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The World’s Greatest White Belt

Competition in jiujitsu is fun.  I mean, I don’t care for it particularly. It makes me nervous and anxious and I never perform my best. However, the need to test our skills regularly whether in day to day training or competition is an essential part of the sport.  I encourage people to compete at least to see if they like it and enjoy it.  For some people the thrill of competition is everything.  And finding that as an adult can be a great vehicle to improve their lives.  That being said, I have to put something into perspective. 

The real competitions start at Black Belt.  I’m not trying to be dismissive or condescending.  It is great that there are competitions open to students of all levels.  And the only way to improve at competition is to compete regularly.  I get super excited over my friends and students competing as anybody would. I cheer them on and I coach them and I watch their matches with great enthusiasm.  However, once someone is dominating the field and bringing home gold medals from multiple competitions, it just signals to me that they are ready to be promoted.  That is another good thing about competition.  It can signal when someone is ready to advance.  

I think it is important to remember this if you are competing and losing.  Yes, that gives you stuff to work on.  Learn from your losses! It also means you are where you should be regarding your belt.  And, third, you are probably going against people that are due for a promotion.  This is why I often say rather sarcastically that nobody cares if you are the world’s greatest white belt. In my mind the white belt world champion (I can’t believe that’s even a title) is just a blue belt that hasn’t gotten promoted yet.  And so on as you go up in ranks.   That’s not a bad thing (although I often say it with disgust). It’s just how it is.  

If you want to compete, then you have to be willing slog it out in the same division for a couple of years until you start making progress.  If you’re competing then it pays to be the world’s best white belt.  However that to me just translates to the world’s newest blue belt.  Then the process starts all over again as you move your way through the blue belt division for a few years.  

Enjoy the process.  One day you might be the world’s best white belt and the next day hopefully you’ll be the worst blue belt.  That’s the journey.  

A Better Decision

“At the foundation of all training is the ability to make a better decision. Period.” My friend, Brian Mackenzie said this and it really resonated with me.  Making a better decision is all we have.  It’s all we can do to grow.  Each day we have hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions to make that will direct the course of our lives.  They say, “Hard training. Easy life.” To train hard is a decision in and of itself that will steer your life in a better direction.  Beyond that, how we train and what we do in the gym are decisions that also will have great repercussions.  The devil is in the details.

At its best, training is mental and emotional as well as physical.  If in the midst of hard training, I can maintain my emotional composure as well as my physical composure, I will have trained more than merely the muscles. Imagine an intense workout where I am asked to work hard for a given period of time.  After a few minutes the physical demand will start to show as I fatigue and need to slow down and take breaks.  However, the other struggle is emotional and mental.  I will start having feelings about how much my legs are burning. I will need to self-talk.  That monologue can be positive or negative. Furthermore, my emotional state might start manifesting as poor mechanics.  For example, when people fatigue, they often start looking down and hanging their heads, their expression turns sour, they rest their hands on their hips or thighs, they start sacrificing their form.  These are physical manifestations of emotional and mental fatigue.  Also how an athlete acts in the last seconds of the workout are indicative of how they act near the end of a contest. 

If we believe that “how we do anything is how we do everything,” then we should envision the athlete at the end of the match when they are fatigued and potentially behind on points.  We cannot expect them to rise to the occasion, instead we must understand that they will fall to the level of their training.  We look for the physical cues of their emotional content, the sour face and downcast eyes, the hands on their hips or thighs.  We listen for the self talk.  We see if they push through to the end or if they shut down before the clock winds down.  Those are not the types of athletes or people we want to develop.  We need to take the training room seriously.  We need to ask our athletes to make better choices about who they want to be when everything is stacked against them.  

Coach your athletes to make better choices not just physically but also emotionally.  Have them stop and listen to themselves.  Reframe their self-talk.  Make better decisions about their posture and their demeanor.  Train your athletes to push through to the end and not to give up prematurely.  Mental toughness is a trained skill as is emotional stability as is physical fitness.  Use that precious time in the gym to make better decisions about how you will be outside the gym.  

Unimportant Things

Sometimes the hardest thing is figuring out what is important and what is unimportant.  Once you figure that out, you can spend your time focusing on the important things and ignoring the unimportant things.  Too often we get caught up in shit that doesn’t matter.  The sooner we catch ourselves doing that, the sooner we can stop and get back on track.  Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of HIghly Effective People says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Do More Cardio and Other Lies Your Sensei Told You

Here’s something interesting to chew on. Cardio respiratory endurance is sport (modal) specific.   You take someone that is an elite (or even above average) endurance athlete in one sport (modality) and place them into a different sport and their dominance or competitive edge largely disappears.  Take Lance Armstrong at his peak all doped up on EPO and drop him into the NYC Marathon and his formidable cardio respiratory endurance is above average but not elite and he was certainly not a threat to any of the top runners.  When he ran many people speculated that since he was arguably the best endurance athlete in the world, he would crush the NYC Marathon. His best time was a 2:46 which is respectable but not dominant.

This is why triathletes basically train all the time because they are trying to increase their capacity in each modality.  If cardio worked like most people think, then a triathlete could basically train one sport to excess and expect it carry over to the other two sports.  So if we know that the cardio from biking doesn’t really help our running and the cardio from running doesn’t really help our biking, then why do we believe doing either of those things will help our jiujitsu?  

Technique Always Beats Strength and Other Lies Your Sensei Told You

Pretty much everyone that has done jiujitsu has heard their sensei or some higher belt say, “technique beats strength.”  However, everyone that has trained jiujitsu has been beaten at some point by someone bigger and stronger than them.  I’ve seen plenty of high level wrestlers with no jiujitsu experience give high level jiujiteiros a really hard time.  Jiujitsu is a physical practice.  Martial artists, including jiujiteiros, love to talk about martial arts as having magical or mystical powers, but all physical practices are still governed by physics and physiology, not magic.  So when you want to discuss things like strength, leverage, force, technique and mass (size) you cannot separate those things from the laws of physics and physiology. 

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” Socrates

The first thing we need to do is define some of these terms.  Technique is the movements or positions used to accomplish a task.  Read more here. Whether the task is a sweep or an armbar, there many techniques that will get the job done.  The better technique will accomplish the same task while expending less energy.  We understand that when we see newbies using 100% effort to perform the simplest move on someone compared to a blackbelt performing the same move with their eyes closed and talking to someone else seemingly expending next to no energy. 

We often view strength as mere contractile potential and a factor that is separate and at odds with technique. That is wholly wrong. Strength is not merely the size and force of your muscles.  In reality, strength is the productive application of force: applying the right amount of force at the right time and right direction.  True strength is inseparable from technique.  If strength were merely about size, you would determine the winner of strength competition by the size of their muscles. If strength were purely about how hard you could contract your muscles, you might see the leg press as a contested event. Strength is directly correlated to the task you are trying to complete.  Thus the squat, deadlift, bench, clean & jerk are all separately tested events and the winner of one lift does not necessarily win the others.

Here’s another example: when performing a classic juji gatame armbar, you point your opponent’s thumb to the sky as you pull back on the wrist and bridge up with your hips.  The same amount of force (contractile potential) applied with the thumb facing sideways will be ineffective at breaking the arm.  Similarly the right technique applied with too little force will also be ineffective.  For example, a 5-foot tall, 100lb female trying to armbar a 6-foot, 5-inch tall male athlete that ways 250lbs will likely be ineffective no matter how proficient her technique. 

To a large degree, mass moves mass.  And to deny that would be ridiculous.  This is why we have weight classes in sports.  Too large a discrepancy in size and strength cannot simply be overcome with technique. If you want to be competitive, you should not neglect the value of getting stronger. Do not conflate increasing strength with becoming slow and inflexible which is a myth that kept many sports lagging behind the curve for years. Gone are the days when skinny Brazilians can enter the octagon wearing a gi and whoop three people in one night. We now have to train like real athletes and increase our speed and power and strength to be competitive.


I hate feeling helpless.  I assume I am not the only one.  I think most people hate that feeling.  Of course, we all make this problem worse by outsourcing so many of our daily needs.  I think ultimately giving our power away to other people can contribute to feelings of helplessness if we let that outsourcing go unchecked.  Some of this outsourcing is justified by the “convenience.”   Most people don’t cook because it’s easier to order in.   Sure it can be much easier and often more fun to order in and easy to justify the increased cost because of the time saved: time being a more precious commodity than money.  However, the real costs are often hidden.  We rarely get the healthiest foods when we outsource to third-parties so we pay for that food (partially) with our health.

Along with the poor health comes the feeling of being helpless to stop the problem.  Many people complain that “it’s too hard to eat healthy.”  It’s not too hard, unless you don’t know your way around the kitchen.

Another common problem is that people rely on experts to take care of all basic needs.  I know as a person that grew up in New York City, that when I take my car into the mechanic, I am totally at their mercy because I don’t know anything about cars.  My car maintenance skill set includes: filling it up with gas, checking the oil, changing a flat tire, replacing wiper blades and fluid, and changing lightbulbs.  Beyond that I am helpless and at the mercy of the mechanic.

When it comes to human body maintenance, most people have an extremely limited skill set: they can fuel it, clean it and drive it really fast and hard.  When it comes to the human body, I consider myself an expert driving instructor as well as an expert mechanic.  I refuse to feel helpless when it comes to the place I spend all my time.  Not only do I want to teach people how to drive their bodies better, I want to teach them how to perform the basic maintenance on their bodies so they don’t have to rely on experts.

Coach Greg Glassman is fond of saying,  “I’ve got an analogy for you. Physicians are lifeguards. Trainers are swim coaches. When you need a lifeguard, you need a lifeguard, not a swim coach. But, if you need a lifeguard, you probably needed a swim coach and didn’t get one.”  My goal is to be that swim coach for people.

The Mind Likes a Plan

My friend Melissa Hartwig said a really great thing. “The mind likes a plan.” When you have all this stuff bouncing around the inside of your head and it’s keeping you up, just get up and write it down. Don’t stress over all the emails and calls and bills, just write a plan and go to sleep. Wake up and execute. Sounds simple, but sometimes we forget and get caught in the drama of worrying. I know I do. This was a great reminder.

Some people advocate doing this every night before bed. Write down on an index card your to do list for the next day and wake up with a plan and execute. It’s a brilliant way to be effective.

The Things You Own End Up Owning You.

Take a look around and notice how much stuff you acquired.  How much of it do you really need?  I know I have acquired a lot more stuff than I need.  I still look for more, but I know more stuff will not fill the void.  The void is only filled by doing things, not getting things.  It’s like Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”

I was listening to a great podcast and they talked about sandbag training.  I have trained with sandbags before and they are unforgiving and potent.  I started looking around the internet for sandbags.  Then I thought to myself, will this fill the void in my life?  Will this make my training better?  Perhaps.  However, what I really need to do is stick with the program I am on now and not get distracted and diverted by a new toy.  Sure the sandbag is one of the most cost effective training tools pound for pound and I could do a lot of stuff with it that I cannot do with a barbell.  However, I will wait to get one until I have a more compelling reason.

“It is preoccupations with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” — Bertrand Russell

I am currently doing a gymnastic program that requires 3 to 5 days a week of serious commitment. I have always had a hard time following a strict program. Which is why I gravitate towards CrossFit’s varied programming.  It’s always something new and different and I never get bored.  However, I have more specific goals with respect to gymnastics now and therefore need a specific progressive program to reach those goals.  Distractions are constantly rearing their head to try to get me to fall off the program.  That is what happens whenever you have a goal or a project: your fear and resistance will come up with excuses for you not to live up to your potential.  The more important something is the more fear you have around it.  The more fear you have, the more your mind will want to wander off target and create very compelling reasons for you to give up.

Learn to spot these distractions and do not let yourself get pulled off target.  You have big things to do and great things to achieve.  Stay the course.

Take A Seat

There has been a recent backlash against sitting and rightly so. Sitting has been heralded as the new smoking. Sitting at a desk hunched over a keyboard, staring at a computer screen is terrible for you on so many levels. I won’t go into all of it because I feel it has been well documented. Suffice it to say that if you don’t work standing up by now, consider getting a standing desk as soon as possible.

Sitting in a chair may be necessary at times, but eventually degrades your ankle, knee and hip mobility.

Sitting in a chair may be necessary at times, but eventually degrades your ankle, knee and hip mobility.

Clearly there are times when sitting in a chair is inextricably linked to the activity at hand like when you are driving your car or playing your piano. That being said, there are plenty of options for the sedentary beyond those instances where you can make a better choice about how you sit. The next time you sit, bypass the chair and go right to the floor. Sitting in a chair limits your range of motion and causes you to ultimately get tighter and shrivel up and die. Sitting on the floor actually requires greater range of motion and will help your joints stay supple and you’ll live a longer, healthier life.

Here are the four most common and productive ways to sit on the floor. If you haven’t been that close to the ground in a while, these can be challenging. Put your chairs up for sale on Craigslist and start reaping the benefits of sitting on the floor. It’s no accident that cultures that traditionally sit on the floor maintain their mobility throughout their lives.

Sitting cross-legged increases the external rotation in your hips and can be very comfortable for long durations.

Sitting cross-legged increases the external rotation in your hips and can be very comfortable for long durations.

Sitting cross-legged. The classic way most people sit on the floor is still an excellent choice for the person that needs to sit comfortably. Whether you are working, eating or meditating, the cross-legged seat provides a stable position in the pelvis because it passively allows your hips to externally rotate and that creates a good platform for you spine to stack itself nice and tall.

Sitting in a straddle is a great way to stretch your hamstrings while you multitask.

Sitting in a straddle is a great way to stretch your hamstrings while you multitask.




Sitting in a straddle. The next option is the straddle seat. For most deskbound types, this is extremely challenging due to the tightness of the hamstrings. Mulitple cushions might be necessary to elevate the butt high enough to allow you to sit up straight. Prolonged exposure to this position will cure your tight hamstring condition and make your cartwheels look amazing. Ask any highschool cheerleader or dancer and they will tell you they did their homework sitting in this position so they could stay flexible.

Sitting Seiza with the toes tucked under is a great relief for your plantar fasciitis and your tight calves.

Sitting Seiza with the toes tucked under is a great relief for your plantar fasciitis and your tight calves.

Sitting in Seiza with your toes pointed is a great stretch for your ankles and your tibialis anterior.

Sitting in Seiza with your toes pointed is a great stretch for your ankles and your tibialis anterior.


Sitting in Seiza (or Seza). The classic Japanese sitting position is called Seiza and common in all martial arts classes. Seiza is tough on Western people’s knees and ankles so start off by practicing on a soft surface with padding. If you’re knees are screaming, trying placing a pillow between your heels and your butt to raise yourself up a little higher. If you’ve been living an above-parallel life, Seiza will be a challenge but well worth it as it puts the knees and ankles into full flexion. Sitting in this position has two variations. I recommend alternating between having your toes tucked under and pointing your feet. Both positions are great and necessary stretches for the ankles. With the toes curled under and the feet in dorsiflexion, the plantar surface of the foot is stretched as well as the toes and the calves. This will prove difficult for women who wear high heels. With the toes pointed in plantar flexion, the top of the foot is stretched as well as the anterior side of the shin. This will often be very difficult for runners. Sitting in Seiza is a must for active people. You may not be able to sit like this for long, but a little bit every day will help with your lower leg mobility.

There is nothing a squat can't fix.

There is nothing a squat can’t fix.


Squat. Yes, you knew I would get around to saying you have to squat. However, today I don’t want you to squat for reps or weight. I simply want you to start squatting as a form of rest. Get into that squat when you’re waiting for the bus or going to the toilet. Get into your squat when you want to drink some coffee and send some text messages. Get comfortable down there. It’s not unreasonable to spend 10 minutes in a squat. Don’t fear the squat.

Spend more time on the floor and see how your mobility improves. Not everything has to be about doing more. Sometimes you just have to find a slightly better way to do the things your already doing. Instead of sitting in a chair, get down on the floor.

Ice Bucket Challenge

Yes, I am doing the ALS awareness Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s for a good cause. Please go to the ALS Association and donate.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from Force Distance Time on Vimeo.