Approaching BJJ Training With a Giving Mindset

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

I often think about what makes a good training partner or what creates a supportive atmosphere at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy. I believe one very important factor is having teammates who approach their training from a giving mindset. Though in theory we pay good money on our classes with the expectation that our instructors will impart their hard-earned knowledge and wisdom to us, I believe that just as much of the responsibility for teaching and learning falls to us as students, regardless of rank.

First, we need to be considerate of our teammates. This means greeting everyone by name when we step onto the mat, asking thoughtful questions, paying attention when the instructor is demonstrating a technique, etc. However, this extends into other areas.

When drilling, we should be mindful of our partner’s physicality and the effect the techniques will have on them. For example, if practicing a takedown or a judo throw, it’s not necessary to throw your training partner at full force. or to choke your partner aggressively when drilling a choke. Go slowly and save the aggression for your next tournament.

When appropriate, give your drilling partner useful feedback. For example, if you sense that they can make an adjustment to the technique that would make it more effective, speak up. Let them know if gripping the collar a little deeper will make the choke more effective, or tell them if there’s a better way they can break your posture or balance. Conversely, compliment your partner when they demonstrate the technique effectively and give specifics as to why it worked.

If your drilling partner is having difficulty with the technique, help them if you can. Don’t be too rigid about the number of times you each practice the technique as you go back and forth. If your partner needs a few extra repetitions, graciously offer them the opportunity. You’ll continue learning by observing them and giving helpful feedback.

When sparring, resist the urge to show the same aggression you would in competition. Let your partners (and yourself) have enough stamina to train a few more rolls, and a few more days later in the week. Besides, there’s no point in risking injury any more than necessary when you’re rolling.

When training with a lower rank or a less experienced teammate, allow them to advance positions, escape, or even submit you on occasion. We all need this from time to time in order to practice the techniques we’re learning in a live situation. If you don’t feel comfortable allow them to submit you, at least allow them to achieve a better position and use it as an opportunity to practice some escapes.

Always remember to compliment your teammates. Let them what you like about their techniques, ask them questions about their approach, and let them know when you see improvement.

Always make time to drill before or after class when a teammate needs some extra practice. You’ll learn from it just as much as they will, and they’ll appreciate it immensely. It’ll also be a great opportunity to get to know your teammates better outside of the structure of a regular class.

By approaching every training session with a giving mindset, we can all elevate our teammates and ourselves, and motivate one another. It will also have a profound effect on our approach to life off the mats. I always find that when I’ve been successful in giving to my teammates, I learn more, I bond with them better, and I feel even more uplifted when I leave the academy. It’s a constant reminder that nobody can improve and grow on their own. We’re all in this together.

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.

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.

The Mental Health Benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Benefits of BJJ

Last week in class at my Jiu Jitsu academy as the active part of the warmup began, I noticed something that I found to be very interesting. I immediately was overcome by a profound feeling of elation and happiness. It wasn’t just the kind of happy that one feels when they begin an activity they enjoy, but rather something bordering on a runner’s high type of happiness. This experience led me to wonder about the mental health benefits of BJJ and to search out what some others have had to say about it. Although one could argue that these feelings of joy and elation are simply the result of an endorphin release, and they’d be partly correct, it must be noted that this experience occurred at the beginning of training, and therefore prior to when the endorphin release would be in full effect.

I would argue that at this stage of training I was experiencing a sense of what sociologist Victor Turner calls communitas. This is a sense of a greater community and togetherness that members of a community experience through shared rites of passage such as religious experiences, work, music, sports, and other occurrences. I would argue that Jiu Jitsu is actually a combination of several of these types of ritual. On the surface, we experience the bonding of sport and functioning together as a team. However, one of the most profound benefits of BJJ is that it is a profound tool for introspection and personal development. We share with our training partners an intensely personal struggle which enables us to form bonds with our teammates that’s similar to those who experience fraternal rituals together, participate in sports teams, or undergo severe physical or mental hardship together.

I often find that when I try to explain how wonderful the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community is, and the intensely positive energy we experience in our Jiu Jitsu academy, people who have never trained any martial art look at me with a blank stare. As martial artists, we share an experience that is unique that only those of us who participate in it can truly understand. This creates an intense bond between all practitioners whether they’ve trained together for years or have only just met.

And of course there’s the BJJ community, which I find to be comprised of some of the nicest, kindest, most helpful people one could ever meet. Being surrounded by that positive energy, it’s nearly impossible not to feel uplifted after training. I find myself leaving the BJJ academy feeling like a better person, and wanting to continue to evolve.

As we all know, BJJ is an intensely physical activity which releases tons of endorphins. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most of us experience an endorphin high just like the famous runner’s high. Exercise has been shown to reduce depression, improve memory, and to some degree prevent the onset of dementia. Therefore, it’s no wonder that thirty minutes of drilling followed by another thirty minutes or more of rolling should produce such extreme feelings of euphoria.

One of my favorite benefits of Jiu Jitsu is the meditative aspect of the sport. When you’re rolling, there’s no time to think; there’s only time to react. Otherwise, reflexes become too slow to be effective. This has the result of freeing the mind to become a blank slate while we act solely on instinct. Learning to exist in such a situation for periods of five minutes or more at a time allow us to clear our minds of any superfluous thoughts and simply exist. Those minutes of rolling are pure meditation. In today’s fast paced world, it’s so rare to an opportunity to truly tune out the static of the outside world and focus only on one simple task. In our case, it’s to submit or be submitted. I live for those rolls when the only thing I hear is the sound of my breathing and my opponent’s breathing, and our roll becomes a conversation. Even working out at the gym isn’t nearly as meditative as there’s often background music, waiting for equipment, moving out of people’s way, etc.

Lastly, there’s the self-growth aspect of BJJ. I love knowing that at 48 years old, I’m a beginner to a discipline that’s brand new to me. It’s absolutely thrilling to approach it as a child and to absorb the material and to learn a new skill that’s so rich and deep. It keeps the mind fresh, alert, and awake. Each training session is every bit as much a mental workout as it is physical. It’s also a great way to stay humble and to keep one’s ego in check!

I’m looking forward to continuing to training BJJ beyond my 40 plus years, and for many years to come. Though I still do strength training at the gym several days a week, I can’t think of a better workout than BJJ. Most importantly, I appreciate the peace of mind it gives me from the meditation of the drilling and the rolling. It’s tempting to measure my progress by the stripes on my belt or my performance on the mat, but sometimes I need to remind myself that if my training is helping me to stay focused, relaxed, and in a good mood, I’m still progressing just fine.

Nutrition: A Constant Conundrum

Nutrition for BJJ

As someone who travels frequently for work, it’s often very difficult to maintain a good diet, especially one that will support the nutritional demands of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is something I’ve been struggling with throughout my journey. I’ve tried calorie counting, Weight Watchers, various iOS apps, and reading a number of books. I think I’ve finally found something that works, provided that I maintain a certain amount of willpower. There’s a lot of discussion about nutrition for BJJ. I don’t claim to be an expert, but rather, I’m simply sharing my personal experience.

Calorie Counting and 10,000 Steps Per Day
At first, I had to make some lifestyle changes. For me, the best way to do this was to quantify my caloric intake. Even though my iOS app of choice, MyFitnessPal, wasn’t always 100% accurate, it forced me to stay accountable for the food I ate. And my Fitbit Charge 2  forced me to commit to leading a more active lifestyle. Fortunately, NYC is a walking city, so it was easy to maintain a regular schedule of long walks, whether to and from work or just while running errands.

The tricky part came when I began doing strength training more often and with increasing intensity. I found that in an effort to meet my calorie cutting goals (at least according to my iOS app), I would begin to see signs of overtraining or undereating. Something had to change.

Eat To Live
My personal trainer recommended that I read the book Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Furhman. This is when it all began to click for me. Dr. Furhman is a strong advocate for a strictly plant based diet, which is not something that interests me. However, the main takeaway from his book, at least for me, is his emphasis on being mindful of the quality of the nutrients that one puts in their body. In other words, it’s not just a matter of cutting calories, but rather ensuring that the calories one ingests are truly providing useful fuel for the body.

This approach made a lot of sense to me, and I found it quite liberating to finally be free of the calorie cutting model. According to Fuhrman, our bodies naturally know when to tell us to stop eating when what we’re eating is the fuel that nature intended for us. Not having the desire to micro-manage my diet, I broke my nutrition down into a set of several rules: 1) stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, 2) cut down on (and eliminate as much as possible) processed sugar, 3) eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible throughout the day, 4) eat at least one large salad per day with minimal dressing, 5) cut back on animal protein, and 6) keep alcohol to a minimum. And when choosing between two foods for a snack or a meal, I ask myself “which is a better source of fuel?”, and “which will provide better nutrition for my BJJ training?”

Of course there are times when schedule, availability, or emotions get in the way, but if I can stay on track most of the time, I figure that I’m doing okay. And there are times when it seems silly not to indulge a bit. After all, I still have a sweet tooth and a love for steak, so I just keep it to an absolute minimum and allow myself these pleasures when I know I’m in a situation in which I have access to a truly memorable culinary experience. Personally, I’d rather have a great steak or a great dessert only every once in a while, but when I do have them, they’d better be seriously off the charts amazing!

Managing Diet on the Road
Here’s where it gets tricky, although I’ve developed some strategies for staying on track when traveling.

Airports are the most difficult. There are temptations all around, and the healthy choices are usually quite unappealing. These days, it’s usually possible to find a decent salad in an airport, so that’s a big help. Also, the more I can fill up on fruit and nuts (provided that I control the portion size), the less likely I’ll be to make impulsive eating decisions. Continuing to stay hydrated helps stave off the hunger too. If I stop for a meal, I make every effort possible to eat “real” food. No hamburgers, pizza, etc. And if I must have sweets, I’ll pick up a small piece of gourmet chocolate to satisfy the craving. On the airplane, particularly on long haul flights, I allow myself to indulge, which makes the flight much more enjoyable and helps me to stay under control after I land.

Hotels don’t have to be a trap. Restaurant staff in hotel restaurants will usually gladly try to accommodate any reasonable substitution request. And those buffet breakfasts can actually be helpful. I always start with a healthy serving of fruit and a hard-boiled egg or two. Beyond that, I evaluate the quality of the individual items to decide the best choices. Yogurt, granola (in small portions), and potatoes can be options depending upon the freshness, quality, etc. I never drink juice and I always drink a lot of water, especially at breakfast. I’m also not ashamed to admit (well, maybe just a little) that I’ve been known to take an apple and banana or two from the breakfast buffet as a snack later in the day. It’s important to remember that many hotels will provide a refrigerator in your room if you ask. Even if you must pay a fee, this is incredibly helpful as it allows you to keep healthy food options constantly available to you. I find that if I have healthy food to snack on throughout the day, I’m much less likely to let my nutrition go off the rails when I’m eating out. I also recently discovered through the help of a dietician that I’ve not been eating enough carbs. My instinct from my past was to drastically reduce carbs, but it turns out that reducing them too much doesn’t provide adequate nutrition for BJJ and can result in low energy. Though I still avoid processed carbs, it’s nice to know that it’s actually beneficial to enjoy a potato or rice.

Lifestyle Changes
By now, I’ve been doing this for long enough that it’s become part of my lifestyle. I still go off the rails at times, but I’m able to get back on track fairly quickly. The biggest help is having a plan in advance. This eliminates any stress related to unknown situations. It’s still a struggle, but having a plan in place is key. The more I concern myself with my nutrition and not whether or not I’m adhering to a “diet”, the more successful I am.

Fitbit Charge 2

Eat to Live

Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

The Initial Spark
When I set about to learn a martial art, I never imagined that I would have found myself in the world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, commonly referred to as BJJ for short. As I mentioned in my previous post, I discovered BJJ through a No-Gi class at my former Krav Maga academy. As I had wrestled in junior high school and enjoyed impromptu wrestling matches with my buddies during my high school years, learning a grappling centered art seemed natural. However, I was completely unprepared for what I discovered in that first BJJ class, especially as a 40 plus student.

First of all, everything was much more difficult than any physical activity or workout I had ever experienced before. For the first time in a long time, I was so winded that I didn’t even know if I could finish the class. Aside from the physical demands, learning the coordination required for the drills and moves we were learning was incredibly frustrating. I wasn’t prepared to move my body in such unfamiliar ways, and everything seemed so incredibly complicated. When it came time to roll (spar), I was even more lost. Everything I tried to do just seemed wrong, and I kept getting submitted so quickly that I had so idea what was happening. In short, the experience was so frustrating that it actually seemed like my opponent was doing a magic trick.
At the end of the class, I was beat up pretty badly, but I also noticed that everyone was incredibly nice, supportive, helpful, and friendly, and they genuinely wanted to make sure that I had a great experience. In short, I was hooked. I was determined to learn what this art was all about. At this point, I hadn’t heard of the Gracie family and knew nothing about their involvement with the UFC. I simply recognized BJJ as a fascinating, challenging, and beautiful art and I was determined to learn it.

My Jiu Jitsu Journey Begins
The next week I signed up for an introductory offer for new students at Vitor Shaolin’s Jiu Jitsu Academy, otherwise known as Modern Martial Arts in midtown Manhattan. I got two classes and a basic starter Gi. I was immediately impressed with the high level of instruction, the focus on safety, and how friendly and helpful everyone was. I joined right away and never looked back.
Starting any martial art, and particularly BJJ, after the age of 40 plus has its own challenges, even for someone who’s in relatively decent shape, as I was at that time. My schedule as a musician often made it difficult to train as regularly as I would have liked, so my development was even slower. However, I soon discovered that the benefits of Jiu Jitsu were so much more important than just whether or not I can submit my opponents or whether I earn another stripe on my belt.

Benefits of Jiu Jitsu
First of all, it’s an amazing physical workout. I’ve never found a better way to work my cardio than BJJ. Even the warmups are more strenuous than any running or biking I’ve ever done. BJJ also works strength as so much of the grappling game requires the practitioner to do standard pushing, pulling, gripping, squatting, and hip-hinge movements so essential to everyday life.

Jiu Jitsu is an amazing mental workout. At my age, it’s rare for people to take up learning a new skill. I was surprised at how difficult it was (and still is) to remember the moves being taught, acquire the coordination to perform them, and develop the memory to retain them. This art constantly tests my memory, my spatial relationships, as well as my strategic thinking. It’s really like learning another language.
It’s a form of meditation. When I’m drilling a new move or rolling with my opponent, the only thing I can think about is what I’m doing in that moment. All other thoughts go out the window. So for that hour I’m in class, it’s a magical experience during which time stands still. When I’m in the middle of a good roll with a well matched opponent, the only thing I hear is the sound of my breathing and I simply move without thinking. It’s difficult to convey just how great you feel from the endorphins that are released during such an activity. When I leave class, I’m on a natural high for days. I finally understand what runners have been talking about for all this time. One of the best benefits of Jiu Jitsu is that when I’m training regularly, I feel happier, more relaxed, and more in touch with the world and other human beings.
The BJJ community is made up of some of the most wonderful and interesting people you could ever meet. I’ve trained in my home Jiu Jitsu academy in NYC and have visited schools in Philadelphia, Hamburg, London, Osaka, and Tokyo. Without exception, I was welcomed warmly and made to feel at home. Even language wasn’t a barrier. As long as I joined the class with respect, humility, kindness, and a desire to learn, I was welcomed.

Summary
At this point, I’m hooked. I’d love to eventually earn my black belt, but it’s more important to me to know that I’m learning and developing. The belts will happen naturally. The biggest surprise for me has been learning that BJJ is an art form that has a profoundly positive impact on my character and I believe it helps its practitioners to be the best human beings they can possibly be.