This one is a bit long, but it’s an article I wrote for the Washington Post’s “New Voices” call for submissions. They didn’t want it.
Perhaps it’s because they recognized the inherent cheesyness, or perhaps it’s because it’s the same newspaper that published Leonard Shapiro’s ignorant and un-researched opinion on MMA. Either way, Washington Post, I fart in your general direction. So there.
So anyway, here it is, and have a few crackers as well.
Getting my Grips; Lessons from a Combat Sport
I am a girl who grapples. Grappling, you ask? Does that mean you roll around on the floor and wrestle with a bunch of sweaty guys? Um, sort of, but there’s a lot more to it. To be precise, I train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a sport that is growing in popularity but is still relatively unknown. Many people assume it’s a form of karate. Some will wave their arms at me while making silly “hi-YAH!!” noises, and others will give me a blank stare and glaze over slightly as I try to explain. My dermatologist thought it was a homeopathic. Here’s how I describe it; you’ve seen the Ultimate Fighting Championships, right? Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is what happens when they fight on the ground, minus the punching. Yes, the part where they roll around, squeeze each other’s heads pimple-like between their legs, go for positions like “the mount,” and try to bend each other’s joints into unnatural angles.
So what’s a nice girl like me doing in a smelly gym like that? I’ve never been terribly outgoing. I spent most of my teens and early twenties hiding behind freckles and unruly curly hair, hoping nobody would notice me. It took threats of bodily harm on my mother’s part to get me into a skirt or dress, and I would rather have licked toads than wear makeup. I was painfully shy and insecure; shoving bamboo shoots under my fingernails would be a pleasant interlude compared to walking into a party where I didn’t know anyone.
Some of those old insecurities surfaced when I walked onto the mats and into a group of much larger men for my first BJJ class. It took all my will not to turn around and walk straight out again, but my inner tomboy put my inner chicken in a headlock and made me stay put. Perhaps I didn’t hightail it out of there because I felt like I had something to prove. The guys were already eyeing me speculatively. There was nothing hostile, nothing inappropriate, just an unspoken question; “can she hang?” But I’ve always had a stubborn streak that sees a challenge and says “heck yeah, I can hang.” And honestly, this stuff just looked like fun.
The instructor, a soft-spoken Brazilian with a dangerous look in his eye, beckoned me forward. The first technique he showed me was deceptively simple. Starting on your back, get one grip here, one grip there, tug, and magically end up on top of your opponent, ideally choking the dog snot out of him or her or politely offering to rearrange an elbow joint. My first lesson was that it’s not as easy as it looks. I ended up with my foot tangled in his gi, and most definitely not magically choking the dog snot out of him. My second lesson was that ego has no place on the mats. You will mess up and look silly, and as politely as you may decline that elbow rearrangement, sometimes your opponent will insist. That goes for everyone, no matter what gender.
I’ve since made friends with other men and women with the same interest in learning and challenging ourselves, and not just physically. A BJJ match can be compared to a game of chess. You must anticipate your opponent several moves in advance and be able to respond accordingly, all while planning and executing your own attacks. The first time I submitted an opponent was exhilarating. He took it well, and I felt vindicated for having inadvertently and embarrassingly kneed another guy in the groin earlier that class (“no worries,” he said, rapping his knuckles on his cup. I still felt guilty).
A training partner once gave me an exceptional piece of advice. “Get used to making a fool of yourself,” he said. “It’s the only way to get good.” I’ve taken that advice to heart, not only on the mats, but in life. I’ve accomplished so much more by realizing that even if I screw up spectacularly, the world will not stop and everyone in it will not look at me and laugh. I reserve the right to laugh at myself, however. It seems obvious now, but as a girl who grapples, I’ve realized it’s easier to determine exactly who I am when I’m not worried about what everyone else thinks of me. (But if you laugh at what I just wrote, I’ve got a triangle choke with your name on it.)