Recovery Process

I am currently a year and 8 months out from a major injury that has put me off the mats and out of training for the majority of that time. Each phase has been difficult for different reasons and I have gone through all stages of grief multiple times!

Immediate Aftermath:

Lots of denial here. I at first just tried to shake it off and was going to ride my bicycle home and “rub some dirt in it”. I am used to getting banged up after 10 years of training. I have dealt with chronic pain my entire life and honestly the pain from the injury was less than what I’m used to feeling on a daily basis of just existing. What was different this time was the joint instability.

Admitting I needed outside help was a big step for me. With no health insurance I had always just played the “let’s give it some time to see how it does” approach and was lucky up until this point. Even at the doctor’s office I was talking myself down, telling myself I was overreacting and would regret the money I was wasting on the visit.

After the MRI, I went back to see the doctor and he said he needed to put me in a brace and re-evaluate in a few weeks. I’ve worn knee braces before so I figured it would be no big deal – next thing I know I have two nurses strapping me into a full length leg splint that I was to wear at all times to keep me from bending my knee… It started to feel a little serious at that point.

I was still able to hobble around with a cane, and made it a point to put a positive face forward for the students. I kept telling myself: “I heal fast, this is probably overkill but it’ll be fine.”

The Wind Down:

So began my cycle of physical therapy twice a week with a dr check in every 4-6 weeks. I had no concrete recovery timetable because my pre-existing hypermobility condition made it difficult to determine how much of the joint instability was from the injury and how much of it was my functional instability. I continued improving each week with physical therapy and doctor check ins. He said my recovery would plateau at a point and that is when we determine if I was functional enough to train again, or if surgery was needed to get me back on the mats.

This was the depressed/frustrated/angry zone. People would wish me “speedy recovery” and I had to bite my tongue to keep from snapping at the platitude. Being around Jiu Jitsu gave me no joy and in fact made it worse after months of just watching as everyone moved on and left me behind. There are blue/purple belts who have never known me at my peak potential, and that was frustrating since I don’t want to be an instructor who just yells from the sidelines. I want to lead by example and have not been capable of doing that for a long time. What kept me sane in this time was the students who gave me a reason to keep going when I didn’t even want to get out of bed.

The Light at the End:

After 8 months of being in “surgery or no surgery” limbo, the surgeon assessed that I had stopped improving significantly between checkups and would need to do the reconstruction. At that point I was unable to walk down stairs unassisted so it was still a significant impairment just for daily life. It was a relief honestly! I wasn’t nervous at the thought of my first (and hopefully only) surgical procedure. I knew I had done everything possible up until that point, and knew I had the best possible surgical team to put my knee back together again. Apparently once I was knocked out my knee was as stable as warm jello without my muscle tonicity to keep it in place.

Post-Op Struggle:

Post op has been a new challenge. It was such a massive reconstruction job that I had to learn how to walk all over again. I had so much nerve damage that I couldn’t feel my foot for weeks afterwards and whole muscle groups were unable to activate and even now almost a year later there are still patches of numbness that probably will not recover sensation. It was still easier than those 8 months pre-op because there was no more “surgery or no surgery” limbo, just a forward momentum of improvement.

Improvement with strength came fairly quickly: what was/is hardest for me is mobility. The surgeon knows what I do for training and told me specifically that he wants me to heal more on the stiff side with more scar tissue to help stabilize everything. We ticked that box and then some – for a while I was on the watchlist for a second procedure to remove some of the excess scar tissue. Every PT session I would cry and whimper while they tried to passively force flexion back into my joint. I had multiple injections of different things in attempt to reduce inflammation and pain.

This was another low point as I started to wonder “is this just gonna be my life now? Is this as good as it gets? Have I gone through all that and still find myself unable to train?”

Current Day:

I’ve been training in classes at my new academy (with my old coach) on a regular basis again and man it feels so good! I am of course everyone’s rest round, and there are a lot of movements that I have to re-learn how to do. The hard part right now is trusting that my knee is okay. The surgeon told me a couple of months ago that he is okay with me doing whatever I want for training, so long as I am careful with new movements. I see him next week for my final 1 year post op check up and release to compete again.

Learning to trust again is the struggle at the moment. I have been super conscious about my knee for close to 2 years now, so just letting go mentally is really difficult. I panic anytime my knee is compressed, whether it hurts or not, which then makes my training partner nervous and unwilling to put the pressure on me that I need in order to actually improve. It will take time, but I’m fast tracking myself by signing up to compete at the European Championship tournament at the end of January. Meaning I have about 8 weeks to push myself and I work best under that kind of pressure!

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.

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.

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!

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!

 

Winning Through Failure

I remember when I first started training and everything was just so hard. I got smashed every round and it seemed like everyone around me picked up techniques ten times faster than I did.

I failed a lot.

We seem to celebrate wins and try to forget the failures. Part of me loves the feeling of getting completely destroyed in class; knowing that I went through a hard thing and came out alive on the other side. Winning rounds is nice, but that’s not the only point of training in class. I train to be better the next day – and to do that, I have to put myself in an opportunity to fail.

I like to compete as well, and I would rather fail in class than on the competition mat. In class, we are working and studying together for our exam. I’m alone on the competition mat, but the preparation in class will make or break the final result.

As a purple belt, I’m kind of in the middle ground now of the ranks. I could go a whole class and do nothing but dominate, depending on who I roll with. That is the easy to do, and sometimes I need to do that to remind myself of how far I have come in the last 7 years. When I get serious about competing though, I have to seek out people who are better than me in order to push through my limits and set new ones.

My current competition goals?

Next month we have the IBJJF Nashville Open here in town. We won the team award at the July event, and we need to all work hard to defend our home turf.

In January I am going to the UAEJJF Abu Dhabi Grand Slam and then going straight from there to either the European Championship or the Fujairah Open. I haven’t hashed that out completely yet.

In February, the UAEJJF Mexico National Pro is in Mexico City and then the South America Continental Pro is in Bogota, Columbia.

March: IBJJF Pans will be some time in Los Angeles

April: UAEJJF World Pro in Abu Dhabi

May/June: IBJJF World Championship in Los Angeles

There will be others but that’s all I have for now. Should be enough to keep me occupied! I started my new job as a Massage Therapist working at a spa just two nights a week. It’s enough to pay for my bills and save up for airfare to events – while letting me train full time again. I just finished morning training and am gonna go for a bike ride and recover a bit before evening classes begin.

Upcoming Events

Well first off, Merry Christmas to all! And if you aren’t the Christmas type, I hope you had a good day off from work!
The gyms were all closed yesterday, so I went to see the new Star Wars movie again with a team mate. Today it is back to the grind! BJJ gym is still closed today, but I am meeting up my regular drilling partner before heading off to my shift at work. Gotta get those reps in!
The current attack plan for the first few months of 2018 is:

January 15-22 – European Championships in Lisbon, Portugal.

I can only afford to be there for the days that I could possibly compete. Gotta get back to work by the 21st. At least jet lag doesn’t exist to me anymore for a Europe trip (after a few trips to Asia).

February 3 – Atlanta International Open

This is an easy day trip for my crew since it is only a 3ish hour drive from Nashville. I’ve kept my one day off from work as a Saturday – so I can make it easily to these day trip events without having to barter time off from work… I’ll be doing plenty of that already this year.

February 17 – Team Shawn Hammonds Team Training

One of the funnest events of the year! Last february we had over 30 black belts on the mat and so many people that it was just wonderful chaos! I was promoted to purple belt at the 2017 team training and I look forward to seeing all the promotions this next year!

February 24 – Mexico City International Open Gi and No Gi

Past experience has taught me that I need to arrive several days early in Mexico City – in order to adjust to the altitude. I haven’t worked out a flight yet, but it is on! Barring work putting their foot down (I have a pretty flexible job).

My concern here is whether there will be any purple belt ladies competing here or not. But I think it will work out! Plus it will be great to see friends again!

March 7-11 – Pan Championships in California

I’m waiting on the preliminary schedule to be released before I start thinking about booking a flight. Gotta go out there, smash, and then get back to work.

Since I am a part timer at work, I’m fairly flexible with time off. I just have to at least make an effort to find someone to cover my shift and I’m good to go. I’ll be making trips as short as possible though because I do need a cash flow to make all this happen. It’s a balancing act that I think I have finally gotten worked out!

I will hear from the Japanese Embassy in a few weeks about my application. But I’m not gonna just sit on my hands in the meanwhile! Gotta keep moving and trying to be a little bit better every day! (Except for yesterday… yesterday I ate half a pie)