Building Good Training Vibes

We are almost a month into our soft opening of the new Jiu Jitsu training academy here in Nashville, TN. We have already reached our first membership goals and are able to cover the basic expenses. Marketing and advertisement has so far just been word of mouth but every person who has come to visit has commented on the vibe of the new place and how it just draws you in. I figured now would be a good time to talk about how we go about achieving that good vibe feel amidst the sweat and hard work.

The ultimate authority in the academy is where the vibe starts, and it is not always the most obvious person. It could be an instructor, manager, owner, or even some mentor who influences others from a distance. If the base authority is healthy, the gym is healthy. In the case of my academy, it is my head professor who is the academy owner and authority figure.

So, what does healthy leadership look like? It varies stylistically from individual to individual, but the results will yield committed instructors, enthusiastic students, and a low turnover rate for staffing. I’ll just use our leadership as an example and expound on a few fictional contrasts.

Cares About Students

First and foremost, if the leadership does not care about their students – you might as well write them off right out of the gate. My professor has been accused of caring too much, to the point where his other black belt students have to pull him away from trying to coach someone at a tournament who was actively trying to undermine his business. Each student is important, as are their goals. I find it rare to meet individuals who genuinely care, and I’m thankful that my professor is one of them.

Most people go into teaching Jiu Jitsu because they love the art and passing it on – there are very few people who are able to get rich teaching BJJ or running an academy. If leadership is focused all on the numbers, the students will suffer as they become just part of an assembly line.

Of course, that is not to say you can’t be an amazing leader who cares about students AND makes money, what I’m talking about is balance. When you’re dealing with people’s health and safety, you can’t be a cold machine focused on churning out numbers. Jiu Jitsu is a very personal activity, and that warmth is needed in order to keep people invested for the long term.

Goal Focused

Everyone comes to their first Jiu Jitsu class with a goal. I myself got into training because I wanted a hard physical challenge to help me get into shape. Other common goals are

  • Self-Defense (as a result of a traumatic event, or in anticipation of one)
  • Competition
  • Confidence Building
  • Trying the Unknown

There are as many goals as there are people who walk in the door. If my professor knows someone has a goal to learn self-defense because they work at a high-risk LEO job, he will give them a different perspective than someone who is into it as a sport. For example: if you’re a purple belt with the desire to compete, he will work with you until you develop the confidence to represent your belt level at the tournament you want to enter. He wouldn’t promote you before you could develop that confidence – because he would take the time to understand your individual goals. Having more high ranked students in the academy would, at a glance, look better for him as a professor but promoting students earlier than their personal goals dictate is selfish.

Willing to Have the Hard Conversations

Strong leadership is not afraid to talk openly about an issue and then take action if needed. For example: if a male black belt has a habit of sexually harassing female students, it is oftentimes brushed under the rug with the ladies made to feel they need to either suck it up or leave and never get a chance to really feel like a real part of the community. My professor had a case like this, and he took the time to gather information, various testimonies, and gave due process… and EVERYBODY deserves due process. The women should feel free to train and know they will be safe, and the men should also feel free to train and not worry that a misspoken word might get them in the hot seat.

Jiu Jitsu brings a lot of different people together under one roof. Leadership needs to be prepared for this and ready to step in when (not if) issues of harassment, discrimination, and racism pop up. Jiu Jitsu puts you in a lot of vulnerable positions as it is, so we don’t want to be worrying about these sorts of things while we are trying to focus on learning.

Takes Care of Those Invested

We love seeing new white belts come into the gym! They are our legacy and the continuation of our Jiu Jitsu heritage – but taking care of the students who are invested for the long term is key! If the focus becomes just on getting new numbers through the door without any appreciation or care for those already present, it will lead to students feeling unappreciated. I have seen so many cases of long-term loyalty being taken for granted, and that loyalty can only be pushed so far before it finally breaks.

The invested upper rank students are necessary to help keep the quality of the room high, as well as to be good examples to the new white belts when they come in for training. In a full class the instructor can’t see all of the students at once, so the upper level belts step in to help while the professor is answering questions on the other side of the mat. They also teach by example how to treat your training partners and safely execute techniques during live sparring.

Summary:

I could continue on as this is a topic of particular personal interest to me. Over the past decade plus of training I have personally seen a lot of shitty situations. Harassment of minorities, sexual coercion, abuse of power, racism, disrespect, embezzlement, and some 9th circle of hell level betrayals. However, through all of this the BJJ community always impresses me with how it keeps shining through and working to be better. It feels so good to have a place to train where it feels like family again. My personal goal is to make the path a bit less rough for those who follow after me, that’s a big part of why I write things like this (when really I prefer all sunshine and rainbows). Talking about things is the first step to making things better – if it stays in the dark, it will continue growing unchecked until the day it destroys us all.

Next Chapter: New Jiu Jitsu Academy

It has been a turbulent past few years. At the end of 2021 I had a major knee reconstruction surgery and decided that in my down time I would take charge of things and set the foundation for my comeback. After spending so long running myself into the ground physically, financially, mentally, etc. I declared 2022 to be the rebuilding year – so I would be going into 2023 in an overall healthier state.

New Academy:

I started with breaking from my old training academy, staying with my original coach of course. That’s a long story I won’t get into since I wrote about it already (Click Here for that post). It sucked so badly because I knew that change would affect more than just myself and would leave my students confused and feeling abandoned. However, I realized that whether I acted or not others were already being affected/hurt – so I may as well be an active participant instead of a powerless observer.

Since then, my coach dropped my old academy from the team affiliation and has opened up a new academy. Now those of us who prefer his teaching and training methodology can have a place to call home once again. I do feel guilt about the people I left behind who I care about, but also have to remind myself that they are (mostly all) adults capable of making their own decisions for themselves. Some of them will come to the new academy, some will stay where they are – either option is completely valid! I don’t care where people choose to train, if they are cool with me I’m cool with them.

The team has already added several new affiliate academies to our ranks in the past few months as well! I’m excited for the future of our team, and most of all getting to train again the way that I used to under my coach once more. That’s what got me from day 1 to top ranked at each belt level up through purple. I fell off on the rankings toward the end of purple belt since I wasn’t able to train full time with my coach anymore, and so many other things were changing around that time that I was clicked into survival mode long term.

There has been enough negativity over the past several years and I am just moving on and refusing to marinate in it now that I have other options. It has taken and will continue to take a lot of therapy to reach this point – but things are good now, and I don’t want to let the past overshadow the future.

I am looking forward to starting up a new Ladies BJJ program. Previously I grew one from the ground up using leftover time slots and no real support or backing. I did the marketing, lesson planning, networking, and follow ups myself. Now not only do I have enthusiastic support from my coach and his wife who own the new academy, I also have a team of experienced ladies on board to help me, and prime time training slots. No longer the afterthought!

Training:

I am finally able to train consistently again – and it feels amazing! It has been about a year and 10 months since my knee injury and I had started wondering if I was ever going to be back again. Being sidelined for so long is a major issue since Jiu Jitsu is my autism special interest – I can’t just pick something else to fill that space while I wait for the green light once again. I watched myself being migrated to the outside of the circle once again, where I spent my entire life up until I found Jiu Jitsu – and it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories/feelings.

So far I am just a little over two weeks into regular consistent training and I can already feel myself regulating and relaxing once again. I do still have to be cautious of my reconstructed knee, but I see my surgeon again on Dec 7 – that will be a year post-op and he promised to give me a final clear to compete again. So I signed up for the European Championships at the end of January. I won’t be in shape or in my regular weight class for it, but just getting on those mats again will feel so good!

Training in the new academy with all the old familiar faces just feels like a breath of fresh air – the world is as it should be again with coach and his wife as the co-owners. It is just amazing!

Autism Stuff:

About 3 weeks ago I went in to get started with my Autism assessment. Previously (10+ years ago) a diagnosis was suggested by a therapist but the process for official testing and diagnosis is very drawn out, and prohibitively expensive (several months’ worth of my then income). Drs who are able to do the official evaluation generally have long waiting lists and insurance does not usually cover the testing process.

My new job (as of the beginning of the year) offers excellent insurance that actually covers mental health testing with just a small copay. So I decided to take advantage of this and get the official testing done.

My usual preparation method for any new experience is that I will mentally rehearse every possible interaction and outcome so that I can know going into it what to do. Incidentally, this is why I don’t usually do last minute outings – since I haven’t been able to mentally prepare for all outcomes. I am not able to react appropriately on the spot, so I have learned over the years that I must spend the energy beforehand preparing all possible interactions in order to be able to connect with people in a way that gives them a favorable impression of me.

I was told I should not do this for my intake session or testing – my therapist friends told me that unfortunately they don’t evaluate you on how well you can adapt around your deficiencies. So while I don’t want to “play it up”, I also don’t want to mask and pretend to be okay with everything. The thought of not allowing myself to prepare meant the doctor got to do an intake on me completely keyed up. At the close of the intake she said, “well I don’t have to send you in for testing in order to confidently diagnose you as autistic, but we can go ahead with the testing if it’s not cost prohibitive for you.” I want the extra insight so I’m opting to do the testing process – which is scheduled for Dec 21 with a meeting with the doctor on Jan 23 to go over results.

So up until now I have operated on the premise that I am autistic, but there was just enough doubt that I put a lot of things in a mental “maybe” box… Now those maybes need to be sorted through. Realizing that growing up it wasn’t that I was stupid, or not trying hard enough to get on and fit in – it’s legit that my brain works differently, and I am disabled in that regards. Can I function in life? Absolutely I can, but it takes so much extra effort and I just want that struggle to be validated for the sake of my own mental health.

In Conclusion

Things are good and moving in a positive direction. I personally have a lot of healing to do, as does my local team, but we are all on the correct path now though and the future is bright!

I’m Thankful For My Injury

Warning: Lots of feelings here!

I’ve been down rehabbing a major injury for 18 months now. It has been difficult to be so removed from “my thing” for so long and I have gone through many phases of mourning, anger, and sadness. Now I am finally reaching “hope” since my surgeon has cleared me to ease back into training with a check in another 4 months to give me a final clear to compete once more (eye on the European Championships!)

In the midst of the process, I have been doing an assessment and re-organization of my life. My goal is to build a better foundation for myself moving forward with my return to the competitive circuit. I was running on empty for so long; mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. I never allowed myself to get caught up in any of these things because I felt like the forward momentum was the only thing keeping me upright and focused. I knew it was unhealthy, but I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

Financially, I had been living off about $1,200 a month (pre-tax) between teaching bjj classes and doing massages in my office. I got really good at living at that level – I used a combo of bus and bicycle to get around (60-90 mins commute each way/day), rented a small bedroom, and did most of my own cooking on the cheap. I would ride an overnight greyhound bus to tournaments in order to save on airfare and hotel expenses, got exceptional at trip planning (went to Europeans on $500 airfare and lodging included), would work tournaments to offset travel costs, and somehow managed to not go into debt.

Mentally/Emotionally I was running myself into the ground. Due to issues at my long-time academy (see This Post for that story) I lost all my main training partners and was still expected to perform at peak level. I couldn’t disconnect like my teammates who had left – so I had to pretend I was okay and keep focusing on my goals. It felt like walking up a sand dune – I was still able to reach my goals, but I had no energy left to celebrate or enjoy the view since I knew I had to go right back into the pit. Competing became more about the trip/escape than the actual event itself. I was desperately hopeful that if I just stuck it out, it would circle back to the way it used to be.

One of my autism features is that I can’t read subtext – if someone says something, I believe them. So many promises were made to me that things would get better “we are working on it”, “trust us to get this done” – I went emotionally bankrupt waiting to cash in those promised checks. I saw the pattern and still chose to trust it even though I knew better logically – because I couldn’t see another viable option.

I know I allowed myself to be manipulated: I hoped that in doing so things would get better and it would pay off where I was. Foolish hope I know, when all the people who cared for me were pushing me to give up and move on. I hate that in allowing myself to be manipulated it made me complicit in a system that hurt so many people that I care about. So far no one I have spoken with has laid any blame on me, but I apologize regardless of blame – and I think it is helping the healing process for everyone.

Getting injured force stopped my hamster wheel and left me in complete disarray – I’m almost at a point where I can be truly thankful for it. I eventually would have hit a breaking point mentally, and I don’t know that I would have recovered from that – and I know I was so very close.

I just parted ways with my therapist who has helped me through this transition process to leave my old academy for good. She admitted she was rooting for me to leave but of course professionally couldn’t insert her own opinion on the matter – Her that her relief/celebration when I told her kind of gave her opinion away of course. She also guided me toward a place where I can finally have an official ASD evaluation (scheduled for next month). I’m hoping that they will be able to help me identify areas that I don’t realize I’m compensating and help me find better tools to bring me those to balance a bit.

Financially I’ve gotten set up in a much better situation. I took a job working for a teammate as a project manager. Another autistic feature of mine is that I am really good at pattern recognition and organization of complex systems – so this job is a perfect fit for me. It also pays well enough for me to get my own apartment and (slowly) pay off my surgery bills. Since the majority of the other staff members also train bjj, we have mats in the warehouse where I’ve been getting my training groove back slowly.

The lynchpin was me finally leaving my old academy and breaking the cycle, and it took my injury shaking up things to do so. I have a lot of healing to do still mentally but my coach has my back, and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

People have been messaging me all kinds of different things after my writing that initial “break up” article. I had people from outside my association/region relating to it, local gym owners commiserating watching the decline in my old academy’s local reputation, students wishing me well and being sad for me. I also had people telling me that I needed to share all the good things about my old academy since it wasn’t all bad – but the bad overshadowed the good too much and made me so miserable for so long that the best I could do was try to be balanced with my initial break up article.

There are a lot of feelings flying around, and my team has a lot of healing to do. It sucks so much to see how deep a wound has been caused by just a handful of people. What I appreciate is that our coach is taking active steps to help mend the hurt – because it proves that he genuinely cares. He hates giving up on people which is why dropping my old academy from the team association was such a drastic step for him. There are still many people there who are greatly loved, and it makes it that much more tragic of a development. Not being allowed to talk about things (however ugly and uncomfortable they might be) keeps things from ever really healing and is what enables a broken system to thrive. I’m thankful to have things out in the open – it’s not pretty, but we can focus on fixing it now.

Anyhow, feelings are messy but I’m finally starting to make sense of mine – I can visualize now what it will be like next year when I return to competition, and I can’t wait to show what I can do when I’m actually healthy again!

Inspiring Loyalty

This is a bit of a follow up to my “When the Vibe Changes” post from last month. That post circulated more than I thought it would! It opened up a dialogue for a lot of people to talk more openly about things – both locally and elsewhere. Things have changed significantly since then and needs an update!

As people began sharing more about the changes that made them leave my old academy, it was apparent that the teachings of our association head were no longer respected or taught, along with other issues. Long story short, my old academy has been dropped from the team association – our coach finally had enough of the centralized drama stemming from ongoing policies that don’t match his philosophies.

My loyalty is to my coach because he has earned it over the years of having my back and investing in me. He returns that loyalty, and it is obvious even to people outside of our association how much he cares for all of his students. Yes, even the troublemakers (you know who you are!)

When I tell people how amazing my coach is they just don’t get how he can inspire such a loyal following and assume it must be cult of personality. Then they meet him and say, “oh I get it now!” See he genuinely gives a shit about seeing people succeed and surpass his abilities. If you look at the black belts he has produced, you will notice they are all unique with different styles and methodologies. He doesn’t try to mold us in his image, he instead seeks out what makes us tick and nurtures that into its own thing. His affiliation has grown in the mid-south so much in the past several years, and that’s without him ever actively trying to coax people on to the team, in fact he wasn’t even intending to run an affiliation but the black belts under him all requested it. He inspires people to want to follow, and he is a good enough person that he understands the responsibility of that.

This is what differentiates a coach from an instructor (by my definition at least). An instructor gives you valuable knowledge for you to then implement. A coach goes deeper and develops more than just technique, they develop mindset, philosophy, and individual training plans based on a student’s strengths and weaknesses. He actively watches the trends in Jiu Jitsu and if he sees something that he thinks will work for a student, he takes the time to study it and help a student integrate it into his game – even if it’s something that is outside of his personal style. For example, spider guard was just coming onto the scene when I was a white belt. He saw it being used at worlds and brought it back to show me saying “I can’t do this with my hips, but you are gonna love it!” I remember staring at him in disbelief that I would ever use this ridiculous looking technique… But he was right, and I still actively use it to this day!

You can’t demand loyalty from people under you. Loyalty is something that is awarded to you by virtue of proving your merit and care. If you have to demand that people are loyal and respect you, all you will be is a dictator who rules by fear (which can look similar but will feel hollow upon receipt).

A major goal of mine is to one day be able to inspire people the way he does. At any rate, I look forward to the future and am allowing myself to feel true excitement and anticipation again! I see my surgeon again in 4 weeks and will find out if I need another procedure on my knee to break up scar tissue. Either way my prognosis is excellent for return to full impact with zero restrictions, it’s just gonna take a little more time.

Jiu Jitsu and Autism Pt 4

It’s been requested over the last couple of years that I write a follow up post to my “Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers” series from back in the day. I thought I had gotten everything out with that series, and honestly it was a scary one to publish since I hadn’t disclosed my diagnosis to many people at that point. This might be a rehashing but there’ve definitely been changes since I wrote that piece 8 years ago! (Click Here to check out the article that started it all)

Two big changes:

The Aspergers diagnosis is now defunct and dated (as are the terms high/low functioning), my diagnosis is now simply “Autistic”. The other change being that I was promoted to my black belt last year.

So where does that leave me?

I’m still me. I’m learning and unlearning a lot through work with my therapist. Autism seems to have taken a recent spotlight through media representation, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Education and awareness is good in general, but media will of course represent the extremes of something from their own vantage point, not understanding what actually goes on in a brain that is wired differently than theirs. The stereotypical autistic person they usually end up portraying is the sensationalized version that is a small fraction of the diagnosis spectrum.

Sensory Issues:

Since my last posting on this topic, I have had to stop driving a car. It is just too much input/reaction for me to safely handle. On bad/low tolerance days I could focus either on; watching my speed, staying in the lines, or driving directions. I got speeding tickets because I was having to focus so hard to keep my car going where I wanted it and safely avoiding all the other moving (and stationary) objects that I just didn’t pay attention to speed, or I would be swerving in and out of lines while watching my speedometer. It all added up to more stress than it was worth to me. I switched to a combo of bicycle and the bus. The bike is easier because I don’t have to watch a speedometer, and can stop easily if I need a focus break. It was less convenient on the surface (especially given the state of the bus system in Nashville), but a better choice overall.

More recently I have started paying closer attention to my tactile sensitivities. Can I push through the day with a jacket sleeve touching the base of my thumb or an odd feeling fabric making up my gi pants? Yes, yes I can. But these little stressors add up and if it’s something within my own control, shouldn’t I control it and make it easier for me to handle the things I have no control over? As such I’ve done a closet purge and gotten rid of items that I find uncomfortable, got myself a floofy fleece hoodie to relax in at home, and am eyeballing an oversized Totoro plushie I found online.

I recognize now that while I can’t tolerate light physical contact, firm to hard is actually soothing. I’m guessing this is another reason why Jiu Jitsu is a good activity for me!

Pattern Recognition:

I’m starting to make some realizations about how deep my penchant for pattern recognition goes. I have realized that I don’t read people’s facial expressions emotionally, but I can recognize a change in their behavior pattern that tips me off if something (positive or negative) is up. So, the better I know someone (and get the hang of their normal behavior) the better I can read their emotional changes.

It’s frustrating because I can predict to pretty good accuracy an issue down the road – but no one takes me seriously if I try to point it out. Then the crisis hits and they all scramble to address it and I just heave a sigh.

In Jiu Jitsu it has definitely been an asset! When I figured out the mechanics of a triangle choke, I was able to easily apply the same thing from all angles (inverted reverse triangle finish anyone?) Learning my training partners’ movement patterns helps make me seem like I know a lot more than I actually do.

Special Interests:

My primary special interest has remained Jiu Jitsu – I’m going on 11 years now of it! It brings me great joy that I’m surrounded by people who don’t think it’s odd if I want to talk for hours about training techniques or theory.

It has been particularly difficult for the past few years. First, we had all the gym shutdowns with the coronovirus, and then just as we were getting into the swing of training again I had a very bad injury. I’ve been recovering for over a year now and haven’t been allowed to train properly (at all in the past 5 months post-op). I had the best possible sports osteopathic surgeon piece my knee back together again – he is confident I will be back to full impact with no restrictions, it just takes time.

Not being able to participate feels like a part of me is just a dark empty space that nothing can fill. I’m back on the outside looking in again. I have tried my best to keep myself engaged through teaching and watching film, but it is a pacifier that can’t be sustained. It has reached a point where I can actually see a life for myself where I never train again, and it terrifies me. I am determined that I WILL be back!

Social Stuff:

Being around the Jiu Jitsu community has made me feel much more competent and confident in social settings. Overall, I think the sport attracts the awkward misfits who are more accepting and forgiving of the awkwardness of others.

I have never dated, and probably won’t in the future. It is so difficult for me to maintain friendships that adding deeper levels just seems an insurmountable task to me, more trouble than it would be worth. Just know that if I count you as a friend, that means something.

I find it difficult to make a good first impression without feeling like I’m putting on a show of something that isn’t who I really am. The term is “masking” where I hide my natural pattern of speech behind a mask that is more socially acceptable. Everyone has always told me to “just be yourself and people will appreciate the real you!” – but in my experience that is a well-meaning lie. The real me is awkward, makes people uncomfortable with bluntness and vocal inflections, doesn’t have a filter on facial expressions, etc. Probably the reason that, while growing up, the other kids in my peer group thought I was “creepy.”

Nine times out of ten, if I greet people with the real me, it just doesn’t begin or end well. So many of my (now) friends have said that when they first met me, they thought I hated them. If I wear my goofball mask it is a predictable role that other people know how to relate to right off the bat. It’s less stress in the moment, but more stress in the long term. Sometimes I’m so exhausted when get home that I just sit down and stare at a blank wall for a solid hour before I’m able to start to relax with a book or movie.

That said, it’s better than it was before. I’m more aware of my limitations and am getting better at regulating myself. Controlling the things in my environment that I have control over means I have more energy to deal with the ones I can’t control. Since people with Autism have to expend more mental/emotional energy to do simple daily tasks, I have to conserve my energy where possible in order to make it through the day.

Anxiety:

I had a 3-day long anxiety attack last week. I learned something new from my therapist through it. Since my brain has no filter for the world I will eventually hit “critical mass” and my brain/nervous system just says “no.”

I say it’s like boiling a pot of water. Everyone else can boil their pot uncovered but I have a pressure cooker lid firmly in place. The pressure that would normally just dissipate from the act of heating up the water (aka, functioning in society) has nowhere to go for me.

Even as I explain it, it sounds like I’m just making excuses. Especially when people try to relate by saying “I think everyone is a little autistic” – which to me sounds like a minimization of my own difficulties. I can function if I try hard enough, so I must be lying or exaggerating. The toll it takes on me though is not sustainable over the long term.

In Closing:

Not a ton has changed really. I am still me. I am just trying to learn more about myself so that I can be a better human. Achieving my black belt was a huge saga that I will one day possibly share, but I need to be a little further removed from circumstances before I do that.

As I have risen in the ranks, I have felt the responsibility to look out for my fellow students. I would spend my weekend rehearsing all possible questions and interactions that I could come up with so that I could have an answer for someone as opposed to my classic deer in headlights stare. They know I care, even if I’m still a bit rough around the edges.

I’ve been more open about my diagnosis in the past couple of years. I think it’s because I have come to accept it more and feel more confident. That said, I’m actually awaiting an official assessment through an ADA approved evaluation center. I’ve been diagnosed by several therapists but if it’s not done through the approved evaluation center it’s not considered “official”. It’s an expensive drawn-out process, which is why I haven’t done it before – but with the salary from my new job I will be able to afford it!

Black Belt Promotion Quick Thoughts

Well I was promoted to my black belt yesterday.

It’s going to take some time to sink in really. The whole experience was super overwhelming and everyone else was crying so much that I haven’t had a chance to cry myself yet. It seems like I have been training all my life, and also feels like I’m just starting to learn what this thing is all about. That is one of the things that has kept me hooked for the long term, the never ending potential for learning – and I am going to keep on learning and pushing myself to be better. It has become a habit now.

I keep trying to compile a list of people to thank… But I’d have to list every person I have ever trained/competed with because each person has made an impact and helped to push me forward. So if we have ever rolled, know that you have had a part in making me who I am (for better or worse!) I’m gonna have to limit my personal thanks to those who have really acted as long-term consistent pillars in my journey.

Top of the list is my head coach, who put his stamp of approval on me and awarded me my black belt, Shawn Hammonds. If you have never met him, you wouldn’t understand how much this man genuinely cares for people. If you talk to him, he will make you feel like you are the most important person in the world. There is a reason our team grows and adds new schools without ever actively recruiting, and its because of him. I have been burnt out on living in Nashville for years, and have stuck around for this man – because he promised he would make me his first home grown (white to black) female black belt – and he delivered. Love you coach!

Master Lloyd Irvin. He and his crew have always treated me like family and welcomed me. He has always had an open door and has taught me a lot of valuable lessons when I have been able to come train with him out in Maryland. I learned about mental focus and how to push through, as well as the value of standing your ground when what you know to be true is challenged. Oh, and he’s the reason I have a killer loop choke that makes all of my team mates say “nope” if my hand gets near a lapel. I’m super proud to have him in my black belt lineage and promise to do the line proud!

Javier Arroyo really has been a constant in my journey as well. When I started training he wore the rattiest old purple belt you had ever seen. He was promoted to brown belt the same day I was given my blue belt. He loves to teach and when he sees potential and desire to improve, he does everything he can to help it grow. He has been teaching me Judo in addition to Jiu Jitsu and he is Dante’s favorite person – that alone has to count for something!

Bryan Tidwell was our brown belt fundamentals instructor when I first started training, and I think he was the first black belt promotion I witnessed. He started training at our academy under Shawn when he was (I think) 17 and will tell you that it literally saved his life. I have seen him get bored of playing side control bottom on some big dude and decide to just stand up, and he then does it. It doesn’t make sense how, but he does it. We call him “The Matrix”. Looking forward to more learning ahead!

My parents were able to come down to witness my promotion. Those outside of my family won’t know how difficult that was for them, so that alone gets me in the feels. They have always supported me and had my back, and I know how precious that is because I have many friends who do not get that kind of unconditional love and support that should be a given when it comes to family.

I’m gonna wrap this up now so I can get back to lesson planning for the week. Life continues on just like before, although I will say, it is true that black is slimming!

Emerging From the Cocoon

img_3690So I haven’t put up anything in so long because honestly, I just haven’t had the heart or energy to do so. I’ve gone through several depressive phases where only my dog could make me get out of bed or smile. I’m currently on an upswing and feeling reflective… So here’s to almost a decade of training!

The things that scare me the most are the very things I need in order to grow. The more I learn about something (i.e. leg locks, takedowns), the less they frighten me. It may be another decade before I gain any proficiency in applications, but there is a direct correlation between knowledge and reduced fear.

It doesn’t matter where someone trains. We have the same base goal to improve and can respect one another on that basis. If you’re cool with me, I’m cool with you. We don’t have to agree on philosophy in order to get along. I will not let what other people say overrule my personal experience with someone. Anyone can talk, but I know what I know.

I’ve always felt worse when I surrender to laziness and skip training. Everything seems easier on the other side of training and I’ve never regretted pushing through to train against my own laziness. In contrast, I’ve learned to recognize that sometimes it’s not good to push through (i.e. injury or mental health day). It’s all about learning and judging myself honestly.

Every gym has its own environment and won’t be a good fit for every person who walks in. I recommend to everyone to try different places to see where you fit best. If you try to make yourself fit into the wrong place it will put a damper on your love of training. Doesn’t mean one place is better than the other, it just means one place is a better fit for you personally.

You learn more as an instructor sometimes because it forces you to look at moves from all different angles in order to teach it effectively to students who have different learning styles than you do. Taking on an instructor role has made me a better student, since I try to pay closer attention to details taught so that I can answer questions. Basically it makes me more accountable since I have people now who look to me for their instruction and inspiration – and that honestly terrifies me. I don’t want to fail them. I want each of my students to have their very best chance to learn to love jiu jitsu. Will they all fall in love long term like me? Not likely. However, if they can gain something worthwhile from their time in class then my job is done. You don’t have to commit for life in order to enrich your life through martial arts training.

If I have a private lesson with someone, I go and immediately try to teach it to someone else in order to make sure the concepts are locked into my brain. Sometimes they end up doing it better than me, and that to me means I understand the concepts and my body just needs to catch up with my brain

Having a black belt does not automatically make you a good person. The process of training does weed out a lot of ego issues, but sometimes it can feed into it as well. I’ve had friends oppressed by instructors, as well as lifted up by them. People are people regardless of their belt rank.

I find that I do judge higher ranked belts by how they treat those below them. I came from a more classical style of martial arts where a core teaching is that the job of the upper ranks is to nurture and help those below them grow. White belts are our future blue belts, and purple, and brown, and then black. They will become the kind of black belt we make them into starting from day one. They are our legacy – how will we mold them?

Not comparing my own progress to those around me is nearly impossible for me to do. I have to make a constant effort to make the comparison to last week me, instead of the person sitting on top of me at the moment. I fight my own battles, as do all of my training partners. They don’t really know what I might be dealing with, and I don’t really know what they have going on. So kindness and compassion is key. Now kindness doesn’t mean we don’t try to beat the tar out of one another, but if I know a team mate is having a bad day I just try to give them a little extra leeway mentally as needed. I might be the one having a bad day next time.

We get pretty personal with one another. And jiu jitsu training and competition can involve some breakdowns. I really appreciate that I have surrounded myself with a good circle of people who support and love me if I let them know I’m not in a good headspace. The same people will push me to succeed just as hard when they know I can handle it. My goal is to give back as much as I can!

img_3551One of my most popular blog articles has been about my Aspergers diagnosis. I have found my jiu jitsu family to be such a eclectic group of weirdos that I am able to blend right in. It has been so healing for me to feel accepted by a group – it has reached a point that even when I have bad days I still know and believe that I won’t loose my place in the group. This means more to me than they will ever know, and I thank everyone for that. 

In conclusion (for now), jiu jitsu has truly become my lifestyle. My daily life revolves around it and I spend more time at the training academy than I do at home. It is no longer something I do, it is just part of who I am. I’m excited to see what the next year will bring for me – lots of changes and plans in the works!

 

Thoughts From the Bunker

I have elected thus far to not share much over the past couple of months. There is enough talk going on around about world events and I dislike redundancy. After a few dark bouts of anger, frustration, and ugly crying – I think I have finally reached acceptance of the current flux of affairs. So here are some thoughts.

I do not know what will happen.

I do not know if my family and friends will be okay.

I do not know when I can resume concrete planning for the future.

I do not know how this will affect the world around me.

I do not know how this will affect the timetable for earning my black belt.

I do not know what this will do do my massage business – which I finally got up and running consistently.

I do not know if my bjj ladies group will come back to class or not.

I do not know who I am without my training and my work.

I do not know when I can train again without being judged for doing so.

 

I do not have to know. Trying to figure everything out right now is an exercise in futility. Information becomes outdated almost as soon as I hear it, if it was accurate from the start. So I decided to focus on what I can do in my current situation.

I can take things one day at a time.

I can conserve funds as much as possible with the purpose of rebuilding my business.

I can rediscover old past-times such as baking, gardening, and drawing.

I can train every day with the grappling dummy, and a couple times a week with my quarantine buddy.

I can focus on mobility work.

I can call my parents or grandma every day.

I can sit and breathe – just enjoy each moment. I have been so “go go go” for the past several years that this is probably good for me.

I can focus more time on improving my Japanese and start back up on Spanish.

I can be in  safe place, thanks to good people that I have in my life.

 

My current situation is thus:

Almost two months ago a friend in Owensboro, Kentucky invited me to come up and be her quarantine buddy. She enticed me with promises of an extra room, stocked pantry, and training mats. I told her I would “keep it in mind”.

That weekend I was notified that Nashville was shutting down non-essential businesses (me). Upon hearing that, my last massage client of the day offered to drive me the two hours to Owensboro. I made a split second decision to take her up on that! She refused to take back the payment for her massage, but I at least was able to pay for her gas and coffee. There are amazing people out there!

I got into Owensboro on March 22nd and have been here now for six weeks. My friend is still working; so I try to keep the house clean, bake cookies, and be a good little quarantine wife. I check in with my Jiu Jitsu coach every couple of days to keep him updated on what I am doing as far as my training goes.

I don’t know how long I will be here – but I think I will wait until at least a couple of weeks after Nashville says massage establishments can re-open. I don’t want to get back home only to have them shut us down again after they get the new numbers in.

I have been filming a few technique and self-care videos – so if anyone has any requests please feel free to send me a message on my Instagram! Stay safe!

Dear White Belt:

We really do love you, you are a constant source of amusement and inspiration for us in the upper ranks. I sometimes miss the days when I was a blank slate and was not expected to know anything – the simplest thing was revolutionary.

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Me as a white belt

We love your enthusiastic nature, we don’t like your elbows so much. However, most of us went through a spazz phase as well and understand that “this too shall pass”. Don’t focus so much energy on “not being a spazz” and instead focus more on building your technique. The one will preclude the other as the lack of knowledge and muscle memory is what creates the spazz as you try desperately to do ANYTHING other than get smashed.

Let yourself be in bad positions. It’s okay. Try to relax and not panic. It’s similar to learning how to take a hit in striking – learning to keep calm and react in a proper manner plays a huge part in winning the fight/match.

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Sometimes you need to give up in order to save your training partners. For example, If I am doing a judo throw on someone who may not know how to land safely, I will try to pull up at the last second so they don’t land full force. Or I might hold the back of their head during a sweep in order to protect their neck. If someone rolls the wrong way to escape an ankle lock, let go before it snaps off. We need to take care of each other while training so that we can do this together for years to come!

If you find yourself the odd person out when it comes to sparring rounds, use this as an opportunity to study the other people who are rolling. You can learn a lot this way. Most people will go through a phase where it seems that people are avoiding rolling with them. Please know that it is usually not a personal thing (unless you ARE being a douche) – your team mates may be getting ready for an event and trying to train with people who are closer match ups for them. When in doubt, ask.

Think less about what gaps you need to fill in your Jiu Jitsu game. In the beginning you are a large gaping hole – small isolated patches of skills are not going to cover it effectively and may make you feel frustrated when trying to string things together. Think about what you already know and then build off of that. i.e. if you feel pretty comfortable with take downs, work on guard passes that stem from your usual takedown landing positions. You have plenty of time to work up a well rounded knowledge base, so don’t frustrate yourself by trying to be perfect at everything all at once.

b6c1a5ef-b702-4d0a-aa3f-2db6a666adaaIf you admire something about an upper belt’s game, ask them if they offer private lessons and can teach you what they know! I had a lot of private lessons as a white belt and still continue paying for them several times a month – it really makes a difference!

One thing I recommend is setting a goal every week/month. My first goal I set as a white belt was “no matter what, no one will be able to flatten me and make both of my shoulders touch the ground at the same time”. I spent a month on that one and it set me up to instinctively play off my side. Focus on something small and keep it to yourself – when your team mates start commenting on how tough you are getting just smile and nod knowingly.

It’s a big world of knowledge out there, with unlimited learning potential! Whether you are beasting out three a day training sessions or just coming in one morning a week, do your best! We are all in different places and phases of our lives; all we can do is the best we can with what we have. Maybe you will stick it out for life, maybe you will decide it isn’t for you after a few months. Whatever length of time you have in your Jiu Jitsu journey, make it count!

“OSS!”

Carry on regardless of pressure

  • Used to express respect or acknowledge understanding

A Word on Ladies Classes

In the last week we have done a soft launch of our new ladies only Jiu Jitsu classes. Myself and our other lady brown belt, Madison, are running two classes week to start out. This has brought about a good amount of discussion as to the validity of ladies only classes and rather than debate on social media about it, I’m going to just lay out all my thoughts here.

img_2503-1> begin rant/sermon> First off: I am not a girl power feminist. I don’t believe we are the always the victims or entitled to extra special treatment. I believe in equality – but alike and equal are not the same things. I believe that it someone holds the door open for me, it’s polite to accept the gesture but I don’t demand it. I believe that if I want something badly enough, I will find a way to make it happen. I believe that, as a whole, women are stronger than they think they are – and that we should find our way to discover that. I believe that women should train in co-ed group classes. I believe that ladies only classes are a critical part of growing a strong ladies team. I also believe that these classes are extremely important to the growth of a martial arts gym as a whole. I don’t believe that Jiu Jitsu is for everyone: I believe everyone should try it, but it’s a special kind of (mostly good) crazy that sticks with it.

Main Points (if you want to skip the prelude/sermon)

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From my first month

Jiu Jitsu is an intimidating sport to begin with for anyone. And with the majority of classes at my academy being roughly a (generous) 10:3 ratio of men and women, it is safe to call it a male dominated sport. A lone woman walking into a Jiu Jitsu class for the first time has extra layers of worry to combat. The mere offering of a ladies class makes it seem much more of an inviting environment as a whole.

After doing this for so many years I sometimes forget how intimate and vulnerable it is – and especially with how American society seems to sexualize any sort of physical contact; especially between men and women. A ladies only class helps bridge this gap – familiarizing us with the movements and terminology while easing in the concept of physical contact. After training for a little while, you understand that it’s not a sexual thing and it becomes a non-issue.

This is magnified for many women who have been survivors of abuse – be it sexual, physical, or emotional. I know many who try to use Jiu Jitsu as a form of exposure therapy to help combat their PTSD: to feel safe and in control of themselves again. The beginning phases of learning Jiu Jitsu – getting dominated and smashed for an hour or more at a time – is a hot zone for panic attacks, flashbacks, and other trauma related reflexes. This is not something she may ever want to voice to her team mates, she might just disappear without a word. Having a ladies only class available can create a sense of therapeutic safety for these individuals.

img_2862-1On the lighter side: it can be super refreshing to just have a break from the testosterone. I worry that I might begin growing a beard from all the man sweat that has been soaked into my system. Ladies tend to be much more social in the Jiu Jitsu community than are the men – call us pack animals if you will. Even though most of my main training partners are men, I always find it refreshing to spend quality time with other Jiu Jitsu ladies.

IMG_3351For personal or religious reasons, some individuals do not train with members of the other gender. For the men, this isn’t that big of an obstacle since they can easily train an entire class only partnering with other men. I have several wonderful team mates who do not roll with me and respectfully bow instead of shaking hands – I just return the gesture and carry on. For women, since there are fewer of us (sometimes one or none in a group class), co-ed classes classes may not be a consistent viable option. However with a good ladies only class, these individuals can have the opportunity to train as well if they wish.

For Beginners Only?

IMG_1300I don’t believe that a ladies only class should consist of only beginners who are passing through a way station to the co-ed class. I want my class to be a place where we can grow together and then go out and destroy the guys with our awesome powers of angles and leverage. I want to keep it applicable for both the day one beginner, and the long time veteran.

To the men who have supported this new class and program – thank you for seeing the big picture! To the women who are invested in helping it to grow – you are the reasons we do this.

Current Class Times:

Fridays @ 12:30 with Madison

Sundays @9:30 with Nicholle

After we move to the new facility we will probably shift the Sunday class to later in the day since we will have our own room and fewer things to schedule around.