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Back on the Mat: How One Jiu-Jitsu Student Found Easton Training Center and Grew Through the Pandemic

Back on the Mat: How One Jiu-Jitsu Student Found Easton Training Center and Grew Through the Pandemic

Easton is community.

In these trying and frankly strange times, we need community more than ever. With so much uncertainty seemingly standing between us and the things we love like Easton, we thought it would be helpful to tap into this special community and create a much-needed information bridge. In other words, let’s spotlight the firsthand experiences of students who have returned to training. 

In this Back on the Mat story, I talked to one jiu-jitsu student about how he found Easton Training Center and grew through the pandemic. Below is the transcript from that conversation. 

“Life beats you up all the time. 

You’re going to be at the bottom of ‘mount’ in life over and over, and you have to learn how to chill and escape.”

Lennon McCarthy

Morgan Shabani: So, Lennon, how did you originally get into the wonderful world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and why did you end up picking the Easton community specifically?

Lennon McCarthy: I wanted to try a martial art for a long time. So when I got divorced, I was like, “I need to start doing something I’ve never done before. I need to get out there and get a new sense of belonging and family and something to do – a physical outlet.”  So I made appointments at different gyms around the city.  

L: I made one at Easton, at a Kung Fu school, Taekwondo school, a couple things like that.  I came to Easton first, did my first class, and canceled all the rest of my appointments for the week.  I thought this is perfect, “this is exactly what I need.”  Arvada is a little bit of a smaller academy compared to some of the other ones, and it was so welcoming.  It was getting back a sense of family that had just gotten ripped away from me.  I started to make friends.  I loved it. And I’m just addicted to sports. I’d rather play a game than just exercise. 

M: Yeah, not just repeatedly lifting weights!

L: Yeah, exactly, and I’m a personal trainer, but I’m like, “the gym uuuugh” but, “Jiu-Jitsu or go play basketball?  OK!” I really dove into the history of the sport.  How our lineage is connected to the Gracie family.  The whole package.  And now I’m just addicted to Jiu-Jitsu.

M: In what ways do you think Jiu-Jitsu has made your life better?

L: Jiu-Jitsu has helped me in a number of ways.  Jiu-Jitsu has so many practical applications to real life; like being comfortable being uncomfortable. That it’s okay to suck at something. That the most important thing is to keep coming back.  That it’s the itty bitty steps that get you there – that one percent here and there.  It’s like in real life.  No matter what your goal is, you have to do these little things every single day and repeat them to be successful.

It’s also a great physical and mental release for me.  It’s “struggle.” Especially as a white belt. There is always someone who is going to beat you and you have to keep coming back.

M: Yes!  Even at black belt.

L:Yeah, even the black belts!  I talk to some black belts and they are like, “Yeah, there are guys who throw me around all over the place!”  That’s what’s great about it.  It’s humbling. You have to learn how to control your ego.  

I walked in, and it’s not like I have a huge ego, but hey I’m athletic, I’m strong, this should be fine.  I should be able to hold my own.  And then a 120 lb. girl was throwing me around all over the place. She could literally murder me, and I couldn’t stop it to save my life.  And that was so humbling in the best way!  

Life beats you up all the time.  You’re going to be at the bottom of “mount” in life over and over, and you have to learn how to chill and escape.  Sometimes it’s just breathing and relaxing.  And these are all the things that I have applied to my life from Jiu-Jitsu that have helped it immensely.  And you know, I just got done with my divorce. Talk about being at the bottom of everything. And you have to take the strength you find here [in Jiu-Jitsu] and take it out there into the real world. And you’re like, you know what, I can survive. I can survive this, too.  

M: Yeah, nothing could be worse than Professor’s side control.

L: I mean seriously!  You know!  What sucks more than being dead tired, being smashed by a purple belt, and you can’t breathe, and they are cranking on their neck?  But you’re like, “it’s ok.” There is tranquility and balance in that that is so profound to me. And in the worst case scenario, if you need to tap out and restart, then you need to do that in life sometimes, too.  You need to be like, “Hey, this situation I’m in right now, there’s no win here.  It’s time to tap out and catch my breath and start a new strategy.”

M: Those are all amazing points.  So, Lennon, why have you decided to keep training, even though we have a global pandemic on our hands?

L: Because maybe I’m unhealthily addicted to this sport? Haha, no really, though, the one thing I missed the most was coming here to train while under quarantine. Most of my work is from home. I do a lot of online training. I’m not really a person who goes out to bars and stuff. I go out to eat once in a while but losing all of that wasn’t really a big deal to me. The hardest part was not being able to train.  And at the end of the day, I realize I’m putting myself at a greater risk for exposure. But in my mind, it’s worth it. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. 

It’s good to take all the precautions that you can, but at some point, you have to live your life.  There are some things that you have to trade off on. Like what’s worth it?  And my mental health was suffering.  It went downhill because I wasn’t training Jiu-Jitsu. And as soon as I got the word that we could train again, I was in. Like I didn’t care if it was just me in the gym with a stuffed dummy.

You can’t just be in fear of everything all the time. Because then I wouldn’t drive anywhere. I wouldn’t go out anywhere.  And this is not to downplay what is going on with the seriousness of the disease. Because it’s very serious.  But there is just this balance. You’ve just got to do some things that make you happy and healthy. I mean, you could wake up with cancer tomorrow.  There is just no guarantee.  And at some point, everything you do has a risk-reward ratio. And ultimately too, when you look at the numbers, our numbers are pretty good in this state. 

M: Yeah, we are definitely on the lower end compared to the rest of the country.

L: So it’s not just like every person is just walking around with it. So I just keep those things in mind. Weigh that risk and reward and train with my same training partners.  So the Monday/Wednesday group here, those are like my friends. We hang out. So it was like, I’m going to train with my friends. We are in contact anyway.  And I’m not like training at all these different gyms with dozens of people. It’s my small class at Easton.  We keep the training groups small.  The same people. And we still do Jiu-Jitsu. When the gym was closed, we put mats in my house and we just rolled in my house.

M: Yeah, and the mental health aspect really speaks to me, because I noticed mine plummet too when I wasn’t doing Jiu-Jitsu every day. When I wasn’t getting those reminders of, “I can make it through things. And there is always a way out.”

L: Yeah and sometimes the way out is your tap, but there is always a way. There is always a way to stay safe. And you know, it’s just like in life. At some extent, you have to protect your safety before you can really succeed. If you live your life in a fear-based sort of mentality, it’s hard to be productive.

M: Yeah, it’s like living life without that solid bottom level of your Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs.

L: Yeah 100%. 

M: So, how did you keep up with your Jiu-Jitsu training during the portion of quarantine where the gym had to be closed down? 

L: I have this stuffed gorilla at my house.  It probably weighs 20 pounds or something.  It was fun. I was able to have a little training buddy. But it’s not the same. 

I put mats in my house. I would have Colby or Omar come over. I would go to their houses. Just stuff like that. These are my Jiu-Jitsu friends who I see anyway.  But as soon as Easton was open, it was like, “Get there!”

I also just watched a ton of YouTube instructionals.

M: YouTube University is great, isn’t it?

L: Oh yeah, it’s great!  And I have FloGrappling, so I was constantly immersed in Jiu-Jitsu even though I wasn’t doing much actual training.

M: John Danaher released a Solo Drills Jiu-Jitsu instructional for free at the beginning of quarantine and I would do a lot of that.

L: Bernardo Faria let you pick one of his videos for free, so I got his fundamental video, and it was so cool! I like when I watch stuff on YouTube and I’m like, “Woah we learn that stuff at my school!”  We really do learn the fundamentals here; like real Jiu-Jitsu.   

M: What do you suggest for people who miss training Jiu-Jitsu but are at high risk or have high risked loved ones?  I know we talked about YouTube and various Jiu-Jitsu athletes who are either giving away instructionals or giving them at discounts.  What else do you think they should focus on?

L: I would say your best option is online, anything you can find. There are a lot of great resources out there, but at the end of the day Jiu-Jitsu is about people. You can drill all you want at home alone, but it’s not the same. Like if you are into basketball, you can shoot free throws all you want. But once you get in the game, it’s a whole different ball game.

M: Yeah, you’re missing the pressure. The moving opponent.

L: Yeah, exactly. There is a ton of free content out there. But also, if you can find just one partner, maybe someone who is in a similar situation as you who is also quarantining like you who is being extra cautious, then maybe you guys could do some drilling. Those would be the options I would look at.  Online is great, but if you can get some physical contact that would be even better.

M: I really noticed that when I got back, like how much my Jiu-Jitsu had atrophied from just 4 months of being off the mats.

L: Oh yeah, and the cardio aspect. Is there anything more tiring than pushing on someone who is also pushing back on you?  When I first came back, I was like, this is so hard!  How did I do this all the time? I remember the next day after I first rolled, I was wrecked. I had bruises all over.  I was not used to it. But it was also so great. I was so happy I was so sore!  I’m back to Jiu Jitsu!

M: Yeah, I remember my first day back, and my first roll was with J.T. Baerwolf. And I did a 7-minute roll with him, and I was just lying flat out on the mat after that.

L: And rolling with J.T. is not like rolling with other people!  He never stops!  Most people will take little breaks.  Not J.T. He is all over the place; rolling and flipping. Everything you do, he has a counter. He’s got my lapel wrapped around me, and he looks like he is just lounging and drinking a cocktail while I’m dying. 

M: And he’s always having fun! It’s definitely an honor to train with him and have him as a coach and resource at Arvada.

L: He has been one of my main teachers since starting at Easton.  He helped me train for competition. I’ve done “privates” with him. If I were to say someone is “my coach,” it would definitely be J.T. 

And I love how everyone at this academy is always willing to teach and help out. Like every single person I have rolled with is willing to teach me something. They are happy to show me anything, and to help me grow.

M: So, what else have you been doing to keep sane during quarantine that is not Jiu-Jitsu related? Any mental health practices?

L: I’m big into wellness overall. I’m an avid meditator. I’ve been meditating twice a day, every day, for the past year and a half plus. Journaling. Movement and mobility. So I try to focus a lot on those things and putting time and effort into them. There’s so much right now that’s not in our control at all. Life is like that, but right now it’s just extra.  There’s so much that’s just high stress. So I focus on what I can control.  I can control my wellness routine. I can control if I’m going to work out. I can control if I’m going to eat poorly. Things like that. If you can focus on those, that’s beneficial. One of the biggest things that causes stress is trying to control things that you have no control over.

My therapist made a great metaphor one time. A lot of time we try to handle life and the stressors like a beach ball in a pool that you push under the water. How long can you really hold this beach ball underwater?  It’s going to pop up at some point. It’s out of your control. Instead, if you just let the beach ball float on top of the water, you can slowly steer it to where it needs to go. But you can’t force it. For me it’s this perfect analogy to let it go and move like water.

M: Yeah sheer will doesn’t work in a lot of circumstances.

L: Those who have less levels of distress – some stress is good – but too much stress has a negative effect on the body and the human experience. One thing I talk about a lot is the human experience.  Because this is crazy. Living is crazy. It’s hard, it’s fantastic. How are we here? 

I talk about the human experience a lot, and that’s just to say, I want my experience to be as open, positive, and productive – moving in a growth mentality as much as possible. And learning how to let go of things you don’t have control over. And hey! Jiu Jitsu teaches you this! When Professor is on you, you don’t have control over anything. You only have the control they give you. They are going to take your back and put you in a choke and there is nothing you can do about it. 

And life is like that. Sometimes it’s like, this is happening.  “Sorry, got your back!  Stay calm, figure it out.” But you’re not getting life off your back right now. So that’s one of those lessons that applies directly across the board in life.  Life can be hard and stressful but learn to let go of the things you can’t control and focus on what you can. 

M: So finally, Lennon, what do you think your life would be like right now without Jiu Jitsu and Easton?

L: I don’t know. That’s so hard for me to think of. I can probably answer that a little better like this.  Jiu-Jitsu gave me a new set of priorities in how to live my life and where to focus my energy into things I needed at that time. If I didn’t have that at that time, I have no idea where I would have been. 

What I’ve told people is that I walked into this door shattered into a million pieces, and Jiu-Jitsu is putting me back together and making me whole again.  And not just with glue. It has melted me down and rebuilt this beautiful, organic thing. 

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About the Author

Morgan Shabani is a blue belt and First Impressions Specialist at Easton Arvada. She believes in the power of stories like she believes in the power of a solid kimura. When she’s not strangling people on the mats, you can find her nose deep in philosophy books or potting then re-potting her plants.

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