What Role Do You Play On the Team at Your BJJ Academy?

As one of the older teammates at my BJJ academy, I consider myself slower and less athletically gifted than many of my fellow students. I see many other students training who are much younger, come from a martial arts background, and/or are simply in a stage in their life where they’re able to train nearly every day. I find that either due to work commitments, travel, or simply being limited to what my body will tolerate, I can only train 3-4 times per week tops. I find that it’s absolutely essential for me to do strength and conditioning work outside of class to ensure that my body is capable of responding to what I ask of it during training, as well as to prevent injury.

As a result, it often feels as though I’m progressing at a slower pace than my teammates who are younger and physical capable of training much more often. I find myself wondering sometimes if my slower progression is limiting the development of my teammates. I’ve developed a theory which I hope enables me to be a better training partner and has the added benefit of enhancing my development as a Jiu Jitsu player.

I have a theory that we can all contribute even more to our teammates by giving thought to the role we play on the team and how our teammates benefit from training with us. This can take on several meanings that can present several possible roles we can play.
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The Student with Outstanding Athletic Ability
We all know these folks. They’re the ones who played varsity everything in high school and college and seem to roll like purple belts after training for less than a month. Usually this person is also a former wrestler. They usually have outstanding cardio and are quite strong. They also seem to pick up all of the moves being taught the first time around. This type of student can be excellent to train with as they often possess tons of explosiveness, have a great sense of timing, yet due to their athletic prowess don’t quite have an understanding of how much natural talent they have. They’re just doing what comes naturally to them.

While I don’t enjoy rolling with such partners all the time, I like to find someone from this background to roll with at least once per rolling session. Rolling with such a person is usually very humbling (for me, at least), and I’m forced to pace myself unless I get gassed very quickly as they can usually turn up the heat throughout the entire roll. These rolls teach me to think quicker than I normally need to, and I find myself working defensive positions.

Drilling with this type of student is truly a gift as they usually just “get it” and I can learn much from observing how they perform the moves of the day in our drilling session. Having a long history with team sports, this student typically is extremely generous with their observations and advice if asked.
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Former Martial Artists or Those Crossing Over from Another Discipline
These folks also often pick up the moves quickly simply from having done so in other disciplines for many years. When they offer advice, it’s always welcomed as it’s usually spot on. Again, these students tend to seem much more advanced than the actual amount of time they’ve been training due to how comfortable they already are on the mats, and the fact that they already have a learning process. I try to stay close to these students as I always learn from them. They seem to pick up on details I often miss. Also, they have humility from having gone through the learning process with other disciplines. There’s no ego, and they simply love being on the mats and sharing the learning experience. We have one such student at our Jiu Jitsu academy. He’s a two stripe white belt, but rolling with him feels like I’m rolling with a high level blue belt. However, he’s incredibly humble, always eager to help a fellow student, and brings a positive energy to the training.
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Those Who Are…um…More “Mature”
This is where I fit in at my BJJ Academy. As a BJJ practitioner who is 40 plus year in age, I’m around 10-20 years older than most of my teammates. In some cases, I’m 30 years older! I move slower, I pick up on moves slower, I don’t retain the information as well, and I tire more easily. However, I’ve noticed that I (and most of my peers) possess two qualities in more abundance than my teammates. First, I’m strong. Not in a “I can deadlift 600 pounds” type of strong. It’s more a natural strength from a combination of a lifetime of strength training with as good form as I can muster, and some of that “old man strength” starting to creep in.

The other quality, patience, can only come from being alive longer. This covers various aspect of the game including being patient enough to know that development and promotions will come whenever I’m ready for it, and to just enjoy the process. Just as important is being patient during drilling and rolling. When drilling, I move very slowly to ensure that I’m performing the moves correctly and deliberately. My hope is that my partners will follow suit (they often do) and will take the time to let the proper form settle in. I’m also not afraid to ask question, even if there’s a chance they might be perceived as obvious or silly. I’m too old to care. If I want an answer, I ask and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. There’s a strong chance that someone else will benefit from hearing the answer anyway, so I’ll continue asking my obvious and silly questions.

Patience also plays a huge role in my rolling. I’m finally learning to slow the pace and conserve my physical and mental energy. I’m learning to appreciate positions and to move thoughtfully and deliberately. It’s a constant struggle, and I’m still learning when I need to be explosive.

I sincerely hope that my teammates can benefit from my “mature” aspects.

Summary
Maybe I’m on to something here, or maybe I’m completely full of it and am spinning my wheels. I like to think that by analyzing our individual strengths and weaknesses, in addition to working on our own games, we can learn the various ways that we can exploit those characteristics to make ourselves fully available for our training partners so that we can help fellow teammates at our BJJ Academy to grow as much as possible.

The Importance of Proper Form When Strength Training

I freely admit that I’m a complete nerd when it comes to studying proper form when strength training. I even go so far as to analyze videos on YouTube and Instagram and critique the form of the posters. I’m sure that this is partly due to a slight case of OCD, but much of it is rooted in a desire to achieve maximum results when weight training and to avoid injury.

Why does this matter so much? As BJJ practitioners (and especially for 40 plus practitioners), and as human beings with busy lives, we need to make every moment and effort count. This is especially true with regard to our hobbies so that we can have more time available for family and career. And it allows us to have more energy and time to devote to our BJJ practice. Studying a martial can be taxing enough, especially as we age, so it’s important for our supplementary training to be as efficient as possible.

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In a previous post, I did a review of Pavel Tsatsouline’s Simple & Sinister book and program. You can access that post here. One of the most important insights that Pavel shares is that with the Simple & Sinister program, we can do the bare minimum of work to maintain strength and mobility so that we don’t detract from whatever our primary pursuit is, whether it’s a martial art, law enforcement, or spec ops. We should train enough to keep our bodies ready for action, but not so much that we’re too fatigued to do our primary work. And for those of us 40 plus practitioners who sometimes have many more work and family commitments, this approach can be especially helpful for how we manage our time.

I would argue that this applies equally to using proper form when training. Whenever I see a video of someone using momentum to move a weight or not using full range of motion, I privately lament how inefficient their use of time is. Furthermore, much of the poor form I see also increases the chances for injury.

In BJJ, we need to develop strength and mobility throughout the entire range of motion, and this often extends into ranges of motion that don’t always come naturally to our physiques. Practicing our strength training with mindfulness, awareness, and conviction has multiple benefits. First, as mentioned earlier, it enables us to develop strength throughout the entire range of motion. Second, it allows us to practice and burn into our muscle memory the safest and most efficient ways of performing the primary muscle movements (push, pull, hip hinge) so that we can perform these movements more efficiently during our BJJ training. Third, it enables a mindset with regard to training that teaches us to train any and all muscles movements with care and precision, which increases the likelihood that we’ll utilize better control when we’re rolling. This is safer and more efficient. As a 40 plus BJJ practitioner, I find that focusing on form is especially important for staying safe, healthy, and injury free.

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I would encourage all BJJ practitioners to read Pavel’s Simple & Sinister as well as checking out Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, anything that Dan John has written, as well as Scott Iardella’s series of books on strength training. All of these authors are at the top of the strength training field, and they all write in a clear and accessible manner. I’ve reaped enormous benefits from following their books, blogs, and podcasts and I consider their writing a must for any martial artist.

Dan John
Before We Go: An Ongoing Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning
Fat Loss Happens on Monday: Habit-Based Diet & Workout Hacks

Mark Rippetoe
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition

Scott Iardella
The Edge of Strength: An Unconventional Guide To Live Your Strength And Discover Your Greatness
The Shock And Awe Protocol: Kettlebell Training For Size And Strength

Pavel Tsatsouline
Kettlebell Simple & Sinister

Learning How to Learn

Today while in class at my BJJ academy, I discovered a breakthrough past what had been a source of frustration for me for quite some time. I realized that I was finally learning how to learn.

When I first began training BJJ and for a long time thereafter, my mind got lost in the details. Whenever the teacher would demonstrate a new move, I could sense my mind growing confused the more details that were articulated. By the time the instructor had finished demonstrating and explaining the fourth or fifth part of the move, my brain was just wrapping itself around the second or third detail. I’m not sure if this experience is unique to me as a 40 plus practitioner, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

I suddenly had the realization in class today that absorbing this information has become much more natural and intuitive. I was even able to ask some thoughtful questions and could make observations that my drilling partner didn’t notice.

Why is this? I love studying languages, even if just to learn a few phrases for a short trip. I’m currently studying Japanese, which has entirely different grammar than English. Just as when learning a foreign language one must practice every day, BJJ is no different. It truly is a foreign language with its own syntax and grammar. I suppose I realized this before, but now that I’m finally training with enough consistency to recognize movement patterns and to internalize concepts, I was able to experience this breakthrough.

I’m now developing a better sense of which details to pay attention to, as well as how to organize the steps in my brain in preparation for drilling. As recently as a few weeks ago, I would find that I wasn’t even sure where to look or which details were the most important, I can now begin to file away the information in a manner that gives me enough of a foundation to begin to work with my training partner. It’s getting to be a smaller leap from passive to active learning.

I suspect that age plays a factor here as well. As a 40 plus practitioner, I bring my own inherent biases with me to class with regard to how I think I learn. Also, it’s been much longer since I learned anything in a classroom setting than it has been for many of my teammates at my BJJ academy. I’m realizing that I must always be cognizant of this in order to enable me to keep an open mind and to allow me to absorb the information more easily. I discussed the benefits for Jiu Jitsu for mental health in another post, which you can find here.

All of this just reinforces my belief that BJJ is the perfect sport to practice in adulthood, especially for those of us who are 40 plus, to prevent the mind from aging too quickly. One of the primary benefits of Jiu Jitsu is that the constant drilling and study of new vocabulary keeps our minds in a perpetually youthful state through both physical and mental exercise.

Book Review: Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts

Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts: Winning Clinches, Takedowns, & Tactics

By Andrew Zerling
Forewords by Steve Scott and Stephan Kesting

I was first exposed to sumo wrestling by attending a tournament in Osaka, Japan several years ago, which inspired me to read more about this art form. It was obvious from watching the matches that there is a great deal of skill involved in sumo wrestling that is directly related to other martial arts, and I wanted to learn more.

Sumo is a deep part of Japanese tradition due to both its historical significance and its connection with the Shinto religion. In fact, most of the symbolism in a match is taken from Shintoism. At its core, the rules are incredibly simple. The goal is to make your opponent touch the ground with a body part other than their feet, or to throw them from the ring. Various throws and strikes are utilized to achieve this goal. Most matches last less than a minute, and many less only a few seconds.

Due to the lack of weight classes in sumo, it becomes absolutely necessary to develop a strong technique. Often, there can be a weight difference of as much as 100 pounds between opponents, so smaller opponents must rely on efficient use of leverage and have a creative game.

Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts begins with two excellent forewords by Steve Scott and Stephan Kesting. In particular, Stephan Kesting is well known for his excellent podcast series and online martial arts resource at grapplearts.com.

In chapter one, Andrew Zerling begins by offering the reader a thorough overview of sumo wrestling, including its history, symbolism, strategies, and how the sport is organized. He then proceeds to compare sumo with other Japanese martial arts and draws parallels between the various techniques. It is here that we learn how modern Judo, and thus Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, have roots in sumo, particularly with regard to takedowns and the overall physics of manipulating one’s opponent and formulating strategy.

Zerling describes and offers clear illustrations for the most commonly used sumo moves and does so with enough clarity for the ready to be able to understand and follow a sumo match. I recently visited a sumo stable in Tokyo, Japan to watch the morning training and thanks to this book, I could understand much of what was being trained.

Chapter 2 present various sumo case studies by explaining winning techniques employed by many famous sumo wrestlers. We learn how smaller wrestlers adjust their game to overcome much larger opponents, and we begin to learn about sumo strategy.

In chapter 3, Zerling show us the connections between sumo and MMA. We learn about how both art forms address the various phases of combat, though obviously sumo lacks a ground phase given that that’s where the match ends. It is in this chapter that we can begin to understand how a fighter approaches a match with regard to bringing their opponent into their comfort zone, whether that be the standing phase or the clinch phase. We learn the many similarities between the clinches and throws used in sumo and MMA, and how many MMA fighters learn from the physics and leverage that have utilized in sumo for many years. Zerling even shows us case studies from Mitsuyo Maeda and Lyoto Machida.

Chapter 4 presents a series of technical photos that demonstrate the techniques discussed earlier in the book. The photos show the author with various training partners in standard No Gi grappling gear and make it very easy to visualize direct application of these techniques to modern MMA or No Gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

I highly recommend Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts by Andrew Zerling to anyone interested in sumo or any other martial art. In addition to providing the reader with a thorough understanding of sumo and its influence on modern MMA and grappling, Zerling’s insights will be of tremendous use and interest to students of any modern martial art.

Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts: Winning Clinches, Takedowns, & Tactics
By Andrew Zerling

Proximity to Greatness in BJJ: One of the Greatest Benefits of Jiu Jitsu

When I first began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I wasn’t aware of any of the names associated with the art. I had never heard of the Gracie family, didn’t know who John Danaher was, had never hear the name Marcelo Garcia, and had absolutely no idea who my instructor Vitor Shaolin Ribeiro was or what he had accomplished. As I mentioned in a previous post, I discovered BJJ through a chance encounter with a No Gi class I took on a whim at the Krav Maga school at which I was studying. Its effectiveness made it seem like magic, and I was instantly hooked. I went back to one more Krav Maga class after that, and I immediately signed up for a membership at Vitor Shaolin’s school in midtown. The factors driving my decision to study at Shaolin’s BJJ academy were the convenient location, the excellent schedule, and the high quality instruction.

At the time, I had no idea who Shaolin was, though it was clear how much sincere respect his students had for him. I immediately noticed that he clearly displays strong leadership qualities and the tone he sets in his academy facilitates and extremely friendly and supportive vibe throughout the school. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Now that I’ve been studying with Shaolin’s BJJ academy for about two and a half years, I understand that he’s clearly a legend in the world of BJJ, and a true master at least on the level as the many great musicians I’ve come to greatly admire. I would consider Shaolin, as well as the many other instructors actively teaching such as Renzo Gracie, Yuki Nakai, Marcelo Garcia, and others, to be the BJJ equivalent of musicians such as classical pianist Evgeny Kissin, jazz bassist Christian McBride, or drummer Steve Gadd.

Unfortunately, such musical greats are not always so immediately available to the average member of the public. Someone who wishes to study with or even just meet such musical greats generally needs to do so via an introduction from someone who will vouch for them, or they need to already be an accomplished musician themselves.

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Not so with BJJ. Now that I’m more aware of the BJJ scene and the accomplishments and depth of knowledge and skill of Shaolin and his contemporaries, I’m increasingly grateful that a complete novice such as myself can walk into an academy off the street and sign up for lessons with such titans of the sport. I can’t speak for other academies, but I can say that Shaolin is present for a large portion of the classes at his academy and makes himself available to all of his students regardless of level or experience. This accessibility is one of the many enormous benefits of the Jiu Jitsu community.

I become increasingly aware of how fortunate we are in the BJJ community to have access to such close proximity to greatness. Considering that the average time to earn a black belt in BJJ is eight to twelve years, I consider studying with any black belt instructor the equivalent of studying with someone who holds PhD in Jiu Jitsu. Add to that the ability to study with such greats as Shaolin, Marcelo, and Renzo, and we are truly fortunate to have such access.

I doubt that it would ever be possible for me to work on my golf swing with Phil Mickelson (even though we share the same birthday), so I’m especially grateful to have the opportunity to study with one of the true legends of the sport at my BJJ academy. This proximity to greatness is one of many things that makes our art so special. Perhaps having direct access to the current legends of our sport might be one of the things that helps to keep it legit and pure, and could be a key factor as to why the BJJ community is so special throughout the world.

Letting Go of the Ego

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Over 40

One of the benefits of Jiu Jitsu that I love the most is the opportunity to learn a new skill at this stage in my life. I began my training at 40 plus years of age, having already achieved career and personal success. As a professional musician, I understand what it means to achieve a certain level of mastery in a skill. Although I’m always striving to improve my skills as an artist, I found it quite refreshing to begin learning a new skill at which I’m a complete beginner.

What has proven exceptionally difficult for me to completely release my ego from the learning process. I found it exceptionally difficult to learn to be an absolute beginner at something again. I suppose it’s even more difficult with BJJ as the consequences are so extreme (getting choked, having limbs bent beyond their natural range of motion, etc) and the outcome of our sparring sessions is devoid of subjectivity.

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Over the past several months, I’ve focused only on showing up for class at my BJJ academy regularly, opening my mind and my heart, and releasing the ego completely. I understand intellectually that this is part of the process, but I suspect that being an 40 plus year old beginner and simply being at a stage in life where being the beginner in the situation is a rare occurrence, I found it difficult. I noticed a profound change. I learn much more quickly, I understand more of what’s being taught, and I can notice my game starting to improve in little ways. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a constant battle to just try to suck a little bit less each time, but I try to not even go that far. I consider it an accomplishment to show up for class regularly, put in 100% effort, and most importantly, let go of any ego and simply focus on opening the mind and heart.

I’m really enjoying this new place. I’m enjoying class much more, and I’m learning to live in the moment more. It doesn’t matter if I tap constantly or can’t execute a new sweep during a roll. I take pleasure in just being on the mats, putting in the work, and enjoying the camaraderie of my teammates and instructors.

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It’s incredibly refreshing to have been able to rekindle the sense of wonder while learning that we experience as children. I’m grateful to BJJ for helping me to find that space as it’s had a profound effect both on and off the mats.