BJJ: The First Step to Being a Bad Ass is…

Over the summer, I had been training in earnest for my first stripe in BJJ. Two weeks ago, I was signed off on all the drills and techniques except one … the sprawl. For a combination of physical and mental reasons, the sprawl is my personal Everest. The mental reason is easy to describe – to perform a sprawl, you essentially throw yourself to the ground and my brain thinks that is a bad idea. The physical part is harder to describe, suffice it to say that some parts tighter than they should be and others aren’t as strong as they need to be.

I had gone through periods of working on my sprawl and periods of avoidance for the last year. It’s hard to be persistent when you continue to suck at something and when there is nothing motivating you to make it happen. When I started working drills and techniques in preparation for the test, I would mix sprawls in but never really hammered at them. I’d be given a stretch to help my physical limitations and keep up with that, but was slow to seek out a next step or push forward on the exercise itself. It was hard and, given my physical issues, frequently painful.

A week ago, I had a little breakdown about the situation. At the two week mark, I’d asked Jay for his advice and (I realized later) focused on entirely the wrong piece of what he explained to me. I started working more diligently once I realized how close the test was. But I wasn’t getting better. It still hurt most times, it felt awkward as hell, and I still had to talk myself into every rep. People, especially the women, at the gym had all been encouraging me and assuring me that I could get the sprawls signed off in time. Last Saturday, after some particularly discouraging reps, I started to cry as I shoved my binder back into my gym bag. Crystal came up to talk to me and once again tried to encourage me. I told her it wasn’t going to happen and showed her video I’d taken the night before of how bad my sprawls truly were. She suggested that I talk to Jay – ask him what I needed to do to progress. I reluctantly agreed, feeling like a wimp and a failure for letting a goddamn warm up drill get the best of me.

What followed is hard to describe if you aren’t familiar with Jay. It was empathetic without coddling. It was direct in a way that might have been too harsh coming from someone else. He will feel your pain but he will not feel sorry for you. And, like any good Jay conversation, it was riddled with expletives and stories from his crazy past. My feelings of frustration were validated. My feelings of weakness and wimpiness were not. He gave me advice on dealing with the emotions and an exercise to address what he believed was the biggest physical challenge I faced. I took both to heart and I got to work.

A few days later, I was doing well with the exercise and checked in with Jay to make sure I was doing it as-prescribed. He told me it looked good and I could move on to the next iteration. The next step he described still sounded like a far cry from where I needed to be to get signed off. I had no expectation that I’d be able to test, but I felt good about my physical progress and my mental head space. On Friday, Jay decided to put us through various line drills at the beginning of class and he coached me the entire way through the sprawls. I was still going slow, it might have even felt more awkward than before, but it didn’t hurt. I appreciated the coaching. It felt as though he saw me taking his advice to heart and was taking my efforts seriously in return.

When I got home on Friday, I told Dave about Jay’s coaching. He said “So you’re testing tomorrow?” and I said that no, I still didn’t expect to test because I didn’t have sprawling signed off. I was possibly going to help someone by partnering with them so I planned to approach the day as though I was testing, but I wasn’t planning on going after my own stripe.

Here is the thing about me – I’m an eternal optimist. I often find myself imagining or hoping that a romantic gesture, or a great job opportunity, or a surprise party might happen. I see teeny signs that I think might just be hints at some wonderful thing that is about to appear. My actual expectations are realistic – I’d be heartbroken if I expected all of the good things my mind dreams up to materialize – but I can’t help but hope.

And on Friday night, I started to have that hopeful, surprise party feeling. That maybe Jay would encourage me or expect me to test on Saturday. Not that he’d make an exception but that he’d tell me that what he’d seen was sufficient (for 1st stripe level testing) and sign off that one last item. On Saturday morning, I got ready to attend the test and kept my expectations tempered. I still had the feeling but I reminded myself that it was far from a certainty.

As I pulled on my gi at the gym, I heard Jay call out my name. He came around the corner and asked “Are you testing?” I said that no, I couldn’t, I didn’t have sprawls signed off. He said “If they are signed off, are you testing?” and I said yes without hesitation. He grabbed a pen and marked off sprawls on my sheet. I’m sure anyone observing just saw the nervousness that hit me in that moment. I was instantly sweaty and a little shaky. And I was nervous. But I was also thrilled. The goal that I had set for myself, which had seemed out of reach, had been realized. The surprise party had happened.

A short while before the test started, as I fumbled around nervously on the mat, Jay told me that I didn’t have to test. I shouldn’t feel pushed into it. He said the first step to being a bad ass is saying no when you need to. I told him that I was testing, I wanted to test. When Cole asked if I was sure, I told him that I’d made a goal to get my first stripe for my second training anniversary (which was 2 weeks ago) and assured him that I was in.

The test itself went the way you would expect for someone who knows the material but has some performance anxiety. Jay made sure sprawls were included in the techniques we were asked to perform and that felt excruciating. Doing my slow, awkward version of sprawls across the mat when people really were watching me. Throughout the rest of the test, I felt myself fumble a bit at times and a few moments of shuffling uncertainty with one technique. But I never felt lost or confused by the directions I was given. “Not perfect, but good.” was how I phrased it when Jay asked how I thought I did. The panel agreed – they had seen a large error and a small one but otherwise a clean performance. I had passed.

Receiving my first stripe in BJJ
1st stripe down… so many to go.

Before he ended the evaluation, Jay made a point of telling me that my sprawls had been correct. The people watching clapped after he said that – I’d be lying if I didn’t say it gave me mixed feelings. I hadn’t made my struggle with sprawls a secret, but having it be a big enough deal that people were compelled to clap when Jay brought them up? I felt thankful but also a little embarrassed.

Nevertheless, I walked up to receive my stripe feeling pride that I’d done it and relief that it was over. I worked down the line of evaluators to shake hands. I paused an extra moment each with Rob and Cole, who had been the driving force in my preparations. The warmth of their hands and the looks on their faces told me I had done well.

After the gym had cleared out and I was hanging around to do some dog training, Jay reiterated that I’d done the sprawl correctly – not “good for who you are and your limitations” but correct at the level for which I was testing. He also reminded me that it couldn’t stay that way (nor would I want it too, ugh!), each level would need to show progression.

Jay said the first step to being a bad ass is saying no when you need to – but it’s also saying yes to the right things even when it scares you. Even when or especially when it makes you sweat bullets and stand in front of an audience feeling awkward as all hell.

A few of the women of the Academy
4 bad ass women (L to R: me, black belt Mandy, and soon-to-be blue belts Ashley & Crystal. Also pictured: Mabel AKA B.Money, a different kind of bad ass bitch)

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