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I’ve recently started training Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and it’s easily one of the toughest activities I’ve taken on.

Each class tends to have the same structure - we’ll learn techniques for the first half, then the latter part of the class revolves around sparring. In Jiu-Jitsu this comprises of full-contact grappling and if you don’t know what you are doing (which as a complete noob I do not), you’re basically struggling to avoid being contorted into a submission for as long as you can.

If anyone who practices BJJ is reading this, they will probably point out that this description of sparring applies to practitioners of any level - and they’d be right. But when your skill level is so vastly differing with your opponent you are left with two choices - put up a struggle, or acquiesce and allow yourself to be kneaded into a triangle choke.

Now while I don’t particular mind being submitted (it’s a rough sport, and you have to accept that you are going to be in discomfort from time to time) but for me the issue was more this:

I wanted to be a good sparring partner, without the technical knowledge

As a kid I was always picked last in sports, which was pretty detrimental to my confidence. In adulthood I find myself in a similar position during sparring at class, when I am always one of the last who manages to find a partner to spar with. The message is clear - people want to ‘roll’ with someone who knows what they are doing. This may be because they want to be able to dissect the techniques with someone who shares the vocabulary, they are looking to get tips on how to improve themselves or even just that they don’t want some inexperienced moron injuring them.

So when I sparred with others, I asked myself: “how to I provide the best sparring experience for my partner”. I want to have a positive experience in class, and it’s important to be that I do everything I can to provide one too. Well there were obvious things like making sure I always turn up to class with a clean, dry gi, make sure I am showered and my nails are clipped (you’d be horrified by how many people do not consider these important.) I even started shaving my armpit hair to reduce odour from sweat retention in these areas. But then there’s the physical aspect:

How can you be a good sparring partner when you don’t know any moves?

Well, my answer was to struggle. I figured at least I could put up a decent fight so my opponent gets to train in a more ‘realistic’ combat environment. This was possibly the biggest mistake I could have made.

My first class was a shambolic session in a non-specific fitness gym (as opposed to a dedicated BJJ dojo), and between the lack of space and struggling to hear the instructor’s voice over the pounding techno music the odds were against us. When time came to spar I was paired with someone who had a lot more experience (he had a gi for a start) and my opponent was clearly displeased with having to pair with the noob in the gym clothes. He had me in his closed guard which meant I was trapped in a kneeling position with no idea what to do, or how to do it. So all that was left for me to do was wriggle like an agitated fish.

My intuition was that I should just resist as much as I can until my opponent manages to submit me. It seemed illogical to just relent and allow myself to be contorted, almost like I would be cheating my opponent from the experience building muscle memory with a living breathing adversary, as opposed to a well-articulated crash-test dummy. But after about 5 minutes of this struggle my opponent got frustrated, attempted an extremely aggressive sweep and managed to break three of my ribs. While I was angry with the guy, and frustrated with the way the session was run, it did not put me off the sport. However, ribs take a long time to heal and Jiu-Jitsu got relegated to something I wanted to try again ‘one day.’

Fast-forward two years later and I’m able to start training at an excellent dojo. I buy a gi immediately so that I am at least showing up with the right kit (it’s difficult to roll with an opponent if you have no kimono to grab on to) and get started. Every session I am completely exhausted from this epic struggle I am inflicting on myself and my sparring partners.

So a few of weeks ago I’m in a training session and I’m paired with a big lad wearing lycra with no gi. We’re grappling and I’m in his guard and he’s trying to gain the advantage. I realise that it’s just a matter of time before I eventually get submitted, but I’m doing my usual thing of putting up as much resistance as I can before that happens and my opponent is frustrated by the time it is taking to overwhelm me. He finally gets position and pulls off an armbar - but in his exhilaration he puts all his might into hyper-extending my arm at a high speed without giving me time to tap and signal that I am done. The resultant yelp turns the head of many in the class and left me with an extremely sore elbow which has yet to heal. I’m super pissed at the guy, and frustrated to have picked up an injury - my second considerable one in a very short time of training.

Wait, is there a pattern forming here?

I have picked up two injuries, both stemming from my opponents’ frustration with me using a lot of strength to resist. I speak with my coach about the incident, and he’s pretty pissed off about the irresponsible use of a submission technique, but I ask about the correct level of resistance to use in sparring, and he admits that if someone is being aggressive in a bout, he is less inclined to be gentle with them, and even worse, can be concerned about picking up an injury from such behaviour.

Have I been too aggressive all this time?

While I certainly feel that it’s important to use the techniques we learn in BJJ carefully and with restraint, I cannot ignore the fact that in these two situations I was the common denominator, and am now experimenting with a less ‘brute-force’ approach. It’s difficult at this stage to gauge exactly how much resistance I should be putting up, but by being mindful of it as opposed to going full-tilt each session, I should hopefully have more energy when I need it, and be a more appealing person to roll with.

Ultimately it seems that there is a lot more to this incredible sport than just learning a bunch of techniques. It’s a test of will, perseverance, and enjoyment of the art.

“The theme of the white belt is survival. Nothing more and nothing less” ~ Saulo Ribeiro, Jiu-Jitsu University

Ok ok, I’m listening.

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