By Amal Easton
Days of Old
“You should have been here in the early 90’s,” said my friend Pitoco. “We would train three to four times a week, surf every day, and win all the tournaments.” It was 1996, I was a new Blue belt in Rio at the first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Championships. It was a surreal event for me in so many ways. I was a recent transplant to Rio De Janeiro, the birthplace of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. I’ll never forget the feeling of awe at the depth and amount of talent that was on those mats doing battle. Outside of Rio there was little history of Brazilian Jiu jitsu, and the athletes from Rio were lightyears ahead in terms of technique.
The stadium was a loud and disorderly. I barely spoke Portuguese, and strained trying to listen for my match over the muffled sound system. It was finally my turn to go out and fight, and in what seemed like a flash, my match was over. I lost, and I was hooked. The surge of adrenaline running through my veins, the roller coaster of emotions, the roar of the crowd, the smell of the stadium, and the chaotic carnival atmosphere of the city made me feel alive. I was like a kid experiencing one of the most intense thrills of life for the first time.
There isn’t much that’s as intense as another human trying to wrap their arms around your neck and choke you out. It gets your attention, and motivates you to fight and train with all of your heart. In 1996 you could only watch these matches live. My life trajectory had somehow led me to the birthplace of Gracie Jiu-jitsu when it was poised to explode.
It’s 2017, and I’m on my way home from the 21st world championships in Long Beach, CA, at the Walter Pyramid. These days, the tournament runs like a finely tuned machine. It’s very organized, all in English. The times of matches are online, updated by the minute. People are can watch history go down live on flograppling.com from the comfort of their couches.
For the competitors, technique, strength and conditioning, athletic proficiency, diet, mental focus, adequate rest, and a bit of luck are all imperative. And to be competitive, every hour of their days is accounted for. There isn’t much room for balance, and if the stars are not aligned for an athlete, they will likely not make the podium at an event like Worlds Brasilieiros, Pan Americans, or Abu Dhabi.
This year I had the honor of attending the tournament as a coach. People always say it’s almost harder for a competitor to be there as a coach, and I both agree and disagree. On one hand, it’s nerve wracking to watch. People you know, who have put their heart and soul into training for years, have to get in there and throw down. Six to ten minutes is all it takes. In that time, they either move on to the next round or go home a sad panda.
On the other hand, for the athletes who you know gave everything to prepare, it’s a crushing blow if things don’t go as hoped. In the months leading up to the competition, it’s definitely easier to be a coach, because you’re not the one cutting weight, conditioning, and training your butt off.
BJJ Competition: What it Takes
To show up prepared takes a whole army of people behind you helping. Countless hours of frantic takedowns, guard passing, guard work, some injuries. Most of all, it’s training ’til you cant go any more, and then some. For anyone planning on competing at any level, the best strategy is to prepare yourself as much as possible.
What are you the most afraid of? Take downs? Being on bottom? Mounted? Whatever it is, the preparation is a time to turn an identified weakness into a strength. Use the opportunity to compete to really push yourself to the next level. Get out of your comfort zone. Work ten times harder and smarter for the two months leading up to the tournament. Cut the junk out of your diet and your routine. You might do all this and still lose the tournament, but if you prepared well, you grew from the experience.
The Next Generation
The Easton competitor of the tournament this year was for sure a kid that we inherited from Megaton academy in Arizona, who at nine years old sat on the edge of the mat whenever we would let him skip class, sucking on his inhaler and complaining about his asthma. Pretty normal. I have a nine year old myself, whom I delicately insist must continue on her BJJ path. I commend his parents for keeping him in. I’m sure there was a time when he didn’t come to class without putting up a fight.
It’s inspiring to watch him today as a super talented fifteen year old. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got some serious work and struggle ahead of him, but he’s also a young man who has the confidence and skill to not be pushed around, and to tie grown men in knots if he decides to. Zak Kaufman took third in his weight and won one and lost one in both weight and open class. I’m proud of his performance, and I’m super proud just to see how far he has come. Despite his skill, I honestly don’t think he deserved to win this tournament. If he had won, I would still say this–although maybe just to myself.
What I can guarantee is that stepping on the mat at Worlds, Zak got a feeling for the depth of talent he will need to match and overcome if he wants the top of the podium. The gap is attainable. He’s going to have to round out his game, compete a lot more, and really prepare like a champion. That’s part of the process. If it were easy, it would not be so worth chasing. I’m super proud not only of seeing this young man grow and flourish, but also of the team of dedicated coaches around him. They put their heart and soul into his training. From the time he was a snot-nosed nine year old crying on the mat, to today when he is just around the corner from tying up his coaches in knots.
People compete for so many different reasons, and there are so many potential benefits regardless of the level you are competing at. Whether you’re just training on the mat at your academy or stepping on a big stage in front of thousands of people. Certainly personal growth is one of the main benefits. Competing forces you to train to be your best on a particular date, time and place. It elevates your motivation and accelerates your growth. It forces you to do something that is scary, and knowing for months that the date is nearing is a mental roller coaster.
When people first compete they generally perform poorly. One of the first hurdles is learning to perform to the best of your ability in tougher and tougher situations. Initially it’s super tough emotionally. With practice, you build confidence. As you learn to accept the results, you focus more on your performance as the barometer. It forces us to hone our technical skills as we search for better performance. If you’re loving the Randoris, and feel you’re ready to step it up, talk to one of our coaches. Give a local tournament or the in-house a try. Finally, do yourself a favor and put in the WORK. After all, that’s what makes the whole journey worth the squeeze.
A Brazilian magazine circa 1996. Can you spot Professor Easton?