Last week, a world class competitve Jiu Jitsu player showed up at our gym to roll. He’s a long-time friend of our gym’s co-founders who knew him when he was just a shy quiet kid in high school.
As one of them tells the story, “We beat up on Scotty for years. He was the worst one in the class but we all liked him, he was so quiet and nice. Then, it happened - I subbed him six times on a Friday, he went home, and that weekend a switch was flipped. When he got back on Monday, no one could touch him. I never subbed him again and within a couple of weeks, he was subbing the strongest guy in the school.”
The nice thing about Scotty is his talent never went to his head. After discovering it, he moved to New York City to pursue Jiu Jitsu as a career but you’d never know from talking to him. He’s still the same quiet, humble guy our co-founders knew. When he shows up at our little gym, usually during the holidays when he’s in town visiting his parents, he rolls with everyone in the class and is generous with his knowledge.
After a while Scotty took a break and I chatted with him for a bit. I asked him about the transformation from mediocre to world class champion.
“How did you do it?”
“I studied” he said with a smile, shrugging his shoulders.
“Anyone or anything in particular?”
“My advice is find someone you like and watch them. Watch their matches, their instructionals, and you’ll pick up on things.”
This struck me as good advice. For a long time, I studied video of Marcelo Garcia, a living legend in Jiu Jitsu. A terminally undersized guy who regularly went against larger opponents, I’ve always thought Marcelo was a good representative of the best Jiu Jitsu has to offer. Watching Marcelo is the reason I rely on moves like arm drags, taking the back, and X guard. All of them were staples of his game.
But after talking with Scotty, I realized I should watch someone with a more similar body type. Marcelo and I are physical opposites, he’s short and stocky and I’m long and thin, so I switched to watching Craig Jones instead over the past few days. Watching his videos, I noticed how relaxed he was, no matter how terrible the position. He never seemed to be in a hurry or willing to match strength with strength. It was always about staying cool and calm, patient and waiting for the right moment to strike.
And when Jones does move, there’s nothing intellectual about it. He’s drilled and practiced for so long that his body knows what to do in the situation without requiring any conscious thought. His sense of timing is perfect, he waits for his opponent to move and when he does, he stays ahead of them. As my instructor advises “Anticipation always beats speed.” Wait for your opponent to move and always be calm and patient were the big takeaways for me.
So I tried this and it immediately improved my game. It also made me realize why I have been sucking so hard lately. A few months ago, I got promoted to purple belt, a major step in the Jiu Jitsu journey that marks the transition from beginner to intermediate. As a purple belt, I’m recognized as “competent” and, keep in mind, the progression in Jiu Jitsu is notoriously slow. I’ve been studying Jiu Jitsu for five years now and I’m just now moved beyond “beginner.” Belts are hard won in this sport/martial art.
Unlike what other people might think, you don’t get magic powers when you get promoted to a higher belt. I gained nothing except what felt like was a giant target on my back. Suddenly I became someone the white and blue belts would love to submit to prove their prowess and win bragging rights. In short, I started rolling with fear in my heart. I didn’t want to be known as a “weak purple belt” and wanted to live up to the expectations that came with the promotion.
Funny thing, when you fear something, it consumes you and the feared event is more likely to occur. Just ask Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016 who used fear as a motivating force for their voters and managed to manifest the outcome they dreaded. Newly promoted to purple belt, I feared getting tapped by the lower ranked belts and it started happening more and more.
But after watching Craig Jones take on challenger after challenger after one of his seminars and rolling with cool confidence throughout, using as little energy as necessary, never getting flustered or frustrated, I was inspired and pledged to do the same. It made an immediate difference.
Now when I was being ground into dust underneath someone, I denied them the satisfaction of knowing how much it hurt. I just lay there, cool and calm, and waited for my moment to escape, confident it would happen. For me, the only thing more satisfying in Jiu Jitsu than subbing someone is getting out of a tough situation and turning the tables.
So much of Jiu Jitsu and grappling is analogous to real-life situations. The need for balance, pacing yourself, and keeping your ego in check. Jiu Jitsu has taught me many life lessons and this is one of them - never let fear be your guide. When you are governed by fear, the feared result is more likely the outcome. Better to stay calm and look for outcomes you want, rather than stress out about the outcomes you don’t.
The world goes where your mind goes. There’s a saying in golf that applies “If you want to hit the ball on the fairway, look at the hole. If you want to hit the ball into the parking lot next to the course and hit a bunch of cars, look in that direction.”
One of my fellow purple belts noticed the change. “You feel better today, much stronger than last week” he said. “Thanks” I said, “I learned it from Craig Jones.”