Mar 012010

Jiu Jitsu is a lot like Shrek. Layers. Lots of layers. Ogres have layers. Jiu Jitsu has layers. I’ve been working on deep half guard, along with a specific technique or two from each position. Bullfighter pass here, deep half guard there, yada, yada. Also in the form of disclaimer, these are my blue belt level ramblings, so take them for what they are. Whenever I try to articulate these things, I can’t help but think that in 5 or 10 years I’ll be embarrassed. But whatever. It’s a blog. Right?

We’re always working on something. Whether it’s a guard pass or a position. You ask anyone in jits what they’re working on and they’ll probably tell you something without any hesitation. “Oh yeah. I’m working on X, Y and Z.” But in the background, I’ve been mulling over the larger issue of pressure. In Jiu Jitsu, it seems to me that pressure is one of the keys to good Jiu Jitsu. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about 300 lbs gorrillas smashing the little guy. That’s pressure, for sure, but in my opinion, that’s the least important form of pressure. Pressure, in some form or another, creates opportunities. If I’m controlling pressure, I have the advantage. If I’m not controlling pressure, I’m ceding advantage to my opponent. Productive, controllable pressure comes in many forms.

Physically, pressure manifests through superior technique, superior pace/conditioning and strength, usually in the form of pressure being exerted on a person. At the same time, mental pressure has a lot to do with it, as well. Mentally, pressure has a lot to do with perception, coming from within, although even here it can have a lot to do with one’s opponent.

Physically, have you ever rolled with someone who weighs about 160 lbs, but feels much, much heavier? Conversely, there’s the 220 lbs guy who just doesn’t feel all that heavy. That’s all technique, having learned how to maximize the amount of physical pressure being exerted. This kind of technical pressure is just crazy. When I was in California last year to watch the Mundials, we had a chance to drop in and train with one of my Coach’s Coach, Giva Santana. Giva was rolling with Bing and just crushing him.

Because it’s technical, it can be learned. I tend to think of this technical, physical pressure in terms of control rather than of weight. Some things that contribute to the perception of increased pressure are where the pressure is being exerted, and conveying a feeling of being trapped. For example, if I’ve got my opponent in my side control, I can increase the amount of pressure by focusing on driving my shoulder into his face, keeping him from turning in. I can also pin his hips in one of many ways. While I’m not actually putting any more weight on him, the perception is that there is more pressure. I know I’m locked in tight when my opponent can’t turn away and can’t turn in. I’ve got my hips low and while I’m not crushing him with all 180 lbs, I’m pretty sure he’s feeling it.

In a similar way, I’ve had 300 lbs guys go to knee on belly and, sure, it’s uncomfortable. Another guy I train with, his knee on belly is a killer. I swear, he’s about 200lbs and feels like he weighs a ton. It’s crazy how much of a difference there is. Gravity hasn’t changed, so clearly there must be some technique involved.

But beyond this technical pressure, there are guys who create a sense of urgency in their opponents. I roll with some guys and they never settle in. They move from one position to another gracefully and give the sense that they’re always one step ahead (whether they are or not). This is a different kind of pressure, but it’s just as important. New guys lock in. White belts tend to close their guard and hold on for dear life. This is the pressure that you experience when you’re rolling with someone who makes you feel like every move you make is exactly the wrong one.

Related to the last are the pressures that come from pacing and conditioning. This is the kind of pressure that guys can exert by just being energizer bunnies. Always moving, always attacking. What makes this different from the last, is that this is independent of skill really. Instead of creating a sense of urgency in my opponent by staying ahead of them strategically, I’m really just going flat out, balls to the wall crazy. In a white belt, this will often lead to a lot of tapping out. As we get more technique, however, it can create opportunities as long as the technique is sound.

We were doing a guard pass drill one time in Bing’s Wednesday class. “No strength. Work your technique,” we were told. I get grips and pull guard and WHAM! my training partner got grips, worked some mojo and quick as that he was passed my guard. Bing looked over and said, “Speed ain’t strength.” Of course, he’s right. But speed and athleticism can create pressure.

Mentally, we tend to be our own worst enemies. Pressure can come from a perception of inferior physical ability or skill. “I’m not going to try to sweep him. He’s too big.” Or maybe, “I’ll never catch him. He’s a black/brown/purple/blue/whatever belt.” I’m not sure what I can really say about this. I think I’m among the worst around when it comes to dealing with self-derived stress. What do I do to break out of this? Well, I try to compete when I can. I try to spar with guys who I know I don’t match up well against. These are the guys who kill me every time.

This kind of mental pressure can also be cultivated by gaining a reputation with certain techniques or positions. “Oh, man. So and so has a killer half guard game. Get caught in that and it’s over.”

There are guys who are really good at psyching their opponents out. It’s a gift some people have. I’m not sure if it can be taught, but it’s definitely there.

I don’t have many answers yet, but that’s okay. I may never have the answers. But I think that pressure is a key, and whoever wins that battle, exerting more pressure than the opponent, ultimately comes out on top.

Mar 012010

As things start to ramp up for the March 13th Revolution grappling tournament, our guys are pushing harder and harder in sparring. This is a fun time at class, where the mood is both lighter and more intense at the same time… if that makes sense. Warmups tend to be lighter, and technical instruction seems to move back to more basic moves, the fundamentals upon which everything else is balanced. So, the initial part of each class tends to be a little more relaxed, while sparring is amped up from I’d say about 75% to upwards around 90% intensity.

We worked on an escape from back control, concentrating on protecting the neck and blocking our opponent from getting the harness/seat belt position. Scootch down low, then driving first one elbow to the mat, straightening that side leg to free the hook, and then over to the other side. At this point, it’s really going to depend upon how my opponent reacts. I’ll either come out the back if he tries to swing over, or block his hip while scissoring my legs to come up and pass.

Some keys on this are to watch out for the triangle as I scissor up. I either need to make sure I come up over his leg to prevent the triangle, or really block his hip to prevent him from getting that leg up and over.

Sparring was broken up into three weight groups. Big guys, anywhere about 200 lbs and up, were in one section, then 180 lbs or so up to 200 lbs, and then the lighter guys below 180, where guys in the middle would float up and down as mats opened up. The guys who are competing stayed out in the middle to get as much mat time as possible.

I’ve been working a lot on a basic bullfighter pass agasint open guard and it’s really becoming one of my favorites. Some things I’m really focusing on are getting good grips on the inside of my opponent’s knees. My opponent will often widen his knees out to block the pass. I’ll then drive up with my hips looking for a stack pass, keeping my grips and thinking about bringing his knees up into his chest. As he pushes back against that, I’ll move around for the pass. I’ll often feint one way or the other, to see if I can get my opponent to commit. If he’s up on one side more than the other, the pass is relatively easy.

At this point, to prevent my opponent from getting back to guard, I try to focus on straightening out the bottom arm and keeping that grip firm. This blocks his bottom knee from getting in, and also keeps him from rolling over into turtle. I’m also trying to keep a lot of pressure on his sternum with my shoulder and stay low to prevent him from rolling me (one of my favorite reversals). From here, get the knee in or my top hand to block the hip so that I can switch my grips to whatever side control I’m looking for.

I got a chance to roll with Coach Foster, which is always fun. I almost got around his guard, but ultimately ended up trying to keep moving from the bottom. My back is at about 80% and I’m feeling like my hips are moving well.

After class, James gave us all a timely reminder that we all learn by being pushed. He said that you get tapped out about a million times on your way to earning a black belt. While I think I’ve ALREADY tapped about a million times, the sentiment is very true. We train to make each other better. When we’re drilling, the goal isn’t to keep my partner from learning the technique. There’s a counter for every move. As a good partner, my job is to react in a way that makes sense.

In sparring, if I have a hole in my game, it’s your job to exploit it. Not to say that you beat me, but so that I can improve. And as I improve, I help you improve.

Personally, a real break through for me in my training after getting my blue belt was when I could say and truly mean that I don’t mind tapping to a white belt. I get caught sometimes. But whether I get caught because I was zoning out or due to an injury or just get completely pwned, I try never to make excuses. I always smile and thank whoever it was and then get back into it.

I’ve seen a blue belt tap to a white belt and then immediately make an excuse. “I wasn’t paying attention.” “I was rolling light.” Whatever… that’s lame. It minimizes your training partner’s success. I mean, if I’ve been working on setting up my triangle, and after working on it for months, I am beginning to catch upper belts with it, I’m going to be pretty stoked. It sucks when I catch the triangle and then am immediately told that it wasn’t good technique… I just basically got lucky or my partner was zoning out. Lame.

Don’t be lame. Even if you weren’t paying attention.

Jan 312010

A few weeks ago, I got Stephan Kesting’s newsletter in my inbox. Reading it was surreal. It was like he’d interviewed me and my issues with claustrophobia. I highly recommend it. Hell, if you don’t subscribe to Stephan’s Grappling Tips, you should. Seriously. Do that now, then come back and finish reading this. Stephan is a thoughtful guy and his insight’s have helped me out a ton over the years.

I have issues with not being able to see. I’m sure that this mania stems from some childhood trauma that I can blame on my older brothers. It’s got to be their fault. But wherever this issue came from, I don’t like it. Just putting on a blindfold causes my adrenaline to kick in and my fight or flight instinct goes nuts. Add a little claustrophobia and I’m pretty unfit for BJJ.

I actually laughed out loud when I read about the MRI in the article. I was okay with the MRI in theory. As I showed up at the hospital, they asked, “Are you claustrophic?”

“A little, but I’ll be okay,” I replied. Seconds into the MRI, I was mashing the panic button. I made it through that MRI only because they turned me around, got me in feet first and they only needed pictures of my L5 vertebrae. So, as a result, I was able to crane my head back and see the opening. Seeing daylight got me through it… that and a lot of happy thoughts.

So, when I started training in BJJ, one of the first people I rolled with was Brick (or Big Rick). Rick is a cool guy. He’s been around forever, weighs about 280 lbs, and is a very good guy to roll with if you’re claustrophobic. Or a very bad guy to roll with, depending on your point of view. I’ll never remember that first roll with Rick. At the time, I didn’t really know what to do in sparring, so we locked up and wrassled around for a bit from our knees, then of course I got pushed to my back, he passed my guard and was so heavy that I tapped because I couldn’t breathe. Then, after getting knocked over again, he moved to North/South. Now, here’s where I immediately began to panic. Rick said, “This isn’t a submission. This is just pressure. Relax and breathe.” I tapped instead and began to seriously question whether BJJ was right for me.

Instead, I figured out ways to cope with it for myself, and while your mileage may vary, I’m happy to share what worked for me.

As a sort of preventative measure, try not to get smashed. That’s a good start, but of course, it doesn’t help with the problem… just helps you get better at avoiding it. I have learned over the last couple years that the key to sparring with a really big dude is to focus on hip movement and never give them a chance to settle in. Easier said than done, but when it works it feels pretty good.

That said, if I’m getting crushed, I look for daylight. If I’m in a position where things are tight, I’ll make sure I can see daylight just like I did in my MRI. I have found that sometimes, just turning my head a little so I can see the wide open spaces is enough to quell the panic. Even if I’m really getting smashed.

Second, relax. My tendency is to begin breathing faster when I’m in a tight spot. I want as much air as I can get, and it never seems like I’m getting enough. If I relax, focus on my breathing and slow things down, I can think about what to do next.

Third, keep my elbows in and remember my basics. The single most important thing I learned early on was to keep my elbows in. While that helped my defense, that was only a side benefit. The real value of keeping your elbows in on the bottom is that it helps you control the space, at best giving you an opportunity to hip out or upa and escape. At worst, it still provides a few inches of room. Your forearms might be all that stands between your face and a some hairy dude’s sweaty chest. Now, if that’s not motivation to focus on basics, I don’t know what is, cause I’m on the verge of panicking just writing that.

Finally, and this is nothing new, start from a bad position. I decided very early that if I was going to make it in BJJ, I’d need to learn to cope with tight spaces. I will almost always pull guard in sparring. I started doing this because I felt that getting on top was a copout and was avoiding the issue. In much the same way that I start from turtle now, it wasn’t that I felt comfortable from guard. Just the opposite.

I hope you’ve read the article I linked to over at Stephan’s article goes into some detail about how you can overcome phobias in general, and some specific ways to tackle Claustrophobia on the mats. As always, though, if I can do it, anyone can. It’s not a matter of skill or talent. It’s a matter of just deciding it’s important and doing it. Jiu Jitsu isn’t always comfortable, but even at its worst, I can’t think of too many things that I’d rather do.

Dec 182009


I raced home from work to pick up the baby and called my other kids on my way back so that they would be waiting for me when I got home.  They took the baby inside and I was outta there, fifteen minutes to get to my chiropractic appointment.

Sidebar here: it’s GREAT having older kids with the baby.  I strongly recommend that anyone having a baby adopt a couple of 10 to 12 year olds first.  Seriously.  I couldn’t be prouder of my two older kids.  They help so much around the house and with the baby, I wouldn’t be able to do half of what I do if they weren’t there to pick up my slack.

Okay, back to the action, I’m racing down the street to the chiropractor.  I’m cutting off old ladies and tailgating student drivers.  I have places to go!  Maybe not quite like that, but I was feeling a sense of urgency.  My new chiropractor adjusted me once again.  Looks like I’m going to see him twice a week for a couple of weeks, and then back off to about every 3 or so weeks.  On a positive note, my flexible spending account should help me pay for these visits.  On the negative side, my insurance copay is higher than the cash amount.  Let me say that again.  My chiropractor saves enough by avoiding the billing/insurance process that he can offer a modest discount for cash, and a few dollars more off if you prepay.  So, if I pay cash, the price is less than my ridiculous copay.  Anyone who is against a public option or some kind of meaningful health care reform is nuts. 

But it’s all good.  I felt great after the adjustment and raced to class where I met Dev for the first time.  For anyone not familiar, Dev has been training and blogging for just over a year now.  He’s a very nice guy and it felt like we’d known each other for a long time.   We even got a roll in, probably at about 50% or so.  It was pretty cool.  Coach Foster rolled out the red carpet, rolling with him for about 30 minutes before turning him loose on several of our upper belts.  It was awesome to see.  Coach really wanted him to get some quality time while he was there.  He was pretty wiped out by the time we got to open mat.  Still, as my son would say, I got pwned.  But I was having enough fun that I didn’t mind.  In the relatively short time Dev’s been training, it’s clear that he’s picked up a solid foundation and I’m looking forward to seeing him again, hopefully down in Irvine in April.

I had a good roll with Thad, always a pleasure.  He’s always good for a little detail or tip that will make a difference for next time.  Josh was his usual, relaxed self.  Not that I could do anything against him.  I also got a roll in with Trevin, who’s about as close to Josh Barnett as I’ll ever get.  I made the mistake of pulling mount… yeah, I said it… and what you think might happen did.  Next time around, I was a little more alert and managed to get around his guard into side control.  His arm was very high, so I switched to the head/arm setup I like, but he blocked it right away, so I moved around for the armbar instead.  He blocked, and I tried the switch to the other side I learned from Thad a few months back, and I could tell it surprised him.  I almost had that armbar, but wasn’t tight enough and left him some space to counter and escape.  Oh well.

Overall, I’m a lot more hopeful about things than I was a few weeks ago.  While my L5 disc will never fully heal, I am optimistic that I’m doing the right thing.  I was 181 lbs this morning and managing to maintain even though I missed over three weeks of class.   The only real lasting problem with my back will be strength through my hips to bridge.  It took months last time to really get back to where I could generate power through my hips and upa, and I’m looking at that long road one more time. 

Oh, one last thing.  I picked up some Foster/Lotus Club back patches and they look really cool.  Can’t wait to get them on a gi.

Nov 162009

Great class on Sunday.  Coach gave me a gi that a friend at the school has asked me to dye for him.  He wants it purple.  I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but I ordered a pretty dark purple and intend to use a little extra dye than it calls for, as though I’m dying a black gi.  I also, after reading Georgette’s Chocolate Love woes, where her dark brown gi rubbed off a little on another person’s white gi, picked up an additional dye fixative. 

The process for dying a gi isn’t all that difficult.  Typically, you wash the gi so that it’s clean and there are no oils in it.  I usually use the commercial stuff that Dharma Trading sells.  Then you use a buttload of non-iodized salt, easily purchased for next to nothing at Costco, and mix that into the appropriate amount of water.  I use a big 20 gallon tub also easily found.  I got mine at Fred Meyer’s for about $5.  After the salt is completely absorbed into the water, you mix in the appropriate amount of dye.  It’s a good idea to mix is completely in a small amount of water so you don’t end up with lumpy dye.  That would be bad news.  And finally, you drop in the gi.  Well, place it gently in so you don’t splash. 

Then… you find a kid between the ages of 10 and 13 and say, “Hey, bud.  You busy?  Wanna help me dye a gi?  It’s really cool!”  When they say yes, you give them a stick and have them swirl the gi around for 30 minutes.  It’s…  well, it’s not actually very cool at all, but they don’t realize it until about 15 minutes in.  Hopefully, though, they’re committed, because the next step is soda ash.  This is actually the part that makes the dye permanent in most cases.  And this part takes like an hour.  This is where that kid you found will really start to realize that he or she got really screwed. 

Usually, this is pretty much it.  As I said, I’m adding the additional step of using a commercial dye fixative for the purple gi, then wash it a few times to make sure that any excess dye is gone and that’s it.

Now, as for actual Jiu Jitsu, I had a good class.  We worked on the flower sweep and a variation, did some positional sparring from guard (one person sweeps, the other tries to pass).  After which Coach seemed a little irritated that some people were reluctant to open their guard.  I was drilling with Scott, a pretty big white belt, and really worked on opening up my guard, trying to get the de la riva hook in.  My guard got passed a few times, but I’m not too worried about it.

Sparring was good.  I had a ring, so I got plenty of matches.  Scott, a technical purple belt, showed me some tips for de la riva guard, as well as a really interesting thing I’d never heard before.  He said that whenever someone moves to a combat base position, with on knee up, or even standing sometimes, he’ll actually move up and sit on that foot, working his de la riva hook and his grips from there.  I tried it a few times after and, while it seems weird and counterintuitive, it kind of jams up any guard pass attempts, and also gives me a lot of options for sweeps.  I’m going to mess around with that for a while and see what I can do.

Next class should be Wednesday. 

Nov 152009

Class was really good on Friday.  After a light warm-up we worked on handling grips when trying to pass guard.  Specifically, strategies for dealing with the standard, cross collar grip. 

After this, the class split up with white belts on one side and blue belts and up on the other, and we sparred like that for a bit.  Then in the last half hour, we sparred as usual.  I got a lot of matches, including one with Coach Foster which was awesome, and a good mix of white belts and upper belts.

As much as possible, I started from Turtle and worked to get back to guard.  I was able to get the ninja roll back to guard a few times (that is, roll back to guard as shown in my last post).  I also had some success working for the single leg.  Bing gave me a valuable tip for getting back to guard when someone is sprawled more toward north/south.  I’m always looking to defend the d’arce or the guillotine form here.

A new female came in to roll yesterday.  She’s a blue belt who hasn’t trained in about a year, she said.  My first impression is that she is nice and will be a great addition to the crew if she sticks around.  We have several women who train with us, but most are pretty new.  Amy is a purple belt, but she hasn’t been training regularly in a while, so I believe it will be really cool for the female white belts to have a colored belt around.

I got a chance to roll with her and she seems competent.  So I crushed her.  I used my weight and strength to take advantage of her mat rust and totally pwned her.  Of course, I’m kidding.  I pulled guard and worked to stay open and loose.  She was a constant threat to pass.  Basically,I spent the entire time getting her in my open guard,  working to get a de la riva hook or spider guard, where I’d pretty much get passed right away, shrimping back to regain my half guard, rinse and repeat.  It was a good roll for me, and a different attack than I’m used to. 

I’m looking forward to class tomorrow.