Are you still a BJJ white belt if you don’t train? I hit the mat in June after the longest jiujitsu break I’ve had. If you want to know what that feels like, I collected some scenes from this summer into this post.
1. Solution #1
I enter a large building and stand in a line. I sit down, receive a pinch, a bandage and an arm ache. I walk into another room and sit down again. The room is not full by any means but far from empty. Chairs have been diligently arranged in a grid, metres apart. People wait silently.
After 15 minutes I stand up, locate my partner’s car, and remove my face mask. It is May and I feel a tad hopeful, for the first time in ages. Even when the large house wants me back in July.
2. A false beginner
I never return to anything I leave behind. I’m excellent at moving on. I wasn’t always, and that’s why I learned to let go. Now I never really miss Brussels or London or feel nostalgic about university or childhood school holidays without responsibilities. I don’t miss my late grandparents, friendships that withered or burned out, or my therapists after our allocated time together ran out.
When I feel ready to return to BJJ after six months of waiting out the pandemic, I want to start small. I do it by going large: I throw some of my disposable income I haven’t had any chance to use at Coach. Coach is leaving to start his own gym, so maybe this is the time to have my first actual private lesson.
I’m early for the first lesson. “Is it okay to give you a hug?”, Coach asks, and I squeeze him hard. Of course it is all rather awkward and I talk too much and have forgotten everything. Coach has to remind me that base, structure and posture are still things that exist. We discover that I’ve always 1) shrimped wrong on one side and 2) done technical stand-ups wrong. Well, I already knew the technical stand-ups sucked, but now we possibly discover why they have always been so shitty. I receive homework.
3. Hard truths delivered gently
“Let’s be realistic, you got to be a lot faster for that to work during sparring”, Coach points out after chasing me at the pace of a slug across the length of the tatami. “But you’re starting the get the hang of it again.”
I nod and agree in too many words, I usually do. Coach says something about me possibly wanting to work on spending less time underneath my opponents by this point, and he, too, has a point. Before my last break, with 22 months of BJJ experience, I was still frequently trapped in other peoples’ mount or side control. People much smaller than me, sometimes newer than me.
Maybe I’m so used to surviving I hadn’t really tried to improve in that regard. I am, after all, really good at making life more difficult for myself than would be necessary.
4. A special graduation
I don’t roll at the first graduation held at the gym in 18 months, I photograph. Every stripe and belt. I feel a bit melancholy with these being the last promotions Coach hands out at Crest. Joni, Marika and Sari receive their black belts. I have received the one and only stripe on my white belt in 2019 and even that has fallen out during the past winter. A fitting symbol for the time spent doing other things.
(My dreams are pretty small and simple, but I do confess I would like to see the day my belt is not white anymore. With my luck I’ll probably fulfill that by continuing to bumble about til my white belt has gone grey from too many washes and permanent grime.)
I see many people for the first time in ages at the graduation. Most of them have probably managed just fine without me, but everyone being polite and friendly cheers me up.
5. Let’s learn it all again
When you are learning to return to something you love, it is can be a peculiar experience. I don’t think I flail as horribly as when I first started BJJ, but previously familiar techniques or strategies aren’t there. We are asked to start a technique from de la riva and I have no idea where to put my legs. The bottom-turtle-to-side-control-flip I was so glad to get right after many bouts of drilling is gone.
And yet, the stuff I remember seeing before I’m able to crack faster during technique classes. Still slower than most present, but who cares.
One small thing at a time, I actually manage to get some new stuff to stick. Yamato shows us the humble ankle lock and for the first time I find the optimal place to put my wrist bone. And after years of not getting any armbars from closed guard, I get my mind blown by the advantages of triangles from there. (The triangles are kudos to Anna and Gladiator Factory in Kuopio, which is another old-new thing, visiting a gym in another city.) At the time of writing, I’m still clawing my way back to some lost knowledge. On the other hand, Coach with his reminder to stick to the basics helps (posture, structure, base!)
6. Speciality: holding on
“Your knee shield is awfully solid”, Coach says after a roll I’ve mostly spent trying to remember what goes where. “We have to come up with something to use it for.”
When you (me) have learned to go to half guard as your default guard but haven’t learned anything good to transition to from there, a knee shield of steel is probably what you end up developing.
“Your guard is really good, it was hard to break”, a training partner says.
“Wow, how did you develop those grips”, another marvels after I’ve hung on to their collar for dear life, maybe hoping to receive some supplementary workout tips. Unfortunately I can only offer my spinal cord injury and diminished sensation in my fingers as an answer.
7. Glimpses of glory
As I’m still neither talented nor athletic, I take my rare successes where they happen. That one judo take-down, a single x guard. The collar choke from mount that starts with a fist on the floor.
“You’ve gotten better during your training break”, Coach remarks sometime in June. Maybe he has seen Karate Kid at a tender age or something (I never have.) I ask if I should just stop completely to improve even more, but apparently that’s not how any of this works.
8. I find another place to belong
I would like to be more original in my choice of gym. However, in July I sign up to the new one Coach and his partners went on to find. I want to think I’m still excellent at letting go.
9. Solution #2
July 26th. I ride the tram and the metro in a face mask. This time, there are literally a hundred people in the queue before me. After a while I get inside, sit down, receive another pinch and another bandage. I walk into the other room.