Thursday, September 8, 2011

On the First Day of Jiu-Jitsu...

[Please visit for updated content] partners handed me my ass in a frumpy, sweaty gi.

Now, read it again to the tune of "The 12 Days of Christmas."

I started training on my third day in Brazil, not wanting to waste any time getting fat on churrasco and lazy watching soccer. Anyone who trains knows the feeling of taking a few days off. Even though the break, in some cases, may be necessary, it's similar to suffering the withdrawal effects of a particularly strong drug: you're constantly thinking about it, always wondering what the hiatus is doing to your body and your mind. You dream of positions, you shrimp out of bed in the morning. You face your back to the wall in restaurants so you can see everyone inside, then invent fight scenarios and plot out exactly how you would react.

So, the girl came home early on Monday, we headed straight to the local academy to get me signed up, and then hit the local padaria for soup and sandwiches. Since class was only three short hours away, I ate light (which, for me, meant a huge bowl of chicken and pasta soup, three slices of crispy bread, a hot ham and cheese sandwich on a croissant, and a glass of fresh watermelon juice).

The academy is on the third floor of a pretty fancy gym, and after some confusing conversation at the front desk, I was led to the changing rooms where I absently wondered whether it was a good idea to wear my blue belt. Many jiu-jitsu academies are very dedicated to the concept of Team. I'd heard horror stories of instructors stripping a visitor's belt simply because the student received it from a different instructor. As it was, I had only brought gis that didn't have any of my home team patches on them.

Turns out, of course, that I had nothing to worry about. Fear of the unknown, blah blah blah. I met the instructor, followed the cue of other students bowing onto the mat, and started to loosen up.

At this point, the nerves began to wash away. The structure of jiu-jitsu classes is pretty universal. Warm-up exercises followed by drilling a few chosen techniques, then free sparring to close out the evening. I've been training for about five years, so this routine is comfortable now. Natural. I will say, though, that my mouth dried up a little when I saw a team logo on the wall. "Alliance," it read, with that unmistakable black-and-white screaming eagle's head.

For those of you not in the know, Alliance is considered one of the strongest competition teams in the world. Their athletes are incredibly well conditioned, medaling and sometimes closing out divisions at most of the major tournaments. Put very simply, they fucking train hard. But I survived the thirty-or-so minute warm-up with minimal damage, and moved on to drilling, partnered up with a blue belt who was about my size.

The instructor showed three techniques I already knew, but even with the language barrier, I understood enough of the details I needed to work on. For example, when setting up a basic X-choke or cross collar choke, adjust your closed guard so that your knees are high up in your opponent's armpits. Then, while finishing, squeeze your knees together into his ribs. Not only with this cause your opponent pain, but it will restrict his breathing and make it easier to complete the choke.

We drilled a pretty nifty spider guard sweep that is rather similar to an overhead X-guard sweep (only, in this instance, the opponent remains on his knees), and then moved on to randori, also known as free rolling or sparring.

Again, for those unaware, rolling is what sets jiu-jitsu apart from most traditional martial arts. This is the time to put all of your practice into effect against a live, resisting partner, and you do it at the end of every single class. You grapple to gain superior position so that you may submit your partner with a choke or a joint lock, all while defending yourself because he is also trying to impose his game upon you.

I rolled with everyone the instructor partnered me up with, even though I was thoroughly exhausted after being dominated in the first round by my new blue belt friend. I try to never turn down a match, no matter how tired I am, because it's important to learn how to fight when you're tired. It's too easy to quit when you're gasping for breath, too easy to lie down, too easy to ask for a drink of water. Bruce Lee always said that consistent improvement comes from training right up to that point of total exhaustion, that point where it feels like your body can no longer function on its own . . . and then you push it a little further. This persistent behavior strengthens the mind, which in turn strengthens the body.

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