Monday, December 30, 2013

Holy crap, I'm a purple belt!

I still can't believe it - last weekend I became a Royce Gracie, Triangle jiu jitsu purple belt! It hasn't fully sunk in yet. (A few days ago, I absent-mindedly said "I'm just a blue belt" and had to be corrected by my training partner).

Not much has changed, really. I roll the same as I did a few weeks ago. I still get tapped by the same people. The old maxim is true - "A belt only covers 2 inches of your ass. It is up to you to cover the rest of it."

Getting promoted by my now black belt instructor Seth Shamp!

In my job as a speech language pathologist, we have a maxim of our own - "Don't teach to test." In other words, the point of therapy is to improve someone's functional communication, not to improve standardized test scores. When therapy is successful, improvement in assessments may be the end result, but it is never the goal. The goal is to help a patient communicate in the world.

I think the same is true in jiu jitsu. Going up in rank is a measure of progress like standardized test results. They both are a nice affirmation. But achieving rank should never be the point of training.  Pedro Valente has said “No one should train for a belt. You should train for the knowledge, you should train for all the amazing benefits that jiu jitsu brings to our lives.”

I train quite simply to get better at jiu jitsu. Sometimes I train with a narrower focus, such as to win a tournament or to learn and incorporate new techniques. But the overall goal is to be just a little bit better than the day before. Changes in color are few and far between in our art, so if they become our goal, we are destined for frustration and discouragement.

My training partners Brad McDonald and De McFadyen got promoted too!

Getting a purple belt has never been the point of my training. Still, it is something that I have wanted from early on. When I was new, I saw purple belts as serious bad-asses. Now I see them as folks who are in it for the long haul and are likely to keep training for life.

So, yeah, I am totally psyched to wear a new color and to have a chance to compete in new divisions. Purple is my favorite color and my belt now matches most of my wardrobe. I am also psyched as ever to keep training for the simple sake of learning jiu jitsu.

My jiu jitsu tree has a purple flower!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Emerson Falcao vs. Juliana Velasquez - Shooto Brazil plans the first profesional, mixed-gender fight in MMA history

History has been set for Dec 20th - Juliana Velasquez  is set to fight Emerson Falcao in a professional MMA match, the first ever such male/female match-up in history. It is the stuff for headlines, for sure. But is it a good idea? In that I ask, is it a positive step for the sport in general and more specifically for women who compete?

I would argue that, no, it is not good for either. It is, however, sensational and attention-grabbing and a sure ways to attract viewers.

My gripes are the following:

- I want women to have the same opportunities to excel in sports as men do. As a feminist, I like and generally share the women can do anything men can do attitude. But as a life long, competitive athlete, I cannot deny that men and women's bodies are different. To deny that men and women have different physical characteristics and body compositions is to deny biology. I have blogged about this in the past in women competing in men's divisions.

Just looking at a picture of the two fighters, it is clear to me that this is not a fair physical match up. They are fighting at the same size, but the strength disparity here is pretty obvious.

Sure, there are plenty of women who can beat plenty of men in any given sport. I am way out of swimming shape, but could probably still beat 98% of the world's population of men in an endurance swimming event. I am strong and have good physical conditioning, but within that 98% of men there are bound to be those who are stronger than me, have better cardio, or have better muscular endurance than me. Yet, I would still beat them. What this means is that, despite differences in physical attributes, I would still be able to beat male swimmers whose technical skill level is lower than mine.

Which brings me to my next point...

- I am not interested in watching world-class female athletes compete against B level males. These might make for interesting match-ups, sure. But they don't do much to test the relative skill levels of the athletes involved. I would much rather watch the best women in the world compete against each other.

I am also not interested in watching elite female athletes of today compete against elite male athletes from a previous generation. I am thinking of the landmark tennis match in 1973 when #1 ranked Billie Jean King defeated the formerly #1 ranked Bobby Rigs. Billie Jean King was 29 years old, Bobby Rigs, 55. Bobby Rigs was behaving like a sexist douche, running his mouth about how inferior women's tennis was. Billie Jean King beat him and I'm glad she did. But I would rather watch the best female athletes from today compete against each other than to watch them compete against the best male athletes from our parents' generation.

"Dumbing down" a male athlete by age or technique in order to provide a more even match-up against a female is insulting.

- This is a pretty clear publicity stunt. It is going to attract an audience for the mere fact that a man and woman will be hitting each other. To most folks, it just sounds wrong...which is why they are going to watch. For a sport already described by some as "human cock fighting," this mixed gender bout will add another layer of shock. But it is sensationalism that detracts from the legitimacy of the sport.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Can training MMA actually help one's jiu jitsu?

I've dabbled in MMA classes in the past, for a month or so at time, but just for fun and without any commitment or intention to fight. What's held me back was 2 things - 1) fear and a well developed sense of self-preservation 2) concern that time spent training MMA would detract from my jiu jitsu.

Tournament jiu jitsu is my bag. It is something that I can compete in for a long time and be successful at. A desire to win is what drives me to get to the gym early to drill and to stay late to get in a few extra rolls while others are mopping. Self-defense jiu jitu techniques are important to me as well. They are what give me the tools to stay safe when I walk into a creepy house at work, for example. Self defense techniques will empower me for the rest of my life and are part of a legacy that I want to help pass on to others. There are only so many hours to train in a given week, and I don't want to do anything that would slow my progress in either of these areas.

But MMA is a young person's sport and I am not getting any younger. If I ever want to compete in MMA, even in the vague bucket list sense, it is now or never. I think that I can put fear and self-preservation aside for a period of time - but I am certainly not willing to sacrifice my jiu jitsu progress.

But in giving MMA training a more serious try, I made a surprising discovery - MMA has been the best thing in the word for my jiu jitsu. I'm not saying this is true for everybody.  But for me, my body type, and my set of skills, it is proving to be the case.

My rationale is the following:

- I am now sucking less at scrambles. I've been an endurance athlete all my life, but fast-twitched, explosive movements are my downfall. In jiu jitsu, I've basically conceded that I will lose scrambles against fast people, so I've worked on tightening my game to minimize the occurrence of these scrambles. In MMA, I train with people who are much faster than me and without the fiction of a gi to slow everything down. Only here, losing scrambles does not result in tapping, but more often results in physical pain. Being of sound mental state, physical pain is something that I try to avoid. So MMA training has pushed me into a fight-or-flight state that has made faring better in scrambles a physical necessity. Sure, there are days at jiu jitsu now when I am too fatigued and beat up to roll worth a damn. But on a whole, I am finding that I am actually rolling better now that I am more scrambly. 

- MMA has forced me to develop takedowns. My strategy in jiu jitsu tournaments has typically been "try to bully my opponent into pulling guard and if that doesn't work, pull guard before she can take me down." It's worked ok because I have similar skill levels at guard playing and guard passing. But this strategy is bitchassness. I know that as I progress in jiu jitsu, not having a strategy to take the match to the ground on my terms is something that would impede my progress.

Say no to guard pulling

- MMA has forced me to use jiu jitsu in a way that is more realistic for self-defense. MMA and self defense are different beings. Jiu jitsu self defense is about surviving and escaping, while MMA is about dominating and winning a fight. Still, training some MMA has shed light on some sporty jiu jitsu habits that I have developed that would be devastating in a self-defense situation. Falling to my butt and playing deep half guard work for me in tournaments, but are suicide in MMA and self defense. MMA has also reinforced the importance of standing in base - instead on fighting on bottom from a losing position, why not stand up and fight again from a neutral spot?     

I will never compete in MMA on a high level. I still have too much of that pesky self preservation instinct and frankly, I'm too old. But if training MMA can actually make me better at jiu jitsu, my true love?! I'll take it! 

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Choking: A Dangerous Weapon?"

Women's Health Magazine's "Domestic Terror," by Meghan Rabbit presents some pretty staggering statistics. According to their stats, 1 in 4 women has been victim to severe physical violence by an intimate partner and almost 1 in 2 has experienced psychological aggression. Clearly, this is all sorts of fucked up. (It wasn't addressed in the article, but this issue certainly is not exclusive to women. Plenty of men have wound up in relationships with abusive partners as well). Domestic violence is horrible for victims of both sexes and the problem is more widespread than I thought.

Most of the article chronicled one woman's story of suffering, surviving, and ultimately escaping an escalating cycle of abuse. It was a captivating story, for sure. But what really grabbed my attention was the blurb at the end of the article, entitled "Choking - A Dangerous Weapon." According to the blurb, choking in domestic violence cases "is one of the strongest predictors that a victim is at risk for more serious violence, including a major assault or even homicide."

In jiu jitsu, choking each other on the mats is harmless. We can tap out at anytime and it is generally within our power not to go unconscious. If we are stubborn and refuse to tap, our partners are trained to release us as soon as we go to sleep. I tap really early to joint locks, but I try longer to fight through chokes, even to the point of feeling light-headed, since the effects are fleeting and not damaging to my body. I've never been put to sleep before, but I have put others to sleep and it no big deal.

Trying not to tap!!

Violently choking someone with attempt to harm or intimidate is obviously a different story. According to the article, "even one episode can lead to long term neurological problems, such as difficulty concentrating, memory problems, or even seizures." Or worse, it can be deadly.
Choking someone can be harmless in one setting or it can be devastating in another. Since it can have serious consequences, there are folks who want to make sure it carries a serious punishment. While choking someone is often charged as a misdemeanor in court, "some 30 states are trying to make it a felony instead by classifying it as 'second degree strangulation,' given prosecutors another tool with which to charge abusers with a more serious crime." In North Carolina, the state where I live, choking is indeed a felony. I have mixed feelings about this. As a feminist, a decent human being, and an overall disliker of bad guys, I am glad that abusers in my state can be put away for longer periods of time.  But as a jiu jitsu practitioner, this makes me nervous. Choking someone out is something that is safe and taken lightly in my world, but it is serious in the eyes of the law.

I don't carry a gun, a knife, a taser, or a can of pepper spray in my purse. Jiu jitsu is my weapon of self defense. Jiu jitsu is what I rely on to keep me safe. It is a weapon that I hope I never have to use, but one that I am training to use without hesitation should I ever need it.

I hope that I never have to defend myself against a rapist, but if I do, I would be thankful to have drilled thousands of triangles, allowing me to throw them quickly, fluidly, and without much conscious thought, should I ever be held down that way. If my safety depended on it, I believe that I could triangle an attacker without hesitation. But what then? Would the onus be on me to prove that this was a self defense situation? The #1 defense of rapists is to claim that the assault was consensual. If people believed his story, would I be the one under suspicion? Could I become the felon?

I may sound paranoid here, but an MMA fighter in my community was sentenced to a long prison term for using his training to defend himself against a much larger attacker, in a pretty clear cut self defense situation. The case did not involve choking, but it proves to me that juries do not understand MMA or jiu jitsu. They understand guns and will let you "stand your ground" and flat out shoot an adversary. But to use nonlethal martial arts training to subdue an attacker? That just might get you arrested.

Self defense is not always clear cut to onlookers. What about a highschooler who has been a victim of chronic bullying, who finally stands up to her tormentor? What about a concerned party-goer who observes a belligerent drunk threatening his girlfriend? Jiu jiu prepares its practitioners to deal with these scenarios. If they choke out one of these assailants it is not "strangulation" the way jurists may see it, but a use of nonlethal force that results in no lasting damage. It is perhaps the gentlest way to subdue an attacker. It is disconcerting to think that it also carries the severest of penalties. In light of the article, I appreciate that anti-choking laws make a lot of women safer, but as a martial artist, they make me feel more vulnerable.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Jiu jitsu math - why it doesn't always work

I'm not much of a numbers person, but I remember a few things from high school algebra. In the math world, if a>b and b>c, then we also know that a>c -  every time.

So in the jiu jitsu world, if player a beats player b, and player b beats player c, then logically, player a should also beat player c. Right? Right?! This is jiu jitsu math 101.

Only it doesn't always work. Now, if I had to place a bet and I had no other information to go on, I would still side with jiu jitsu math. In the above scenario, I would pick player a to beat player c. But there is a decent chance I'd be wrong. Among competitors of the same skill level, I would expect this math to fail about 25% of the time. That makes this a pretty lousy jiu jistu theorem.

Indeed, I've lost several matches that I expected to win based on  jiu jitsu math. And every time, I have found myself dazed and surprised. It makes no sense! Just ask my algebra teacher, Mr. Scata -  a>c! Except every now and then, c beats a.

So why does jiu jitsu math fail? There are a couple of reasons.

- Randomness and chance play a role in jiu jitsu matches. According to some smart math people at MIT, there are more possible outcomes to a game of chess than there are known atoms in the universe. So as a form of kinesthetic chess, a given jiu jitsu match can go about a gazillion different ways - at least when the 2 individuals are close in size and ability. Now, if I were to compete against Gabi Garcia 100 times, I would most definitely lose to her 100 times. But there are plenty of other people with whom I would expect to go 50/50, 60/40, 25/75, or some other split. Just because you beat someone once, doesn't mean you will beat them every time. Conversely, just because someone beats you once, doesn't mean you won't get her next time.

- People match up with each other differently. Some people do ok handling big, strong folks but have trouble against faster scrambly people. Some people do great when they can get on top, but get smashed on bottom. Depending of your style, success in a tournament can be dependent on the attributes and style of your opponent.

- Familiarity plays a role. I tend to drill and train with the same people a lot - so much so that we get to know each other's moves. Some folks who know me well know exactly what I am going for and can shut me down before I even start. And sometimes I can do the same to them. How you perform against folks who you are super familiar with cannot accurately predict how you will perform relative to each other when rolling with new folks.

What about you? Have you ever underestimated an opponent due to jiu jitsu math? Or have you ever defied the laws of jiu jistu math and defeated someone you weren't "supposed to?"


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gracie Brothers' response to the Llyod Irving rape case

So evidently this video is several months old and I am more out of the loop than I realized. I came across it as I was reading up on the rape case in wake of the accused rapists' shocking acquittal. But this is the first time I have watched it and I have to say it is an AMAZING clip. I frequently watch videos of submission highlights, played to aggressive music to get me pumped up before a tournament. But I have to say, this has gotten me just as fired up about jiu jitsu as any highlights reel out there.

It is a fairly long video, but it is absolutely worth watching all the way through.

I am taking several messages away from it:

 - The culture of a gym can influence people to be more or less aggressive. Schools have the power to either calm people down or amplify aggressive tendencies. "If ultimately dominating and defeating someone is the best thing and where you get the most praise...that's what's going to be your look around and say 'who can I abuse. Who can I technically victimize on the mat'?" There is always going to be someone out there who is better than you. It is more useful and more important to train with people who you can consistently learn from than those who you can consistently smash.

- We have an obligation to serve and help the less powerful. "There is someone who has more knowledge, more technique, more strength, more power...that person has an obligation to the student they are training with and to the school as a whole to build this {less powerful} person serve this person." Training needs to be productive for both parties.

- On a similar note, training jiu jitsu should give practitioners more confidence to step in and intervene when someone is being victimized, bullied or just plain needs help.

-"The nature of martial arts in general is that of combat, that of aggression, that of overcoming adversity and fighting someone...if left alone this can morph into a violent dragon of aggression." Creating a positive environment takes constant work and does not happen by itself.

- Rolling respectfully with your partner and rolling hard are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to roll hard and fight for submissions, while still valuing your partner's safety, comfort, and right to learn. 

My one gripe about the video is that it implies that jiu jitsu was the "dangerous weapon" that the assailants used to rape the victim. Certainly, jiu jitsu can be harmful and deadly if put in the wrong hands and used to bully people instead of to defend oneself. It certainly could be used as an instrument of rape. But that's not what happened here. The assailants were the victim's teammates, but they did not subdue her by using jiu jitsu techniques. Rather, they took advantage of the victim's trust. Instead of helping her, they preyed upon her when she was most vulnerable.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reflections on losing and learning

Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Pro Trials - New York - Flushing, NY 

Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Pro Trials - New York

This weekend I went to the Abu Dhabi pro trials in NY, a tournament where I had some unfinished business. For those of you unfamiliar, the prince of Abu Dhabi has a very healthy obsession with jiu jitsu to the extent that it is mandatory PE for both boys and girls in public schools in his country. He also sponsors a professional world jiu jitsu championship every year. There is a series of qualifying tournaments around the world and if you win one, you get a cash prize as well as an all expense paid trip to compete in the pro jiu jistu championship in Abu Dhabi.

This past February, I had tried to qualify for the 2013 Abu Dhabi championships, but ended up falling short. I was bummed about this, not only because of losing, but because I felt that I hadn’t performed as well as I could have. I got back down to business and, since then, I have had an awesome 6 months of jiu jitsu. Really, I could not be happier with how I have been competing or more excited about the martial art as a whole. And so I decided to give Abu Dhabi another shot.

This year, there are two qualifiers in the US – one in CA and one in NY. These tournaments are not huge in terms of numbers, but because of the prizes, they attract a high level of competition. The main reason I wanted to qualify for the 2014 Abu Dhabi tournament was because, when all is said and done, I wanted to be able to say that I had accomplished all that I had set out to do as a blue belt. And winning a blue belt ticket to the world pro tournament was one goal that I had yet to realize.

And I am bummed to say that I fell short again. I won my weight class, but in the semifinals of the absolute division I got caught by a very fast armbar, ending my chances of winning the trip. And as with last year, it was not the loss that was so hard to swallow, but the feeling that I had not brought my best self to that match. The match had been over before I could blink, let alone use my jiu jtisu.

The tournament had not been the most organized event and it dragged on behind schedule and into a very long day. It was hot and stuffy in the gymnasium and I had spent the moments before the absolute division feeling that my gi top was too tight and that there was not quite enough air in the room. This waiting dragged out for over an hour. So once I had lost and my matches were over, I left the competition area and took off my gi to cool off. Then came the post tournament adrenaline dump. After keeping me buzzed for most of the day, my adrenaline finally crashed. It was after 9 PM and my mom and I were weary and hungry, but good sportsmanship dictated that I stick around for podium pictures and to collect my medal. It was hard to wait. I was so disappointed in myself that I had to put my phone away because all the messages of consolation from my teammates were making me teary.

It was then that I heard my name over the loudspeaker. This was my last chance to report to the bull pen. Huh? I had already been eliminated. What did they need me for? It turned out that unlike the IBJJF, which awards bronze medals to both semifinalists, this tournament required an actual bronze medal match to determine who would get the medal.

I had no time to listen to Lil’ Wayne as I normally do to get pumped up for a match. In fact, I had never been less pumped to compete. I was disappointed and depressed and was all out of adrenaline. Part of me wanted to drop out and yield bronze to my opponent, but I never seriously considered it. I grabbed my sweaty gi and dragged myself back to the competition area.

I don’t think she meant to do it, but my mom shot me a sad face as I stepped onto the mat. It was as if she was already preparing for me to lose again and was expressing her sympathies.

But you know what? Somehow when the prize was no longer a factor and my motivation was gone, I managed to have my best match of the tournament. My opponent and I were not fighting for a cash prize or a free trip, but for pride and a bronze medal. It probably was not the prize that either of us would have wanted, but we were still fighting for it.

In the end, I walked away with a gold, a bronze, and more unfinished business with this tournament. I am trying to figure out why I had 3 great IBJJF tournaments this year, sandwiched on both sides by disappointing Abu Dhabi trials. The pressure of a big all-or-nothing prize probably has something to do with it. But I think the other part is that I am just stronger when I am with my team. For the IBJJF tournaments, I was part of a larger group - training, dieting, and competing together. The Abu Dhabi trials were solo ventures. While I still had the support of my coaches and teammates, I would be the only one actually travelling to and competing in the tournament. Competing well solo is something that I need to practice and get better at.

Making Abu Dhabi is still on my jiu jitsu bucket list, but it might be a few years before I try again. Right now, I am looking forward to taking a few months off of competing. For a while, it will be nice to just enjoy training and learning for its own sake rather than to win a tournament.

I'm not really sure how this shiner happened...I didn't feel it until after my last match was over

Sunday, October 6, 2013

2013 No Gi Pan Ams

Last weekend was the 2013 No Gi Pan Ams. I don't have a whole lot to report, except that my team kicked a lot of butt and brought home some major bling. My coach Seth Shamp and I got double golds, and my teammates Roy Marsh, Jeff Shaw, Sean McLaughlin, Jason Mask, Amanda Lee, and Hameed Saunders won medals as well. Overall, Team Royce Gracie placed 2nd in the masters and seniors division...not bad for a small group of about a dozen competitors!

After the results were tallied, the IBJJF no gi  rankings were recalculated as well. I'm psyched to be ranked #1 among adult blue belt women, both in the medium heavy weight class and in the overall division as well. Cool!

This is an honor and I am very thankful to my coaches and training partners for pushing me everyday and getting me to this point. But the more I think about it, the less stock I take in these rankings. Indeed, I have a couple of gripes with the IBJJF ranking system:

- The system can reward quantity over quality. These rankings really are no indication of "who can take whom." The more IBJJF tournaments you go to, the more points you will earn, plain and simple. Even if it is a smallish tournament and you win an automatic medal, you still earn points.The more you can afford to travel and attend multiple IBJJF tournaments, the more points you will earn and the higher your ranking will be. Someone who can afford less travel, even if they consistently win gold, might earn fewer points and will not be ranked as high as someone who can afford to attend more tournaments.

- In the upper belts and higher age groups, brackets are not full and it can be hard to find matches. Folks in these divisions are often forced to choose between dropping down to younger age groups to get more matches, or staying at their actual age to accumulate points for their ranking. Personally, I admire folks who drop down age groups in order to get more matches. However, these folks are penalized in their true rankings, which isn't really fair. They are forced to choose - compete in divisions that would give them the best competition or compete at their true weight and age and risk not getting any matches.

It's a flawed system, but it's still cool to be #1 (at least until no gi worlds next month when other folks will have their turn to rack up points!)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gender differences and impulse control - bursting into tears vs. kicking someone's ass

There is no crying in baseball...or jiu jitsu

For me, one of the more terrible and embarrassing aspects of being a female jiu jitsu player is my propensity for crying. Now, in the grand scheme of things, I am a pretty tough lady and don't cry all that often. In my 3+ years of training, I have cried maybe 6 times. This averages less than once every 6 months, which is really not all that frequently.

Crying shows weakness. I do not want to be seen as less tough or capable than the guys on the mats. This is one of the reasons why I hate to cry in public and will avoid it at all costs. If I find myself on the verge of tears, my mind tells me to flee flee flee. Find an excuse to get off the mats and into my own space as soon as possible. I don't like to cry in front of anyone, even those whom I am closest to. But there are certain times when I just can't help it. When this happens at jiu jitsu, I need to leave the area, ASAP.

Various things can turn on the water works - the sting of defeat, excitement over a major achievement, guilt over hurting someone, anger over getting needlessly smashed, or panic over a sudden lack of safety during a roll. 

The last time I became truly upset on the mats was when the latter happened. I found myself in an unsafe spot and tapped to get out of it - but with the excitement of the game we were playing, combined with a language barrier, my tap went unacknowledged and there was no release of my joint. I then verbally tapped and then yelped, but there still was no release. This put me into panic mode. I screamed loudly until my partner was pulled off of me, but by that time I had mentally lost it.

I walked away unhurt and uninjured but totally freaked out. One of the many reasons that I love jiu jitsu is that everything, in theory, is within my control. If a roll goes badly, all I have to do is tap and the pain/discomfort/danger stops. This incident violated this paradigm, making me panic to the point of uncontrolled sobbing.

All I wanted was to sink through the matted floor. I realized that I react differently to negative experiences on the mats than most of my male training partners do. When I get upset, I feel vulnerable and want to withdraw within myself. Many guys that I train with react in a way that is more socially accepted on the mats - ready to beat someone's ass. In this respect, I found myself wishing I could be more like them.

Until I actually did. Recently, in a split second burst of anger and lack of impulse control, I responded to poor mat behavior in a violent way. Instead of crying, instinct kicked in to kick the offending party's ass. Finally, I acted like one of the guys would. Only instead of feeling better about myself, I felt ashamed.

I don't think I will ever feel comfortable crying at jiu jitsu, but it seems I am not comfortable with the alternative either.

Crying is not exclusively for ladies

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Atlanta Open

Last weekend, Triangle Jiu Jitsu and several other Royce Gracie schools competed in the Atlanta open. This is the closest that the IBJJF comes to North Carolina, so it was a big deal to us. We showed up in big numbers and did some serious work.

I was happy to win double gold and was thrilled that my teammates Seth Shamp, Jeff Shaw, and Chela Tu won gold medals as well. Overall, Team Royce Gracie took home too many medals to count!

What I liked about the tournament:

- As the only IBJJF tournament of drivable distance, it attracted NC Royce Gracie folks in record numbers.

- I was not only representing myself and my school, but I was representing the larger Royce Gracie network. People who normally compete against each other in local tournaments came together to form 1 Royce Gracie unified team. It was a nice feeling to be part of a group much larger than myself.

- Brackets ran on or ahead of schedule. There was no excessive waiting around.

- Even when competing with folks with whom I've grappled before, the intensity was higher than it is at local tournaments. We all put in training camps and drove a long way for this, so the stakes were elevated.

What I didn't like about the tournament:

- The venue made viewing matches difficult. One of the best things about going to IBJJF tournaments is watching the elite upper belts compete. At this venue there was no stadium seating, so I had to fight to get mat side to watch my teammates roll. Getting to a vantage point for any of the black belts was a non-probability.

- I almost didn't get to compete in the absolute division. I've done a handful of IBJJF tournaments and have heard my share of horror stories of people getting screwed by ring coordinators. Some people have traveled as far as the mundials in California, only to be mysteriously dropped from their brackets without a chance to compete. As restitution, they get offered free entry into next year's tournament, which is a pathetically inadequate reimbursement. After investing time in training camp and money in a tournament entry fee, plane ticket, and a hotel stay, free entry into next year's tournament is a paltry consolation for getting dropped from a bracket this year.

Knowing what could go wrong, I was the very first out of all of the adult blue belts to register for the absolute division.  I very clearly stated my name, rank, and division, and did not leave until it was verified that I was registered. I then went about my business cheering for my teammates. However, when the time came for my absolute division to compete, my name was never called. I was not on the list. The ring coordinator actually tried to convince me that I hadn't registered. As if! After some wrangling, I finally managed to get my name back on the list where it belonged. Whew!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Freedom, feminism, and racy photos – the controversy surrounding sexy grapplers

I feel fortunate to live in a culture that values freedom of expression as a basic human right. Individuals can express themselves openly and freely through speech, writing, art, name it.

The personal freedom that enables me to write this blog also empowers me and other women to dress the way we please, whether we choose to wear a burka or a thong. Some people choose to dress conservatively in public and some people choose to dress provocatively. Some people choose to express their sexuality through their outward appearance. Those who do so are not asking to be harassed, groped, raped, or otherwise creeped on. Harassment, of course, is the fault of the harasser alone and not the victim.

Provocative photos are abundant on the internet. Among them are the widely circulated photos of jiu jitsu and MMA women posing in sexualized ways, including this recent photo of Kyra Gracie:

This is just the latest example of sexualized photos of grappling women on the mats or in gis. Here are a few others: 

While the first photo has been getting a lot of recent attention, images like that one are nothing new. These photos are all over the internet and social media, and unless you're living with the Amish, you really can't escape them.
Certainly, it is a woman's right to pose however she wants for photos. That means she can pose provocatively if she so chooses. Some jiu jitsu women may even benefit professionally and financially from the media exposure that comes from these sexy photos. No laws are being broken by these images and no one is being directly hurt by them. So what's the big deal?

While these photos may seem harmless to outsiders, jiu jitsu women have another opinion. While I cannot speak for everyone, the general reaction to these images from women in my training circle has been negative. I share that sentiment. We are not denying the rights of women to dress and pose as they please. Nor are we blaming the women for the creepy and obnoxious posts that some men are making in response to these images. But the general consensus from the women I have spoken to is that female martial artists do not like being represented this way. We understand that sex sells and that having a sexy image can increase one's marketability. We understand that posing provocatively can gain exposure for an athlete beyond what one might earn through athletic accomplishments alone. Yet, images like these undermine the culture that many jiu jitsu women are trying to foster.

Women work hard to earn respect on the mats and to be taken seriously as training partners. Jiu jitsu may be an intimate sport, but the mats are the last place that we should worry about being sexualized, especially since many women come to jiu jitsu in the first place to learn self-defense. We deserve the same security while rolling that men take for granted - knowing that if we throw up a triangle, that our partner's mind is 100% "I better defend this or I'll get choked unconscious" and 0% "This is hot."

Julie Johansen wrote a blog BJJ and Gender: Group Responsibility vs Individual Freedom, which examines our right to act as individuals vs. our responsibility to positively represent the groups that we belong to. We all have the right to make our own choices and to express ourselves the way we please. But whether we like it or not, our actions can affect not only our own images, but the images of the groups that we belong to, especially when we belong to a minority group. This got me thinking about social psychology.
Humans naturally sort items into groups, in order to find patterns and better make sense of our environment. The way we sort people is called social categorization. We  naturally classify each other on the basis of sex, race, age, occupation, and various other attributes. This process is adaptive because by discovering patterns, we are able to think and act more efficiently, freeing our cognitive resources for other tasks. On the downside, it can lead to harmful stereotyping,
Groups that we belong to - our own gender, nationality, religion, etc - are known as our ingroups. Groups that we do not belong to are outgroups. The process of outgroup homogeneity is the process by which we naturally assume that members of outgroups are more similar to each other than members of our ingroups are. The racist cliché "people of X ethnicity all look the same" is an example of this. Members of the majority class are easily able to find differences among members of their own group, while they automatically lump members of other groups together.
This process extends to attributes beyond race. A while back, a student from another martial arts school tried a class at my school and behaved like a jackass. When that school was later brought up in conversation, I said "Those guys are assholes." I immediately caught myself. I had met one guy from that school and he behaved like an asshole. It was unfair to extend this trait to other members of that group. Yet, that was what I had naturally done. The error in thinking was mine, but this individual's bad behavior  had reflected negatively on the image of his entire school. 
As a minority group in jiu jitsu, women are the outgroup to most jiu jitu practitioners. Consequently, as diverse as we may be, we get lumped together at least subconsciously. 
When people look at the sexy poses pictured above, it is fair to assume "these women want to be noticed sexually." Not raped, molested, or harassed...but it is fair to say that they want to be noticed in a sexual way. However, it is wrong and harmful to assume that "jiu jitsu women" want to be noticed in this same way. Most, in my experience, do not want that on the mats. We want to be noticed instead for our hard work, toughness, cooperation, and general ability to kick ass. Which is why we grumble about these photos.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jiu jitsu and pregnancy

Gotcha! No, I am not expecting. But Cynthia Davis, a badass purple belt from Morrisville Tenessee, IS. And she has been nice enough to share her experiences with us regarding jiu jitsu training and pregnancy.

Congratulations! Is this your first child? How far along are you?
Yes, this is our first child. I am currently 34 weeks along.    

How has your training changed since becoming pregnant? Are you still rolling? If not, when did you stop?
Training changed a lot. I was injured before becoming pregnant so was only working my top game, once my husband and I found out I was pregnant we decided that I should stop training during the first trimester. I would drill lightly with him but no one else. I started back to training during the second trimester with extreme rolling/sparring and I did modified floor movements, drills, and takedowns. I only did these with my husband and would spend part of class showing others how to do moves or answering any questions they had about a particular move. Once the third trimester hit we both decided that I should not do drills or anything else as my balance was getting questionable..we realized this when I was attempting to stand up in base and had a hard time of it.

I imagine certain techniques are more difficult to execute while pregnant. Is anything particularly tricky or funny to perform? Is there anything that you suddenly got better at? 
The guys laughed really hard at my shrimps and bridges. Knee on belly was a blast and any side control position was great..mainly because I had gained weight and it made me heavier. I loved it!

How did you tell your training partners that you were pregnant? Did people start treating you differently?
Once the safe period was over (risk of losing the baby) I started telling people. Everyone at the gym was/is excited. I was treated differently..they would watch to make sure I wasn't going to do anything to hurt myself. They also made me the mascot! lol

After the baby comes, how long do you expect it will be before you can resume training? Will you compete?
Once the baby gets here I will start training as soon as my doctor gives me clearance to. Eventually I would like to compete again.

You will be able to say that your baby has been on the mats since before he or she was born! Do you think that you have a future champion in the making?
I like to think we have a future champ in the making! I plan on working with her as soon as possible so it will be second nature to her.

Obviously, expecting fathers don’t experience the same physical changes that expecting mothers do. Be honest – does it bother you that your husband gets to keep training without physical limitations?
I am so jealous that my husband gets to train! I am happy that he can but I miss being out there training with the guys. I still coach them during class but it just isn't the same!

If you were going to name your child a badass jiu jistu name, what would it be?
Hmmm I am not sure what name it would be, but as much as she balls up it would most likely be a jiu jitsu position like turtle or Neto (Neto roll). 

Do you have any advice for other pregnant jiu jitsu women who want to keep training?
No two women have the same pregnancy and it boils down to doing what you and your partner are most comfortable with. My doctor said I could train throughout my pregnancy because my body was used it, but no stupid moves. I still decided not to train as much as I could have because if something happened to the baby as a result of what I was doing at gym I never would have forgiven myself. So my husband and I erred on the side of caution. If I felt winded, warm, thirsty..I sat out. If a move feels odd because the belly is in the way either modify the move or don't do it.

Thanks, Cynthia! 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Keeping it playful vs. keeping it real

Flip Ryron Gracie's coin before your next roll, and you get 1 of 2 outcomes:

1. Keep it playful
KeepItPlayful Coin  

"When the coin lands on the KeepItPlayful side," Ryron writes in his blog KeepItPlayful,  "we play jiu-jitsu, we allow movement at all costs because that is how we learn. We take submissions and we give submissions. We acknowledge that the need to be in control and be victorious is important but just as important is learning to relax and building comfort in all positions."

The other option is:

2. Keep it real

"When the Coin lands on the KeepItReal side, we allow that which is real to surface. Although safety for our training partner is #1 we must still do them a service and control positions to the best of your ability and when we see an opportunity we take the submission and do not leave any space for escape."

And it got me thinking - What do I do most? And  what do I prefer? And most importantly, which is most beneficial - keeping it playful or keeping it real?

Out of  my regular training partners, I think I am able to keep it on the playful side about 75% of the time. I'm not flowy the way that Ryron describes, but there is room for joking, encouragement, and playfulness with most of my rolls. This is especially true if my partner is significantly more or less skilled than I am -  that takes part of the ego out of it. When rolling with someone better than me, whom I suspect is not going at 100%, I am able to focus on movement and techniques. I defend submissions with 70%-80% effort, but tap quickly when needed and do not risk going to sleep or straining a joint. After all, I know my partner could tap me again pretty quickly if desired. I try to survive and escape, but if I can't it's no big deal. On the other hand, if I am more skilled than my partner, it is also easy to keep it playful (unless they are much bigger or stronger and are trying to beast me). I look for submissions and attack them with moderate effort. If my partner defends, I benefit more from moving on and chaining my attacks then by doing mean and nasty things to break through their defenses.

I would describe most of my rolling as hard but playful - the best of both worlds. I prefer to roll this way, most of the time. But there are some folks with whom I keep it real on the regular. Truth be told, I can like these rolls just as much. During evenly matched rolls, we may start out flowy  but the intensity can escalate quickly. It is not that we are trying to kill each other - I don't roll with people who make me feel unsafe - but we are so closely matched that our intensity picks up naturally.

I also keep it real with brand new folks who, often through no fault of their own, do actually try to kill me. If someone spazzes at me with full throttle, I'm not going to relax and flow with them. Or if they brag about passing my guard, obtaining a dominant position, or even not getting tapped by me,  I am going to up the ante during our next roll.

In my opinion there is an important place for both types of rolling. Keeping it playful  helps me practice what I am working on, defend and execute chains of attacks, and keeps rolling fun. Keeping it real tests the effectiveness of my jiu jitsu and shows me what I need to work on.

Which do you prefer? Do you like to keep it real while you roll or do you prefer to keep it playful?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Open door jiu jitsu

One of my favorite things about jiu jitsu is its open door nature. Basically, if you are a non-douche bag and a dues paying member to one jiu jitsu school, then other schools will let you drop in on their classes and open mats  - quite often for free.

Since I work on a school calendar and have extra time to train over the summer, I have been taking advantage of this quite a bit. And I'm starting to realize how fortunate I am.

- I am lucky to be welcomed at other schools when I am able to drop in and train.
- I am lucky that students from other places frequently drop into my school, giving me the opportunity to train with new and different people.
- I am lucky that when my instructor goes out of town, highly qualified instructors from nearby schools step in to teach classes.
- I am lucky to be a part of jiu jitsu networks that coordinate large, diverse open mats, where I have the opportunity to train with everybody.

I am fortunate that while I pay dues only to my own school,  I am able to learn from instructors and students from other schools on a regular basis. In my experience, this generous open door policy just doesn't exist with other sports. If I have to work late one week and miss my Crossfit workouts, for example, I would not expect to be able to drop into another box and be able to train there that week for free. Likewise, in  my swimming days, if my masters swim coach went on vacation for the week, I would not have expected a coach from another team to volunteer to take over our workouts. This just doesn't happen...but it does in jiu jitsu.

If you train at a really awesome jiu jitsu school like I do, you will experience an open door policy on another level... with other martial arts. In its purest form, jiu jitsu is a self defense system that evolves over time, incorporating or countering aspects from other martial arts. One of my training partners trains Taekwondo. Others have backgrounds in boxing, muay thai, or wrestling. I am terribly inconsistent, but at times I cross train in Judo. Training in these other arts does not conflict with jiu jitsu, but rather makes us more complete martial artists and ultimately enhances our abilities to survive a street confrontation.

So, yes, one of the things I like most about jiu jitsu is its utter non-jealousy. I am not only allowed to train with other people but am actually encouraged to do so. I am lucky to have access to so many places and people who make me better.