a student “I would show you that but I don’t think it’s the most important thing for you to learn right now. Here’s something better.” The point is that you do not place “tests of loyalty” or other nonsense between your students and what you are willing to show them.
Keep politics and drama off the mats.
Do not abuse the fact your students have to listen to you to preach to them beyond your beliefs about BJJ. Religion, politics, and gossip are best kept off the mats. (That’s what Facebook is for.)
Be direct with your students if there is a problem.
That stinky white belt with claws for nails and funk growing behind his ears? The girl who did not realize she had her period in her white gi pants? The creepy new guy who keeps trying to slink over to partner up with the girls? The newly minted blue belt who tries to run mini-seminars for the white belts when everyone else is rolling? Those are all your problems as an instructor. Those will require an awkward conversation to handle, but you just need to step up and do it -- being as tactful as possible, of course.
Remember, being a black belt does not make you a better person.
Being a better person makes you a better person. Maybe BJJ helps you do that, or maybe it doesn’t. I have known my fair share of crappy people who happen to be good at BJJ.
We like to do this weird thing where we wear cotton pajamas styled after feudal Japanese clothing and throw each other around on rubber padding. We give each other colored strips of fabric to wrap around our waists so we can show how good we are at this odd activity. We make up hashtags like #jiujitsulifestyle and #bjjsavedmylife and we post on reddit about how our boyfriends and girlfriends just don’t get us.
These are all fun to do but they do not make you a good person. They just make you a person with an unusual hobby.
Here are things that make you a good person:
- Loving and caring for your family and friends
- Treating people with fairness
- Showing kindness and compassion
- Helping a stranger in need
Things that do not make you a better person:
- Being good at armbars
- Having a strong sprawl
- Throwing people on their heads
- Lower belts bowing to you
I am not saying this to diminish the positive changes many people experiences through doing BJJ. Anything that requires dedication, commitment and social interaction with others can lead to personal growth. The point I am making is: you need to stay humble. Between me as a BJJ black belt and a white belt who is a plumber, society needs him far more than it needs me.
Does that code of ethics square with what you believe? Would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.
As Hillary and I were headed to Australia to meet our friend Chad and teach a few seminars, Winter Storm Stella was scheduled to hit the east coast. Our flight out of Philly was cancelled, which made us scramble to get new a flight. We decided our best option was driving to Pittsburgh, staying with friends, and flying out of there the following morning.
24 hours later, we returned our one-way rental and headed to the gate. Along the way, this book caught my attention. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. A few flights, layovers, and whiskey and sodas later I am about halfway through the book, and I can’t help but start to draw comparisons to jiu-jitsu.
I never thought about it before, but BJJ counts large numbers of non-conformists among its ranks. And some of them really have changed the way we look at BJJ. If we take a historical approach, we can identify quite a few people that had a huge impact on how the game is played today, by either coming up with new positions entirely or changing how we look at old positions.
We can start by looking at half guard, which these days is as diverse and dynamic as any jiu-jitsu position. At one point, however, half guard was seen as a “stalling position” because many players would only go there to get lockdown and slow things down as they caught their breath. Gordo and Gordinho Correa completely changed that by adopting the position as their main sweeping tool. They changed the way the game was played.
By being able to re-guard to half and start attacking right away, it gave them a huge advantage since they didn't have to recompose all the way to a “full guard.” Even as Gordo and his brother succeeded, it took a few years before other people bought into it. Nowadays, the position has continued to evolve, and deep half guard and Lucas Leite style half guard are part of most competitive players’ arsenals.
Inversions were not always part of the BJJ game, either. Roleta was one of the first players to use this position in order to re-guard and use his patented “Roleta sweep” (mostly known as Tornado sweep these days since Cyborg Abreu has popularized it again). Many old school players were not fans of Roleta's style, and some didn’t even consider it “real” jiu-jitsu—he wasn't playing a normal guard after all.
His style was nicknamed esqui-jitsu (short from esquisito which means weird in Portuguese). After Roleta. it wouldn't be until a pair of blue belts started going inverted and triangling everyone that the inversion game gain popularity. Ryan Hall and my old training partner from Alliance NYC had much success catching triangles from inverted guard. At the time, many people, especially at the blue and purple belt level, didn’t even know how to pass the inverted guard which gave them a huge advantage in competition. Dave won blue belt worlds and Ryan, well, he became Ryan, accomplishing a great deal in BJJ and in MMA.
Ryan would later develop another position, the 50/50, which he would get to when opponent stood up to pass his inverted guard to avoid triangles. He would shoot his legs through his opponent’s legs and arrive at the 50/50, which was technically not a new position, but it had been regarded just as a stalling position until that point. Ryan Hall 50/50 heel hooking his way into ADCC gave the position notoriety, but it wasn’t until Bruno Frazatto and the Mendes brothers from team Atos started using the position to contain Cobrinha that the position gained popularity in the gi as well. The positioned that once frowned upon exploded as everyone started to come up with ways to pass and enter it.
The Bigger Picture of Non-Conformity
The inverted guard saw another Renaissance with the rise of the berimbolo, and there has been a whole lot of other BJJ innovation that was once against the grain but is now accepted as legitimate effective technique (or for the most part at least; looking at you leglock haters). Nowadays we have guys like Keenan who seem to come up with a different position every time he makes a taco run, changing the way we look at open guard again and again, especially when lapels are involved.
Benefiting from non-conformity doesn’t have to mean innovating on the level of Ryan Hall or Rafa Mendes. Simply being willing to try something outside of the box or to take the road less traveled can make you more likely to grow.
If you ask my mom, I have been in trouble for not conforming for a long time. I used to carry notes from my teacher almost daily during my early school years. As an adult, non-conformity is a part of my life that is evident in my grappling style and in my career path. The whole reason Inverted Gear was created was that I was not happy with the way the gi industry was heading (thank God the Affliction years have passed) and wanted to do something different
As you develop your game and go through your BJJ journey, don't be afraid to develop your own game. Maybe you are interested in a position that is not popular at the time, but don’t let that be a deterrent to creating your own game or investing time in any given position. Maybe you like passing to the right like some of us degenerates or attacking ankle locks across the body instead of the regular side. One of my friends had a knee injury and stopped playing the whole guard thing and sets up all his attacks and sweeps from side control.
The way things are done now should not dictate how they will be done in the future. Learn from the best practices of the day—fundamentals will always be valuable—but just because there is not a road already on your map doesn’t mean that you can’t make one yourself.