The Benefits of Competing

We’ll start off this post by saying that BJJ competitions aren’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in practicing the art for the sake of the art. Simply training with your school’s partners is a testament unto itself, and most schools provide a rigorous gauntlet of opponents that keep your skills honed. However, there are some definitive benefits to competing. Today we’ll touch on a few of them.

Forming a Strategy

When you first compete, you probably don’t even think all that much about strategy. If you do, it’s probably only to the extent of taking the fight to where you’re most comfortable, which can be something as simple as pulling guard before your opponent does. But after that first battle, you realize the importance of having a calculated game plan. And that game plan becomes more complex the higher your rank, and the more you compete. Jiu Jitsu is often compared to chess for a reason, and competing takes your game to a higher cerebral level.

Escaping the Familiarity

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you know many of your training partner’s bread-and-butter techniques, and they know yours. Once you’ve caught them with a sweep or submission, they become wiser to your game, and your level of success executing a technique—even if you’re doing it correctly—may vary. Typically when you’re competing, your opponent is alien to you and your game, and vice versa. It’s the perfect time to employ your A game, and see how it stacks up in a mano doesn’t know mano scenario.

Defending Yourself Effectively

When looking at your martial art as a pure self-defense method, competing allows you to experience true stress and intensity. Competing allows you to manage a variety of elements that you’ll have to contend with in a true-life altercation. Managing the anxiety of battling an unknown assailant, discovering the degree of your cardiovascular fitness, and enduring the accompanying adrenaline dump are all aspects that competitions force you to deal with head-on.

There are realities to competitions, especially for the BJJ neophyte. You can get injured due to an increased level of intensity. Your first time out can be overwhelming for a variety of reasons, ranging from dealing with your emotions to listening to your coach shout out instructions to dealing with success and failure. However, there’s no doubt competing has an overall positive effect. Competitions allow you to plug up gaping holes in your game, and will lead to greater confidence in your ability to defend yourself efficiently.

Protective Gear: It’s Part Of Your Uniform

Jacob & Noah

Mouthpieces are an essential part of your uniform

How many times have you said, “Oh I forgot my knee brace,” or asked, “Can I borrow some tape?” If these words haven’t come from your mouth, you’ve definitely heard them from some of your teammates. And while forgetting protective gear from time to time is certainly understandable, let’s be honest: when it comes to these matters, procrastination is the disease, one that breeds inaction.

The problem with this kind of procrastination is that it typically ends once you’ve actually injured something significantly. While it’s certainly human nature, it’s also wildly illogical; the key word here is “protective,” so donning your battle gear after injury completely defeats the purpose. Too often it serves as the grappler’s tipping point, and by then it might be too late.

In BJJ, “protective gear” runs the gamut. Here are just a few examples, and the scenarios you should be using them in.

Knee Braces/Pads

Like in many sports, in BJJ your knees take a beating. Any hint of soreness or injury means you should be wearing a knee brace. Really, why risk it? The problem with sustaining a knee injury is twofold: first, it’s the type of injury that can affect your quality of life—and your paycheck, if your job requires you to be on your feet all day. Secondly, a knee injury can also take you off the mat for months. So if you have any doubt, there is no doubt. The extra support provided by a brace can save the day, and knee pads can help save you from additional compression injuries that take their toll over time.

Elbow Braces/Pads

Much like with your knees, your elbows suffer on the mat, too. Remember the first time you stubbornly tried to escape an armbar, or gut out an Americana? Most BJJ practitioners have felt the telltale “pop” in their elbow that means a few days or weeks of stiffness and soreness. Wearing a pad or brace after sustaining this injury can be helpful if you want to keep training, or for those who develop recurring tendinitis. Of course, not being a clown and tapping is always a great game plan, too.

Mouthpieces

A good mouthpiece will not only save you from losing a few teeth, but potentially from a concussion, too. While blows to the head are rare in BJJ, they definitely happen due to errant knees and explosive movements. Though it’s rare, you’ll be glad you were wearing a mouthpiece when it happens that one time a year. For us here at Great Grappling, it is strongly recommended that if you’re sparring, you’re also wearing a mouthpiece.

Headgear

Headgear can be a little more situational. For example, when your ear gets crushed from a choke attempt, or dinged by an elbow, not only is it painful but cauliflower ear can set in. While headgear can be uncomfortable, it’s better than letting a bad situation get worse due to repeated irritation—and anyone with a sore ear knows that if you grapple with it, it will get hit, every time you roll. And while cauliflower ear is a badge of honor in Brazil, this isn’t Brazil. This is America. Your spouse or your girlfriend, along with your family—and hell, even your co-workers—don’t want to see a grotesquely deformed ear that could have been avoided if possible. But, most importantly, why risk losing one of your senses? Some people are more susceptible to cauliflower ear than others. Genetics can play a part

Tape

Tape can also be situational. A jammed or sprained finger can hurt like hell, and also render your grip less effective. Pairing that hurt finger with another can mitigate this minor but pesky injury. Really, with tape, the issue is always having it when you need it—and not being a tape-leech that takes it from your training partners or front desk. Bringing your own, or creating a rotating stockpile that everyone can pull from, will ensure it’s always there when you need it.

With protective gear, we can go on and on providing examples, and preaching to use it when you need it. At the end of the day, it’s always about personal choice and responsibility. Wearing a cup is another one; it’s also tricky since IBJJF rules forbid cups in competition, so you have to decide how you want to train, and when to use one and when not to. But the two big takeaways from this post are: 1) if there’s any question about whether you need to wear your protective gear, then there is no question and 2) your protective gear is part of your uniform. For the latter, it’s all about creating a lasting habit, one that will let you last longer on the mats.

When It Comes To Gi’s, Wearing Is Believing

While the Internet affords the modern shopper a gazillion options, it also breeds paralysis by analysis. With countless reviews, vendors, and styles in the mix, making a purchase becomes much akin to compiling data for a case study. And when it comes to something you’re going to wear? A decision becomes even more difficult.

Take shoes, for example. You can look online, but the proof in the pudding comes from lacing them up. The same is the case for a BJJ gi. You can stare at photos of the sports’ stars wearing the latest innovation, waffle back and forth between canvas or ripstop pants, or wonder about the fit of the latest entrepreneur’s contribution to the burgeoning gi market. However, you’re never going to know if a gi’s the right fit until you try it on.

Alas, there’s no true Zappos.com for gis. Buying and returning isn’t as simple, especially if you have to pick up the return fees. But we’ve pulled together some common sense tips to help you make the best decision.

Your Intent Always Matters

One thing you simply have to know before making a purchase is how you plan to use the gi, and this boils down to whether you’re going to wear the gi for training, for competition, or for both. When it comes to gis used exclusively for training, there’s far less pressure on a purchase; while a perfect fit is always wanted, it’s not as critical. But when it comes to competitions, you’ll probably want to be much pickier.

The first thing to do is review the IBJJF rules and regs (page 28) for gi fit. The last thing you want to do, especially if you’ve traveled far and wide to a major competition, is have a gi that doesn’t meet the IBJJF’s stringent requirements. Since giving your opponent as little gi fabric to latch on to is always a benefit, most competitors want a snug fit, but one that still allows for maximum mobility.

But let’s be clear: when competing, your skill level, strategy, and endurance are far more important than the gi you’re wearing—no matter how perfectly it fits. Just chalk a well-tailored gi up as a small advantage, but never as a game-changer. However, if you typically roll in a looser gi, don’t just save that snug gi for competition. You need to feel comfortable in your competition gi, so as much as you probably prize it (especially since they’re typically more expensive) make sure you train in it extensively beforehand.

For Trial and Error, Beg And Borrow

Like most sizing systems, the universal sizing system for gis is very imperfect. An A2 in one brand may fit far differently than an A2 in another. This is another reason why staring at a computer screen serves you very little—even if you pull the trigger on a new gi based on the slick design or thickest collar, the sizing may not be in line with gis you’ve worn from other brands.

The best—and of course, most logical—way to size a gi is by asking your training partners to let you try theirs on, especially if it’s a brand you’re interested in. Better yet, attending a seminar often presents a great opportunity since a large group of practitioners has gathered. While you might not be comfortable asking a stranger to try their gi on—which is somewhat illogical since you’d probably be willing to roll with them—you’ll just have to weigh if that request is easier than having to head to FedEx to return a gi that just didn’t work for you.

Again, with so many new gi companies on the market, and with many of them using smart marketing tactics such as “limited run” gis, “champion-approved” kimonos, and slick new designs, it’s not going to get any easier any time soon. So when faced with these factors, always fall back on fit. That’s why most seasoned practitioners are brand-loyal; it’s usually based on the fact that a particular gi has consistently been a good fit for them, and nothing else.

The Purple Belt Problem

In many ways, the rank of purple belt can be viewed as a bridge rank. When a practitioner receives a blue belt, this represents a huge step simply from a standpoint of dealing with the challenge of an existence as a white belt. This existence starts with cluelessness, continues with beatdown after beatdown, and culminates with having a foundation of knowledge and skill in BJJ. Since so many white belts fall by the wayside, the rank of blue belt is often rewarding simply from a standpoint of survival.

Receiving a purple belt, however, is a different story. It’s very difficult to advance to this rank without possessing definitive skill. This skill ranges from a development of BJJ strategy, an overall wider knowledge base, and extremely refined technique. A purple belt has demonstrated an aptitude and commitment to BJJ far beyond the earlier ranks, and understands that they are halfway to the ultimate goal: black belt. This is why it can be viewed as a bridge rank; you stand squarely between novice and expert.

That’s why many purple belts will admit to this rank being one of the first times they feel pressure on the mat. They’re now viewed as an advanced practitioner, and in most schools this places that purple belt at the top of the food chain, and they feel an expectation to feast upon the white and blue belts at their disposal. Therein lies the purple belt problem.

Here’s a quick newsflash: as a purple belt, you’re going to have blue belt days. This might come about due to injury or by having an off day. Conversely, a blue belt is going to have a purple belt day every now and again. This means the stars will at some point align, and lead exactly where a purple belt doesn’t want it to: with tapping out to a “lower” belt. You can fight against this idea as much as you want to, but it’s inevitable for most purple belts.

So at that moment when a blue belt achieves the upper hand, accept that you might be having one of those “blue belt days.” This is most important at that moment of pain when your stubborn pride prevents you from tapping against your blue belt brethren. But tap, and just move on. Remove this pressure—pressure you have heaped upon yourself—and acknowledge the moment’s inevitability.

Here’s an additional tip for dealing with what will certainly feel like a moment of defeat: think back to that glorious moment when you—as a blue belt—tapped a purple belt yourself. You were having a good day, and maybe that purple belt slept on you or was simply a step behind. Catching belts above you is part of your development. Believe it or not, being caught by belts “beneath” you is part of that development, too. How you deal with it will go a long way toward your emotional and psychological toughness on the mats.

So many BJJ lessons end with the advice to let go of the ego. But for the purple belt problem, the good news is that over time a purple belt’s blue belt days will be few and far between. Soon you may not have any at all, and you’ll be a purple belt having a brown belt day every now and then. Of course, you know how it is with jiu jitsu: pretty soon you’ll be a brown belt, one worrying about having a purple belt day.

Notes From A Middle-Aged Grappler: Submitting to Reality

On August 6th of this year, I turned 40. If you assume that my reaching this landmark age was riddled with the angst associated with most mid-life crises, you’d be absolutely correct. A huge part of my angst came from the fact that as I was approaching four decades I had suffered a significant injury; jiu-jitsu was my escape, physically and mentally, and it had been taken from me at what I felt was a critical point in my life. As any practitioner understands, BJJ certainly makes you grapple (sorry) with your own mortality, and I’m here to tell you that struggle is only exacerbated by age and injury.

Flashback: in December of 2012, I suffered what was my second back injury while training. This one was more severe, producing a tell-tale pop in my spine, along with immediate and significant pain. I was carried off the mat, and in-between the surges of agony a raging duel of “Yep, this is the end of BJJ for me!” and “No way, I’m not going out like this!” argued back and forth in my brain. The day after the injury involved the humiliation of using a walker to make it to the doctor’s office, which was easily the lowest point of the experience. Overnight I had gone from a guy who felt like he had the skills to defend himself adequately to a man who couldn’t walk. Overnight I had gone from being relatively healthy to being debilitated. Overnight, I felt old—older than I had ever felt before.

I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing the injury and the recovery here. (I will, however, give a shout-out to my physical therapist, Robin Tappy, who nursed me back to physical health while also serving as my sports psychologist). The prognosis was ultimately one torn disc, and one bulging disc right above it. Again, anyone who trains in BJJ knows that injuries are just part of the territory, and that fighting through them is a huge part of your progression as a practitioner, so you certainly know what I went through: it hurt for a while, I committed to physical therapy, encountered an emotional rollercoaster of exhilaration and frustration, and ultimately whined a lot about my plight to my wife.

Tentatively I returned to Great Grappling, with my purple belt in tow, at the start of last summer. Though I had steeled myself against the reality of how out of shape I was going to be, how my old muscle memory would fail me, and how my timing would be way off, I still encountered a rude awakening. Sparring, obviously, was no picnic. My lack of mobility (and always-inherent lack of athleticism) did not serve me well against my skilled (but merciful) training partners who had dramatically improved over six months, or against the new, young, and athletic faces who kindly made me feel like I had never trained BJJ at all (related: I loathe young and athletic people).

Immediately I was cursing the stupid spin class I had been going to and the boring laps I had swum in an attempt to ramp up my cardio for my “triumphant” return, because I was on the mat huffing and puffing one-third of the way through a round, hoping my training partner would submit me slowly so I could catch my breath.

I was submitted by my peers, by “lower” belts, and possibly even by a young child—I’m not really sure, since those first couple of weeks back are now just an oxygen-deprived haze. Yes, it was somewhat pathetic. But here’s the thing: I loved every minute of it.

The semi-happy ending here isn’t about any sort of perseverance on my part or how to fight through injuries or any of that “age isn’t a number!” mumbo-jumbo. I am older, and the way I approach BJJ would’ve changed, with or without the injury.

The message is to enjoy BJJ while you can, and to never take it for granted. I enjoy BJJ now more than I ever have, simply because I had to face, for the first time, the possibility that it might be taken away from me. I always knew how much I loved it, and how integral it was to my physical fitness, but today I have a deeper understanding of how entwined it is with my emotional well-being, and even my identity. That’s why I’ll never take it for granted again. Maybe in hindsight that seems melodramatic, but I can assure you that was my thought process at the time, melodramatic or not.

Today I’m still not quite what I used to be. I’m getting there, but as any middle-aged grappler knows, coming back gets harder each and every time. I have what I call a “new normal.” But this “new normal” is a topic for another post, for another day. For now, I’m perfectly happy just being here.