Becoming Black Belt: The journey of attaining excellence in martial arts and its impact and similarities to life.
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My Journey to the North American Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Championships
This weekend I competed in the North American Brazilian Jiu Jitsu championships as a Brown Belt, taking away from it two medals: Silver in the heavyweight division, Gold in the absolute (open weight) division. along with it two valuable life lessons. Let me start by prefacing it with what I did in the three weeks I had leading up to the tournament.
That’s right. I did almost no physical training AT ALL. Let me explain...
For those of you that don’t know, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art that involves an immense amount of coordination, problem solving, overcoming, adapting, and evolving in order to perform well and maintain progression. This, however, doesn’t only apply to the physical body, but more so the mind. I argue that the principal throughout life in general, that the mind is far more powerful than the body. How does this apply to what I went through this weekend, and the process leading up to it? In one word—training.
To effectively apply and inch toward mastering any technique in this complex martial art, one must have a training partner to practice with. Or does that really have to be the case? I can argue that, NOW, because of the years of training I’ve put in and the anatomical awareness I have over my body—NOW. It’s only over the last couple years that I’ve been actively exploring my body’s limits, be it yoga, Muay Thai, plyometrics, gymnastics, wrestling, diaphragmatic breathing, surfing, animal movements, etc. I approach all of these training methods very cerebrally. I have learned to use my mind as a TOOL to excel at these activities by forcing myself to take a moment, a breath, and to be present at the time of activity. This gives me the ability to take a mental note of the current state my mind and body are in, so that I can later mimic it in meditation, training it mentally. This WORKS!
Lesson 1 - Training
I applied this method of training to the three weeks leading up to it. I didn’t really have much of a choice! My coach, Sinistro, left the country for a few months and I didn’t have anyone to train with. I don’t have a regular gym of my own, as I am a “rogue warrior” so to speak, so I was forced to look for other alternatives. So I meditated.
Every day, I would visualize myself in various matches, with various outcomes, displaying dynamic technique that Sinistro had taught me. I wouldn’t even notice myself doing this sometimes. I’d be driving across town to Santa Monica, which (for those of you familiar with the 405 on any given day) usually takes an hour, and all of a sudden 15 minutes would fly by and I’d come back to present, body tense and sweaty from the match I just had in my head. It’s intense!
I drilled for one hour on the Monday of the week of the tournament. That’s it. That’s the only bit of Jiu Jitsu I had for this tournament. I supplemented my lack of training with other activities to keep myself physically conditioned, which have proven to be just as effective.
Here are some of the activities I enjoy doing, that can be effectively applied to Jiu Jitsu:
Breathing - Diaphragmatic breathing in particular. This is the most important technique you will ever master! Master it, and master it well. I call it “Voluntary Hyperventilation”* simply because I’m forcing myself to reach these levels of oxygen toxicity, in order to expand my mind and body. Learning to breathe with your diaphragm has wondrous effects on the body:
It brings you to present
It relieves stress and anxiety
It stimulates blood flow
It gets you high (yes, too much oxygen causes your brain to get lightheaded)
It lets you reach a state of euphoria
It lets you feel enlightened
It expands your lung capacity, thus expanding your oxygen capacity
It builds core strength
It teaches you to manipulate your abdomen in ways you never would have thought possible (See Rickson Gracie)
It teaches you to manipulate your lungs, shifting air from the top (smaller) part of your lungs, down to the bottom (larger) part of your lungs
Learning this fundamental breathing exercise will teach you to control your pace and breathing during times of struggle.
*Basically what happens to your body when you hyperventilate is your levels of carbon dioxide are reduced, putting your body into a brief state of hypocapnia. For more breathing tips, see “breathing techniques” in the FITNESS tab.
Surfing - The correlation between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is undeniable. When there’s a buoyant object floating beneath you, you’re naturally forced to find your balance. This not only helps with reflexive movement, but also helps develop a stable top game and mount.
Yoga/Plyometric - Flexibility is key! It’s one of the main ways that injuries can be prevented. Yoga also strengthens your whole body, thus improving your technique. Being strong and flexible is cause for concern for every opponent.
Isometric weight training - All of my weight training is done with 10 second reps, particularly the 4-2-4 method (4 second engage, 2 second hold, 4 second release). This helps me tremendously with holds, submissions, and passes. It allows me to, if necessary, approach a movement or technique in a slow, controlled manner, while being strong, heavy, and stable the whole way.
Gymnastics - This I’m still learning. It’s new to me and I’m very hesitant and careful to this sport, as a 6’1, 200 lb man isn’t necessarily built for the sport. Nevertheless, I use apparatuses like rings and bars to help me strengthen my upper body and core.
Animal Movements - This is probably my favorite, second to surfing. Taking movements from other physical arts like Capoeira, Yoga, breakdancing, I incorporate these with animal movements applicable to Jiu Jitsu. This allows me to dance freely around my visualized opponent, exploring new passes, transitions, escapes, etc. Great for flowing.
Stability Ball - I owe this one to my buddy Jeff Glover. If you want tips or tricks on what to do on a stability ball, just YouTube him and see what the guy does. This is the ultimate form of top control exercise, as well as scrambles. This revolutionized my mount and knee-on-belly technique.
Videos - WATCH VIDEOS! There are thousands of videos out there on BJJ technique. Learn one a day, watch it 50 times, drill it in your head, and get good at it before you hit the mats. TRUST ME THIS WORKS!
Meditation - This is THE most important exercise in LIFE. A clear mind is the strongest tool imaginable. It cannot be tampered with, it cannot be influenced, it cannot be forced upon. This is your strongest tool and asset as a human being. It is foolish not to exercise this every chance you get. Meditate twice a day, every day, for as long as you can. TRUST me, only good will come of it.
All these elements of exercise, when combined, can create the perfect combination of supplemental training for Jiu Jitsu. Even if you take Jiu Jitsu away from it, you still have new avenues of learning new things to apply to every day life. When you train the mind, the body can’t tell the difference. OR, as I like to say, “Where the head goes, the body follows."
Lesson 2 - Conquer Thy Inner Bitch
This, perhaps, is the most important lesson. There were two points in the tournament where I caught myself giving up. But, I caught it. I identified it as soon as it came into my mind, and I told myself to quit being a bitch and snap out of it. Utilizing the breath, I managed to take a few to myself to buy some time and get clear, and overcome adversity.
Five minutes into the final match in the absolute division, I popped a rib out. It was a floating rib right in front of my stomach, and it was painful. It happened during a scramble out of bounds, and as the ref reset us, I thought about throwing in the towel, it was that bad. But then I overcame adversity. I identified it, faced it, challenged it, and overcame it.
I realized that the only thing holding you back is another man in front of you. Another man. He’s just as nervous as you, and he’s no different a person than you are.
Anatomically, we are alike, aesthetically we’re different. We are all made of the same matter, and our brains are no longer a secret. So what’s there to be afraid of? What’s there to give up over? Nothing.
It was important that I recognized this when I did. I’vemade a mental note of that feeling, and will now learn to replicate and get more familiar with it in meditation.
All in all, it was a good experience because of the lessons. I wasn't happy with the outcome of the finals of my weight division, as I feel as though I could have submitted the guy had the clock not run out. But nevertheless, what more can I expect from not having trained for the tournament? I am proud to have walked away with the lessons made valuable from this experience.
Unfortunately, injuries are a part of the game, I walked away with:
Sprained left thumb
Dislocated floating rib in front of stomach