Every so often while rolling, there is a moment where a teammate utters a sound so booming that it draws the attention of everyone else on the mat. Typically this sound has a sense of urgency, pain, anger, or some combination.
On one particular occasion that I experienced this, a female voice uttered a very stern, loud, "TAP!" Sitting on the sidelines, I was in a position to hear what came next. In no uncertain terms, the high-level female began reprimanding an overzealous, male white belt. The lecture was audible to those not rolling. And if it wasn't audible, the tension was certainly obvious. It garnered smirks from other upper-belts who were on the sidelines. The message of the rebuke was clear and concise. So white belt buddy was given a lesson in front of everyone.
And I thought it was flipping awesome.
I thought to myself, "Heck yes. This woman takes ownership of her safety and quality of training. She tells it like it is and doesn't avoid the issue. She does not care what anyone else thinks. So. Awesome."
I had seen this white belt guy rolling with people before; he looked scary. His overzealousness was not a one time deal. When fate had it that we were to roll together a few classes later, a male purple belt gave me a knowing look. I honestly think he was worried for my safety.
But this was post-lecture.
I was still hesitant in being offensive for fear of retribution, but white belt buddy was chill. I was relieved. I don't actually have any proof, but I think it's possible that the words of the upper-belt changed the way he approaches his training partners. Well, the female white belt ones, anyway.
The essence of this story is something that I struggle with and that I think might be lacking in some BJJ clubs or individuals: communication.
I don't mean the easy communication, that which involves technique details or advice. But the communication that is more reflective of emotions.
While the mats are our escape, they make for interesting politics what with all the different backgrounds, experience levels, genders, goals, expectations, and personalities. It's complicated! Deciding how to approach rolling with someone can be complicated, never mind talking to them.
There are five key reasons that I struggle with communication on the mat.
- I have anxiety of not wanting to "be a girl". This is definitely the biggest issue for me. I don't want to be perceived as a wimp or a baby. I don't want to tell someone that they need to chill because I don't want to compromise my training. I don't want to alienate training partners. I don't want them to let me get away with stupid things for fear of getting me "worked up". I don't want to be perceived differently than their male training partners.
- I am not very diplomatic. Off the mat, I often tell it like it is -- in a way that is not taken very well. I guess I'm saying that I can be a jerk sometimes. This is something I am working on. On the mat, I tend not to say anything because it's not immediately obvious to me how to make it positive.
- I don't want to hurt people's feelings. I don't want to make people feel badly about themselves. No matter how tactful you are, the truth can still hurt.
- Communication is a two-way street. You can talk all you want, but the other person needs to be willing to listen and act upon what you say. This part may be the trickiest of them all. You may not believe in one-way streets but they still exist. (Does anyone other than John get my 30 Rock references?)
- I am a white belt. I perceive that this fact makes anything I say mean less and makes others less willing to listen. I, myself, admit to feeling this way when words are coming from a white belt whose skills I don't respect that much. (For example, a white belt who is six classes in giving me "advice". Yes, I struggle with my ego sometimes.)
It is important to me to become a better communicator on the mat for two main reasons. It is my safety, not anyone else's. Recently I was rolling with a male white belt for the first time. It was the sort of roll where almost immediately after clapping hands you are on edge and prepared for crazy. I am not fond of these rolls because I like it when all my limbs are working. I also don't have self-defense goals, so I really just prefer relaxed people.
Due to some frantic actions on his part, as I was passing, I got hit in the side of the head somehow. Immediately, both my ears started ringing and I couldn't hear properly. It was as though I had water clogging my ears and a very lame orchestra surrounding me. I kept rolling and shortly after he gave up as I was starting to attack his arm from side. (FYI, the ringing stopped that same night, and after a few days, I could hear normally again.)
Afterwards, I said nothing to him about what happened. About how he could stand to relax. About how he should be cognizant of his partners' safety. I regret this and it is part of the reason why I started thinking about this whole communication thing.
Who cares if I am a white belt and maybe he doesn't want to listen to me? Frankly, the encounter made me not want to roll with him again. It would be nice if that were not the case. Avoidance isn't useful here. It doesn't fix anything and doesn't improve my jiu jitsu. (I find that rolling with new, spazzy people shows me how much I have improved, but little else.) If I roll with him again and I get hurt in some way, whose fault is it? His or mine?
Thus, open communication makes for better learning. I recently watched the Globetrotter's five-month old video on how to slowroll, or flow roll, as I like to call it. What really stood out to me is that one of the rules of flow rolling is "communicate with your partner".
I think it is fantastic that it is being explicitly encouraged. I have never really experienced that at clubs, but there have definitely been times that I left a roll wishing that it felt appropriate to say something instead of leaving frustrated, confused, irritated, or a little frightened for my safety. Verbal communication in life is important -- with a significant other, friends, family, strangers, colleagues, classmates, customer service employees, during partner yoga, etc. So why not make use of those skills on the mat?
Part of the challenge is that, on the mat, some of the communication is non-verbal. If you act like a spazz, that experienced blue belt is going to really demonstrate to you just how good his technique is and make everything you do futile. This is often done in a sort of patriarchal, king-of-the-jungle way.
This approach does not really work for me. I can't get the message across in the same way. Sure, I can now outsmart and control some of the "livelier" opponents by staying relaxed and using jiu jitsu. But it certainly is not the same. And really, I would rather not have to.
So from now on I'm going to try to be diplomatic yet honest with my training partners when appropriate. (Just as I would like them to be honest with me.) I hope that having the guts to practice open communication in an intelligent way enables me to learn in a productive, safe, and positive environment -- an environment that I am, in part, helping to foster.