Standing in the middle of the mats, hands on my hips, looking around at everyone partnering up together, and there’s me, on my own, no one to spar with.
This is a common occurrence. It’s been happening a lot sine I was a purple belt. I’m now a brown belt of almost 2 years. At white belt it happened occasionally, but down to me being new and pretty crap, not knowing what I was doing and not a being great training partner. At least that’s what I thought. Towards the end of my white belt, I had plenty of partners. I knew a few things, plus I had a coach who partnered everyone up. The same at blue, I never got left out.
I changed gyms during my purple belt years, and we weren’t partnered up by out coach for sparring. This was great, because I wouldn’t get put with the spazzy white belts, I could lock eye contact and nod my head in agreement with my next partner to spar the round with.
Something changed during my purple belt, and I often got left out of sparring rounds. Not only that, people would partner up with their friends for the technique class, and there’s little ole me, if another woman wasn’t training, I’ll be left all on my own again.
Discussions in women’s BJJ groups took place, and would seem that others also went through this torment of being left out. A suggestion came about to sit by someone you wanted to partner up with, and then when it was time, they would be there and couldn’t get away. This worked, but quite often my friend Nicola would be training, and I really like partnering with her. We are the same size and weight, plus she’s a nice person to have a chat with while we are drilling. There’s nothing quite like downloading your day to another likeminded woman.
Nicola wouldn’t stay for the sparring class very often, so it was often just myself as the only woman. More often than not, I was training for an up coming competition. I needed the sparring for practise and to get better. Depending on who was training, I would sometimes get left out of a round. Everyone had partnered up, and there was me, just standing in the middle of the mat waiting for a training partner. This started happening more frequently, and I even spoke to my mind coach about it. I was starting to get a bit paranoid. “Why does no one want to train with me?”
I was winning a few competitions, and I seriously thought that the guys were avoiding me so they didn’t get tapped.
There would be nights when I’d be the hammer, and give the guys a hard time. If they were going easy on me and letting me get submissions, fine, that’s their choice. There would be nights when I would be the nail, but more often I was the hammer, and I started to wonder if these guys were avoiding me because of their ego.
I’m the kind of person to analyse a situation so much, that I come back full circle, and it hasn’t actually got me anywhere.
This year I had 4 major tournaments, and guaranteed at least one round of sparring per night, I was sitting out of. People know I compete often, so why were they not helping me train?
Those 4 tournaments were a rollercoaster. So many things happened, good and bad, and I was just glad that they were over and I could relax.
A few days before I was flying out to Barcelona to compete in my last planned competition, one of our black belts noticed that I was standing in the middle of the mats, waiting for a sparring partner.
He looked over and called me to spar with him. Later that evening he sent me a message, telling me how he had notice through the training that I was struggling to partner up with people to spar. “It happens all the time, at least once per sparring session lately.” I said.
We continued our conversation, and he suggested I use my rank.
I’m no prima donna, and I move out of the way for white belts rolling in to me and my partner. Most gyms have the rule that lower grade should move for higher grades. This is very clear in my friend’s gym at St. Albans BJJ where I sometimes train in his open mat. I’ve been a guest at a lot of gyms, and this rule is very much set in stone. The higher ranks must be respected. They didn’t get to where they are without those blood, sweat and tears and hours of training for a white belt to roll in to them and expect to be moved out of the way.
I’ve always liked this idea, but when something isn’t made clear it should happen, it doesn’t happen.
I’ll be honest and say that I’ve had many a training sessions feeling deflated and unhappy. I’ve cried when I got home and questioned myself, my training, and why on earth I keep putting myself through this torture every night, week after week?
I’ve never taken a break from Jiu jitsu. I’ve been training consistently for 8 years straight. I’ve torn ligaments, broken bones, gone through grief, domestic violence, and still I show up to train around my injuries and life stresses. Why? Because I love it, it makes me feel good on a good day, but makes me feel terrible on a bad day. I’ve had depression, anxiety and still gone training, because when I do something, I do it 100%.
I competed in Barcelona and the whole competition was a complete disaster from start to finish. I lost, got hurt, but the best thing was spending time with my jiu jitsu friends. We went for late night food and drinks after the competition. Leoni Munslow, a Black belt from New School BJJ gave me some sound advice. Leoni happened to be on the mat the first day I ever did jiu jitsu. I admire her as a person, and really look up to her as a role model for myself and other women in BJJ. It was clear from what I had told her about my ‘lack of sparring partners”, that I wasn’t using my rank. She said exactly the same as our black belt did to me.
She highlighted to me that a lower grade should be grateful to spar with me. After a round, advice and tips are always given to the lower grade from the higher grade to help them advance. This is true. I don’t think I can go a round without helping someone out, or picking up on a key detail that will be a bit of a game changer for them.
It was clear what I had to do.
After Barcelona, I took a week off training to help my body heal, and just have a break. Miss the sport and feel a bubble of energy brewing to start fresh the next week.
Samantha Cook was holding her Wominar on the Sunday, and the topic had come up in the Q & A. I mentioned that I was about to do an experiment and change my tactics in sparring.
Monday night, I trained with Nicola. She didn’t stay for sparring, so as soon as the timer was set, I saw one of our smaller blue belt guys standing, waiting to be called out to spar. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “wanna roll?”
We tapped hands and had a great round as always.
I took a sip of water and went up to the next person, “wanna roll?”
I locked eyes with one of our black belts and ran over to the other side of the gym and happily accepted his offer to roll. At the end of the spar, he gave me a tip on how to make a technique better. I felt enlightened.
Then I took a round out. I spent a week drinking Gin & Tonics and red wine, so alcohol affects my cardio, so I needed the short break. My friend who I spent the round talking with was more than happy to roll with me straight after.
This happened the whole evening of sparring. I called everyone out, and they accepted. Apart from Craig, he told me he was going with our coach, and I couldn’t argue with that.
The next night of training was much the same, I called everyone out and they accepted. Gave tips and advice, and passed my knowledge on.
Tonight I got on the mats late. I was feeling a little unmotivated to go. A busy stressful day had really dragged me down, so I missed the first part of the warm up. As I did my own warm up, I noticed that one of the bigger blue belts was standing out of the trip drills that we’ve been working on all week. I called him out and he almost said no, but then accepted my offer as a partner.
Changing my demeanour and taking myself away from that timid brown belt lady who just wants to train and get better, spar with anyone who would go with her, and happily help those who need it. To a high level jiu jitsu brown belt world traveller and major tournament competitor, who needs some sparring partners for her to give tips and advice to, to help them progress in jiu jitsu, and all the while help her get better and keep her feeling happy and the love for jiu jitsu alive.
Goal achieved. More of the same in every sparring session from now on.