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!

Post-Op Update – All Clear!

I saw my surgeon 3 weeks ago for my 7 month post-op visit. To me, best case scenario I was hoping for was that he would say I don’t need a follow up procedure and can go ahead and start drilling lightly again on the mats.

To recap: I dislocated my knee sideways while playing single leg x-guard – 4/17/2021. Freak accident. Tore my PCL, LCL, Popliteal tendon, and several other things (basically blew out the outside of my knee joint along with the PCL inside the joint, Dr could rotate my fibula behind the back of my knee). Tried for 8 months to rehab without surgery but no dice and had reconstruction surgery 12/16/2021 (my mom’s bday!). 4 screws, several donor ligaments, and a staple later I have a zombie terminator knee with a rad 8 inch scar up the side.

He did me one better! I have a full release to train again! His words: “I’m okay with you doing whatever you want to do for training, it’s not going to hurt it”. Since he works on pro football players and a good number of the Jiu Jitsu folks in town, I figure I can trust that and go for it! I will see him again one more time at the beginning of December for my 1 year post-op visit – that’s where he gives me a final check and then clears me to compete again.

What Does That Mean?

I still have to regain a lot of functionality. The reconstruction is solid but I still have some muscle fiber areas that don’t engage properly, and my range of motion is around 125 degrees flexion. The Dr said it would continue improving slowly over the next 6 months – and the more I move the better it will be for the joint recovery.

I have not been allowed to actively engage my hamstring muscles in almost a year and a half – so you should see my pathetic attempts at hamstring curls! I have a lot of work to do in the next 6 months to get myself back up to 100%. The strength will come back slowly so my primary focus is mobility and getting to where I can touch my heel to my butt comfortably again (kind of a necessary function for Jiu Jitsu). I’m slowly building endurance on my bicycle again as well.

My PT had me drop to 1 day a week after meeting with the surgeon. At my session last week, she told me that we are mainly working on strengthening now and she can trust me to know how to do that safely on my own. She sees no reason that I have to continue coming in for what is basically a personal training session, so I’m going to do 2 more sessions with her and then just work on it on my own.

Jiu Jitsu Training

As of right now I am still in limbo land for training locations (read my last few blog posts if you’re nosey enough to know why) but I like the direction things are moving. Thankfully I work in an office with several other people who train (including my boss). We have really nice roll out mats that I can use after hours and on weekends – so we’ve been hosting small group training sessions and people pop in randomly to drill or roll. I’m still teaching my Saturday open training session and have started drilling with that group as well.

It’s probably good for me since it forces me to ease back into it instead of going full throttle when my body isn’t used to it. That’s a recipe for winding up back in the Dr’s office with something else injured!

Return to Competition

I’ve got my eye on the AJP Tour Grand Slam events for next year! They are now holding two events back-to-back – Masters on day 1 and Pro on day 2. This means two good sized events for one trip! My must-do list is; London, Miami, and Tokyo – then circling back to the World Pro Championship in Abu Dhabi in November. I’ll try to fit in the Rio Grand Slam as well if possible.

I know my coach wants me to do the IBJJF Master Worlds and Pans, and if I can fit it into my travel schedule, I’ll plan to do Worlds as well. I’ll likely also do the IBJJF Nashville and Atlanta opens as they pop up (schedule permitting).

I get about 3 weeks of PTO (15 days) per year from my job. I’ll be doing most of these events quickly so I can save the PTO to linger longer in Japan and at the World Pro (may try to pop over to visit Israel from the UAE).

Altogether, I’m trying to be patient with the process. I still have a long way to go but at least the worst is over finally!

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.

Still Kinda Broken – 5 Months Post-Op

Technically I am no longer broken, but it still feels like it at this stage.

I had my 5 month check up with my Doctor’s PA this past week. I expressed to him my frustrations at my rate of healing. I was hoping that I would be able to train lightly at this point, but I’m still rebuilding muscle tissue that hasn’t worked since my nerves were cut during surgery, and also range of motion has been extremely slow to improve. In fact I have not had much R.O.M. improvement over the past several weeks – hovering around 116 and 118 as my maximum flexion when pushed by my PT. It makes me feel like a failure, that I must be missing something, and wondering if this is just going to be as good as it gets.

He assured me that I am still on track for a complete recovery and return to the mats with zero restrictions. It’s just gonna be a slow process because of how much damage was done to my knee, the amount of extensive surgical repair it took, and the 6 weeks splinted to let it get really stiff. He said my bones are sitting in perfect alignment now within the joint and they are feeling super stable.

What is holding me back most right now is my range of motion. It was very intentional that we let it get stiff post-op because he knows the type of activity I do on a daily basis (he’s worked on a lot of bjj athletes as well as pro football athletes). We are riding the fine line of getting as much stability as possible in the repair before we loosen it up. It’s easier to loosen it up afterwards, whereas if it heals too loose, we would have to re-do the original surgery. We want my knee to last the next 60+ years and handle all the impact I plan to put it through.

I see the surgeon again in 6 weeks. At that point I will be in that 6-7 month post-op window when the new ligament grafts will be sufficiently healed and we can turn our attention more to the mobility issues. If I’m still not making much progress at that point (mobility wise), we will likely do another procedure in the surgical center to break up the scar tissue. It sounds scary but they assured me it’s nothing like the massive 3 hour long surgery I had in December – I’d be able to walk and bend my knee immediately after waking up. What’s nice is that I’ll have insurance coverage this time around – that first procedure was a little yikes!

So I’m hoping that towards the end of the year I’ll be freed to train again. Right now I am not even allowed to swing a kettlebell – although I was recently cleared to ride my bicycle again and am increasing load bearing exercises in twice weekly physical therapy. Comeback is coming – and I’ll know I earned it!

When The Vibe Changes

An Academy’s culture is built by the instructors/administration, and the students that they attract. Each academy has a different vibe because of different teaching styles and methodology. Like attracts like and that’s why academies will get a rep for various things (when I began training, we were known as a pressure heavy competition academy). New students who come into the academy will eventually absorb and conform to the overall vibe – if not they will quit or find an academy whose vibe matches more what they are looking for.

Different vibes are not bad. If everyone trained the exact same way, innovation would crawl to a halt and we would probably still think half guard is a losing position. This is why I love to visit different academies when I travel and learn a new way of looking at a position or move.

But what is one to do when your academy culture/vibe changes and you no longer fit?

The hardest part is in that transition phase before you realize that things are changing. Mine started changing 5-6 years ago. My coach had to sell his ownership in the academy and take a back seat from the administration aspect of the daily processes. I felt pushed out of things I had been previously invested in – but not much change in the gym culture happened since our coach was still there teaching on a regular basis.

As he began to take more of a backseat role and focused on his other academy that was closer to his house, things started to shift more rapidly. Most of the crew that I had spent the past 6 years training with felt the push and pinch of the changes brought on by a new administrative approach. This led to wildfires and full-on shitstorms.

Eventually all but a few left for places where they felt more free to train the way we had in the past. Some left quietly, others burnt every conceivable bridge on their way out. To those leaving, it felt like the people enacting the changes were the villains who were destroying a sacred safe space. To those implementing the changes, those leaving were the toxic influences that were holding back progress.

With the old established crew cleared out, a new culture was free to develop unhindered. I count myself among the old crew but I had to keep my head down and stay clear of the crossfire because I wanted to earn my black belt from my coach (who was coaching me remotely). To reach this goal I had to remain at an affiliate academy – and since I am unable to drive, this was the only one I could reach on a regular basis. I made the most of my time, creating a ladies Jiu Jitsu program, but was continually frustrated and hurt by the changes – the academy culture no longer fit what I wanted to get out of my Jiu Jitsu journey and I had no control over it.

I have been in a state of mourning for quite a while now. I’m finally reaching a point where I can accept that some things cannot be repaired. I hate that this sort of thing has destroyed my safe place and hurt so many people that I care about. Knowing how much my coach cares about each of his students, I’m sure it is even more painful for him to see these people so divided that he has heavily invested over a decade of his life into.

I don’t know what my training future is going to look like, but I have given up on my old academy ever being the right fit for me. It may be the right fit for others, but not for me. When my surgeon finally clears me to return to the mats, I will be working 1:1 with my coach in the warehouse at my office (we have mats). I’ve been invited to drop in at various academies around town for group classes and will avail myself of that; as well as hosting a small group of my own to train at the warehouse. I’ve been in therapy trying to process all of my repressed emotions over the past couple of years of this process. A lot is still up in the air but I’m finally reaching a point where I think I can start talking about it, in hopes it will help others who may have been feeling the same way. If nothing else, writing it all out is rather cathartic.

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!

12 Weeks Post Knee Surgery

I dislocated my knee during a light sparring round April 17th, 2021. I didn’t let my partner know how bad it was because it was a freak accident and didn’t want him to feel badly. Thankfully I was able to quickly get in with one of the top Sports Orthopedic Surgeons in the area. He specializes in high impact athletes (16 years working for an NFL team) so I knew if anyone could get me back on the mats it would be him!

My diagnosis was a torn and frayed PCL (opposite of the ACL), torn LCL, several tendons torn, and basically the entire outside of my knee was mush (posterolateral corner/PLC). I have underlying hypermobility and joint instability (It’s a degenerative condition), so the Dr said it was difficult to tell how much of the instability was caused by the damage, and how much was just my normal baseline. (He said my “good” knee felt like a bad knee – but it is functional for me). He wanted to opt for more conservative treatment at first. “I have enough people to do surgery on. I don’t want to put you through surgery if I don’t have to.” I appreciated that approach since I do not have health insurance and would have to pay out of pocket for any expenses.

I did twice a week physical therapy, with regular check ins with the doctor. The idea was that we would let it heal and stabilize on its own as much as possible. When I plateaued that is where we would decide how functional I was. I hit the plateau early November and was able to walk around with a brace on, but my bones were shifting too much for me to be able to train safely. We scheduled surgery for December 16 (after I got back from coaching students at Worlds).

Surgery day was fun. I was actually a lot calmer than I thought I would be and looking forward to a nice nap. I was the doctor’s first surgery of the day – and must have really thrown off his schedule because it took him three hours to put my knee back together (his surgeries are usually about an hour). He said it was like trying to stabilize jello. I now have a few donor grafts and several screws holding my joints together, they also gave me a round of PRP in order to help speed healing. He had to drill through my bones 5 times in order to anchor everything. He had to get “very aggressive” and as a result they had to put me under very deep anesthesia; it took me 3 hours to properly wake up afterwards. He was however very pleased with the surgical outcome and confident it would heal strong and be more stable than my other knee.

The first week was super rough. They gave me opioid pain meds for 10 days, but I switched to Tylenol after the first few days. It was hard enough to get up to use the bathroom without dissociative drugs in my system. The anesthesiologist took me seriously when I told them I metabolize nerve blocks quickly so he must have given me an extra special dose – I couldn’t feel my lower leg for the entire first week. It’s probably a good thing based on all the work that the dr did.

I spent my first few weeks post-op with my leg locked out in a splint 24/7. I was allowed to be weight bearing “as tolerated” but until I regained sensation in my foot, I kept that to a minimum. I was on an ice sleeve machine for 5 out of every 6 hours and sleeping with my leg elevated to keep swelling to a minimum. Physical Therapy started the week after surgery right after I finished my first post-op visit where they removed my stitches and half of my staples (there were 39 total staples holding the side of my knee closed, the other half were removed a week later). Physical therapy at this point mostly focused on controlling swelling, isotonic muscle work, and passive prone mobility (bending my knee while I was face down).

At my 3 week checkup, I told the doctor that I had managed to complete a 300-hour game on my Nintendo switch (The Witcher), and he told his PA “Let’s get this girl moving”. He gave the PT clearance to start unlocking the hinge on my brace so I could start bending my knee while walking and pushing my range of motion more. He told me I could be as weight bearing as I was comfortable to do, so I found I could stand for a few seconds with my weight evenly distributed. I also got to remove the steri strips that were on my smaller incisions. The larger one (about the size of my hand from wrist to fingertips) I had to keep taped up a bit longer.

At the 7 week mark I hit a wall for range of motion. For the PCL ligament, they had to keep my leg locked out straight for the first 6 weeks because in that position there is no pressure on the new ligament. This enables all the bone grafts to start healing and the ligament to stabilize in its new home a little bit. The more the knee bends, the more pressure it puts on the ligament. Only time I was allowed to have my knee bent was twice a week under the direct supervision and application of my physical therapist. So now that it was anchored, we had to start stretching it out more aggressively. 90 degrees is what you need to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. I was stalled out at 35 degrees and crying/sweating buckets when the PT would push to stretch it more. We were way behind schedule, so my PT called the dr’s office and they put me on a steroid pack for 6 days. With that we were able to get past the hurdle to 50 degrees. It’s very useful that my PT clinic is connected with my dr’s office, and they can share notes back and forth in the same system.

Since then, range of motion has still been a game of slow improvements. I see the doctor again tomorrow for my 12 week follow up and I know they were hoping I would be past 90 degrees by now but I’m barely passing 75 right now. I may be looking at another steroid pack, or possibly some injections. We shall see what the doctor says tomorrow!

On the positive side, I’ve been walking with a much more even gate. Doing light leg press exercises, single leg balances, and even walking across the floor without my brace on at PT. My hope for tomorrow’s appointment is that the doctor will okay me to get rid of this massive post-op brace and switch to my smaller custom brace for walking around. I plan to ask if he still thinks I have a chance of being able to safely compete at the World Pro tournament in November. Before surgery he said absolutely yes, but I know he had to do a lot more work in my knee than initially anticipated.

Here’s hoping!

With Great Power…

So I’m a black belt now. What does that mean exactly?

It simply means that I was too stubborn to quit and demonstrated that I can persevere long term and become good at something. This does not make me a honorable person who is worthy of your highest level of respect – I still have to earn that by demonstrating long term that I am a worthwhile human being. I know plenty of black belts who I have zero respect for, due to their actions as human beings.

Being a black belt does not give me a license to bully or harass those below me. My task is to make the path easier in that regards. Just because I was given a hard time going up through the ranks, does not mean I have the right to make things difficult for others as well. I choose to break that pattern. I choose to nurture other students and create a safe retreat for people to work hard without extra distractions.

So all that said as preamble… a lot of people are finally starting to talk about sexual harassment and bullying among the ranks of Jiu Jitsu. It’s both heart breaking and refreshing at the same time. We like to foster this fantasy that earning a black belt also perfects your character, but a rotten foundation does not lead to a stable house. I know black belts who think that since they paid their dues that it gives them license to do whatever they want – when it really is the opposite. There’s this thing called power dynamics, think “with great power comes great responsibility”. I must hold myself to a higher standard now that I know people are looking to me to model behavior.

So… Dear Black Belts/Upper Ranks:

Yes you worked hard to get to where you are. You should be very proud of your accomplishment! Now regardless of if you are an official instructor or not, you are a teacher. This is the way.

You can be a badass killing machine without being a douche canoe.

If you make a racist or sexist joke, a lower rank is going to hear that and think it is an acceptable behavior. It’s a trickle down effect that influences the entire culture of your training space.

Mimicry is real – meaning people will model behavior that makes them seem like part of the group. Good or bad.

Don’t protect one another. If someone is being a creep to other students, you need to draw a hard line and call them out on it. Friendship can only go so far and some behavior cannot be excused by “they mean well”.

If you want your gym to be a safe haven of badassery, then do that. Cultivate the culture and boot out the bad eggs.

Dear Lower Ranks:

We appreciate you and love that you are starting this journey! It takes guts to step on the mats the first day. Whether your goal is weight loss, confidence, recovery, becoming a ninja assassin… your reason is valid!

You deserve to train in a safe environment.

Just because someone outranks you, does not mean that they have the right to make you feel threatened or uncomfortable.

If you get creepy vibes from someone, please tell your instructor. If it is the instructor giving you creepy vibes, tell your gym management. If the problem is systemic and you aren’t taken seriously, then go to a different academy. Training is hard enough without dealing with emotional turmoil from bullying or harassment! Some things aren’t worth pushing through.

If you ever feel uncomfortable or unsafe training with someone, say no to training with them. There are people who I will not train with even if my coach tells me to. If he wants to know details, he asks me after class. I am working to instill this in my students as well. Right of refusal applies here!

In conclusion:

I had a meeting with management at my academy a few weeks ago along with an HR rep. They have promised to toe a hard line on zero tolerance of online and in person sexual harassment/bullying. They banned a member on the spot for sexual harassment. We have police officers in our academy who have given us a legal course of action we can take if needed as well. The amount of relief I have heard from our female members is both gratifying and saddening. It is going to be a tough road ahead as things get unearthed, but it will be worth it.

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!