This past weekend, Shelly and I entered a local Brazilian jiu jitsu (bjj) tournament. She did really well, placing second in her division. It was a proud moment for me. She overcame her fears of getting out on the at and came out victorious.
Me? Not so much. I lost both matches to bring my overall competition record to 0-4. I lost the first match via points, and was choked out n the second. Like “unconscious” choked out.
No matter the sport, losing sucks.
Back when I ran a lot, I lost frequently, too. By my estimate, I was somewhere around 0-52. I never won a race. Running is bit different, though. At any given race, only about 10-15% of the field has a realistic hope of actually pacing first. The rest? We’re just hoping to meet a certain time goal, beat our friends, or finish the race. “Losing” can be defined as failing to meet whatever goal we set, which is rarely apparent to anyone but ourselves. In that case, I “won” around half of my races. The half that I lost were far more educational than the half that I “won.”
The experiences from losing ultimately led me to my obsession with self-experimentation, which became the basis for Squirrel Wipe. Losing became a powerful-but-unpleasant tool that forced personal growth. It was a slap in the face that reminded me I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. More importantly, it forced me to change how I trained and prepared. In some cases, that meant training harder. In other cases, maybe I had to train smarter. Perhaps I had to tweak one or more of the infinite variables that had led to the failure. As uncomfortable as it was, losing was a Hell of a teacher.
The same concept applies to jiu jitsu, though the stakes are raised considerably. In a race with 1,000 participants, there’s one winner and 999 losers. When you lose, you just blend in with the masses. In the bjj tournament, there’s a winner and a loser in each and every match with each role on prominent display. When you lose, you’re doing so in front of all the spectators in the complex. And your teammates. And your coach. When your opponent’s hand is raised, there’s nowhere to hide.
And I hate it.
I very briefly considered bagging the whole competition idea. After all, the majority of the people that practice jiu jitsu are hobbyists and never compete. The allure of just showing up on occasion, going through the motions, and maybe beating up on the new white belts does sound appealing. It wouldn’t whet my inner competitive fire, though. It would be similar to always running the same races or same distances year after year. There’s no real challenge because there’s no real fear of failure. Stroking my own ego by chasing “easy wins” isn’t in my nature. If there’s no challenge, I have no interest.
Besides, the greater the challenge, the more likely I am to work hard to meet it. Charlie, my coach, promoted me to a blue belt pretty early compared to standard timelines. The promotion came with a somewhat cryptic warning that I was on the border and needed to needed more to get over the hump. It was up to me to do what was needed to get to where I needed to be. I took the challenge seriously and busted my ass to do what was needed, and loved the process.
When I started running ultras, I “lost” almost all of my early races. That led me to a borderline obsessive drive to improve. I like to think I do pretty decent job of hiding my own inner competitive fire because I’m also a huge proponent of sportsmanship. The two constructs aren’t necessarily mutually-exclusive, but it’s too easy to get wrapped up in winning and forget to celebrate the accomplishments of your fellow competitors. The inner-competitiveness is easy to keep under wraps because training is more or less a solitary activity; you don’t need other people to train. As such, it was easy to put up a front of laid-backedness and dumbassery.
Losing in jiu jitsu is an entirely different experience. I want to win. Getting to that point is straight-forward: I need to train. Getting to that point, however, presents some challenges I didn’t experience when ultra training.
First, I need other people to train, including my coach. While I can still be somewhat laid-back, it’s impossible to hide that competitive intensity from my training partners. When it came to running, there were only about three or four people that really knew how seriously I really took the sport.
Second, I’m in a race against time. When I started ultrarunning, I had the benefit of beginning at a relatively young age (26 or so.) Most men seem to hit their ultrarunning peak in their late thirties o early forties. I was ahead of the curve. In bjj, I started late (37.) Most dudes seem to hit their peak in their late 20’s to early 30’s. I’m behind the curve. This means I have to make up for diminishing speed and strength with superior technique.
Third, training is a catch-22. The more time I spend training, the better I get… but the more I train, the more I get injured and am forced to miss training. Also, the more I train the more time I need to recover, which results in less time to lift weights or run to help mitigate diminished physical capacity. All of these factors create a training conundrum. The solution is periodization- I’ll work on technique as much as I can tolerate until I get relatively close to a competition, then add weight training and cardiovasular conditioning.
Fourth, I have a pesky secondary goal. I have a lot of running friends that dabble in triathlons as a “secondary” sport. I never had much interest and focused entirely on running. I never had to bother with cycling or swimming. With bjj, I do have a secondary goal. I’m still kicking around the idea of an mma fight down the road. Because of that, I’m also adding four striking (boxing, muay Thai, and mma-specific) classes to the five bjj classes I schedule each week. This exasperates the previous issue by requiring even more recovery time.
All of these challenges may be new, but none are insurmountable. The experience of losing four straight matches is an incredible motivator. When I was running and I failed to reach a goal (thus “losing”), I would make an informal plan to fix the problems. I’ll do the same with bjj competitions. Here’s the tentative plan:
- Make training more deliberate. Previously, I didn’t have a lot of direction when training, specifically when live sparring (what we call “rolling.”) I would usually just work on the techniques we drilled earlier in that session. Now I plan to have a plan- actively incorporating what I learned with what I know to help create “chains” of techniques that flow together.
- Train specific scenarios. Since bjj matches are based on scoring or submitting, understanding the position game is important to success. Previously I only focused on submissions. Being cognizant of the scoring in training should help develop scoring opportunities in competition.
- Use the mental game more often. Back when I was a psych student, sport psychology was one of my areas of focus, especially the use of imagery. I have a 20+ page document of almost everything I’ve learned thus far. I’ll begin going over the list daily by mentally practicing the techniques. It’s a great way to achieve some training benefit without the physical demands of actual training.
- Fix obvious deficiencies. I’ve taken a fairly deliberate path toward becoming well-rounded, but I have some painfully obvious weak spots. Right now that biggest weakness is the neutral position (when both people are standing.) As a former wrestler, I have quite a few strategies to take the other person down. Unfortunately, almost all are ineffective when wearing a gi (our pajama-like uniforms we wear.) I need to develop a neutral game that will work with the gi.
- Get aggressive. Back when I wrestled, I was more or less a “counter-wrestler.” I would wait for my opponent to try something, defend, then counter. I was almost always smaller and weaker than my opponents, but had a speed advantage. Also, wrestling’s scoring system ignores aggressiveness. Many of my wins came from the smart use of counter tactics. Today, I’m roughly evenly matched with the vast majority of my opponents and jiu jitsu’s scoring rewards initiation. I have the capacity to be aggressive; it’s just a matter of conveying that attitude to the mat.
- Stay healthy, thus consistent. Jiu jitsu is a sport that rewards training. The people that improve are the people that train. Ultrarunning taught me an invaluable life lesson- you can get anywhere if you keep moving. If applied to bjj, that means consistent training. Based on my somewhat limited experience, most adults seem to fall into a pattern of training for awhile then taking long breaks. Its the equivalent of taking a nap for several hours in the middle of a hundred miler. I’m lucky in that I have a lifestyle that allows me to train five days per week, week after week, month after month. If I can stay healthy, I can stay consistent. If I can stay consistent, I can continue to improve.
Together, these strategies should result in cracking the win column. Yes, losing sucks. But it’s it single best impetus to motivate change that will lead to improvement. I’m up for the challenge.