Lessons from the mat: What should a grappler be thinking
Hint: It's not what I'm thinking
Last Thursday night, I had a roll that can only be described as embarrassing. Maybe humiliating. Look, I know humiliation. I’ve lived it off and on for 47 years! Humiliation is a feature of jiu jitsu, not a defect. But still, I was a little bummed out.
You see, I’ve had this issue with claustrophobia, getting crushed by another human. Writing it this way, it doesn’t seem so strange. But I think it’s strange. I have been battling this wave of panic when I get put in an uncomfortable position. And that’s really, as Rickson Gracie recently said, the issue with jiu jitsu. It’s all about learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions.
Well, back to last Thursday night. I’m on my fourth five minute bout. For me, this is good cardio. For an experienced player, it’s whatever, but for me, lasting twenty minutes of attempted chokes and arm bars and guard passes and pushing and pulling, just lasting those twenty minutes without throwing up is a major improvement over where I was just a few months ago.
There is a purple belt player at my gym that is a fucking stone. He’s like one of those 5 feet tall, 5 feet wide guys, you know? Just a short, squat, stout, man of muscle. When we start our roll, I can tell he is laughing inside. Well, that’s what I imagine. Because the idea of manipulating this person into a submission is so insane that I really don’t know where to begin. Now, this is fine. This is the learning part, so who cares. And each time, he easily brushes off my attempts and moves into a submission.
But on Thursday night, on this fourth roll, when I am already pretty gassed, I get in a real bad position. Stone Man has me in his mount. And he’s managed to get very high in mount, with his knees up in my arm pits, reducing my ability to use my arms to free myself. I decide, fuck it let him submit me, tap, and try again. But Stone Man has other ideas. He wants to make me try to escape. For him, this is a teaching moment. And he’s right. This is a good teaching moment.
When I realized what he was doing, however, I panicked. I tapped, even with no submission. Initially he refused to get up, so I verbally quit. He said let’s try again, I want you to try to escape. I tried, and then I quit again. I quit. God damn I hate quitting.
So that stuck with me. I missed the weekend session because my daughters are passing a stomach virus through the house (part of why I wasn’t able to write much last week), and finally made it back to the gym last night.
Following a decent class, where I was able to stay cool in some pretty awful spots, I was chatting with my instructor. I tend to stay late on the mat, as I hit up some ab work and pull ups and stretching after class, so that by the time I head out, I’m one of the last ones leaving. My instructor asked me how I am feeling and how I thought things were going.
“I feel fat, old, and stupid.” Then I relayed all of what I just told you about last Thursday night and how it made me feel.
“Man, that’s a lot of thinking,” he says. And then he tells me a story I will never forget, and I will try to retell it now as best I can:
Back in the day we were at a tournament. Stone Man (I’ll just use that as his name to keep this anonymous) is in a match and he’s up two points with thirty seconds to go. Of course, we’re all cheering him on. Come on! You can do it, just thirty more seconds! And his opponent is trying to pass his guard. That would get him two points and tie the match. Stone Man looks over and he sees us and he sees his wife and everyone watching and just goes full ape. He gets so worked up. And he survives the final thirty seconds to win the match.
We’re all cheering and Stone Man walks over. He’s completely exhausted and has nothing, I mean nothing left. He’s so happy though, and he’s trying to talk to us, to tell us what just happened. And he’s saying “man, I thought I was going to lose and then I looked at you guys and I looked at my wife and I thought about how I was going to let you all down and how I couldn’t let that happen…” And you have to imagine he’s huffing and puffing as he tries to spit this all out.
Now there was a teenager, a seventeen year old with us, named Everett (not his real name) and he was a beast. Everett was incredible and had won this tournament in his class three years in a row. So Everett walks up and he’s listening to Stone Man tell this story and he looks right at him and says, “Well that’s your fucking problem, right there.”
Stone Man stops in his tracks. We all are like holy shit what is happening. Everett continues, “you’re out there thinking about us and thinking about your wife and thinking about all this fucking bullshit. You know what I’m thinking when I’m out on the mat?”
Everett paused and looked even more severely into Stone Man’s eyes, “I’m thinking one thing: KILL”
And with that, Everett turned and walked away to get ready for his next match. Of course, he won.
Now I had a real good laugh over this one.
But I get it. By keeping attention on one big abstract concept, all the little thoughts and worries are kept out of mind. A clear, relaxed mind is the only way to fight. This is a good lesson for me. I’m too nice of a guy to think about killing everyone, but I’m sure I can come up with something to keep myself focused on what I need to be doing, instead of worried about the uncomfortable position I have found myself in.