Fourth competition, first consolation bronze

The Bronze Medal of Shame
The Bronze Medal of Shame

In the classic jiu-jitsu cliche ‘You win or you learn’. Winning, of course, is more fun — but learning is important too. At the Brighton Open I lost twice and learnt that it’s embarrassing to get on the podium as the third man in a three person bracket.

It’s an interesting loss for several reasons. First, I’m surprised by how annoyed I am. Not at my opponents; who won fair and square by being better on the day and were, as usual, genuinely nice blokes. But having been on a gentle upward trajectory of losing, getting better, winning a bit more, getting better, it feels like a backward step. Which, intellectually, I know is foolish. There are far too many random factors and the sample size is too small to draw conclusions from (win or lose).

Second, and closely related, I wasn’t in the right mental space. I don’t think I was overconfident coming off a win — although there might have been a bit of that. But I wasn’t properly focused. In my first match I was, for quite a long time, behind by a few advantages, having managed to deny a few passes before the points. We were both getting tired, he was breaking my grips, but I was able to reestablish them. If I could have put together a sweep I could have won. I think it came down to who was more present in the moment, wanting it more, and it wasn’t me this time, which I don’t feel good about.

Similarly, in my second, I got guard pulled almost directly into a triangle (which was a nice move on the part of my opponent, which I hope I can add to my repertoire at some point). I was a half second slow responding to the pull, but got into a decent posture and started defending the triangle. We struggled for a while and I didn’t make any glaring technical mistakes. But I was continuously just a bit slow and not aggressive enough in trying to get out and turn it into a guard pass. One of the things I need to get better at is recognising the moments when I need to commit 100% effort.

So, I have a few technical things to work on, especially responding to a guard pull and revisiting triangle defence. I also have a nice stretch of time until the Southend Open on the 25th September. Plenty of room to get to the gym, eat well, improve my cardio and, most importantly, get the hours in on the mats. All of which, I hope, will pay off, and also get my head on straight.

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. 

Third Competition, first Gold, first comp submission


Safe to say that I enjoyed the Chelmsford Open. Three matches to take Gold and I managed my first competition submission — an ezekiel choke from mount in the final (although I feel I’d have scored more cool points if I hadn’t started off by inserting the wrong fingers in the wrong sleeve, leading my corner and teammates to shout desperately ‘Wrong sleeve! Wrong sleeve!).

It’s still amazing how tiring competition bouts are. I got more time to recover between rounds this time, but was still hanging on by the skin of my teeth at various stages. Need to work on this. I also need to work on side control retention / submissions; I really don’t feel quite comfortable there yet and my lack of effective submissions means that I’m giving people too much time and freedom to work. Much the same goes for passing the guard. I don’t have a ‘go-to’ approach or techniques there in quite the same way that I do now from bottom.

One last obvious insight: the pressure of the timer and points system opens people up. Particularly if they’re behind. You have no choice but to push hard to try to recover the score. Which creates a pressure that’s quite different to a roll in training. If you’re in a disadvantageous position and burning energy faster than your opponent this can lead you into danger very quickly. So there’s strategy in running up a points lead beyond just hoping to stall for time (although, equally, that’s a viable option, if somewhat inaesthetic). If you can take an early points lead, you’re pressuring your opponent in a way you can take advantage of. I suspect this starts to change at higher belts, where people will be much better at handling this pressure and reacting tactically — but even there you’re in an inherently difficult position.

White belt, three stripe

It’s amazing how much the little bits of tape mean.

There’s a school of thought that you shouldn’t get hung up on them and, to a large extent, I agree. Chasing belts or stripes for their own sake is kind of undignified and childish — not to mention counterproductive. This is all particularly true if it leads you into behaving like an idiot.

But, there’s an undoubted sense of accomplishment to being brought up to the front of the class and have another small piece of tape put on your belt. It’s confirmation that you’re on the right track; that you’re really improving. And it’s confirmation that you’re making progress towards the big milestone of a new belt — which itself is a greater affirmation of all the same things. It feels good.

The flip side of that, at least for me at this stage, is that you start to feel just a bit of pressure. I want to live up to being a third stripe white belt. Which I know is a pretty low standard. After all, if I was any good, I’d be a coloured belt. But it still feels just a bit above where I think I am. Shouldn’t I be doing a bit better against the totally new people? Giving the blue belts a little more trouble? Getting a few more submissions? I remember being totally outclassed by the senior white belts when I started — am I as good as I remember them being?

Pressure, of course, is also good. Nothing wrong with wanting to hold myself to a slightly higher standard. Indeed, I’m sure that’s part of the point of the system in the first place.

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.

Second competition, first Bronze: Surrey Open


Won my first match on points (teammates told me after that it was 16-4, but I had no idea — although I was fairly sure I was up). Then lost the second.

Again, a big drop off in satisfaction between my first match and second. Obviously, I’m fairly chuffed about getting my first win. But also, for most of the match I felt in control. I pulled guard quickly, which was according to my game plan. Then swept promptly. At this point I hit the issue that he was stronger and more athletic — at least he certainly felt that way. So he was able to push the pace. Nonetheless, I was just about able to keep up and felt that I had the edge on technique. We shifted through various positions and sweeps, but I stayed ahead. At one point I nearly had the back, and when he came close to getting me in side control I was able to scramble for a single leg to put him on his back. Towards the end he got to double underhooks and was stacking me hard. To be honest, in the club I’d have tapped at that point, but I was determined to hold on in competition.

The second I lost because I just hadn’t recovered from the adrenaline dump and intense first match (which is not at all to say that I wouldn’t have lost anyway — I just don’t know). Physically and mentally I just wasn’t ready to go again. Really need to work on this, since obviously only being able to do one tournament match a day is going to be a rather serious limit on my competitive career.

Slightly regretted chickening out of the absolute. Think I’ll try to have a rule that if I qualify, and I’m not banged up or injured I’ll throw my hat in the ring — at least while my main aim is just to build up experience.