The Tribal Element

If an outside observer happened to look into a specific building around 6:25pm on Tuesday, May 1st, this is what they would have seen.

A bunch of individuals wearing different colored Japanese pajamas, with different colored belts, were lined up in two rows.  On a closer inspection, the observer may have noticed all those wearing white belts were lined up in the row against the wall, and the row in front of them had other colored belts (blue, purple, brown).  Standing out front, the leader of the group was wearing a black belt.

On this particular day, the leader called one of the white belts forward, took a piece of athletic tape, and wrapped it around a small black portion of the white belt. A sentiment was shared, others clapped, and the individual returned to the line along the wall.

Then there was running in circles, some sort of interpretive dance, and then quite a lot of very intense cuddling.

So what is this observer supposed to take from this?  What happened?  What does this mean to these individuals?

The Tribe

Within the tribe, this ritual has very specific and special meaning. Each time a teammate gets a stripe or moves up a belt, it is a promotion.  It is a sign of progress.  Although the individual is singled out in this moment and recognized in front of his/her teammates, it is understood on a tribal level, that this was a collective effort.

The tribe must exist before the individual.

In my previous post, Evaluating a New Venture, I introduced a very important and key component of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is a deep tribal aspect. I became interested enough that I wanted to look more into this instinct that is within us all.  Indeed, this is an evolutionary trait that we all have.

In Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, he describes the early human tribes, and the consequences and rewards of such instinctual behavior.

Junger outlines three basic human needs that keep us all from going crazy:

  • They need to feel competent at what they do.
  • They need to feel authentic in their lives.
  • They need to feel connected to others.

It is that third necessity that he really dives into, observing right away that “modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

This necessity is a root cause of PTSD in combat veterans. They go from a situation of intense interdependence within their troop, one in which they serve a crucial and necessary role, to the society just described.

It is this connectedness, camaraderie, and closeness that ignites the passion for Jiu Jitsu. This tribal feeling is powerful.  It is why combat veterans feel compelled to go back. It is why some teammates have turned down great offers elsewhere in their careers or lives.

We are born with a sense of the pleasantness of friendship just as other things. In the same way as there exists in man a distaste for solitude and a craving for society, natural instinct drawing one human being to another, so too with this there is something inherent in it that stimulates us into seeking friendships.



Grappling With The Nerves

With Victory Grappling Championships this weekend, my second Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament, there is a certain level of nervousness to which I feel many of you can all probably relate.

This often happens before a big event, whether it is an important presentation, interview, performance, or athletic competition.  The nerves strike, and sometimes they strike pretty hard.

As an academic, I’ve had countless presentations that I’ve given, which include each and every lecture in my statistics and math courses. I have also competed in many races in my adult life, including several triathlons. These BJJ tournaments are new to me, and because of this newness, their is a new set of nerves to deal with.

Since a high level of nervousness can hinder your performance, it is probably a good idea to find some ways to cope.

Embrace the Nervousness

For someone to not be nervous about a big event approaching is unusual, and can actually be a sign of apathy.  As soon as these new set of nerves arrived at my doorstep, I invited them in for dinner.

If you are going to be in the game of presenting, performing, and/or competing, you will need to accept the fact that you will get nervous.  The best way to accept this fact, is to embrace and get to know that nervousness like an odd family member or neighbor (like Kramer on Seinfeld).

They are much easier to manage if you just let them in, and sit at the table.  When you try and combat them, they begin to argue with you, mess with you in all kinds of inventive ways, and make the situation awkward and even more unsettling.  You can try your best to kick them out on the street, but they sneak around the back door and end up at the dinner table anyway for a very unpleasant evening.

It is best not to fight them.  Get to know them well enough that you can laugh at their ridiculous antics.

Embrace the Now

Your thoughts will inevitably shift toward the presentation/event itself.  You will think about how things could go wrong. What if you fail?

If you think about all the presentations (performances/events) that you’ve given (competed in), and try and remember your frame of mind during the presentation (performance/event) itself, I bet you will arrive at a simple answer. Your mind was focused on the moment.  It wasn’t wondering and worrying about the end, or the post presentation (performance/event) praise or fallout.

It was embracing the now.

That’s what your mind should also be doing as it leads up to the big event.  It should focus on your preparation, the down-time, and the much needed sleep that your body desperately needs in situations like these.

Keep your mind in check.  It will drift back to the future and cause worry.  It takes practice in getting it back to the present.

Sometimes, when it does drift to the future, I like to fast forward it a bit more to after the event is over.  Remember all those feelings you’ve had post presentation and/or post performance/competition?  Whether you bombed your presentation or performance, or lost miserably in your competition, did you ever think, “hey, all those nerves were completely justified”?

Regardless of the outcome, you most likely wondered why you were so nervous in the first place?

Embrace Your Best

Since all that you can give is your best, embrace that idea.  You are going to go and do your best.

If your mind drifts to the future, you can quickly think of this inevitable outcome before returning your thoughts to the now: you will have done your best.  That is all that is important.

Embrace Your Insignificance

Put yourself in the other’s shoes, who will be watching your presentation/performance/event.  How would you react to a failure?

You move on, and eventually, you forget it. You also wonder what did that dude have to be nervous about?

2 Hobbies, 1 Day

Saturday, April 28th will be a busy day.

Parkville Microbrew Festival

A few months ago, Erin and I committed to attending the Parkville Microbrew Festival in Parkville, MO. It takes place at English Landing Park in Parkville, with tasting going from 1-5pm this year.

The Greater Topeka Hall of Foamers will be serving 17 of the club’s beers, two of which will be mine.  One is called Sgt. Gerry Boyle Irish Ale, named after a character in one of my favorite movies: The Guard.  The other is called Kaw Valley Singletrack, which is an American Red Ale in the spirit of Lakefront Brewery’s Fixed Gear.

Tickets are $35 in advance (through the link I provided above) or $45 at the gate while space and supplies last.

Victory Grappling Championships

The day before my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament in Kansas City, my coach posted an event beginning at 9:30 AM on Saturday, April 28th.  It is the Victory Grappling Championships that will be at the Parkville Athletic Complex.

What are the chances?  My two passions in life converge on the same small town in Missouri, separated in time just enough that I could make both happen if I want to.

Last night, I decided to do just that and registered for the tournament.  It will be over a month since my first tournament, and I’m itching for some more competitive experience.

There is a little information about the event on Facebook, and a place to register here.  It costs $50 for a single division or you can do both Gi and No Gi for only $10 more.

Interested in one and curious about the other?  Come check either or both out!

No Hardware, No Problem

Today, I competed in my very first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament.  Grappling Industries put on a round robin format tournament in Kansas City. My white belt, 170lb, Gi division had 4 other competitors.

I went into this tournament with a clear goal in mind. I wanted to survive all of my matches. That is, I wanted to last the entire 5 minutes without being submitted (or until I was able to perform a submission).

My first match was against a very tough competitor, and I remember being trapped in the same position for at least a minute.  I could hear teammates and/or my coach reminding me to breathe.  This was good advice.  I concentrated on breathing a while.  The match was not a high scoring match.  When time was called, I remember thinking that I had met my goal!  I had survived.

Bonus: I won my first match by a few points!

I sat down to compose myself when the table called out my name and told me my 2nd match was up next.  Holy shit.

In hindsight, I could have requested that I be given a little more time to recuperate.  In practice, we are given only a minute to recuperate.  I was given over 5.  That’s going to have to be good enough, I told myself.

My second match was against the eventual winner (and winner of the Absolute Gi he had competed in at he beginning of the tournament).  I knew it would be difficult to survive.  After a little bit of parrying back and forth on our feet, I got in a deep double leg take down.  This is great if you’re in wrestling.  In BJJ, they are not all that great unless you have both legs to one side and you’re not in the middle of them with your head outside to be guillotined in under a minute.

I didn’t survive.  Shake it off and move on.

Before my 3rd match, I had a longer rest time.  This helped.

My 3rd match was much more active, as I was able to get take-downs, work a little side control, get a sweep after losing side control, and work on a submission (that did not come to fruition). Again, when time expired, I got excited.  I survived again!

Bonus: I won my second match.  This time by a wider margin of points.

During the fourth match, I got too excited.  I got a take down and side control, and was applying a lot of top pressure, but didn’t quite get room for a submission.  More action, which led to more points.  Perhaps this got to my head?  Perhaps I let my guard down?  I was ahead by a wide margin.  He grabbed my lapel from the bottom position and applied such an effective cross choke on me that I had to tap out.  Except… I guess I didn’t tap out.

I took a nap instead.

It is quite bizarre coming to with the ref holding and shaking your feet in the air while staring your coach in the eyes.

“I had a dream, coach.”

“Did you solve all the world’s problems?”

“Maybe. I got a good start on it, at least.”

I didn’t survive.  Grappling Industries doesn’t allow naps in the middle of matches, surprise, surprise. The experience was a great one though.

When I checked the standings, the first place finisher had won all four matches, and three of us won 2 and lost 2.  Because the other two competitors had won one of their matches by submission, they were awarded 2nd and 3rd place.  So, no hardware for the points guy.

You know what… no problem.  I’m happy having the experience.  The camaraderie of having your teammates all around you is indescribable.

Many would come away from this thinking that they need to obviously work on submissions.  If they could have submitted one of their opponents, they could have been in the running for 2nd or 3rd place.  But I didn’t come away thinking this.

I came away thinking I need to keep training and focusing on surviving and not getting myself into positions where I can be submitted.  If I could have survived all 5 minutes of all of my matches, I definitely could have won 3.

I’m a white belt. I just need to survive. Submissions will come in due time.

Limiting Your Focus

There is a story that Saulo Ribeiro tells in his book Jiu-Jitsu University about Helio Gracie at age 90. Helio told Saulo,

Son, you’re strong, you’re tough, you’re a world champion, but I don’t think you can beat me.

Although the 90 year Helio wasn’t about to beat Saulo, he simply stated that Saulo couldn’t beat him.  And Saulo couldn’t. Helio survived. Saulo could not impose his game on the 90 year old Helio.

This taught Saulo a very valuable lesson: the importance of survival and defense in the art of jiu-jitsu.

In turn, I hope that it also teaches all of us a valuable lesson as well.

The Basics

When learning something new and exciting, it is very tempting to dive head first into the vast ocean of your endeavor. This leaves us thrashing about here and there, with no real direction, lost in a seemingly infinite sea.

Perhaps it might be better to first build a sturdy boathouse and dock, and make sure that it is well kept.  Without these basic building blocks, we have nothing to land on or come back to.

As a beginner, it is tempting to want to take on the ocean right away. But it is best to limit our focus on the basics.

In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes a writing assignment that a student is assigned. She is supposed to write an essay about her home town, but can’t do it. When the teacher changed the assignment, and instructed her to write about a brick in the opera house on a small block in her home town, the words began to flow.

Josh Waitzkin used the above reference in his book The Art of Learning. He applies the idea of limiting focus to martial arts in the chapter “Making Smaller Circles” (this chapter name was the inspiration of the featured image for this post):

We watch completely unrealistic choreography, filmed with sophisticated aerial wires and raucous special effects, and some of us come away wanting to do that stuff to. This leads to the most common error in the learning of martial arts: to take on too much at once.

As a brand new student in jiu-jitsu, I try my best to limit my focus on surviving and defending. This takes quite a long time. I had to tap out several times during a class a few weeks ago. Surviving and defending is tough enough!

Coach Criqui emphasized this same sentiment during a recent class, describing the confused state that students get themselves in after watching 20 YouTube videos of moves they want to practice.  He, too, encouraged us to limit our focus.

The Instructor’s Dilemma

There are several BJJ Academy instructors I’ve listened to on The Grappling Central Podcast.  Many of them share a common sentiment: the struggle to drill and teach what should be taught versus drilling and running the program in a way that keeps students coming back.

Drilling basics, defense and survival strategies may get students in the door, but unfortunately, most of us don’t have the mindset of limiting our focus. We come in wondering how we’re going to compete and beat the instructor before we’ve learned how to defend against getting choked. Better yet, how to avoid positions that will lead to getting choked.

We want to dance before we can walk. We want to navigate the vast sea without a boat or a dock.

Students see where they want to be. Instructor’s know and understand the path the student needs in order to get there.

The successful student will work hard, think hard, and put the necessary time in, allowing their instructor(s) to lead them along the path the instructor knows so well.  They limit their focus and stay on the designed path.

Students who look for and take shortcuts and alternative routes will inevitably get lost and not succeed in the way they had initially set out to.

Stay on path. Limit your focus.