October 4, 2013

I Travel In My Own Way

It's been two years to the day since I started at Ronin Athletics. With time off due to injuries, surgeries, vacations, tattoos and whatever else along the way, I've been training about 19-20 months now, but I officially started at my gym on October 4th, 2011 and it's been a great second home ever since. When I stepped onto the mats that Tuesday night, I sure as hell never imagined it would become such a big part of my life, or that I'd still be there two years later.

When I first started training, I did almost entirely nogi grappling. Minimal kickboxing, no fancy outfits...I only picked up a cheap blue Fuji and began to grudgingly do one of the gi classes after a few months of being hassled into it. At the time, I vehemently insisted that gi "just wasn't my thing" and was therefore totally unconcerned with the whole concept of ranks and belts. HAH! The innocence of newbies. I don't know exactly when things changed, but somewhere along the way I became all about the gi (yes, Liz was super smug about it) and kicked up my efforts to really focus on the details, improve my technique and actively work towards my blue belt.

It's been quite a journey. One of my favorite things about grappling is that it's not the same for everyone; each person learns in their own time, in their own style. During one class, we were drilling a relatively easy spin around the back and something in my brain short circuited. Instead of doing step 1, 2, 3, I kept doing step 1, and then some bizarre hopping, flying motion that magically landed me at step 3. I mean, it kind of worked, but my inability to do it the usual way was a total mystery. When I asked Christian to observe and showed him my version of the move, he smiled, shrugged, shook his head and said, "What can I say? You travel in your own way."

Needless to say, as an eccentric artist, this saying applies to every aspect of my life and immediately became one of my favorite quotes. I now use it all the time. Besides, when it comes to jiu jitsu, everyone has to find their own path based on what clicks with the mechanics of their body. Especially with my defective hand, I often have to find my own way of doing things, adjusting certain moves to work better for me. Carlo in particular tends to give me adapted versions of grip-oriented moves, which has saved me from total failure with many a technique over the last two years.

In the early days, most of my partners were pretty big guys and I didn't get a lot of time to work with Liz or the smaller dudes, so I developed a primarily defensive game. Over the first sixth months, I went from being crushed and submitted every few seconds to being crushed and submitted only once in a while by the same people. Forget tapping anyone out; if I could just frustrate my partners enough by escaping and defending for most of the round, I considered it an epic win.

Once I got to a point where I could actually survive, I started trying to sneak in submissions and get better at transitioning from defensive to offensive positions. Mount became my go-to place and armbars became my focus. Liz is something of an evil armbar god so I'm always trying to learn more from her. I found my preferred guard passes (sexy creepy smash pass FTW) and the sweeps that worked best for me and started to develop my own game. It's an ongoing process that's always changing, but it's slowly coming along. I've also started rolling harder instead of just kicking back for the lazy flow roll that used to define my groundwork, and it's made a real difference not to mention certain training partners very happy. Whenever we have a good, hard roll, Liz gets that maniacal smile on her face and enthusiastically shakes my hand and thanks me afterwards.

The funny thing is, I've been working extra hard since I got my 4th stripe earlier in the year and had this borderline obsessive gotta wreck it, gotta get my blue belt, any day now attitude for a good few months before finally realizing how stupid it was to be focused on that instead of just doing what I needed to do. Literally the week after I stopped thinking that way and decided that I would never get promoted (yes, I admit it, it gets a little dramatic inside my head), I got my new belt. My recent decision to stop waiting for it just made it that much more unexpected and surprising.

I also assumed that when I did eventually get promoted, it would be as part of a group, so I was completely taken aback when, after a good, hard class, Christian told everyone to grab a drink and line up against the wall. I thought we were doing King of the Hill (my nemesis) until he tossed down a blue belt, called me to the center of the room and said "21 minutes, go!" I had to roll with everyone for a minute each, and dammit they were going hard; or at least the white belts were; the blues and purples were, for the most part, being relatively nice and not trying to kill me, and Christian and Carlo gave me a break and let me sweep and armbar them near the end.

I've had long, intense rolls before but I've never done an Iron Man for that long with everyone standing around and watching. It was exhausting and awful but I made it through to the end. At least I didn't get submitted until Liz tackled me from behind and proceeded to gleefully tap me out over and over in rather brutal ways. It was an ass kicking with love, though, as I am now the second female to ever get promoted at our gym, and it felt fantastic. I damn sure plan to keep working my ass off and hope to earn my purple belt someday...at which point Liz will undoubtedly be a brown or black belt and still making me look stupid. I look forward to that day and in the meantime, I'll continue to learn new things, get better at what I already know, and enjoy absolutely every second of it.

June 15, 2013

One of the Guys vs. The Girl

In a ramble inspired by Shark Girl's hilarious entry from a while back, as well as a ridiculous number of childish blog posts and forum threads either about how girls shouldn't grapple because it's "not natural" or about how it makes some guys so very uncomfortable to roll with females (ZOMG cooties!! Girl parts!! Wherever shall I put my hands??), I'd like to take a moment to address the matter of having two X chromosomes in a "guy's sport." I actually wrote most of this about 4 months after I started training and never published it, but with the influx of new female athletes at Ronin lately, I figure the subject has become quite relevant.

No, I've never been super feminine in the traditional sense...I'm definitely a tomboy. I like my sweatpants, t-shirts and beat-up sneakers. I loathe makeup and dresses and diamond earrings. I also refuse to tolerate brainless chicks who act totally incompetent, relying on men for everything like helpless ditzes who can't lift their own Prada bags. That said, I do absolutely love fluffy animals, bright colors and big strong boyfriends. I'm willing to jump guys twice my size if they're bothering a friend and can handle getting my ass kicked as a result, but I can also be fun and silly and totally adorable (really, I know it's hard to believe). So where does that leave me when it comes to something like grappling?

The fact is, wrestling is and always has been very much a boy's game. It's kind of the whole alpha male fight for dominance thing...a concept that doesn't seem to appeal to many ladies, comparatively - and I guess somewhat understandably. A lot of women are more claustrophobic, less aggressive, less prone to enjoying combat sports and just generally uncomfortable with the close contact thing, particularly when it comes to training with the opposite sex. I just wish I got paid every time a female friend said something along the lines of "You do WHAT with WHO? I could NEVER do that..."

But here I am, a rainbow-loving tomboy who's perfectly happy around groups of boys, training almost daily with a big gang of athletes, and from the beginning, one of my biggest questions was how do I want to be seen? No qualms about being in a male-dominated environment, or about being stuck between some dude's legs as he tries to choke me out. That wasn't even a remote concern. My one and only fear going into MMA was...what if I look stupid? Because let's face it, wrestling and decking people in the face isn't all that feminine, and sometimes enthusiasm can only take you so far when almost everyone you're training with outweighs you by 30 - 80 lbs (not to mention, their muscle-to-fat ratio is, in general, significantly higher than your own).

Looking back, I went into my first class a year and a half ago ago wanting to be thought of as anything but a girl. Just another one of the new guys, nothing to see here, move right along. I wore a pair of my brother's shorts (he's two years younger but almost 6'0 so you can imagine how those fit) and the biggest, rattiest t-shirt I could find (which, in hindsight, was not entirely ideal for grappling). For the second class, once I'd gotten a feel for the place, I felt a bit better about wearing a normal t-shirt...you know, one that was actually fitted for girls as opposed to overweight men. But I was still wary of giving off too much of a girly vibe because if I did, would people start thinking that that they had to go easy or give me special treatment? How much girl is too much for an MMA gym? As I wrote in my very first entry, I was completely paranoid about being laughed out of the building when I first walked in, so a lot of my focus in the beginning was on trying to avoid such attention and just blend into the crowd.

Over the following weeks, I became more and more comfortable with the people that I was training with. I stopped caring if my shirts were shorter or more fitted than what the guys wore or if the colors stood out more. I stopped worrying about tops riding up or shorts or gi pants coming off...I mean, that's what underarmour capris and sports bras are for, right? And at this point, I'm happy enough to alternate between the darker colors and things that are distinctly girly. For example, I have four pairs of MMA shorts, one of which is a glaringly bright pink and white camo design...which I sometimes wear with an electric blue heat tech t-shirt (please forgive the fact that I have no sense of fashion or color coordination...I said that I'm a girl, not that I'm a very good one). And while I'm damn sure aggressive on the mats, I can also relax and be less so in between classes and drilling instead of continuously acting like some sort of butch manbeater.

Unlike most of my female friends, I'm average height, am not built like a stick, and I don't want or need to be exactly like other women. Then again, I clearly am one. In something like grappling, that often feels like a contradiction. It seems like many women in the sport struggle to figure out how much of a guy they need to be in order to fit in or to be taken seriously, and as a result, many women are too uncomfortable to continue or to even try training at all. Of course, immature discussions on the interwebs abound.

Guys at other gyms worldwide seem to bitch and moan about the trials and tribulations of rolling with the other sex. It's just wrong, women don't belong on the mats, there must be something wrong with them. I would feel like I'm cheating on my wife. My religion doesn't allow it. Working with chicks does nothing to improve my game. Luckily, this has never been a major issue at Ronin, but it's disappointing to read such things or hear it from female athletes elsewhere. The ironic thing is that such crap is said even in cases where the women are taller and/or stronger than many of the men. So for someone like me to show up and act like...well, a girl (at least when appropriate) is something that I would never have thought possible when I first started.

Ultimately, how I'm seen as a training partner is the most important thing to me, no contest. But whereas in the beginning, I'd never have worn bright colors or acted silly or allowed a single shred of girlness to breach the surface, I've now reached a kind of compromise. I even have two pairs of custom tie-dye gi pants that bring epic joy to my jiu jitsu life, even if they make Christian want to gouge out his eyes (in my opinion, if Liz can wear bright orange and yellow gis, I can damn sure sport tie-dye Fenom pants). I'm comfortable joking around and being more like my quasi-girl self rather than acting like a total dude. Because I know the people I train with now, and they know that when I'm on the mats, I'm there to work hard and to learn the same as anyone else, regardless of my ridiculous MMA fashion choices. In some ways, I feel like the more I train, the more I have to prove that I'm still a girl...a complex which manifests itself in the unacceptable amount of pink I've been wearing this past year. Hell, if I can find a tie-dye rashguard and/or MMA shorts, you can bet your ass I'll be sparring in those next!

March 10, 2013

Gym Junkies

Well...I turned 29 earlier this week and have officially been training MMA for almost a year and a half. I think it's a good sign that I still love it (and my gym and teammates) as much as ever. And although in many ways it feels like business as usual, it's strange to realize how much has changed.

For example, I am no longer "the newbie." It's hard to accept, because there are so many people with so much more experience, yet it turns out there are in fact others who have far less experience than I do, and it's my turn to help them and to put up with all of the newbie mistakes that I used to make. It's also my responsibility to recognize the mistakes that I'm making now and to actively strive to improve myself in those areas, because the whole "I just started, so I have no idea what I'm doing" excuse just doesn't fly anymore.

I've also found that my view of training has changed a lot. I've had enough time to develop my own personal perspective now. In the beginning, I was obsessed with not missing anything, because god forbid I skip a single class and fall behind FOREVER! What if someone who started one week after me got promoted first? The horror! Luckily, I grew out of that stupid mindset and have taken a much more zen approach. I learn faster than some teammates, and some learn faster than me. The only thing that matters is that I continue to move forward and that I enjoy the journey.

Ironically, once I adopted that attitude, I started to progress a lot faster. My kickboxing isn't perfect, but I'm keeping up with the classes and handling most of the moves well. I probably have Rocky to thank for my sudden improvement in blocking, since my skills in that area considerably improved after a 20 minute one-on-one a few months back, in which he threw such hard blows to the head in such rapid succession that screwing up was not an option.

For jiu jitsu, I'm almost exclusively doing gi now, which has allowed me to focus so much more on technique. I wasn't even aware of it until recently, but that smooth flow that I observed and envied in others when I started is now something that I'm developing. Not always, of course (especially when I'm tired); I still get crushed by plenty of people, but I also get sweeps and submissions. I can hold a strong mount, tend to play a lot of De La Riva, and hop over someone to escape an omoplata. Somewhere along the way, "rolling" stopped meaning "try not to get tapped out" and started to mean "trap the arm and roll into halfguard; smear across the chest and go for s-mount; swing into an armbar from a failed bow and arrow" and so much more. I mean, I loved rolling even when I was doing little more than trying to delay submissions, so you can imagine how enjoyable it is now.

Of course, there are other people who are still in that "gym junkie" phase where they feel the need to prove themselves and to progress or elevate themselves as quickly as possible. For instance, the guy who just started but feels entitled to tell you the best way to do certain moves (even though he's telling you to do it wrong). This sort of guy is normally quite nice and because he means well, you have to fight the urge to tell him to shut it. I've found that my favorite way of dealing with this is to politely smile and say "thanks, I got it," and then use those same moves to kick that person's ass when rolling.

In some cases, this type of person will actually try to cover the fact that they're getting their ass kicked by instructing you while rolling, so that when you land a submission or they fail to escape a hold, they can act like they successfully coached you into it. I've even seen brand new white belts trying to tell blues and purples how to roll and telling them afterwards "I think you could do X or Y a little better, but that was pretty good!" Really, I know that I did a lot of silly things when I started (and still do plenty of silly things, for sure), but one thing that I've never done, not once, is attempt to instruct someone with more experience than me. And of course, these are the same people who tend to bear hug you when you try to pass, because they don't know what else to do yet.

Another kind of gym junkie is that guy or girl who just has to show everyone up, not only when sparring but all the time. Running faster to lap people instead of jogging in a circle with the rest of the class...punching and kicking so hard that they knock their partner over and brushing off suggestions from instructors or teammates on how to improve their technique (a dismissive "yeah, I got it" followed by doing it wrong, again, and nearly hurting someone in the process)...attending a more advanced grappling class, getting angry when they can't get the moves, and then intentionally flailing around and kicking at their partner while rolling because "well I'm sorry, but that's all I know right now." Luckily, they either disappear after a month or two, or eventually get control of themselves.

The last type is the sweet but oblivious workout buff who rolls to tap people out as many times as possible rather than to play and learn. One guy, who is not huge but is quite strong, really wants to compete, which is great. What's not so great is him treating every single roll like a competition match. He's a really good partner to have while learning the moves in class and doing basic drills, but when it comes to actually rolling, there's no in-between. The problem is, he's someone that I get along with so well on a personal level that I can't bring myself to tell him off. But he's extremely rough (a lot of the smaller and/or newer guys are also put off by it) and being manhandled into a bunch of armbars and violent chokes by someone who is going 200% when you are trying to kick back and flow-roll...well, it does absolutely nothing for my jiu jitsu (I can't imagine it does much for his either), is not at all fun and is likely to result in someone being injured.

I mentioned it to him once, but short of flat-out saying "I refuse to roll with you until you calm down," I'm not sure he gets it. I did politely avoid him when rolling the other day, although I think he caught on since every time he came over and asked to pair up, I lunged towards someone else and cried "I'm with him! Sorry!" He looked kind of dejected after the third time this happened, which made me feel bad, but we worked together in class the next day so he knows I'm not shunning him completely. I think the next time we roll, I'll nicely tell him that he either needs to chill out or I'm going to kick back and offer zero resistance, which would be no fun for either of us. Since he does genuinely want to get better, I'm guessing that will annoy him into finding a better balance.

February 19, 2013

Stripes and Sexism

I know I've dropped off the map for a while when it comes to maintaining my blog, but in my defense I'm at the gym 4-5 times a week and it's hard to find time to come home and then write about it. I didn't mean to disappear either but finding a happy balance has never been my forte.

Luckily for all of you, I have new things to write about. For example, I am now a 4-stripe white belt and have long since been converted to primarily training with the gi (remember how I once insisted that I'd never EVER be into gi, because nogi was "the shit?"...yeah, I'm over that phase; give me a gi). I will write more about all that soon but in the meantime, I wanted to address an irritating article that I read by a black belt instructor in faraway Idaho.

The article, which has received major backlash due to its blatant sexism, is titled "Can Women Really Handle Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?" and one of the saddest things about it is that its author doesn't even seem to realize how chauvinistic he actually is. I love my gym and the people I train with so much, and am so comfortable there, that I constantly forget there are gyms run by people who just don't "get it" when it comes to women grappling...or doing any contact sport for that matter.

When I first started, I was at a clear disadvantage. I was the only girl in most of the classes. I was totally out of shape. I was shorter/lighter than most of my training partners. I had no idea what I was doing. And to top it all off, I have a slight handicap - my right hand doesn't work properly, and has no opposability, so I can't easily grab or hold onto things the way everyone else can. And yet, I never actually felt any of these disadvantages (aside from being out of shape but you know...that's why I was there) because the people at my gym never made them a problem. My first class, I was paired up with another new guy, taught the same way as him, expected to do all of the same things as him, and never babied or treated like "the girl." On my second day, when I was wondering how the hell to lift a heavier guy clear off the ground with one hand that didn't fully work, the head instructor came over and yelled "No excuses! What would Jean Jacques Machado do?"

Now imagine that, instead of treating me like every other student, they had gone out of their way to give me extra attention, be it intentionally or inadvertently negative ("don't worry, we'll take care of you because, unlike the men here, you need special treatment")...well, I sure as hell wouldn't still be doing jiu jitsu a year and a half later because I would have felt singled out not as "the new student" but as "the new girl."

This is why Keith Owen's article is an epic failure...because he has no understanding of this most basic distinction. Instead of genuinely seeking advice or starting up a discussion on how to improve his female membership, he presents the situation as a problem with the women themselves. Instead of asking "what am I doing wrong?" he is saying "Well, it's not me, it's them!" And that immediately tells most readers all that they need to know. I have seen articles from guys before asking how to improve female membership at their gyms...and those articles have been inspiring. But this guy is doing nothing more than whining and blaming it on the chicks, and completely failing to recognize the many hypocrisies within his little rant. Julia wrote a great reaction article here, where she even goes so far as to rewrite part of his post, substituting "students" and "white belts" in place of "women"...and it works much better. But this is my own response to him:

Keith, in spite of insisting multiple times that you welcome women and are not biased against them, everything about your point of view is sexist. Since you seem completely oblivious to this fact, here are some examples:

The article title itself. Talk about ignorant generalizations...a genuine discussion would not have used an inflammatory title like this.

<<They will even come in and DEMAND to try it out.  I politely let them know what BJJ is and what it's all about up front.>>

So they come in and DEMAND to try out grappling without knowing what it is? They walk into a room full of men and don't realize from the start that they'll be rolling around with their faces in sweaty dude crotches? Doubtful. MAYBE once in a while I can see that kind of misunderstanding  - on the parts of both women AND men - but it's rare.

<<My guys are very nice, respectable gentlemen (some schools are not)  and treat the ladies with respect (or I’ll kill them)>>

Well, are they "gentlemen" to each other, or just to the women? Because if you're trying to promote the fact that they're being "good men" instead of "good teammates" then you're already doing something wrong.

<<I treat the women students like any other male student>>
<<I never force them to roll until they are comfortable>>

Which is it? This doesn't sound like equal treatment to me. This sounds like you are coddling them and trying to prepare them to "work up" to rolling with men. But...many guys may at first feel a bit awkward about getting into such positions with other men. So do you habitually let your male students know that you understand it can be uncomfortable to be in such close proximity with another man's junk, and that they can build up to it and only start grappling with other men when they're comfortable doing so? If not, then this protective attitude towards your female students is insulting, and you are most definitely NOT treating them "like everyone else." You are singling them out and implying that they need extra care to do the same basic things the other students do.

<<The ladies always stay for a short time but they ultimately quit.>>

There are female practitioners of all belt levels, all over the world, so instead of generalizing and acting like "the ladies" of your gym speak for "the ladies" of gyms worldwide, perhaps this should indicate that the problem is not with "the ladies" but is in fact with YOU.

<<Some of them have gotten pregnant>>

Ugh, really? I've known of far more men who've left or taken time off for family than women who "get pregnant" and quit. Again, sexist and ignorant. Also, some women - just like men - with new babies on the way or in their lives, may take time off and then return later. It's not a woman thing, it's a "person with a family" thing.

<<if any women can get a black belt, it’s from me.>>

Well, obviously not. But somehow, they manage to get blue, purple, brown and black belts from plenty of other schools.

<<I have given out a number of blue belts to women as a matter of fact.>>

So? I don't understand...do you want a cookie or something? If they earned it, why boast about it like you're doing a public service? If they're blue belt level athletes, then that's what they are.

<<It then makes me want to do a  male only class because we don’t want to waste time on someone who is just going to quit even though we are excited to have her and we try to take care of her and make her feel welcome.>>

So you're saying NO ONE in a male-only class would ever quit on you? How do you know that one of the men you are "wasting your time on" won't just bail later, like they often do? Or that the one woman might last longer than some of her male teammates? I mean, again, which is it? Are you excited to have the female students and are you making them feel welcome or do you feel like you're potentially wasting your time? Because if it's the latter, you can bet that attitude is projecting loud and clear, even if you're not conscious of it.

<<My male students are usually married and take a bit of a risk with their spouses by wrestling around with the opposite sex.>>
<<Your significant other has to be comfortable with you being in a class full of men>>

Double standard much? If someone's girlfriend or wife can't handle them rolling around with other hard-working ATHLETES, regardless of gender, then that is THEIR problem to sort out at home, not the woman's. I roll almost entirely with men, many of whom are married or otherwise in relationships...and I don't spend the seconds in between attacks, submissions and escapes wondering if we might hook up. I'm a little too busy trying to not, like, die or break an arm. If their significant other is that jealous and insecure, they should probably crawl into a hole and cry about it.

<<But I always seem to accept women into the fold and try to do my best hoping that they will be the kind of person that can handle the challenge of Jiu-Jitsu.>>

Why is this statement about women? PEOPLE in general have trouble when starting out. They find out they're not tough enough, or that it's too challenging. This is not, like, a "girl thing." Yet your attitude says it is.

<<I just say “I will do my best to take care of you and make your experience a safe one while you’re here but you need to look internally to see if you can handle wrestling with men.”>>

Okay, so instead of welcoming women to the gym like any other student - which you keep claiming is the case when it's clearly not - you burden them with the task of proving to you that they can stick it out. Basically, they come in with negative points. Well, it's no wonder that women don't want to be at your gym when you're throwing them all into this immensely sexist, generalized group of "womenfolk" instead of treating each and every STUDENT who walks through your door as...what? That's right, a STUDENT. A unique individual, who may or may not be the same as any other individual who's strolled into your gym. You clearly make it about gender from the start, and it's not surprising that they're picking up on it and bailing. For all you know, they didn't quit jiu jitsu...they just left your gym and went to train somewhere else where they were seen as students instead of as females.

<<Remember ladies it ain't easy but stick with it.>>

To be honest, you have no business trying to present a challenge, motivational message or genuine discussion when you clearly don't know the first thing about women in jiu jitsu. I'm concerned about your attitude not as a person but as an instructor, and your willingness to make broad assumptions about all women who walk into your gym when you clearly don't have preconceptions about male newbies even though I'm guessing plenty of men have come and gone at your gym over the years too.

Basically, I recommend that you get over yourself and haul ass to a gym that actually knows how to treat its female members, then get back to us once you've worked out your obvious issues. Thanks.