Tag Archives: jiu-jitsu

We Are Not On The Same Skill Level

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I spent the last part of my post The Stopwatch Parent stating that I do not like applying the term “Elite” to any youth player ages U15 and below. I have seen these elite teams as a lacrosse official and I do not believe any of them are elite. I came to this opinion not through my travels as an itinerant lacrosse referee or from coaching various youth teams over the years. I developed it at sixteen years old in a jiu-jitsu gym.

I’ve always loved training in different martial arts and I’ve written about some of the lessons I learned on the gym floor, but one of the biggest lessons I ever learned was that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was. I spent two years in the kids/teenagers class learning the basics of kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, but I wanted more. I took private lessons with one of the younger instructors and my technique and skill rapidly improved over a four month period. After those four months I was both a kickboxing and jiu-jitsu force in my young adults class.

My speciality in kickboxing was my rear leg kick and I got so good at turning my hips over that I started leaving bruises on the forearms of my younger training partners even though they were holding four-inch thick kickboxing pads full of absorbent foam. I got so skilled at pulling off my favorite submission, the triangle, that I submitted every other teenage opponent in class every week with variations of that same move. At the end of those four months the head instructor of the gym asked me if I could be mature enough to train with the adults even though I was only sixteen and he typically only let eighteen year olds train with the adults. I told him I would do whatever it took to take on the challenge of training in the adult classes.

Now, I told you that story to prepare you for this story:

When I entered the adult class I immediately realized it was a different beast. Classes were paced faster, went longer, and I was holding pads for adult men. Many of whom were current or retired military and policeman who used kickboxing and jiu-jitsu to stay in combat shape. For the first real time in my life I was challenged physically and mentally as I learned ever more complicated combinations and fighting strategies, but I still thought I was pretty good because my body is built well for kickboxing. I have long legs and shins which gives me a distinct advantage against most opponents, but jiu-jitsu is the great equalizer.

My instructor did not let me roll (wrestle) for two months as I got the feel for the adult classes and the more advanced techniques I was learning. For my very first roll I was paired against a young Japanese man whose nickname was Hurricane in the gym. I was sixteen and he was perhaps twenty-five. At the time I weighed 135 pounds and stood 5’8″. Hurricane might have weighed 95 pounds soaking wet and stood an unassuming 5’1″. Keep in mind that I had been training in the youth classes for two years up to this point, and I thought I was pretty skilled at jiu-jitsu.

I got worked.

I got owned.

I got beat so badly my picture on my new driver’s license swelled up.

Hurricane submitted me about six different times in less than four minutes and it was all I could do to just tap in defeat. I was completely demoralized and stunned. Hurricane wasn’t even an advanced jiu-jitsu practitioner at the time. He was a beginning adult and he had just defeated me in every way I could think of without breaking a sweat.

Even though I had trained for two years at the youth level, as soon as I went up against a regular adult opponent I couldn’t even keep up. It took me a full year of training before I actually tapped an adult with a submission. It took me another year to start regularly tapping the white belts (beginners) and blue belts (intermediate) in class, but it only took me one day to realize that I was by no means “Elite”.

Just because I do not believe in assigning “Elite” and other such labels onto young sports players does not mean that I don’t recognize good skills or don’t praise hard work in mastering those skills. I am all for a young boy or girl finding a passion for any activity that they can get better at and build their self-esteem while practicing the skills in their chosen activity. What all of these kids need to maintain is the drive to get better. I got better at jiu-jitsu precisely because I got beat down when I thought I was awesome, and then I decided to do something about it. If my instructors, parents, and friends told me that, “no, Gordon, you are the best jiu-jitsu practitioner in the gym” every single day no matter what happened to me during my rolls I would have gotten sick of getting beat because the real world I was experiencing was not matching up to the smoke everyone was blowing up my rear end. I probably would have quit before I ever really got started.

This is what I hear at tournaments from some parents and coaches after their Elite U11, U13, or U15 team loses a close game or gets blown out:

  1. “Don’t worry [insert player name], the other team was a bunch of cheaters.”
  2. “If your coach had put you in during overtime we would have won.”
  3. “If the field wasn’t so wet you would’ve dodged by all the kids defending you today.”
  4. “If that awful ref hadn’t made that horrible call in the fourth quarter you would have scored.”
  5. “Our team didn’t do anything wrong. We just came up short.”

Comments 1-4 I hear all of the time, and parents and coaches don’t even realize I’m nearby. It’s as if as soon as the game is over my stripes turn me into the invisible man, which is what I prefer to be before, during, and after a game unless I need to be seen. That power of invisibility lets me easily listen to a lot of conversations that I’m not even trying to listen to. I just happen to be sitting at the table while a parent talks within earshot of me and my partner as they walk off the field.

I can deal with comments 1-4 because for every one parent or coach who says something like that, there are twenty who give useful critiques to their players and don’t come up with pitiful excuses for poor performance. What I really don’t understand though, is #5 – “Our team didn’t do anything wrong. We just came up short.” This is a lie, and it is completely useless. Teams do something wrong every game win or lose.

Telling a bunch of U11 players a long way from home at a travel tournament that they did nothing wrong after getting blown out 11-3 is not helpful! Don’t lie to your team to soothe their egos or boost morale. I assure you, if you explain what you see in a measured and positive manner you can tell your team the truth after every game.

Every youth team I coach gets told a variation of the following:

“I will not judge you for winning, losing, or tying a game. I will judge you on how well you do the little things. Then I will coach you to be better at the little things that you need to work on.”

The little things is what matters in the long run. Do you call out “ball down” when going for a ground ball? Do you yell out “I’m hot” when you are the next defensive slide? Do you alert your wing midfielder to drop further down the line because you think that is where the ball is going on your faceoff? All of these are little, minuscule things that are nothing by themselves. But, when added together within an individual player and then added further with his or her teammates they add up to a team that may not be “Elite”, but certainly has the foundation for creating truly elite players once they move out of the youth age levels.

I think the term “Elite Player” should be saved for those who have put in years of work at a high level in much the same way black belts are presented in jiu-jitsu. On average, it takes a decade to earn a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and you’ll never guess what true black belt jiu-jitsu masters say once they earn that belt. They tell people that they can now start mastering jiu-jitsu! Can you believe that? The black belt is not the end result of a decade of training, it is merely an acknowledgement of years of hard training, dedication and study. The reward is that the new black belt now knows enough about jiu-jitsu to study the intricacies even further and deepen his mastery of his skills.

Let’s reserve the term “Elite” for those that have earned it and stop telling kids that they are the best you’ve ever seen because it isn’t true. What should you tell the kid then? You should tell the young lacrosse player that, “[insert player name] I am very proud of the effort you gave today, and if you really love doing this and want to get better that brick wall looks like a great place to spend fifteen minutes working on your off hand.”

Here is a short video clip from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes that was part of the inspiration for this post:

Featured Image Credit – www.championsma.us


Practicing With A Plan

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In yesterday’s post, “When Less Really Is More,” I stated that my next post would be on focused practice. I already established that without consistent practice no one in sports or any other activity will improve beyond their current level. I found, through a lot of trial and error, that consistent practice is not enough. It must be combined with focused practice to break off whatever plateau you are currently on.

Going back to the jiu-jitsu analogy from my earlier post, I used to train like a madman. While I got better it was at a very incremental rate and I was still getting tapped by the same moves class after class. Enter Uncle Craig. Uncle Craig is not really my uncle, but he was a great role model for a young teenager. He was also extremely analytical, which is no coincidence that he worked as an Industrial Organizational Psychologist. He came to Tiger Academy after I had been training for three years and quickly moved up the belt rankings. He became the dominate jiu-jitsu practitioner whenever we rolled (the jiu-jitsu word for wrestle), and I was more than a little stunned that he moved from getting tapped by me to regularly beating me with innovative wrist and leg locks.

Here I was, seventeen years old, getting beat by a guy almost in his thirties who started training much later than I did. How the heck was he beating me? Why was he so darn good? Simple – he had a plan for every class and every roll.

Craig carried around a ubiquitous notebook to every class and made notes whenever our lead instructor went over a move. He moved around so he could better see the instructor demonstrating a very tiny, but crucial detail to a submission’s success, and he kept track of every time he got tapped or tapped someone else. He also noted what submissions he tapped someone with and the ones that he was most susceptible to. When he got home he would enter his notes into a computer program that he designed which tracked what he was doing well at and what needed the most work. I trained with Craig for almost two and a half years and I never saw him without his notebook.

It took me until 2010 to fully apply Craig’s data entry method, but instead of jiu-jitsu I put it towards improving as a lacrosse official. Every lacrosse official I work with will tell you that I am rarely far away from my brown leather three-ring binder. This binder holds a printout of the current season’s NFHS and NCAA rules for easy reading, a laminated sheet of every GLOA official’s contact information, and, most importantly, a lot of notebook paper.

I write down self-evaluations constantly because I do not have the benefit of practice like players or jiu-jitsu practitioners. Officials train themselves in the classroom and then prove themselves on the field, but until virtual reality simulations are developed for sports officials the best way we have to practice is constantly marking how we are doing.

Since I can’t practice calling a game like a player would practice shooting, I use every game to practice one or two things at a time. Typically I focus on a mechanic that I didn’t get quite right in my earlier game which I wrote down in my “needs work” section on my three-ring binder.  For example, whenever a lacrosse official throws his flag he is supposed to yell, “Flag down!” This informs everyone who may not have seen the flag that there is a flag. Every few games I get a little lax about yelling “flag down,” so I note it down and make it a priority for me to do the next game. Predictably, the more I make it a priority the less I forget to yell it.

I don’t write down just my mistakes or omissions either. It is critically important to keep track of what I did well and what my state of mind was during the game. If I had a poor game, my notes are not absent a reason for that poor game. I might have been sick, had a rough day at work or a personal issue that was sticking in my mind. Keeping track of how you feel during whatever activity you are trying to improve on is a huge data point that often goes missed. Let’s face it we all have bad days, so it is important to keep them in mind when looking at a game with a lot of negative marks in it.

That is how I practice my officiating and how I made it deeper into the postseason every year since my second year. I don’t just practice, I practice with purpose.

Lacrosse players, violinists, computer programmers, and virtually every other skilled activity or job can be improved on with consistent, focused practice. Here are a few ways that a youth lacrosse player can track himself and work his way to a new plateau of ability:

  • Write down exactly what you want to accomplish each practice session
    • Not – pick up ground balls better, but – “I plan on bending my legs more on every ground ball in practice today and keeping my stick almost parallel to the ground.”
  • Set attainable goals
    • Not – I’m going to do 100 wall ball repetitions as fast as I can, but – “I plan on doing twenty wall ball repetitions with my left and right hand as perfectly as I can and as fast as I can with good form.”
  • Write down everything
    • Not – I was terrible at shooting today, but – “I had a really bad day at school and I didn’t pay attention well in my shooting drills. Tomorrow I will try to pay attention better by putting everything but shooting out of my mind.”
  • Get composition notebooks
    • If you don’t want to shell out money for a brown leather three-ring binder I highly suggest multiple composition notebooks. Different colors for different skills that you are working on.
  • Don’t focus on at least one practice session
    • I don’t mean go mess around during practice, but it is good for the mind to take a break from regimented practice. Go try out a new stick trick, or an unorthodox face-off move. You may never use it during a game, but an unfocused and relaxed practice will be a good reward for a week’s worth of focused, planned practice.

There is no substitute for consistent, focused practice. Develop a plan that works for you, but above all have a plan!


When Less Really Is More

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I’m a fan of balance. Which is why I am perturbed with the ever expanding attitude of more, more, more when applied to youth sports. I’m also a fan of the psychology of marketing. There isn’t an ad agency in the world selling a product to dogs. They sell to humans because humans put down the money, and it doesn’t make much sense to market anything in a manner that won’t appeal to a human being. Take toothpaste for example.

Images of toothpaste on a toothbrush, like the one in the featured image on this post, are all over toothpaste print advertisements and commercials. A little kid getting ready for bed puts a huge glob of toothpaste on the toothbrush and starts brushing happily. Once done, the kid rinses and flashes his pearly whites in the mirror. The message of use lots of toothpaste is clear, but why use so much when dental care professionals suggest a pea-sized amount is sufficient for cleaning teeth? There are two reasons for the gratuitous use of toothpaste in commercials:

  1. It looks fantastic in the ad
  2. It gets people to use more toothpaste, which means they run out of toothpaste faster and have to buy more

More toothpaste in ads just looks better than the recommended pea-sized amount and it gets people to use more toothpaste, which increases annual sales of toothpaste. In the end it boils down to how can the advertiser make more money by exploiting human nature? There is nothing wrong with making money in this way either, since the dawn of bartering the best salespeople knew their customers. Today, however, there is more science and big data behind advertisements and there aren’t many advocating for people to buy less of their product.

Being a smart consumer in the face of targeted ads playing on our subconscious is important, and so is being smart in youth lacrosse.

Our brains are hardwired to think that more is good, but we are lucky to live in a world of abundance while walking around with brains designed for being cave people. The more food/water/shelter a caveman had, the better his chances for survival were. Even though most of us have all the food/water/shelter we could ever need our brains want us to get more stuff. So we start looking for other things to accumulate or do to fill this very primal desire. For some people they desire to make more money, others more clothes, still others more accolades. We are driven by ancient processes written into our DNA whether we admit it or not.

The good news is by being aware of these processes we can work on thinking differently, which brings me back to doing less in youth lacrosse. I cannot tell you how many new players and parents buy the most expensive equipment for Fall Ball, or pay for upwards of four private lessons a week, or spend thousands of dollars to send the player all of the country to three different recruiting events. “Buy, pay, spend” – as if more money makes a better player. The only thing that makes a player better is time invested, not money, and the time invested must be consistent and focused.

I’m going to do another post on focused practice, but for this post I’m interested in consistency. Players cannot practice well if they are tired, burnt out, or injured. My jiu-jitsu instructor when I was a teenager always told classes that consistent practice was the way to improvement. Someone could train seven days a week and go hard every single day, but that person developed a higher risk of injury and burnout. He cautioned us to go four days a week max so we could train without injury and keep up our desire to practice. As a teenager, I did what all teenagers do, I ignored my instructor and trained six days a week. I would have trained seven, but the academy was closed on Sundays. The benefit of being a teenager was I could basically destroy my body during four hours of jiu-jitsu after school and wake up the next day feeling fresh. Now that I’m twenty-five I can still destroy my body during a workout, but my recovery time increases every year.

While I got very good at jiu-jitsu in a few short years, by the time I was eighteen I was burnt out. My practice suffered because my focused dropped, and suddenly all the little aches and pains after class were not so little anymore. I took a year off to let my body and mind recover, but when I came back it wasn’t the same. I’d lost my desire to practice jiu-jitsu and I’m still working on getting it back. Fact is, most teenagers are terrible at time management. Like I did, they’ll spend the bare minimum required doing something they hate and spend the rest of their available time doing whatever it is they have a passion for. That is not balance, that is using all of their toothpaste.

More practice, more shooting, more traveling, more wins do not necessarily make a great lacrosse player. The Gaits, Powells, and Rabils of the lacrosse world did not get to the top of their game by spending more money on gear or private lessons. They spent their time on consistent practice, and players can spend fifteen minutes a day (pea-sized amount) on practicing in a focused manner, and a small amount of consistent and focused practice will always beat out a large amount of inconsistent and lazy practice.