Pressure and multi-tasking

One of the consequences of becoming a blue belt is that the higher belts have taken the kid gloves off another notch. It is really remarkable how much pressure a group of not very large people can deploy.

No doubt it can all be explained by force divided by area equals pascals. Plus, in absolute terms, big white belts have felt as heavy on occasion. What makes brown and black belts’ pressure notable is that it is unrelenting and casual.

Generally, whatever else they’re doing on top, they’re also pressuring in. Which rapidly becomes tiring and demoralising. It also requires you to devote a significant amount of attention to enduring or avoiding their pressure. And they never appear to be trying to apply it either by brute strength or even by specifically altering their positioning for that purpose. It’s all small effortless adjustments to the position that they’re already in and the movements leading to or comprising their attack. Which is itself demoralising.

This leads me onto one of those small insights. Part of the skill curve is about expanding the scope of things that you can do without thinking about them or at least with minimal attention. This is what allows you to do a lot of the more impressive stuff, because it frees the attention you need.

A low level example: it’s possible to defend an americana or kimura by keeping your arm almost straight (but not absolutely straight, because that allows for an armbar). This should buy you time to execute an escape. I’ve never made it work, because I can do the defence but it takes 80% of my concentration to maintain it. Leaving me no brain space for my escape.

Similarly, I suspect higher level grapplers are constantly making slight shifts from the bottom to redirect or counter top pressure, without really thinking about them. And, naturally, the top pressure itself is the result of a similar process.

2016 Resolutions Debrief

In the interests of accountability…


I missed my objective of three classes a week; averaging 2.66. In fairness, I did better in the second half of the year.

Having resolved to compete at least once, I ended up competing 10 times. It turns out I’m not as laid back and uncompetitive as I think I am…. Competing has been great. It’s certainly made my jiu jitsu better, I’ve met some great people and it’s been fun being part of a team (for an individual sport, BJJ has a big team aspect).


Basically a failure. Did a bit at the start of the year, but got overtaken by marathon training and then never got back to it.


Aimed to do the London Marathon in 4h30; did it in 4h27. Nice to go out on an okay time (at least by my standards). But I won’t be doing it again for a while. Marathon training is too hard on my recovery abilities to combine with BJJ competition. Maybe as a midlife crisis event when I hit 45….


At the moment I’m focusing on the Euros. I’ll do a goals for 2018 post when that’s done.

Apparently I’m now a nationally ranked athlete….


Which is highly amusing.

Also, just in case someone is actually reading this, hilariously wrong. For a start, I’m pretty sure it only picks up members of UKBJJA — which is probably around 25%-50% of competitors at most (and probably lower at white belt). Plus the whole idea of being ‘a good white belt’ is kind of silly, even before you get into the masters division. The best white belt, with the greatest promise to be brilliant athlete, is pretty crummy when compared with someone who started a few years before them. It’s such a transient snapshot in time, with so many people having taken themselves out of contention by having been promoted that it becomes meaningless. Of course, this is true to some degree until you get to black belt — but I think it’s particularly true at white belt.

White belt, four stripe

Last stripe before blue belt. Unfortunately, I’d managed (for the first time ever) to forget my belt, so I’d borrowed one from Cesar — who then had to put four stripes on it. He was then kind enough to let me keep the belt.

Despite the prevailing view that one shouldn’t care about stripes, I like getting them. They’re a welcome symbol of encouragement and recognition. I do suspect the impact fades as you go up. In fact, that’s been my experience so far. It was a big deal to get the first one and a moderate deal to get the second. The third and fourth have been very welcome, but not quite the same impact. They’re more a symbol of progress towards other goals rather than a milestone in themselves.

Tapping the big guy on his first day

I try to keep my macho posturing fairly subtle here, but it’s such a quintessential early martial arts training experience I’m going to record it.

We had a bunch of new people this evening. Including a six foot two plus guy, who I’d guess was about a decade younger and had fifteen kilos on me. Who I was able to keep in guard and then omoplata. Which felt pretty good.

Of course, I then got overconfident, hung onto a kimura from bottom for too long, and ended up in side control at the buzzer. So it goes.

What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School

I first read What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School in my mid-teens. Mark McCormack founded IMG and essentially created the modern world of marketable, and therefore rich, sports stars (and thereby agents).1

Rereading it recently, I’m surprised by how much of it I remember as useful lessons or part of my mental furniture, even if I’d often forgotten the source.

The epilogue is the best thing on sports psychology I’ve ever read:

I have long been fascinated, both professionally and psychologically, by what makes a champion. By this I mean the true champions, the legends, the upper one per cent who consistently dominate their opponents, perform at their highest level at the most crucial times, and, in the long term, distance themselves from the neargreats and the also-rans.

Certainly skills and a supreme confidence in these skills and a supreme confidence in these skills are a part of it, but they are not the determining factors. Most athletes, by the time they reach the professional level, are already blessed with an abundance of both.

The champion’s true edge exists solely in the mind, and over the years I have observed three attitudinal charactersitcs which are common to every superstar I have ever know…

The first is the champions’ profound sense of dissatisfication with their own accomplishments. They use any success, any victory, as a spur to greater ambition. Any goal this is attained immediately becomes the next step towards a greater, more ‘unreachable’ one.

The second is an ability to peak their perfomances, to get themselves up for major tournaments and events. No one can operate consistently at his or her highest level. Yet the legends of any sports era aways seem to perform their best when the stakes are the greatest…

Finally, it is their ability to put their opponents away. This is referred to as ‘the killer instinct’, but that tells you more about the result than what is going on mentally.

In the champion’s mind he is never ahead. He distorts reality to serve his competative purpose. He is always coming from behind, even when the score indicates he is destroying his opponent. He never believes he is performing as well as he actually is.

I became acutely aware of this a number of years ago when I was in Osaka, Japan with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who were in an exhibition match. As they made the turn, I ventured out from the clubhouse to join them on the ninth green. Arnold was lining up a ten-foot putt for a birdie, and Gary, who had finished the hole, had walked over and was standing next to me with his arms folded. Though it was only an exhibition, these two champions were going head-to-head, and I could feel their intensity.

Arnold sank his putt, and Gary, shaking his head, turned to me and said, ‘He’s been doing that all day. I can’t buy a putt, and once he gets it on the green it’s in the hold.’

I found this remark a bit curious, because in reality Arnold’s birdie had brough them dead even. As Arnold walked towards me on his way to the tenth tee, I could see he too was upset. ‘Well, what do you know,’ he said, ‘I finally made a putt.’ Then, motioning ahead to Gary, he added ‘… and *that* little son-of-a-bitch can’t miss one.’

  1. This may or may not have been a good thing in the long run, but so it goes. 

First Private

Worked on omoplatas and lasso guard — plus I learned the ezekiel choke.1

Doing a private class was interesting. It’s simultaneously much more intense (more techniques, personal corrections, loads to absorb) — and much more relaxed (we did some sparring, but at around 10%, really just to explore my technique).

  1. Probably just a coincidence that my first private focused primarily on hard to spell techniques. 

First omoplata


Caught it in training against a fellow white belt with about half of my experience. But still really pleased. Partly because it was pretty hard fought; he was trying to get out and defending intelligently. But I kept calm and broke his posture. Mostly though it’s the first time that I’ve managed to submit someone from bottom — which feels like a pretty big milestone.

Quick thought on promotions

A couple of weeks ago I was at my club’s belt promotion.

Watching people go up, I realised that one of the reasons that I enjoy BJJ is that it gives the opportunity for moments of simple happiness. Everyone who went up had the biggest, goofiest smile on their face — which stayed there for the rest of the night. And we all got to share that.

Obviously, this isn’t the end of the story. I’m sure some of the people getting promoted will also have fears, insecurities and doubts. And I’d be amazed if a few people in the audience weren’t, at least in part, disappointed and envious.

But still. I think we all, for a few moments, got as close as one can to a shared moment of joy. No complicated mixed emotions and no careful irony.1 That’s a rare thing and to be celebrated.

  1. Anyone who knows me will know I’m a great fan of both complicated mixed emotions and careful irony. But a change is as good as a rest. 

Top of the class

The last week or so, I’ve found myself one of the more experienced students in the beginners class. There’s still a solid block of blue belts and more senior white belts ahead of me, but about two thirds of the class have been significantly newer.

This feels distinctly odd, not least because I haven’t really been aware of it happening. I feel I’ve turned around once and all these new people have spontaneously appeared!

Unfortunately, all of this newfound seniority hasn’t done anything to improve my jiu-jitsu, which remains very much a work in progress. ;->