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This weekend I competed at the Hereford Masters, and I entered the light feather category (since they don't run Rooster). There were three of us in the category. The others had come down in age.

It was run as an IBJJF three-man bracket instead of a round robin. I won my first match on points, then the girl that I beat had a match against the other girl, won that (also on points), and then we had a rematch, which again went to a win on points.

They were fun matches. Hard work (my opponent was very persistent in her cross collar choke attempts!), but fun. I managed to out-wrestle and win positionally. In the final I got mount and I remember thinking "I should just hold this, I can't believe I'm winning". Not exactly exciting, but it works!

I love competing in Hereford. It's always a well-run event, and it's a nice venue too. This time around I really wasn't feeling the tournament. I remember retreating to the cafe and thinking "I don't want to be here. This was a mistake". But then on the way back to the mat area I heard a white belt elderly man, clearly a Grandad, say to a 10 year old boy wearing a team hoodie "your Dad has gone to get changed, do you want to help me warm up?"

Three generations on the same mats competing. You wouldn't hear that sort of thing, or see that sort of scenario in many other sports! Overall, the day was like a reunion. I was cornered by a guy who used to train with Ian many years ago (and who has since moved to Bath). I ran into a guy from Darlington that I talk to a lot online. I also saw Marc Walder again (he had his own match with Meerkatsu), and some guys from some of the less-local Gracie Barra clubs that I normally only see at kids tournaments. While in the canteen I saw some guys from Carlson Gracie London, that had visited our gym a few months prior. In a lot of ways, competitions are like mini family reunions!

The only thing that 'went wrong' this time around was that I booked my accommodation too late and didn't get to stay in my favorite little guesthouse. But the place I stayed wasn't too bad, and it was only a short walk from the competition venue.

I can't wait to come back next year.

I started BJJ because I wanted to compete. To me, BJJ is a sport. I do the self-defense stuff because in the lineage I'm a part of, it's important, but really I'd rather be focusing on sport training. That doesn't mean I'm a berimboloing, worm guard loving meta-gamer that knows exactly how to stall or score an advantage. I love the basics. I just think "basic" is 'holding mount well' rather than doing a bodylock takedown from a punch block.

I'm a roosterweight, and that means it's really hard for me to get matches. In fact, I usually compete up a weight category, sometimes two.  I travel to compete, because there are more light women down south.  This time I went to Surrey to compete in the open there, and I entered the Feather category, which is two categories higher than my normal weight. It cost me around £300 for the train fare, the hotel and the entry fee.

I stood in the warmup area waiting for my opponent. I looked at all the women as they came onto the mat. She's a white belt so it can't be her. She looks a bit tall to be a feather, but I'm terrible at guessing weights, maybe it's her... 

I waited, and waited... when my category had been and gone by 40 minutes, I checked the schedule and listened for the matches being called, and noticed that a category AFTER mine was already running. So I asked the weigh in desk. My opponent hadn't shown up. Not only that, but women's lightweight had already run too, so I couldn't even go up another category.

I decided I'd take my default gold:

I don't like just taking a medal though so I entered the absolutes as well. I got matched against a judo player who was 50lbs heavier than me. That's quite a difference considering I'm sub-100lbs myself.

The match was really boring. A lot of her not being able to pass my guard. Then a lot of her almost passed and me struggling to do much from turtle. I'm disgusted with myself watching it, because it looks like I'm not trying. But I know that at the time it was really hard work. The weight difference was just too much. I lost on points. That was my one match in the absolutes. Then I had a long train ride home.

Still, I really like the Surrey open. It's a good tournament and the staff are really friendly. This was my second visit. Last time was plagued with no-shows as well, although they at least just shrank the category to a round robin, nobody lost out on matches. I'll be back next year and hopefully have a better time of things!

Marc Walder is my coach's coach's coach. He is based in Essex and we don't get to see him often at all. In fact, the last time he came to Newcastle was in 2013 to give Ian (my coach) his black belt.

This time, he came to teach some self-defense techniques, and also to promote Tyrone Elliott, Speedy's son, who has been training BJJ since he was tiny. It was a well-attended seminar with people from all of the Origins in the north turning up for it.

Marc Walder is really big on self defense, so he focused on some basics - escapes from grabs, a self defense armbar technique from someone pushing/shoving you, and a way to stop people from picking you up. He also did some side-control techniques to stop people from being able to hold your head and secure the crossface. It was simple stuff, but incredibly effective.

After that he shared some of his thoughts about self defense, and about competition. I'm a very competitive person so I found some of what he said was a bit alien, but it was an interesting perspective.

I run into Marc Walder from time to time when I'm competing in the south and he's always been very friendly and helpful. It was great to finally get to learn from him. Hopefully it won't be four years for the next visit!

I've always had mixed feelings about the idea of "martial arts being empowering for women". Maybe it's because I'm really small and most of the arts I train are ones where hard sparring is a part of the curriculum, but for all I do agree that "technique is a force multiplier", there comes a point where the laws of physics apply. There are plenty of day one new guys that could destroy me in a "fight" and I've got over 2,500 hours of time on the mats.  Do I beat those guys when they're playing by "BJJ rules" and wearing a gi, sure. But if the rules go out the window and a big guy wants to hurt me they can. I don't find martial arts empowering. I find them to be a huge eye-opener as to how small and fragile I actually am.

Except for one thing.

Wearing a Gi is Pretty Liberating

I've been self employed for over a decade. Before then I worked in an industry that had a dress code of "well, we'd appreciate it if you'd at least wear pants". Before then, I was at college/uni and I was a metal head so I wore jeans/leather pants and dark t-shirts 90 percent of the time. I've never dressed smart and I only dress girly for other people's weddings.

Last week I had cause to dress up slightly. I still only wore "smart casual", but the girly pants I was wearing had a tighter cut than my jeans. The top I wore had cosmetic buttons on it that were sure to rip off if I carried anything bulky and heavy, and they were tight on my biceps (and I assure you, my biceps aren't massive). The bag I had to carry had thin straps and was nowhere near as big or comfortable as my usual backpack. The shoes felt flimsy and weren't good to run in.

I never wear makeup. It feels like dirt / oil on my skin (even the expensive stuff, I've tried). I hate having my hair long because it gets in the way so I get it cut at a barber's shop. Dressed smart, I felt like it was hard to run for the train, it was hard to carry anything heavy. I couldn't just 'climb over that wall as a shortcut', and when I got to the dojo and needed to demonstrate something for someone, I couldn't because I didn't have the same freedom of movement as I normally do dressed like a, well, bum.

I Like My Armour

One of the parents of the kids I teach saw me dressed 'smart' and they said "You look different without your armour on!".  They were joking, but it's true - my rashguard and spats are like a suite of chainmail, and the gi is like plate on top. Since I train every day and I go to the dojo wearing the rashguard and spats, I feel like I'm always ready to do something physical.

If most women (or most men, for that matter, I've heard guys say 'I can't demonstrate a round kick in these smart trousers') wear the clothes I was wearing every single day, then no wonder the feel "empowered" when they stick a baggy gi on and start moving their body more freely.

Modern clothing sucks. To me, it's not that martial arts or other forms of exercise are 'empowering' - it's that the way we're forced to dress to work in the average office is incredibly disempowering.

I like to be able to run, climb, jump and carry things at a moment's notice. I like to wear layers so I'm never too hot or too cold. I feel good like that. I may not turn heads or win any fashion awards, but who cares? My confidence comes from what my body can do, not from whether my top is the right color to go with my shoes.

That's not to detract from people who like fashion. I certainly like how it looks - I just don't like how it feels to wear it, and it's given me a new perspective as to why some people like to train casually and say that it feels so good.

This weekend we hosted the UKBJJA referee's course. This marks the third time that I've done the course. The first time I traveled up to Glasgow, where it was hosted at The Griphouse, and run by Dewi Coles.

The second time, Dewi came to us, and we hosted a course in Arch 3 King Edward Bridge. We had trouble getting the numbers for that course, which is a shame considering that it's a great course for both competitors and wannabe referees, but it was a great course all the same. Dewi does a good job of making it interactive and keeping it interesting. That's quite impressive when you consider that the IBJJF rules manual is longwinded, and not particularly interesting.

This time, we hosted the course at Arch 5 Westgate Road. We attracted some more attendees from other local gyms, and ran through a quick version of the course with Marcelo Coppa. His way of delivering the course was less interactive, and he "taught to the test", which is something I have mixed feelings about. The test is mostly multiple choice and filling out tables, so it's a good way to ensure a high pass rate, but people were getting bored sitting through three hours of talking about jiu jitsu. Live examples keep it fun.

Marcelo definitely knows his stuff, and he was able to confidently answer some tricky questions, which is good. I came away having learned a few things (e.g. about getting flattened out on your back in half-guard being worthy of an advantage). One of the guys I train with attended the course, after having done a class... during Ramadan. He's strict about Ramadan too and doesn't even touch water during the day, so his brain must have been fried!

I passed the test my first time and haven't been resitting because I don't intend to ref. I still enjoy getting updates on the rules and it's nice to see people from other gyms too. The plan is to host one of these courses every year, to try to build up a stable of qualified referees, although so far almost everyone who has attended the courses has been an 'interested competitor' rather than someone who wants to work tournaments as a ref!

Last weekend we hosted a seminar with Seph Smith at the gym. Seph was Ryan Hall's first black belt, and is also the guy who is the demo dummy in all of his videos.  He's been on the podium at IBJJF tournaments, and is a NAGA superfight champion too, so he's a legit competitor in his own right, so it must get kind of frustrating for him to be known as "Ryan Hall's demo dummy", but he certainly didn't show it even though throughout the seminar people kept taking the conversation back to that subject.

Seph knows how to party. Some of the lads took him out for pizza and karaoke the night before. I couldn't go out for that part, so the lads decided it would be funny to message me in the middle of the night to say that they had "lost Seph". If nothing else, that meant we were all a little tired on the day.  The seminar was quieter than I'd hoped, but that meant we all got some one on one attention.

Still, Seph hosted a great seminar. We covered some half-guard stuff, and some reverse De La Riva. I picked up some useful drills for retaining half-guard, and got another reminder to keep my elbow on the inside (I have a bad habit of putting it on the outside, which is a weaker frame).  We did a nice back take from an attempt at an over-under pass, and a rolling back take, as well as a sweep from deep half.

It's the Details that Matter

It's the details that made the seminar. One thing I learned about the back take was that it's important to control your opponents leg, and to keep your ankle in the crook of their knee. If they can switch so their ankle is in YOUR knee, they can reverse the back take.

The reverse De La Riva section of the seminar covered a sweep and a single leg. Again, the details helped a lot. I've always struggled with sweeps from RDLR, but something Seph said about loading the person's weight up on top of you really helped to make it easier to get the ofter the shoulder sweep. Instead of feeling like I'm pulling on a dead weight, the sweep just worked.

With the technical stand up to single leg, I've always known that you have to stretch the person out to make their rear leg weightless, but again, hearing the stand up explained as "you come back, then go forward" was a massive help.

1000% Harder to Arm Triangle

I'm hard to head and arm triangle so people at the gym asked for some tips. Seph showed everyone how to finish the head and arm triangle. Two of the guys at the seminar have managed to pull it off in sparring now. The half-guard framing works really well for avoiding getting put into a head and arm triangle in the first place, however, so everyone got something out of it.

Train Techniques as Systems

We have a brown belt competitor, J, that trains with us who teaches techniques in a chain - so he'll do "ankle pick to knee slice pass to knee on belly, then choke". Seph likes to do things in a similar way. He says "drill techniques as a system". If you just drill a takedown, or just drill a pass, then you're going to be too slow. You won't be able to stay ahead of your opponent. If you drill, say, the back take from an attempted over-under pass, then go straight into a rolling back take from that, assuming that your opponent will attempt to sit back to guard as you go for the back, then you're going to be fast when you do it in sparring. It makes a lot of sense, and it's something that I'm trying to incorporate in my drilling now.

Are Seminars Worth It?

I'm a cynic when it comes to seminars. I don't skip regular classes to go to them. I think they're a lot of money (even this one was £30, and that's quite affordable compared to some of the higher ranked black belts) and I think that they're quite risky. There's usually a lot of people on the mats, so you never know if you're going to really get much time with the instructor, or whether what they'll show is applicable to your game. Of course, if you love guillotines it makes sense to go to a Raspberry Ape guillotine seminar, but not all seminars have a clear, advertised theme.

If the seminar isn't at your gym, you never know who you'll get as a partner either. I got really lucky and got paired with my instructor for the first half, and with a long-standing blue belt for the second half. That blue belt is a lot bigger than me, but he's a really good partner, so I was exhausted by the end of it but at least I got to do all the techniques. I know people who have travelled to go to a seminar and got "clumsy guy with a stinky gi" and not really had a chance to learn anything.

Overall, I think that if you've got the money to do seminars, then they're worth it as a meet and greet for famous black belts and high level competitors, and you have a good chance of picking up some wisdom along the way. If you're lucky enough to train at a gym that hosts them regularly, then you have a better chance of having a good experience.

If you don't have a lot of money, then it's a tougher decision. I like to spend my funds on competing, and to just hit every regular class. Some people may prefer to meet as many high level practitioners as possible in seminars but compete less often. Some people may be in a position where they can afford to do both - or neither, and just do classes. It's all good. After all, it's all jiu jitsu.

New guys often ask me how often they should be training, and whether it's worth training if you can't come in several times a week. That's one of those tricky questions that doesn't have a set answer - because it really depends on your goals.

I train with one person who averages three sessions a month. They have stuck to that training schedule for the last five years, though. They are still a white belt, and they're plugging away slowly - but they haven't quit. They're still coming in, they're having fun, and they feel like they're learning, which is what really matters.

I train with other people who do 2-3 sessions a week, and some who, like me, train daily. I also train with a guy who just got his black belt. He trained daily from white through to purple, then had "life" happen to him, so he was making it in once or twice a month if that. But, he kept showing up when he could. It didn't help him progress at BJJ, it didn't help him keep his timing much - BUT, it meant that when he was ready to come back, he felt like he'd never left. He didn't show up to a new venue and a room full of people that he barely knew, and have to re-integrate himself into the gym.

How Often Should You Be Trying to Train?

If you're brand new, then it's a good idea to set reasonable targets. If you go "I am going to train as much as I can" then you're going to end up coming 4-5 times a week for a few weeks, burning out and getting injured. Ideally, you should try to train consistently, whatever "consistent" is for you.

  • Once a week will give you slow progress. You will find it hard to remember things from class to class and building muscle memory will be slow going, but it is still worth doing. Pay close attention and make the most of your mat time!
  • Twice a week will let you progress twice as fast as you would if you were attending once a week. You'll retain more information, and you'll build up some muscle memory pretty quickly. Many people maintain a schedule of twice a week long term, and steadily get through the belts.
  • Three times a week seems to be the sweet spot for rapid progress, but still having a life outside BJJ. It lets people heal between sessions, it offers rapid progress, and it is the schedule that a lot of local/casual competitors stick to.
  • Four times a week is a serious commitment, and it's what some of the more serious competitors do. You will progress very quickly, but you will have to start taking nutrition and rehab/prehab seriously. Your significant other/boss/non-training friends might start getting annoyed with you.
  • More than four times a week means that you're in diminishing returns territory. It's worth it if you love it, but think carefully about the sacrifices you're making to train that much. If you're training for a competition then you might want to up your schedule to as much as you can handle for a month or two in the run up to the competition - call it a "training camp", but training like that without goals in mind could lead to burnout.

Multiple Sessions Per Day

The most serious competitors train 2x a day, or more. If you're going to do that, then you need to drink lots of water, sleep lots, and have your nutrition on point - otherwise you will get injured. It's hard to "spar hard" twice in one day, so pick your training partners carefully, and maybe make one session light drilling and the other sparring.

Coping When You Can't Train

The challenge for many people is accepting when they can't train. If you were a 2-a-day, 5x a week person and now your schedule is down to 2-a-week, then you're going to see your peers catch you up or pass you buy. That can be frustrating.

As cliche as it might sound, you should be focusing on your own journey. The fact that Joe got a darker belt doesn't mean that your skills are diminished. Pete's achievements, or lack of them, don't take away from you. Indeed, if they're getting better that just means you have better partners to come back to once you can train more. Focus on your priorities. If BJJ is a priority for you, then find a way to arrange your life so you can train - even if, in the short term, that means making something else a priority for a while.  If BJJ is no longer a priority for you, then why do you (hypothetically) care about someone else's progress enough to get frustrated about it?

A random training pic with - where did these guys all go?In the time I've been training, I've seen so many people start and quit. Indeed, this photo from 2015 features a lot of missing people. I know one guy in the picture went and opened his own gym, one left town to go to University, one went back to his home country, and another is away teaching English as a Second Language abroad, but I don't know if they still train. I have no idea  about the others. Did they get promoted elsewhere? Did they change arts? Who knows. Most people don't make it to blue belt, and the vast majority of people who make it to blue don't make it to purple. All that matters really is that you keep training. Even if it's not as often as you used to, you're still making progress.

Be patient. Train hard, tap early, and have fun.

It's been three days since I went "sugar free", and I'm feeling some results already. The first 24 hours were easy, but the following day I realised that I didn't actually have anything in the house to eat. I ended up snacking on a Nakd bar (ingredients: dates and nuts) and a bag of crisps (even finding crisps without sugar is actually a challenge!). That kept me going until I went to the gym, and I stopped off to buy some real food on the way.

The small Sainsbury's near the gym has lots of healthy snacks - spinach and egg pots, carrots and hummus, etc., so it's easy enough to pick something up for a quick boost.  I still felt "empty" though, and just generally not right on day two. I was frustrated with some admin stuff going on at the gym and just couldn't pull myself into a mental space where I could focus on BJJ. I ended up not training, and just going home when the gi class started.

The following day I still felt a bit weird and ended up not doing the lunch time class. I went for a jacket potato, and it was disgusting, so I ended up grabbing another salad to go. I started feeling better though, and did double sessions on the night.

Now I'm heading into another day and I can feel my brain fog lifting. I left the gym in a rush last night, so didn't have time to pick up groceries. The good news is I'm not particularly hungry now, so I've once again snacked on a Nakd bar. I'll pick something up on the way in to the kids classes, and hopefully the energy will kick in by the time the adult no-gi class starts.

Overall Feelings

My appetite has fallen dramatically. I do feel a greater mental clarity. I'm feeling physically 'empty' which isn't great, but I think that's more to do with how I can't just grab a quick sandwich any more, or pick up some food from the deli counter. I'll need to get more organised with my shopping because I can't just live on random junk long term. I'm not feeling any sugar cravings at all - I think I'm lucky that for me, with the exception of those muffins (which have been a traditional Saturday Morning thing for ages, and I'm expecting to reflexively want to buy one at the weekend), food has always been a convenience thing for me, so it should be easy to stick to this.

Let's see how the rest of the week goes!

Being sick / injured for several months has meant I spent a lot of time training less than I normally do. I'm lucky in that if I'm not training I don't feel all that hungry. Sadly, though, I do have a few vices - such as muffins from AMT in the train station. Those moist and sweet carrot cake muffins are addictive and I'm pretty sure they're not great for you.

I'm back on the mats now and my cardio is pretty good still. I feel strong too. But I'm constantly tired and just a little sluggish, so I'm going to try something that I did a few years ago and that worked really well - going sugar free.

I finished the last of my digestive biscuits this morning, and I've started the timer from lunch time. The 'rules' are:

1)  No chocolate, sweet pastries, cookies or biscuits.

2) No lattes - black coffee or unsweetened tea only.

3) No jellies, candies or other sugary sweets.

4) No soda or fruit juice.

Those are the "must do" rules. I'm also going to try over the next 30 days, to:

1) Avoid bread.

2) Avoid pasta.

3) Avoid dried fruit.

4) Eat some fruit, but limit it to one or two pieces per day, sticking to bananas/apples rather than really sweet stuff.

I won't be able to stick to that 100% because I travel a lot and often a sandwich of a pastry is all that's really handy, but it'll be interesting to see how it goes. I'm hoping to save a lot of money (no more running to AMT or Greggs, no more snacking in Sainsbury's!) to go compete in Belgium, and hopefully get more out of my training too.

Expected Challenges

The two things that I'm most concerned about are keeping my energy up for the days I do 3 sessions, and also saying 'no thanks' to cookies and other snacks that people keep offering. I'm in the habit of grazing before training so I'll need to find something to replace flapjacks with.  In the short term I could 'cheat' with crisps, but that's not ideal because it's just replacing one simple carb with another. I suppose for the purposes of this challenge it will work, but long term I'm hoping to give keto a real shot for the increased mental clarity.

I do believe in the whole 'one habit at a time' thing though, so it's probably worth trying to do sugar first, then moving on from there once skipping the muffins and flapjacks has become second nature!

If you've cut out sugar successfully, I'd love to hear your story!

I competed a lot when I was a white belt, but not long after getting my blue belt I got injured, and had to take a year out of competition. The following year I competed just once, and then the year after that I managed a decent run of competitions but my performance wasn't what I wanted it to be.

The gym I train at and help to run has had to move several times over the last few years and it's been stressful finding new places and taking care of mountains of paperwork. I'm hoping that this will be the year that I can truly get stuck in to training with competing in mind. Instead of just showing up and going through the motions.

I'm looking at doing ten competitions this year, including going abroad for one. My first one will be in April, which should, in theory, give me time to get in decent shape. I fully expect to do terribly, because I always get anxiety in my first competition back; but it will be worth it to be on the other side of the table for a change.

If you're competing, I hope your training goes well and you smash it on the day.