The Black Belt Bucket List
By Jason Kramer
Several years ago I came across a list of things every Jiu Jitsu player should do before attaining a black belt. I adopted some of those and found myself creating my own list of things along the way. Thankfully I still have a few years to check a couple more things off this list. Here are some things in my list that maybe you’ll want to add to your own.
Drill baby drill
The fun part of Jiu Jitsu is slapping hands and rolling, but the thing that will make you better faster is drilling. I love drilling. All champions and elite players do this. As a 46 year old with a busy life and a body that doesn’t recover like it did at 36, drilling is my favorite tool to improve. It gets me on the mat more and training more effectively.
Drilling is so important, that I have had to create time to drill. I meet my training partner and friend Bob three times a week to drill at 5:30 AM and 7:00 AM on Saturdays. I used to meet my pal Ed at 6:00 AM twice a week. Both times I’ve seen progress simply vault to a new level. Drilling is a tedious thing. It can be repetitive. It can get old. And it’s hard to find another person committed to putting in the work with you. But it will help you get the reps you need to hit techniques and troubleshoot ideas like nothing else.
Just because I have been functioning at 4:30 AM for the past 20 years, and the Denver Academy has a steady group of 5:00 AM drillers, in no way means that is what you should do. Drill the way that works for you. Find a position, transition, idea, submission or technique to drill and a reliable person to drill with whenever you can. Twenty minutes before and after class. A random hour in the week works. Drill whenever your schedule allows. Drilling doesn’t require any real effort apart from discipline, consistency and can be done when tired and injured. I cannot recommend drilling enough to improve your game.
The word “randori” roughly translates to “grasping into chaos.” When we train at our home academy, our friends, coaches, training partners and professors know our game. We know theirs. Competition is an opportunity to inject some necessary chaos to keep your game sharp and Jiu Jitsu honest.
While I like competing, I have a job has that provides too much competition 40-70 hours a week to want more. Competition is important to bettering your Jiu Jitsu, but it is not essential. There are plenty of amazing players that don’t compete. Nobody thinks Danaher doesn’t know Jiu Jitsu because he doesn’t bring home medals. Competition success doesn’t mean mastery, but competition provides things that will make your Jiu Jitsu better. Pressure testing my game in competition taught me almost a month’s worth of Jiu Jitsu in a matter of minutes. Competition forces many people to develop a game plan instead of rolling freely.
There are many benefits to competing that includes dealing with pressure, in front of your teammates, in front of your opponent’s teammates, dealing with adrenaline dumps, dealing with winning or losing and accepting both with the same attitude, and preparing for competition. If self defense is important to you, then competition is a great way to stress test your Jiu Jitsu. Easton has a great competition team with elite level competitors who can train with you, get you ready, and help you find success in applying Jiu Jitsu in competition. Give it a go. You might find you love it or you might find it is not for you. Either way you learn something about yourself. Either way you’ll be better for it. That is the essence of Jiu Jitsu.
Help someone else get ready for competition
I love training with people who are getting ready for competition, and I love seeing them on the podium. This is a valuable way to give your teammates the help they need. They are carrying our flag out there, and you can help them succeed. Helping anyone with a position, giving them the pace, pressure or look they need, or maybe helping someone find one more round in them, can be a big help. It is a wonderful feeling to know that you can help someone achieve their goals of winning tournaments by doing what we love: Jiu Jitsu.
Surfing, like Jiu Jitsu, is one of those things everyone can love. The Kelly Slaters of the world can love it just as much as the person who can barely stand up on a board. Jiu Jitsu is similar that way. It’s great cross training too. Surfing helps balance and timing. Surfing is a great way to cross train whenever it’s available to you. Surfing is great fun and can give you something else to do when you finally get to Brazil and the Academy is closed for the day.
Train Judo for a year
Jiu Jitsu and Judo are different branches on the same tree of Bushido. The rules of Judo and Jiu Jitsu dictate how it’s taught. In Judo, gripping gets you throws, and throws get you wins. In Jiu Jitsu, throws are only two points, so we spend most of our time doing groundwork getting points and submissions. Gripping, unbalancing, reversing and pinning in Judo also translate directly to Jiu Jitsu and will likely change your Jiu Jitsu for the better. A judoka can also win by pin. Those skills translate to Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu permits so many more techniques and is open to so many more ideas that it has a lot more to offer, but if you have the time, a year or more of cross training in judo can help you dial in a throw or two.
Judo also embraces hard training. Matches are four minutes, ground work (newaza) is only a matter of seconds to win by pin (osai komi), arm lock (juji gatame) or strangle (sutemi waza). The short time limit increases intensity and urgency. I’ve dropped five or more pounds in two hours of training from sweating so hard, but like the samurai famously said, “the hotter the forge, the sharper the steel.” Because Jiu Jitsu operates on the ground, supplementing your training with a little Judo to get an altercation to the ground will only make you a better martial artist overall.
Create a technique or sequence that is all your own
We all train with someone that has a certain way of doing something that is all their own. Every one of us has seen a guillotine, but only one of us created the Combatine. Jiu Jitsu is highly personal. It gets adapted to everyone, every body type. It is modified to physical limitations. It is adjusted to physical attributes, ages and injuries. The personalization of Jiu Jitsu is one of the coolest things about it. Find something that you can really craft into your own thing. The fingerprints we leave on Jiu Jitsu are what keep Jiu Jitsu evolving. Other martial arts are dying because they are inflexible and wedded to things being only one way. Water that flows is full of life. Stagnant water carries no life. I think we know which one we want our martial art to be. There has been an explosion of innovation lately. New ways to attack the back. Worm Guard. Clever footlock systems. Don’t be afraid to be innovative. Jiu Jitsu is a wonderful canvas, and it’s better when we paint our own than to simply hang another’s Jiu Jitsu on the wall.
Let it ride
There is no Academy record of who taps whom. It doesn’t matter except for this: the more it matters to you the less you will learn. There is a big difference between tapping and breaking. Tapping is great. I didn’t used to think so, but now I let it ride which is opening up my game to new ideas. I can train with less strength and let whatever happens, happen. If I get tapped, great. Today I tap to good Jiu Jitsu even if I could bully my way out of it. It makes me happy to recognize good Jiu Jitsu. By tapping I get more time to play again before the round is over. Rounds are only a few precious minutes. It can be a waste to spend most of them defending a good technique.
Letting it ride and being open to tapping is not the same is breaking or giving in. Never accept defeat. Defeat is a choice and a tempting but dangerous road. That is a road of hanging on, being afraid to lose, afraid to tap, but let that ego ride and go ahead and tap. Fight when necessary, tap when necessary and get more training in. Nobody cares who tapped who.
Say hello to that new person in the academy sitting by themselves before class starts.
We all had a first day at Easton. I remember mine well. I was scared to come to the Academy. I actually drove past it on Broadway for four or five years before coming in for an intro. Even then it was only after my wife told me to go so she could stop hearing me say I wanted to start Jiu Jitsu. I was scared a lot of times going in there because I didn’t know what to expect. I have always worried about fitting in, and this was no different. Lucky for me, Professors Larry King and Junior Fidelis never made me feel like I didn’t belong. I remember the first time I could join randori. The guys I still look up to like Peter Straub, Josh Ford, Devin Rourke, Tyrone Glover and a million others would smash me without any effort, but they never made me feel like I didn’t belong even though I offered them zero challenge. Say hello to the new person. You know who they are. They look like I did. Unsure of what to expect. Maybe worried about looking foolish or getting hurt. Say hello. Professor Eliot would without hesitation. That is one of the things that I love about our Academy. We welcome everyone. All walks of life. Few Academies are like this.
It has been said that the best of anything simply do the basics better. When Roger competes, you get to see mastery of fundamentals. He does the basics the best. Professor Amal is always in the right place. He always has the right grip or right frames. He has a mastery of fundamentals. It’s tempting to move away from the basics, but the fundamental curriculum is timeless. Coaching fundamentals can really help you see how deep it goes and how valuable fundamentals are. Fundamentals are the core of Jiu Jitsu. The blue belts that still attend fundamentals often become the best in the room over time. It is no coincidence. Keep incorporating the fundamentals.
Be an ambassador
We are incredibly lucky to have a deep well to draw from. One of my favorite things about Easton is having a lot of variety in styles, sizes and training partners. It can be hard to traverse our metro that now has a ton of traffic, but the times I have been able to train with professors and teammates at our other academies are where I have learned the most. Not only have I met a lot of great people and forged great friendships, but the diversity of styles and training partners has made us all better. It is also a lot of fun to see these guys go compete, especially when they win.
I am a travel junkie and always pack a gi and rashguard. Jiu Jitsu has given me friends and training partners all over. I have trained in Japan, California, Virginia, New Mexico, Thailand, and elsewhere and have always been welcomed because of Easton’s legacy. It has been great fun to have Dean Lister dial in my straight foot lock to share it with friends in Denver or share a choke I learned from Professor Takamassa in Tokyo. It is a true pleasure to share Professor Eliot’s details on a head and arm choke (or Professor Foster’s brilliant escape) with someone I just met in another state. To me, this is my favorite part about Jiu Jitsu.
Do mobility work
This is probably a function of my age and collection of spectacular injuries, but do mobility work. For me, yoga is the other half of training. There are lots of mobility tools that help and will keep you on the mat more and performing better. We are all good about training, strength training and even eating well, but I never see anyone stretching. It is little surprise we all have tight shoulders and get injured. Mobility work will help.
Go to seminars
I love seminars. We are lucky to get some really great Jiu Jitsu players to visit. A couple hours with Gordo changed a lot for me. I implement his ideas daily. It gives us a chance to be a student of the game and have a new look at things while supporting our Academy.
Learn a bit of Brazilian Portuguese
Jiu Jitsu is a chance to learn about a place most of us have never been to. Brazil is probably the most ethnically diverse country on earth. Brazilians probably invented fun. Jiu Jitsu is a chance to learn a bit of something different, so why not dive in? A few phrases are fun to learn and worthwhile to the Jiu Jitsu journey.
Relax. It’s just Jiu Jitsu.
As much as any of us love Jiu Jitsu, it’s just Jiu Jitsu. It becomes our identity. We sometimes put more emphasis on it than we do our jobs, families, neighborhoods and friends. It is easy to become a billboard for the Jiu Jitsu life. Of course. We love it. But it is important to remember that while Jiu Jitsu is what we do, it isn’t necessarily what we are. What we do on the mat matters on the mat, but what we do outside the Academy matters more. Get a life. As Professor Eliot says, “be a good person.” Don’t get hung up on what that means, just be one.
Jiu Jitsu is one of the best tools to become a better person. Professor Larry King used to tell me, “the mat is a mirror.” Whoever you are, truly are, shows up there. If you are the kind of person who breaks, loses their temper, gets frustrated, jealous, indignant, scared, anxious, etc. it will show up on the mat. Jiu Jitsu will give you the pressure to figure out who you are. I have not always liked the truths I have seen in that mirror, but I don’t regret any of them. There are times we cannot train. Personally I’ve had injuries that have taken me out for a year at a time. If all I had in my life was Jiu Jitsu I would have missed out on all the other blessings I have.
Keep perspective and enjoy the ride!
–Coach Jason Kramer is an Easton Brown Belt