Ever since watching Kieran McGeeney roll around in Straight Blast Gym in that RTE Conor McGregor documentary a couple of years ago, I thought it would be good to try out Brazillian Jiu Jitsu . So last week, after a long time flirting with the idea, I finally took the leap and began BJJ.
I had a few different motivations for going. Firstly, It has been a long 5 years since my last hurling match, and ever since there has been a huge void in my life; the challenge of competition, sense of accomplishment, the physical suffering, the opportunity to test myself and find out what lies within. Even the frustration of failure, and the pain of losing. Sport gives us the opportunity to experience all these things, while most people amble along through life nice and cozy. Never getting the hands dirty in life, avoiding the need for physical and mental duress, or self-examination, not risking failure.
Secondly, it is an excellent compliment to one’s movement practice. It promotes fluid movement and the connectedness of the whole body, with huge emphasis on the hips. It requires body awareness and full control of the joints and limbs. It demands the ability to explosively contract and coordinate the body while also the ability to relax. I’ve always thought Jiu Jitsu would be a complimentary form of training for hurling players, helping to develop a type of strength that you won’t get from lifting weights in the gym.
And thirdly, of course, who doesn’t like the idea of being able to protect oneself somewhat from all the maniacs out there with violent tendencies.
So far I have completed five sessions since jumping into this scary new world. Here’s my Jiu Jitsu diary.
Having searched around I came across Professor Eddie Kone, who trained under and received his black belt from Royler Gracie in Brazil. You landed on your feet here I was told by a student as he led me in to the Academy in Walthamstow. And right he was. Straight away I could tell that Professor Kone was not only a master practitioner of the art, but a master teacher. I was handed a Gi to wear and someone kindly tied my belt up. The professor introduced me to the class and asked everyone to make me feel welcome. The room ranged between white belts and purple belts, and for an hour and half we practiced the Trap and Roll. Suffice to say I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and everyone seemed like a Black belt to me. But I navigated my way through the lesson without any major disasters. If you are lying on the ground with someone on top of you trying to punch you, keep your head on the ground, it’s not Tesco two-for-one.
At the end of the session, Eddie took questions from students and he was in inspiring form as he spoke about Jiu Jitsu, and how it can change your life. It’s a blessing and a curse, he said. You’ll want to burn your Gi sometimes, but it’s a magical journey. Look at the family we have here. He owned the room as he spoke, with each student hanging on to his every word. To conclude the session, everyone lined up and shook each others hand. As I left, I only wished I had started sooner.
I clearly had a lot to learn and didn’t feel like I was in a position to miss any sessions so back I went on Friday, signed up this time and bought a Gi. No going back now! I still didn’t have a clue what was going on, as we were led through another hour and half of Trap and Roll practice, building on the previous day’s session. This evening we also had Coach James assisting the professor. After the lesson ended, most of the students went back on the mat to roll and practice. As I started packing up my stuff, James asked me if I wanted to train. I don’t know, do I? I asked. You should get a chance to roll on your first week, come on let’s go. I ask him what I should do, as he starts me in the mount. Do whatever you want, he says. So off I went for ten minutes, pouring every ounce of energy I had into this black belt with no idea of what my objective was, but with complete clarity that even if I did have an objective I certainly wouldn’t be able to carry it out on James, who mostly lay there chilling out before taking some decisive action and tying me into knots. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there was something very satisfying in the feeling of having my skull crushed between his legs like a brazil nut or in the blink of an eye getting choked out. I tapped out three times and enjoyed each one of them, leaving the Academy inspired for more.
I arrived on Monday in a position to offer my first piece of advice to any newcomers to Jiu Jitsu: Be careful when you tumble dry your Gi. So in my newly mangled Gi we revised last weeks lessons and progressed the techniques. Watching Eddie’s movement is a joy to behold, and as a coach, a pleasure to watch as he breaks down each movement, then builds it back up. As he says, it isn’t step 1, step 2, step 3. It has to be one movement. Like that! And you can’t help but smile at the grace and ease with which he executes the technique. We spent a lot of Wednesday reviewing and drilling the different versions of the Trap and Roll we had covered so far, and finally, it started to make some sense in my head as the different pieces were coming together.
On Friday afternoon, we were taught by Brian, another of the Academy’s incredibly friendly and helpful Black Belt instructors. We started the session from standing, on how to take someone down if they take a run at you, then back into the trap and roll. It’s not about strength, it’s about technique. It is clear that in this Academy at least, there is a very strong emphasis on personal values, which reflect the ethics and principles upon which the martial arts are based. Integrity, respect, gratitude, helping others, and the absence of ego. It is so refreshing to enter a space where these traits are shared, especially coming from a professional football environment increasingly dominated by the opposite; egotism, self-obsession, sense of entitlement, selfishness, what the famous coach Pat Riley called The Disease of ‘me’.
Personally, the greatest challenge so far has not been struggling with techniques, success and learning comes only from failure, it has been in overcoming the nerves of entering a new environment where I am a complete beginner. It is healthy to get out of the comfort zone, and even more so in my opinion as a physical development coach. Being surrounded by the gym for years, it can be easy to forget what it feels like for a newcomer to come into this environment, wanting to train but feeling completely lost and clueless. I certainly have a greater appreciation for this now. While I haven’t quite figured out yet what my long-term goal with Jiu-Jitsu is, for now I know what I need to do. Keep turning up.
Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.