The Gentle Art

So, if you’ve been around me for longer than 10 minutes, it is very likely I will have referenced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The short answer to this is I am an admitted BJJ nerd. The long answer is just that. That being said, and you’re still reading, I will explain the love affair I have with this art.

The first time I encountered BJJ I didn’t even know what it was! And like anyone on the receiving end of someone who is a BJJ practitioner, that encounter produces one of two results. The first is, you pick yourself up after you have tapped out to someone who just put your ego in check, you say let’s try that again and you go a little harder and faster and you get the same result several more times while becoming significantly more aggravating, then begrudgingly quit while you’re way behind. This leads to you leaving this encounter telling yourself things like, Well, if I had done  this, that, or the other, then he wouldn’t have been so lucky. The ego has a funny way of trying to protect you like that, especially as a male. The male ego is a very fragile thing as any woman will tell you.

The second result is, you tap out, repeat the above with the exception of, you have an epiphany and say to yourself, I have got to learn that! How was this possible? I outweigh that guy by 30 pounds and lift religiously. I do cardio an hour a day! How am I so out of breath and he’s not even breathing hard, and submitting me over and over!?

I wish I could say I was the second, but I was not! I was very much the first. Except I did outweigh the guy by 50lbs and did lift a couple hours a day, not to mention an hour of long slow cardio, all of which did nothing for me while this guy rode me like a rented mule at will!

I was living in western North Carolina then, around 1996 and a friend of mine who worked at the gym I worked out at was interested in taking a martial art. He asked me if I had ever trained in a martial art and what I thought would be better, karate or jiu jitsu. I had no idea about jiu jitsu, Brazilian or otherwise, but I had taken karate fairly extensively on and off. All linear Okinawan styles, Kyokushinkai and Shotokan, as well as Goju Ryu, and was alright at them. Like most men I figured I could handle myself if I needed to. And very much like most men I was so very wrong! I then proceeded to postulate on the awesomeness of karate. Cut to the mat area of said gym where I met my friend and his other friend who did jiu jitsu. We agree to a little friendly sparring, knock the rust off and the like. This amounted to me throwing a punch or kick, getting taken down and submitted. Repeatedly! I never even came close to touching him. Then leaving very pissed off and trying to be cool about it. My first jiu jitsu lesson was enough to last me for years, as I was not at all fond of having NO defense for this guy. And, in case you’re wondering, the guy was a white belt and had been training about 8 months and around 170lbs. I had trained off and on for total of about 10 years, weighed about 228lbs and lifted regularly.  I had nothing for him! Nothing!

Aside from the disconcerting fact that I had been completely dominated, the guy wasn’t even breathing hard and had nowhere near the mass I had. Welcome to the world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Of course my rationalization for this little event was typically male ego. ”Whatever, if this had been on the street I would kicked his ass!” I could tell myself whatever I wanted; the truth is the same thing would have happened every time.

Years later, along with the rest of America, I saw the Ultimate Fighter Show and I was hooked. As I watched the show I realized that my little unpleasant experience with BJJ was the norm and I had to learn it!

I won’t bore you with the details of the journey. At least not here and now, but what I will tell you is what Jiu Jitsu has given me. Training in BJJ has given me a new perspective on life! Not the usual suspects of fitness and confidence, although those things do come with the package. I’m talking about the more esoteric things you wouldn’t expect. It’s a whole other conversation and this will never be the forum for it, but over the years I’ve realized I have no professional fulfillment in my life anymore and coming to terms with that was difficult. Jiu Jitsu gave me a new avenue to pursue fulfillment. The thing with BJJ is you will never master it. It’s an art that continually evolves. There are folks coming up with new moves or transitions off other moves every day! But the more important aspect to BJJ is that you will get from it only that which you put in. Sure it sounds cliché, but very true! It is literally a physical game of chess on a very dynamic level. And with each person you roll with, the slang for sparring, it’s a continually a different match each time. On a grander scale though, BJJ teaches you to let go of ego and be in the moment. You are grappling with another human being who is trying to impose his or her will on you and submit you. It’s very difficult to think about the mortgage or your other problems while another person is trying to choke you out. It’s also the great equalizer. I’ve been on the mat with guys who make more money in a day than I do in a year, with guys half my age, ones way older than me, and a couple of women who tapped me fair and square.  Funny how rolling with a girl goes from I don’t want to hurt you to’ Oh shit I gotta tap or get my arm ripped off’.  

It’s a mental as well as a physical game. But the mental is truly the most difficult. You’ve heard the old adage about, Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail. Renzo Gracie, once said, “The secret of this sport is, while you’re the nail, hang in there, let them hit you, until the day you become the hammer, then you smash them back!” The key is to hang on being the nail. Believe me you will be the nail for a long time! In this endeavor though, comes the sweetest of traits, humility. You are forced to let go of ego or you will simply quit jiu jitsu.  There will always be someone who can smash you on the mats, just as there will always be people you can smash.  It’s a war of inches and leverage, and technique, combined with strategy and your ability to conserve energy. All while trying to keep the gorilla off your back.

I train up north at Trainers Elite MMA with a guy named Sean Cooper. Sean is a BJJ black belt. I could explain his lineage, but if you’re new to BJJ it won’t make sense. Brazilian Jiu jitsu is also very self-regulating. Lineage is very important in BJJ. Where did your guy get his rank from, who were his instructors? Just another way BJJ is so very different from every other martial art. There are a number of BJJ schools in Austin. In fact, Austin is becoming a hot bed of BJJ. I know folks at most schools around the area and each one of these places is great in its own right. You have to find one that fits you. The place I train is special to me for a number of reasons, but like most organizations the experience is a reflection of the person leading it. If you ever meet Sean, the very first thing you’ll realize is how genuinely nice he is. He has an easy going demeanor and soft spoken way about him that lets you forget his ability to literally crush you on the mats. True I use the word crush in a lot of ways, but in jiu jitsu there is a technique of being very heavy when you are on top of another person. It’s difficult to explain but once you experience someone’s ability to be so heavy that with each breath you exhale they take that little bit of space away and by their very weight distribution they diminish your ability to breathe effectively, you assuredly will never forget it!  If you ever roll with Sean, you will experience this at some point. Funny thing is, he’s so nice about it, afterwards you’ll literally thank him for crushing you. But this is really one of the hallmarks of being a great teacher and coach. Subsequently the people that gravitate to his school are incredible folks to train with as well. There are pro MMA fighters, high level BJJ guys, and ham and eggers like me, just about every walk of life comes through his doors, but it’s always a positive experience. I believe it’s a reflection of Sean’s leadership. He really leads more by example than by a hands on approach of direction. He has this way of making you feel responsible for your progress rather than pulling you towards it. This leads me to another reason I love BJJ, the philosophical aspect of it.

The more I trained in BJJ, the more I began to realize how much of life is like sparring in jiu jitsu, the intricacies of which I’ll save for another post.

Where’s all this leading you ask? Life, like BJJ and fitness, or any physical endeavor isn’t about the end point. It’s all about the journey. Ask any marathon runner. It’s easy starting out and the end, you’re just trying to get to the end, but the middle, where it’s just you and the work. That’s where you learn about yourself. What you’re willing to do to see your journey through. It’s a path of enlightenment in those moments when exhaustion, and doubt, and fear of failing, all culminate and conspire to make you quit. But you make those little bargains with yourself, a few more feet and I’ll quit then. A few more, then that’s it. Each moment you don’t quit builds these little increments of victory over your former self. The one who told you can’t do this or that. We are all too often our own worst critics, telling ourselves things we would never dream of saying to someone else for fear of hurting their feelings beyond repair. Yet we are all guilty of this at some point in our lives. The journey is where you discover who are, where you realize that a BJJ black belt is just a white belt who never quit. Where you forge the metal of a warrior spirit in your soul, not in a warring sense but in the traditional sense where you become the better person for persevering through adversity to be stronger as another human being on this planet, then passing that on to all you can so we all might rise to the lofty occasion of being better people. So you see this all leads to you. Putting one step in front of the other, especially when you absolutely don’t want to.  Each step on your warrior path of enlightenment begins with hopes and dreams, and sometimes just blind faith. The reasons never matter as much as the journey. That journey always, without exception leads to self-discovery. Painful, yes, but with pain comes growth. Embrace it. The pain, the change, the journey, and most important of all yourself. Put your name on it. Walt



If you’re interested in learning BJJ or you want to try it out for a week free. You can contact Sean Cooper at CooperBJJ, aka, Trainers Elite MMA at  You will very likely see me there still getting ridden like a rented mule, but smiling the entire time.

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