Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Big Mike Vs. The Odds

Having recently earned my brown belt, I've been reading some articles and watching videos lately about what to expect as a new brown belt. And it got me thinking about my own personal road to brown belt.

I'm a bit of a nomad. I've been moving around my whole life. I was a Navy brat. Moved around every two to three years growing up. I joined the Navy and became a helo pilot after college and continued to move around for the next 20 years. 

Now that I think of it, College was the longest I'd ever been in one place.  Man, those were some of the best five and a half years of my life!

But I digress...

Moving around tends to hamper your progress in Jiu Jitsu. Ryan Young over at Kama Jiu Jitsu said in one of his videos that if you're one who moves a lot, you can pretty much figure you're not going to get any belts from anybody. It's just the sad fact of it.

What was that? A fact. If you move a lot, no belts. No blue belt. Certainly no purple belt. And a brown belt? Impossible!

His rationale was that it's not just about whether you can beat higher belts in sparring.  Your instructor needs to get to know you as a person.  And that takes time.

I suppose that explains at least in part why it took me so long to get where I am today. I attended my first BJJ class in early 2001. I actually started studying BJJ from VHS cassettes (anybody remember those?) and practicing with my buddies back in 1997. So either way you slice it, I've been at this for at least 20 years now. 

Despite all the moving around, I was awarded my blue belt in 2008.  Then my purple belt 10 years later in 2018. And now my brown belt in 2021.

I would agree that moving around definitely factored into my lengthy time between promotions. Sporadic attendance due to deployments, work ups, and hectic flight schedules didn't help either.

I read in another article at BJJ Tribes that only about 5% of BJJ practitioners ever get their brown belt. I wonder what the percentage is on nomads like me getting there.

If my story were about someone else doing something other than Jiu Jitsu, I'd say they were crazy. Why wouldn't you just hang it up? Move on. Find a new goal. Clearly you're not cut out for this. 

I'd love to say that my stick-to-it-iveness had something to do with my own mental fortitude. But that would be a lie. It's not like I ever thought about quitting and just decided to stick it out through grit and determination. I just love Jiu Jitsu. I need it. Almost as much as I need air, water or food.  

When I can't train for any period of time, I get a little cranky. Robin (my beautiful wife) notices. She lets me know. 

"You need to go back to Jiu Jitsu. You're being an asshole." 

Sometimes she says it with the most adorable smile. Other times there's no smile. But when life gets in the way and I have to take time off from training, she's always there to keep me in check.  And she's right.  I NEED Jiu Jitsu. I'm ADDICTED.

My name is Mike Gorski.  And I am a Jiu-Jitsu-holic.

At this point I figure I'm at least in contention for world's longest road to black belt. Yeah, I kind of stacked the deck against myself initially with that whole being in the Navy thing, but I know I'll eventually get there. Not because of grit and determination, but because I just can't help it.  It may be another two or three or even 20 years, but I'll eventually get that black belt.

What's my point with all of this?  I suppose what I'm really getting at is that if you're feeling frustrated by similar issues I just wanted to let you know that I've been there. 

I've been judged by the color of my belt when it in no way conveyed my level of skill and experience. I've been treated like a brand new white belt upon showing up to a new gym, only to mop the floor with blue belts, and give the purple belts a run for their money.  

As a blue belt I've had purple belts in multiple gyms go to the instructor in shock because this blue belt dominated them or even tapped them out. 

I've had multiple instructors over the years say that I was not your average white belt, or not your average blue belt. 

But Ryan Young was right.  Most of those instructors never gave me a belt. But then again, there were others who did.

Don't get me wrong. There were times where I really thought I'd never get promoted. And it was really frustrating. Downright disheartening at times. But eventually I did get promoted. 

Thanks to Papa John Gorman for understanding the plight of military guys who train Jiu Jitsu, and giving me my blue belt.  And thanks to Dax Razzano for giving me my purple belt, and then continuing to work with me after I moved away so that I could get to brown. 

And while 20+ years isn't the most ideal timeframe to receive those three belt promotions, I'll take it!

Pretty much not going to get any belts from anybody? Eat that Ryan Young! 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're experiencing anything like that, I've been there. And if I can get from there to here, so can you. 

Hang in there and keep training! Hope that helps.  

- Big Mike

Monday, June 21, 2021

Razzano Academy Visit

So I took a trip back to Bloomington Indiana last week to visit my instructor, Dax Razzano.  I wanted to give him a chance to roll with me so that he could give me an honest critique on where I'm at, and what I need to do in order to progress to that next level.  

My sincere apologies to all of my non-Jiu-Jitsu friends in the area.  I didn't contact anyone outside of the academy while I was there. This trip was all about Jiu Jitsu. Nothing else. I trained, ate, and slept.  I'll have to hit the rest of you up on another visit. I hope you'll all understand.

It was a six day trip altogether.  Minus the two travel days gave me 4 days, boots on the ground for training.

And boy, did I get a lot of sparring in while I was there.  A LOT of sparring!  All I can say is, thank God for Motrin, Yoga, and the Hotel swimming pool!  I can only imagine what these old bones would have felt like without them.

It was good to see all my Razzano Academy friends again.  Some of the white belts I used to train with are now blue belts. Some of the blues are now purple. So on and so forth.

And Dax has a reputation for being notoriously slow to promote people.  So you know those blues that made purple are no joke! I couldn't just relax and play around with them anymore like I used to. If I let down my guard for one split second they would capitalize!

Which brings up an interesting phenomenon in BJJ. I had an old Calculus professor in college who put it like this, "I know for a fact that I'm getting smarter.  I study.  I learn. I must be getting smarter. But I feel like I'm getting dumber.  And I think that the reason I feel like I'm getting dumber is that I'm finally getting smart enough to realize how dumb I really am."

While you're progressing, everyone else is progressing right along with you.  If you've been training for 6 months you may not feel like you're getting any better.  You may even feel like you're getting worse because you're getting smart enough to identify some of the mistakes you're making.

You don't realize you're getting any better until a new guy comes in who knows nothing about the ground game. And then you can finally give better than you get.  Then you realize that hey, maybe you really are getting better. Maybe this Jiu Jitsu stuff actually works!

But in a little town like Montrose, you don't have a steady stream of new white belts coming in. That can make it tough to gauge your own progress.

To make matters worse, lower belts tend to improve faster than upper belts.  When you start your Jiu Jitsu journey, you make progress in leaps and bounds.  You're learning new moves and concepts every class.  

As you get better, the progress is more like an inch here, a millimeter there.  You refine and tweak things as opposed to learning new earth shattering moves and concepts every class.

When you're one of the top dogs in your gym, you're still progressing, but not as fast as a brand new white belt.

So if you're gauging your progress based on how well you do against everybody else, it can feel like you're getting worse. As the blue belts approach purple, and purple belts approach brown, it gets tougher to submit them even though you're getting better every day.

Which brings me to the last day of my trip. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I tried to go out there with the motto of accept, don't expect.  Don't expect anything out of the trip other than an honest critique of where I am, what I need to work on over the next few months, and a plan as far as how to work on it.  Stripes or a belt would be icing on the cake. A happy surprise. 

Still it was hard not to fantasize about getting some sort of promotion the last day of class.  It would be a big class.  All my buddies would be there. Everyone would congratulate me.  Shake my hand. Lots of pictures, etc.

But the last class came and there wasn't a big showing.  Just me, Dax, and a white belt.  Dax tried to organize a special class just for me, but everyone was busy. Hey, it happens. I had already trained more than I thought I'd be able to this trip.

No matter.  We rolled for hours and had an blast!  Afterwards, the white belt left, and it was just me and Dax.  

Then he got that look on his face.  Like you get when you're about to break the bad news to someone.  Then he said, "Well...," in that voice you use when you're about to break the bad news to someone.

Now I've always been my own worst critic.  And  for the most part, I've figured out how to harness that and use it as an asset.  It drives you to work harder.  Study harder.  Find new and creative ways to improve both on and off the mat.

But at that particular moment in time my inner critic went into overdrive... "Crap. Was I that bad?  Have I not progressed at all?  Have I gotten worse?  Developed bad habits?"

I thought I'd improved.  I thought my open guard game had really blossomed since I left Indiana, It felt like that two months of only armbars really improved my submission game.  Granted my leglock experiment never really took off due to the broken toe, but playing on my back due to the injury gave me a chance to improve other aspects of my bottom game. 

Was he unhappy with the direction my game was developing?  What could it be?

Dax continued. "I guess we'll have to do this kind of unceremoniously."

"What's that?"

"Well, I ordered you a belt.  But it hasn't come in yet."

"... um... A purple belt with more stripes on it?"

Dax laughed.  "No, a brown one. But it's not in yet. I'll have to mail it to you."

We went out for a few beers afterwards.  We sat there and talked for hours about Jiu Jitsu.  About running a gym.   Teaching classes.  How to progress when you're the top dog at your school.  And a whole slew of other topics. 

In the end he told me the brown belt was an easy decision.  And that's a huge compliment in my mind. Because like I said, he has a reputation for being notoriously slow to promote people.  He wouldn't give me the belt if I hadn't earned it.

All in all not a bad trip!  I got to roll with my old Razzano Academy friends.  And I achieved my goal of earning that brown belt!  

Oh yeah... by the way... I re-broke that pesky toe of mine.  But honestly, I think the whole experience was worth it.  If I had to do it all over again, I'd still re-break that toe if it meant getting to roll with everyone and get my brown belt!

Take care, and keep training!

- Big Mike