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Marc Terrano

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I recently had a laugh after re-reading my initial post on what to expect after the first few months of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).

It was funny because the me that wrote this was in a very early stage of jiu jitsu, and while I’m still a total beginner on my BJJ journey, I’ve learned a lot since then.

By January I’ll have been training for two years, and in that time a lot has happened in my BJJ life.

I’ve graded to white belt four stripes, competed several times, gotten ringworm a number of times, upped the number of times I train per week and have had to take time off due to sickness, being overseas, injuries and everything in between.

More importantly I enjoy BJJ even more than what I did when I started.

With that being said I thought it would be interesting to jot down some thoughts about what to expect in your first two years of training, at least according to my own experience.

1. Expect and accept having to take time off

The first expectation you should have in your first couple of years of training is that there will be periods where you will have to take time off training, and that’s fine.

As I alluded to above, I had to take time off training during my first two years because of ringworm, some nasty injuries, holidays (both overseas and interstate) and work deadlines. At first, I grew frustrated that I couldn’t train and that I would miss out on a valuable technique or chance to get better.

Each time after a break I would have my first roll and have the same feeling: I would feel tired as shit but relieved to be back. After coming back from overseas I actually felt that I was better on the mat, although that might have just been the benefit of coming back with fresh eyes.

There are two reasons why I no longer feel that occasional short breaks from training are negative:

  1. You can always be learning even when you have time off – you can mentally rehearse techniques from your training log or watch videos online
  2. Infrequent short breaks don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, which leads onto my second point:

2. Consistency is key

During my time in jiu jitsu I’ve made many friends who started at around the same time as I did. Many have been much better than me. Especially at the start of my jiu jitsu, I felt I was terrible compared to other students on my level.

Over time I’ve realised that no matter how good your natural talent is, there’s no replacement for showing up every week at training. Someone can have tonnes of natural talent, but if they come to training haphazardly or stop after six months, even someone like me can surpass them over time.

Consistency and time on the mat has had the biggest impact on my game overall. I’ve found extracurricular YouTube videos also useful, but not as useful as just showing up.

3. Find a mentor

As you start to make friends in your gym you might find yourself asking certain advanced students for pointers. In my case I just kept bugging one of the brown belts with questions at the end of class about techniques I didn’t understand (of which there were many).

I now have a number of friends that I can go to with questions to help clear things up.

Being able to roll with a mentor is great too, as you can pick up on subtle things that advanced students do subconsciously, and they also might point out flaws in your game.

4. Roll with everyone

As you start to progress you’ll gravitate towards rolling with the same friends or training partners.

I’ve found there’s something to learn from rolling with all shapes and sizes, so it pays to be open to rolling with people you don’t regularly train with too.

You may not get to play your usual game with someone much stronger/heavier/lighter/weaker than you but you’ll learn at least one thing from it to apply to future rolls, so it’s always a useful experience.

5. Don’t miss out on training – you don’t know what will happen next week

We all have days when we just want to bail on training and relax at home.

On these days It’s always a good idea to suck it up and head to training. This is because you don’t know when you’ll catch a cold, get ringworm or have a family function on and have to miss class in the future.

Even if you’re tired, cold or just not feeling into it, just think about the feeling you’ll have after a good training session.

I’ve had times where I’ve bailed on a class because I wanted some time at home, only to then miss out on another class that week due to something unforeseen. This further reduces the number of classes I’m able to make that week, and thereby impacting my consistency target.

6. Don’t neglect the mental component

I’ve had poor results in the four competitions I’ve had so far. This is due mostly to skill, although I noticed that I was lacking in the psychology department too.

I tried to tackle this by reading three books: The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow, Mental Toughness Training for Sports by James E. Loehr and 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins.

There are lessons to learn from each of these, but the book that I found easiest to follow was 10-Minute Toughness by Jason Selk. The other two books were very comprehensive, but what most resonated with me was the simplicity of 10-Minute Toughness.

In 10-Minute Toughness, Selk advocates a five minute pre-training warm up and a five minute post-training debrief. I’ve been doing this regimen for almost a year now and have felt much more in control of my mental side during training. In 2018 I will be employing these strategies to help with my competition.

There you have it! I hope this has helped give you an idea of what two years in BJJ looks like, at least according to my experience.

What’s your experience of BJJ been? Let me know in the comments below.

Our Fiat squeezed through the streets heading to Guarulhos airport. Unfamiliar cars merged in from all the side streets like a metallic river delta.

In front of us a homeless man sitting on the kerb had started a fire on the street to keep himself warm. Trucks and buses swerved around the flames on their way to work and the nearby schools. Emaciated stray dogs ambled along the roads looking for a meal.

My first taste of Brazil was coming to an end, and I wasn’t sure how I felt.

During my two-week visit, I had learned some valuable lessons. Chief among them was the unwritten law that guides all Brazilians: time with your family trumps your career, your friends and absolutely everything else.

São Paulo was bigger than any city I had ever been to in my life. Sydney is Australia’s biggest city but as a lifelong Sydneysider I was overwhelmed. There are almost as many residents in this one urban area as in the whole of Australia.

Sao Paulo Favela

(Above: A favela in São Paulo)

The streets were narrower, the houses were taller, and the people were everywhere. Every house or building I visited had gates tall enough to stop a burglar. Electric fences were not uncommon. Instead of a gorgeous harbour there were rivers that were sometimes choked with rubbish. In some neighbourhoods, my Brazilian girlfriend suggested firmly that I didn’t talk too loudly, lest the locals worked out I was a gringo. She was scared for me. I was a little scared for myself. But despite that, I left Brazil with an açaí-flavoured chunk of sadness in my belly.

It didn’t start like that. My visit Brazil followed a hasty few days in Seattle for a work conference. Eager to get to São Paulo with minimal fuss, I took a Korean Air flight from Los Angeles, one of only two direct flights to the city from the US mainland on offer. So I started my trip into South American culinary delights by eating bibimbap at 35,000 feet.

Seaweed soup devoured, the plane descended through the thick grey clouds and into a dense urban jungle spattered with rain. There seemed to be no end to the city beneath us. Suburbs surrounded rivers and clung to hills.

As we landed, a dense smog dispersed the clouds. This would become a familiar sight. But that wasn’t the main attraction. My stomach fell in love with Brazil long before I did, and it started the morning I landed.

The first taste of the country I had was breakfast. First came pão frances, crispy French-style bread rolls filled with cheese and ham. Next was tapioca, not served Aussie-style as a gluggy dessert mess, but tastily fried into crepes. Last and best were pão de queijo, crispy puffs of baked cheese bread. All of this was washed down with sweet caju juice from the red fruit of the cashew tree. I didn’t even know cashew trees produced fruit.

My fondness for Brazilian cuisine grew along with my waistline, but there were other lessons to learn too.

The huge value placed on family leads to situations you’d never encounter in Australia. My girlfriend’s aunty, who had offered to host us in her small and modern apartment, willingly gave up her own room and bed for us and was not up for any argument. She slept in her six-year-old son’s room on a thin mattress on the floor. My mother would never have voluntarily decamped to my bedroom when I was six. If she had, I would not have been happy.

Breakfast absorbed, we had time to explore São Paulo’s tourist sites. We visited Paulista Avenue and the usual tourist checklist of churches and monuments, but what was really notable were the citizens.

It soon became clear that São Paulo was a tough city filled with tough people. Car windows were never wound down all the way, and I was told not to take my phone out in the street as I did back home. The poorer favela slum neighbourhoods were definitively out of bounds unless you knew a local gangster who would authorise your entry. Street peddlers worked at each set of lights, selling packets of nuts and sweets to motorists brave enough to wind down their windows. I wasn’t brave enough to make that call.

But I did want more food. I had long heard stories from my girlfriend of the famous mortadela sandwiches sold in São Paulo’s municipal market, The Mercadão, but I was entirely unprepared for the endless boxes of fresh foods I had never seen before.

The Mercadão mortadela sandwiches

(Above: The Mercadão’s famous mortadela sandwiches)

Stalls sold delicious candies made from doce de leite and exotic fruits unheard of in Australia. Tempted by my caju experience, I hoed into a fresh cashew fruit. It was like eating a sweeter cashew nut with the consistency of a mango. As we walked through the stalls, samples of strange fruit were cut and passed to me. My favourites were jabuticaba, a Brazilian grapetree fruit and carambola, a star-shaped delight.

Sao Paulo Mercadao Fruit

(Above: Fruit stalls at The Mercadão)

But despite marketplace adventures, family dinners were the culinary highlight. Barbecues and churrasco were the name of the game, with juicy strips of picanha (sirloin), other beef cuts and pork sausages in abundance. Those pallette-loads of protein were washed down with cans of Guaraná Antarctica, a sweet drink made from the guaraná fruit.

After dinner, we could explore the neighbourhood. São Paulo was always teeming with life. A constant flow of accordion music provided the soundtrack for my stay. One of the most popular music genres, sertanejo, included accordion riffs sprinkled throughout every song. It seemed like sertanejo hits were blasting out of every car driving past. It even formed an accompaniment to the never-ending election advertisements. I can’t imagine Tony Abbott with an accordion soundtrack.

Soon I was on another plane, this time heading to Campo Grande in the central west region of Brazil. After a four-hour drive towards the border with Paraguay, we reached our destination: Bonito. Brazil is famous for Rio, Sugarloaf Mountain and the Amazon, but Bonito deserves to be equally well-known.

On the bus trip from Campo Grande, a world away from crowded São Paulo streets, the warmth and friendliness I witnessed of Brazilians was reaffirmed. We pulled up at a stop halfway along the route. Several passengers got out to stretch their legs. A lone traveller boarded the bus, and sat down in what she thought was a vacant seat. In fact two friends had been sitting together.

In Australia, this would lead to an awkward confrontation, or a lot of evil glances from the back row. But she simply introduced herself with a smile. When his seatmate got back into the van before we left again, he just laughed and sat next to another man in the back of the van. Within five minutes the lone traveller and her new acquaintance were chatting like old friends, and his displaced buddy was equally deep in conversation with his new neighbour. Both conversations lasted until we disembarked two hours later.

I was sure that was a fluke. I was wrong.

Over the next few days I constantly saw groups of strangers in my tour groups getting to know each other and acting like long-lost friends within the hour. The openness of Brazilians to everyone they met was a refreshing change from the polite distance most Sydneysiders display.

Our time in Bonito was spent snorkelling down clear rivers and in deep blue lakes. We rappelled into caves and scaled down hillsides. We swum in hidden waterfalls and grottos. The red dirt which served as our roads reminded me of the Australian outback.

Bonito waterfalls

(Above: A waterfall in Bonito)

At night, we ate fresh fish. I also tried piranha soup, which may have been a mistake, and alligator pastels (crispy fried pastry rectangles with different fillings), which definitely weren’t.  Desserts alternated between delicious churros filled with melted chocolate, or ice-creams stuffed with native fruits.

Brazilian Churros

(Above: Churros in Bonito)

All too soon it was time to return to São Paulo for the final leg of my trip. I was already dreading it, because I knew my sojourn in Brazil would soon be over.

We spent more time with my girlfriend’s family, watching trashy soaps and Brazil’s strangely addictive take on Dancing With the Stars, and talking about the contrast between Australian and Brazilian cultures.

Naturally, the gluttony continued, with two particular highlights for my tastebuds. The first was a visit to a samba club which served piping hot bowls of feijoada, a delicious bean stew accompanied with many different meats, rice and farofa (cassava flour).

The second was açaí. My girlfriend had already exposed me to the delights of this purple-ooze-coloured fruit back in Sydney, but here it was different. Freshly-made and loaded with bananas and strawberries, açaí here wasn’t just the somewhat obscure healthy snack it is in Australia. In Brazil it is paired with all manner of sides including condensed milk, cornflakes and jelly, and the cafe serving it was packed.

The food alone would be enough to bring me back, but it seems I scarcely have a choice. I left Brazil with two wedding invitations, and it seems evident that saying no to these might cause offence. I received so many gifts that I stuffed a second, hastily-bought suitcase. I know I will have to go back, with multiple suitcases. As my girlfriend put it: Um gostinho de quero mais (after one taste, you must try more).

A white belt’s journey

I recently graded to my first stripe in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). I’m now at the beginning of my journey in this incredible martial art and sport.

Here’s what to expect from your first months in BJJ, and some tips I used to improve my experience. You might find them useful if you’re considering starting.

Be prepared for injuries

I’m not trying to scare you, but you will get injured in BJJ. For me this ranged from bruises and cuts to joint and muscle injuries.

As with most sports-related wounds, they settled down after applying ice and being mindful of them when training. With time they healed.

Many of my injuries could’ve been avoided by falling correctly and tapping out early. After a few months of ‘rolling’ (sparring in BJJ jargon), I learned my limits and the frequency of injuries decreased.

I also downloaded Steve Maxwell’s joint mobility videos and started doing these each day. Steve was one of the first American BJJ black belts. He’s now in his sixties and still rolling, and these mobility regimes are part of the reason why.

Know the basic positions

BJJ is more complex than I thought.

For each basic position there are dozens of ways to get to other positions. Then there are dozens of submissions.

Some positions are better than others, but this is hard to grasp when you start.

The best resource I found for this was Stephan Kesting’s book ‘A Roadmap For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’.

Stephan does an excellent job of explaining each position. He also puts them into a hierarchy according to their advantages to you.

This cleared up a lot of the confusion I had when starting.

Stephan offers the PDF for free, and a mobile app version with videos on each position.

Note pads

Record everything you learn

You’ll learn dozens of techniques in your first months of BJJ.

Some of them come naturally, while others require time and repetition to understand.

The problem is, because you’re learning so many new techniques, you can forget these difficult ones.

I avoided this by writing down each technique after class.

For each technique I wrote down the basic steps. Then I searched YouTube for a video of it and saved the link too. If I couldn’t find a video, I would get my girlfriend to act as my partner and record it.

This helped me retain what I learned and gave me more options when rolling.

BJJ notes

Immerse yourself in books and videos

After a few weeks, you’ll be having loads of fun.

You’ll be regularly rolling, but if you’re like me, tapping out a lot.

You’ll have even more fun once you start pulling off sweeps (techniques which reverse positions, giving you the advantage) and making others tap out.

What helped me most during this period was reading a ‘The 21 immutable principles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ by Paulo Guillobel.

This short book explains the hacks that advanced players use without thinking.

Paulo explains each of the 21 principles through analogies so you understand it right away.

It raised my understanding of the art and cut off some bad habits I had picked up at the root.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Participate in extra classes and workshops

During my first grading I was worried I’d forget the drills I had to know. To help us, our instructors ran an extra grading workshop.

In this workshop I was able to learn the reasoning behind each drill. I went into my grading full of confidence. Because fewer people showed up for these, I was able to get more attention on my technique. Now I use these drills all the time when I roll.

After grading, my instructor brought Carlos Machado over for a seminar. Carlos is a cousin of the Gracies (the pioneers of BJJ), and taught us simple but effective sweeps, submissions and tweaks to our positions.

Meeting and learning from a BJJ great was an important boost to my training and mindset.

Both workshops were great ways to learn more and sharpen my technique.

Be prepared for obsession

BJJ is like a mixture of human chess and twister. It stimulates you both mentally and physically.

It’s odd, but I find it relaxing in its intensity.

When I’m rolling I’m only aware of myself and my opponent. Everything else ceases to matter.

You’ll become obsessed with the mountain of techniques and make great friendships. You’ll feel like you can talk about it for hours. Your YouTube history will be full of past championship competitions and technique videos. If you’re like me you’ll love every second of it.

So far BJJ has been the most rewarding physical and mental activity I’ve pursued. You owe it to yourself to give it a go.

Bonus tips:

Be prepared to decrease your weights routine frequency

When I started I underestimated the intensity of each class. I went from 4 – 5 days per week of weights training to 2 to fit in my classes and get enough rest.

Wear a mouth guard from day one

In the first few weeks of training I chipped a tooth and accidentally chipped my friend’s tooth.

Wear a mouth guard whenever you roll.

Listen to a podcast from someone who loves BJJ

I listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast and it amps me up for training.

Joe is a comedian, the UFC’s colour commentator and a black belt in BJJ. He often has big BJJ names as guests on his show and you’ll learn some great tips.

Pick a great school

I did a lot of research before picking a school.

My instructors and the attitude of the people I train with is one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy it so much.

Start with a friend

I joined with two friends who were keen to learn. It sparked some competition and keeps us going regularly.