My newest black belt (3rd that I have promoted) wrote an awesome post about his journey at black belt over on reddit. It is a great read and I super proud of Neil!
I started BJJ in my mid-30s as a way to address my sedentary computer-geek life and expanding girth. Started a family late and I wanted to make sure I was there for my son when he needed me later on, but I was an uncoordinated couch potato who’d never done anything remotely athletic and I really didn’t know where to start. I tried to enjoy running for a year or so, but it didn’t sustain my interest. On a whim, I went to Amal Easton’s academy in nearby Boulder for an intro in 2004 and it took me two years to work up the courage to sign up in early 2006.
When I started training I couldn’t make it through the warm up. Mid-30s and out of shape, I was usually one of the older, rounder students in class. I think I could maybe do 5 pushups in a row. The first thing I learned was to suck it up and just keep showing up. I could see that I was probably going to suck at this for a really long time. Perspective wasn’t hard to come by at Easton’s; there was never any shortage of awe-inspiring instructors and world-class athletes hanging around. The MMA/UFC was really taking off in Colorado at the time and some of my instructors were moving that direction; some like Eliot Marshal went from teaching my evening classes to doing regional MMA bouts and eventually to starring on The Ultimate Fighter and fighting in the UFC right before my eyes. I loved seeing the big names come in and train with us. I rolled with guys like Duane Ludwig and Shane Carwin as a blue belt and met loads of famous Brazilians who came to do seminars. More importantly for me, I met friends back then that are still good friends today and I learned that you either win or you learn. Nobody ever really loses in jiu-jitsu class.
I met Professor Matt Jubera right after he moved to Colorado. He had this otherworldly passing and pressure that nobody at my area had really ever seen before and for a number of years he basically just took over the local BJJ competition scene. A long time student of Xande and Saulo Ribeiro, I really didn’t understand his game, but I knew the style really resonated with me and I wanted to learn it. When he told me he was starting his own academy near my house (I was a blue belt at the time), I told him I wanted to be his student before he’d even opened the doors and I have been ever since!
Setbacks, I’ve had a few. Tore my ACL on the mat as a blue belt and ended up being sidelined completely for about 7 months while I healed up. Tore my MCL badly and my -other- ACL as a purple belt. Turned out my second ACL injury wasn’t as bad as the first and didn’t end up requiring reconstruction, but the MCL took several months to heal before I could find that out. When I got back after my MCL injury, I realized I needed to make some changes and focus on prevention, so I started working on my diet and powerlifting (Stronglifts 5x5 stuff) on the side every other day. I started slow, spent a lot of time learning, and tracked my progress; in the first year I back squatted over a quarter-million pounds total volume. People started saying things like “you’re so strong”, which is certainly better than “you’re so fat”, but it gradually inspires a weird sort of ‘big guy angst’: you still understand your failures are a byproduct of needing better technique, but now you constantly wonder if your successes are only because you’re so strong. Still, I highly recommend working on strength for jiu-jitsu players. Especially those getting older like me. I know if you want to get better and jiu-jitsu, you should just do more jiu-jitsu, but that’s easier to say as a 25 year old than it is when you’re staring into the abyss of your 40s and wondering why you keep getting hurt. I really don’t worry about my knees any more at all and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. Deadlifts have done more to alleviate my finger pain than all the miles of athletic tape I’ve ever bought.
Today at 45, I’m the epitome of the hobbyist grinder jiu-jitsu guy. Somewhere along the way I earned me the nickname “Badger” and even today there are a ton of people I train with who I’m not 100% sure know my real name. I do comps from time to time, though it isn’t a major focus for me, and I’ve earned a couple of local medals to hang up. I’ve done Masters Worlds the last couple of years as brown (no medals there unfortunately, but loads of great experience). One of my favorite competition memories was a marathon 15 minute blue belt match at a local tournament where my opponent and I ended up exhausted with an even score at the end of the finals and ended up doing 5 different 2 minute resets after the match before I was able to hit a sweep and score for the gold.
What have I learned along the way? I think the most important realization for me was that anyone can be good at something if they put in the time. Growth mindset is at the core of what BJJ teaches people and how it changes lives. When you stop thinking of your failures as reflective of your intrinsic abilities and instead reframe them as learning opportunities, you learn a skill that is maybe the most powerful mental tool you can put in your toolbox. This lesson that jiu-jitsu teaches you every day cascades out to every corner of your life and it makes you a better husband, father, friend, and person. I love watching people discover this lesson; you can watch the transformation and it’s amazing. The other part of BJJ that is powerful for me is the family you make along the way; somehow constantly trying to choke each other senseless brings people together in a way you really can’t get anywhere else.
That’s the gist of my black belt journey. Last Wednesday after a guest seminar with Professor Lovato I just about fell over when my name was called out at the end of the class. I think "gobsmacked" is a good description. I was asked to say some words and I think I did, but to be honest it took about 3 days for the smoke to clear in my head.
As some of our students prepare for upcoming competitions it is important to have the right mindset going into competition. Two common mistakes we see are focusing on results and focusing on a game plan. Focusing on the results of any competition was counter productive (being on the podium, having a certain title or other accomplishments). Results and accolades will be come and go, life will move on quickly afterwards. But usually thinking about the effects of winning or losing only adds pressure to athlete and inhibits their performance. Also when I started competing I would focus on a certain game plan or strategy and I found that when that match went according to the game plan, it was someone that I was already way better than. The people who were at my level or even better than me, those matches went to crazy places and positions and by being open to different situations I was more able to improvise and adapt. So instead it is important to think more about initiating the action, being aggressive, but being able to "flow the go" as Rickson says.
So I try to focus on the things I can control. I can control my effort in practice, I can control my effort in the warm up before the match (showing up a couple hours early, getting a bit of a burn in my lungs, a nice dynamic stretch, moving around on the ground with a buddy). I can control my effort in the match (trying to get my opponent out of position on my feet, trying to wear my opponent out, trying so many submission attempts, battling hard from each position). Too many times our students who are very technical try to go out there and only rely on their technique, but the technique is muscle memory. It is there or it isn't and you won't know until that day. Some times I can work on a series for six months and have it not show up in competition or I can learn something the week before and hit it live. Don't beat yourself up over if you were technical or not, but if you go out there and try to conserve energy beating the guy in only technique it is usually a losing proposition.
I also try to focus on my attitude. I try to be happy and grateful for the opportunity to compete. That I am healthy enough to compete, that I was able to get myself into such great shape. That I am out there competing with my friends and doing the thing that I am most passionate about. It is also fun to be able to go at 100% speed an intensity compared to an academy pace and try moves on opponents who don't know my game as well as my students. In the past I could put a ton of pressure on myself to win certain tournaments and I would be nervous and tight before the match. But now that I am older I think I am much more grateful to still be doing what I love and still competing and moving at a high level. I try to always reframe my nervousness as being excited or as Cael Sanderson calls it being "spirited".
I also try to focus in my belief in myself, that I prepared as best as I know how. How I prepare for each tournament will change based on previous results, but at each tournament I prepared as best I knew how and believed in that. I like to focus on certain sayings, mantras that you can repeat to yourself and focus your mind on. Travis Stevens repeatedly says "My name is Travis Stevens and I am an olympic champion." So I use a similar phrase for myself. Not focused on the results of being a world champion, but that I am one, even before it happens. I also like to remind myself of my best physical attributes, sometimes you can face some physical monsters out there, but it is important to remind yourself of what you bring to the table as an athlete. Long story short, don't focus on the medals, the glory or how the match is supposed to go. Focus on the things you can control, be happy out there, fight hard and live in the moment.
When I started wrestling a single leg grip was taught by my coach as a palm to palm grip with the outside hand on top to avoid someone stripping the grip. BJJ guys call it a gable grip, but I have never heard many wrestlers call it that. I had great coaches with one being a 2x NCAA D1 runner up and olympic alternate. Here is a video of him teaching his navy finish.
That still is a great finish and one that I use all the time, but in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I started to have issues with the grip. BJJ and mma doesn't have shoes and a lot of the better Jiu-jitsu and MMA guys would limp their leg out of the single leg. For a highlight of that limp leg technique in action check out the video of Demian Maia vs Tyrone Woodley at 0:32, 1:20, 2:18, 2:25.
And here is a video of Ben Askren showing the technique behind the limp leg.
So how are the best guys in the world holding the single leg these days. Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs showing what I call a guillotine grip because it is the same grip we use all the time on our guillotine choke so BJJ guys are familiar with it. It leaves the palm of the hand open to control the leg and get more control vs the limp leg.
Here is Ben Asken showing the same thing, he was the NCAA champ and undefeated Bellator fighter.
Here is John Smith, olympic gold medalist showing a gable grip in an older video. But more recent videos show him demonstrating the guillotine grip. Which he instructs his athletes to "cover that hand".
So one of the questions I get a lot is what should I be doing outside of the academy to improve my BJJ. I think having a balanced lifestyle focused on staying injury free is very important. I do a shoulder routine with thera bands everyday before I train or lift which improves shoulder muscles and helps keep me from developing any shoulder impingement from being too slouched over. For lower body I make sure to get some lifting in during the week along with walking my German Shepherd. For posture I think the walking helps along with regular chiropractic care. One of my hobbies is dog training and while it doesn't sound like a workout, but an active game of tug is a great way to loosen up before training. So for me a schedule that includes lifting, walking, chiro and dog training is a nice balanced lifestyle for when I am not competing. Other friends of mine such as world champion James Poupolo are big into yoga, Rafael Lovato Jr is big into mobility and strength work with his trainer Luke Tirey. World champion Jared Dopp is big into strength training, but he lets his strength coach know his primary objective is to reduce injuries. Saulo and Xande balance out their week with yoga and strength and conditioning along with mobility work from floor drills. Personally, yoga was always good great for my hips, but less so for my back. I would be careful with routines like crossfit that put a little too much focus on
One question we often get from new students is how often should I train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We usually recommend new students train BJJ 2 to 3 days per week at most. Some people are a little bit confused by that and expect to train more than that coming in. But I have been around a long time and the students who are new and often come 4 or 5 days that first week rarely work out. They are like the new years resolution people who go to the gym a lot that first week in April, but then get too sore and life gets in the way and they didn't set a strong enough habit to keep with their new activity. When I started training at the University of Michigan Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club, I was probably lucky that they only met three times a week on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays. So I wasn't even able to train more than three days a week if I wanted to. It gave me plenty of time to think back and reflect on the training sessions and moves I had learned. Plus I had just come off high school wrestling which was a six time a week sport and was probably a bit burnt out. By having that craving to attend more than I was able to I was able to keep healthy and develop that desire to train more. By the end of my first year, I was in great shape and was able to start traveling to attend extra sessions, but I think anything more might have been detrimental to my long term success.
Now I have friends that are world champions that still only train 3 days a week. They supplement their BJJ with either yoga, weights or mobility exercises to help stay strong and healthy for competition. These are not hobbyiest athletes and they are getting the best results from 3 days a week. They have done the 5 or 6 day a week routines and found they had better performances when they cut back their training. So if these full time athletes are doing better on 3 days a week training and as a coach I have found that beginners have longer term success on 2 to 3 days a week, why are you pushing for more? Do you feel like you are going to fall behind the rest of the class? Are you trying to get to your blue belt faster? I think it is probably ego talking and getting in the way there. These thoughts of well if I am getting good going 2 to 3 days a week, what if I went 5 days a week, 6 days a week.
Now when our students get ready for competition, then I usually expect them to bump it up to 4 days a week. If they have extra energy, get in some strength building and if they have more extra energy, get in some cardio. I still only expect them to train hard 3 days a week, but an extra day can help them feel more mentally prepared and get in a bit of extra technique work. Plus if life gets in the way, as it often does, then they can at least hit their 3 hard days of training.
As a coach, I know that not every student listens, so I have schedule my classes to put in rest days for the guys. Mondays and Wednesday nights we have advanced classes and those are usually the "hard" classes for most people where we get in the most training. But when I make Tuesday class a hard day as well, I found the athletes were burning themselves out and their performances went down. So pretty much year round Tuesdays are a lighter day than Monday and Wednesday in the advanced classes. Then I expect our competitors to hit a longer open mat session on Thursday, Saturday or Sunday. Saturday would be optimal because it gives the most amount of rest between the hard Mondays and Wednesday training. But if people have other plans or activities we have great open mats on Thursday and Saturday as well.
Now people see that I am in the academy and on the mats with my students 5 days a week, isn't this going against what you are telling others to do. It is, but I make sure that I am only training hard on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Tuesdays and Thursdays I train with lighter and easier partners and I stick to positional training so that I can focus on areas that I identified that I need to improve. In fact, I do this in a lot of my training, so even if a training session looks to the outside like an open training session you will see me repeat certain positions or sequences multiple times because I can guide the training area that way as a more experienced BJJ practitioner.
Also understand that sometimes life gets in the way of your training. Sometimes you have to take a break because you are sick, or are stresses out because of work or relationships. This is normal and happens to every person. Let yourself get to a good place physically and mentally before entering into full training mode. Just come to easier classes, and let yourself rest up. I have found looking back on my 17+ years of BJJ training that the people who try to push to hard through these little distractions end up having to deal with larger setbacks later. So even if 1 week a month is sub-optimal training, I think that is pretty normal. In fact my strength training program Wendler's 5-3-1 program is based around a deload week every 4 weeks where you lift just a fraction of the weight you are used to. So that is something I am used to in my training. I always think it is ok to have a bad week, I just try to not have many bad months of training.
By Matthew F (Age 12)
Since I was six, I have been doing Jiu-Jitsu and throughout that time I have met many talented and well respected people. For the past two years I have been doing my training under Matt Jubera who has been a huge inspiration for a lot of people including myself. In my interview with him, we talked about many things including his upbringing, aspirations and accomplishments.
The very first question I asked professor was, “How old were you when you first started martial arts?” His response was, “I was in 4th grade and my mom did Judo when she was an FBI agent, that’s where the interest really started.” From there, he started doing Tae Kwon Do in the 4th grade even though he wished that he had been in Judo. After that I asked him, “When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” He said, “There was no career in Jiu-Jitsu at that time in Michigan, so I was very into software and wanted to be a programmer and do software development.” He really liked it back then and still to this day enjoys it. Professor was programming video games in high school and was very good at it. That is what he’d be doing if he wasn’t doing jiu-jitsu as a profession instead. Professor didn’t start to do wrestling until the 8th grade and formally Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu until he was 18, and he said there was no one who had a black belt in jiu-jitsu in Michigan. He said, “the highest belt was a purple belt,” then after all that we started to go into who his biggest influence was. Xande Ribiero is the biggest influence of his career, but there have also been several mentors along the way that he got a lot of tips and tricks from, like Korbett Miller and Amal Easton. Most schools didn’t have kids programs at the time. Korbett Miller showed him how to run the school the right way, out in Kirkland Washington. Xande and Saulo Ribiero are the biggest influences as far as actual BJJ goes. He won several tournaments starting when he was a white belt at 18, but the bigger ones with the best competitors in the world, started in the WORLDS in 2003 when he made it to the quarter finals. The biggest win, was as a purple belt at the 2006 Pan Am tournament and he knew that he could hang with the best people. After all of his success including being a black belt with two stripes, he started to work on opening a gym of his own. I then asked what his absolute favorite thing about jiu-jitsu was, he said his favorite thing about it is that, “you always keep improving, it’s human chess and you have to think and use your mind and your body. Every day is different and it required 100% focus or else you can’t grow.” He includes that it’s meditative and he enjoys teaching young kids. “These kids are athletic and have great minds and I get to work with them at their age, teaching work ethic, self defense and building confidence” he explains. He gets to be apart of a great community that is looking to grow. If there was an offside chance that he couldn’t teach jiu-jitsu he would love to do computer programing and software developing.
Although it seems like he might have done it all, there are still things he wants to accomplish, There are people like Roger Gracie and Marcelo Garcia that he always wanted to train with. Beyond that, it’s all coaching goals and helping the youth program grow up to be great.
After this interview I understand a lot more about the hard work that goes into jiu-jitsu. Not only that, but Professor Matt Jubera is a very good and well rounded jiu-jitsu fighter, coach and person, and I think a lot of people should look up to him like I do.
One of my best friend's and fellow Ribeiro black belt Jason Clarke got into a discussion about the effectiveness of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu armbar in a self defense situation. This all started off with a video of a parking lot fight where one person attempted an armbar on another person and the one person escaped because they didn't know a counter when someone stood out of the armbar.
Jason's take on the situation was, like him, pretty straight forward. He said "Armbar's don't end fights, just matches". I thought that it was a pretty strong take on the move, but his point was that the video we were watching wasn't a fight, it was a "monkey dance". The people who were fighting weren't really trying to kill each other, they were drunk and peacocking or in a primitive sense showing off for their mates. His point was that this wasn't a violent criminal assault where one or more people were trying to kill or steal from someone else. If this were a life or death situation, then the armbar wouldn't be effective because a criminal could fight through the pain and still continue to get weapons.
I always value Jason's opinion highly. He has been training BJJ since 1994 and was a blue belt when I started training at the University of Michigan club. He was also an army ranger and has been in life and death situations. Now I thought that while an armbar isn't the perfect move for every situation, it is has been shown to be highly effective and to discount it just because it won't kill or make your opponent unconscious was a bit too much. So I pointed out the military study where 20% of infantryman ended up in a close quarters situation, 75% of them used grappling in that situation and close to 20% of those people used an armbar, which was more than than used chokes and way more than all striking techniques combined.
Jason didn't think the study was perfect because army situations usually used overwhelming force so hopefully there were more US soldiers in a situation than enemies. The environment a soldier will use hands on techniques is usually quite different than what a civilian who is legally defending themselves will be in. A soldier will most likely be operating in teams of two or more (Fire Team = 3 - 5 people, Squad = ~12 people). Very rarely are they operating alone or far from support of more teammates. A civilian on the other hand will most likely be alone and the odds of them being outnumbered in the direct engagement are greater based on what is known of the criminal assault paradigm. So, typically, the Soldier usually has superiority in numbers where the civilian will either be equal matched or at a numerical disadvantage. But I don't think you are ever going to get a study where you have a civilians vs criminals and the civilians are trained enough to show the value of said training. He also pointed out again that techniques are limited by the possibility of multiple attackers, weapons, pain intolerance, or that a certain percentage of the population are not affected.
My final point was that there is a ton of evidence showing that this move works on resisting opponents, even when there are the group dynamics and weapons of armed combat. Not every self defence situation is going to require a lethal response and you are going to have to make use of force decisions as a civilian. We can get into the hypothetical of every criminal being an armed pcp junkie with friends behind every corner, but then the only response is going to be a possibly lethal one. I think you have to train moves that have shown to be effective, that you can practice repeatedly against fully resisting opponents. Worrying about every hypothetical can lead you down a pretty crazy rabbit hole of self defense that I don't think is great use of time.
Last Sunday Coach Hannah and Tessa hosted an awesome girls only session at Jubera Jiu-Jitsu. These awesome female sessions help prepare them for the Fight to Win tournament and Pro show this coming weekend. I am very proud of the work ethic and dedication our female athletes show and the time they put into growing the female BJJ community in Colorado. Here are some of the pics of their training.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.