The Academy Women's Team

BJJ: Embrace the Opponent (Empower Women Tournament)

At the end of January, I heard that Team Lawton was hosting the Empower Women Tournament on March 25th – women only, submission only, white and blue belts only. The format was round robin with 3 weight divisions. Each weight division would break out into separate white and blue belt brackets if entries allowed.

I should have known I was in trouble right away. Any other time people had talked about tournaments, I’d nope’d on out of the conversation immediately. No thanks, all set, hell no.

This time, I found myself reading the details. Looking up the drive time to Farmingdale. Asking friends questions about how these things worked. At one point I told Rob that I felt like I was in full fight or flight mode, heart racing and hands shaking. I figured that was my body telling me to run away – he said it was my body “calling me up” (more like out). This was the next hard thing I needed to do. The next stage of Embracing the Awkward in BJJ. So that night, before I could talk myself out of it, I signed up. And I spent the next nearly two months wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into…

The Reason

I’ve said it before, I started this BJJ journey because I was interested in self defense. I’ve continued on because I love it and the Academy community, but self defense made it happen. Given my motivations, it should be no surprise that I wasn’t interested in competing. Scoring points or taking home medals is not the “point” for me. However, a while back I was binge-listening to old episodes of the Jay Jack Uncensored podcast and Mandy made the argument that any woman interested in self defense should compete at least once. Her reasoning was that it is as close as you can get to the adrenaline and pressure of an assault. So it was in the back of my head that I should probably do one tournament at some point, just to feel that pressure. When I heard about Empower Women, I was ready to take that step – whether I believed it or not.

The Preparation

In addition to wondering what I’d gotten myself into, I also spent the next two months training a lot and getting “harassed” by Jay if I tried to skip circuit training. He and Mandy coached me through some of my rolls and helped me tighten up some of my fundamentals. At Mandy’s suggestion, I put an emphasis on rolling with other white belt women (we’re blessed to have over half a dozen regularly attending right now) instead of my usual pattern of pairing with upper belt men who have “a decade and an addiction” on me when it came to skill. Jay walked me through a simple method of choosing your first move and I made myself a flowchart to remember it. I started to feel like I might just be prepared.

Flowchart for how to engage an opponent in a BJJ tournament
Yes, I’m that kind of geek.

At about the 2 week mark, it stopped feeling like an abstract idea in my training and started feeling like a real thing that was going to happen – soon! I started to get very anxious. The pressure of rolls were escalating in my head. A week before the tournament, I was training at Rob’s and he offered to imitate a “spazzy tournament blue belt.” He came at me hard and fast and as he took me down his knee just barely grazed my head. I froze. It didn’t even hurt but I stopped moving and started to cry. My worst tournament fear coming true – freezing under pressure. He got me to snap out of it and roll until I found my way to a finish. And before I’d taken more than a breath or two, he had me rolling until I found a finish again.

Before I’d even signed up for the tournament, I knew that my two biggest fears were that I wouldn’t fight or that I would only defend rather than attack. The idea of freezing in front of my teammates, freezing in a situation that was supposed to be my simulated self defense gut check, was positively terrifying. The night before the tournament, Rob asked me what I wanted from performance. I gave him three things, from smallest to largest:

  1. Keep moving
  2. Attack
  3. Get a lap drop choke

The first two were bare minimums, really. I didn’t want to disappoint my coaches, training partner, or team by not “putting up.” Mixed in with those is the idea of listening to my coaches. It was something I’d been trying to practice and something I knew they valued in a competitor. The last one was my “best case scenario, that thing I really, really, really want to happen” goal. The stars align, the heavens open, the angels sing and somehow I put it all together to reach a submission. And not just any submission, but one that is aggressive and a little advanced. My body and mind had somehow put it together a handful of times in the last few months and I was enjoying it. If that happened, I would be over the moon. Even if they escaped and I couldn’t finish, if I could get there? Oh, that would be so sweet.

The Tournament

Sunday, I got up with plenty of extra time (which guarantees I left the house 10-15 minutes late because of course I had time for “one more thing”) and a prepacked bag (which means I forgot something completely logical). I picked up my 13 year old teammate, Aiko, on the way up to Farmingdale. We listened to some music and bonded a bit as we drove up. When we arrived, I felt fumbling and nervous. I dropped my bag in the corner my team had “claimed” and went to weigh in. Before things got started, my two childhood best friends showed up to cheer me on (I was only expecting one of them – the second was a lovely surprise). Then it was time to support my teammates and try not to get too nervous.

As the lightweight division finished up, Rob brought me to the corner designated for warm ups and ran me through some exercises. He had me go gentle but work hard enough to get a good sweat going. And he helped me keep my mental shit in check. When I was tempted to get dramatic or feel panicky, he shut it down and put my focus back where it belonged.

I could go into details about what happened with my matches but A: anyone who doesn’t know BJJ won’t understand most of what I say and B: that’s not really the point. Here are the highlights of what happened:

  • I kept moving and attacking
  • I listened to my coach and was able to do more of what he said than I expected
  • In my first match, I was one leg over away from the lap drop choke
  • My final tally was 2 draws and 3 losses (I tapped out)
  • I am proud of my performance
Getting close to a lap drop (or bow and arrow) choke
Moments before I realized I hadn’t put my leg over yet… (PC: Amanda Buckner)

The Result

On the Jay Jack Uncensored podcast the following Wednesday, Jay said some things that made my heart sing. Among those were that he was “astounded” the heart I showed. Our gym holds heart and gameness above points or winning, so that is about the highest praise you can receive.

He also remarked that what he saw at the tournament wasn’t what you expect when you look at me. His description sort of trailed off “Based on how she behaves and the way she looks…” Let me fill that in for you – I am a cheesy dancing late 30-something IT office worker with a tall girl slouch. If you look at a photo or watch me hang around the gym, I am no one’s image of a bad ass. And despite having shorts that say something contrary across the back, I don’t really consider myself a bad ass either. I didn’t consider myself who had praise-worthy heart or gameness.

I struggled with this praise for a little bit. And I still I feel like anyway I describe it might come off badly. My thoughts felt rude or ungrateful. But let me just lay it out: I felt conflicted because the praise was great, far beyond what I expected, but I already knew I had that heart.

It took me a few days and some deep thoughts to finally figure out what the disconnect was: I didn’t go into this thinking I didn’t have heart. But I believed what I had was somehow less than others. Not enough, not as tough, not as worthy. It is easy to feel soft when you are in a gym surrounded by tough, bad ass men and women. I assumed that the fierceness people talked about was above whatever I was capable of possessing. But I have learned that my heart was enough heart. That it was the kind of heart that Jay and others talk about with admiration. I showed the amount of heart and fight that I expected from myself – and it was enough.

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