Progress Report: Training for The Belly of the Beast (Pans 2024)
I am training for the Pan American Championships in March 2024. Previously I had wanted to create a weekly series about my training journey, until I realized it was quite boring because it literally consisted of what I had been doing before. Now that we are a month in, though, I can actually report on interesting developments and insights from the training process.
Previous attempts at preparing for competitions involved crying in the mornings, going to way too many classes, wavering about what weight class to enter, and being horrendously anxious for no reason when sitting at my desk doing work.
I decided that for this time around I actually wanted to prepare in the best way that I knew how, which was to set milestones and take smaller steps to reach those milestones. I wanted it to be more logical and mapped out — to essentially project manage my way into the competition date.
The first thing that I did was to tell myself to get my priorities straight on three essential areas that, if I didn’t decide right now, would seriously distract from competing:
Whether I was going to do the Adult Division or the Masters Division (30+ year old)
What weight class I wanted to compete at
What skills I wanted to work on prior to the competition
Adult v. Masters Division
The Adult division is commonly seen as the more competitive division, even more so now due to the plethora of teens who now have the equivalent of full time athletes to work on their jiu jitsu. The Masters division is still competitive, but it’s more seen as the people who do jiu jitsu in addition to holding down a job (or, as I like to say, “people with mortgages/rent/student debt”).
I wavered on entering into the Masters division because I didn’t want to admit that the competitive jiu jitsu scene was skewing more young, particularly at the lower levels. I felt like going into Masters would be seen as taking a step down from the level that I thought I would be capable of competing in.
But when my coach asked me point blank why I had entered the Adult division, I found myself feeling rather embarassed by this point of view. I recognized how my decision was driven by ego and a desire to look good in front of others.
Upon further reflection, I also realized that I was trying to use the “harder” division as an excuse to absolve myself of any accountability. If I got creamed in the first round by an eventual champion, I would have something to fall back on to explain for my performance — that she had more time to train, that she had been training longer, and I was coming in as the underdog without all of these advantages.
I’m now much more excited to compete in the Masters division, particularly because I’m looking forward to being with people who are more relatable. Age doesn’t define anything and it certainly should not be a limitation for what a person decides to pursue, but for me, switching to the Masters division felt like the right choice.
Weight classes are a sensitive issue with me, particularly because I observe that unfortunately still, weight still has some gender-related implications. More than a few women in the past, including me, have wanted to drop down to a different weight class. It’s something that some women are proud to talk about, even if behind the scenes things are unhealthy.
But I only know about my own experience and my own body—and for me, the idea of fighting around my walking weight somehow made me feel guilty. I had some weird thoughts that I was not trying hard enough to fit into these other more dedicated athletes who could be more disciplined and drop upwards of 10 lbs to make it into a lighter division. Even though my bloodwork was sound and all signs pointed towards “keep the course” — I felt this immense pressure to at least consider dropping weight to compete at a lighter division, especially because some of these women I had trained with before were dropping down too.
There were a few things that helped me find confidence in choosing my current weight class. First, I performed a body composition scan at my work gym and consulted the sports nutritionist there about my weight. He explained to me that the scan basically said that I didn’t need to change anything, but if I wanted to shift my body fat percentage while keeping muscle mass, it would be an option to see downward numbers — within reason. Second, I started to track my food intake very casually for a month, just to increase my awareness of what I was putting in my body. Third, I found a fitness podcast where the hosts felt grounded and non-influencer-y to listen to in order to increase my knowledge around fitness generally. (The podcast: Fitness and Sushi).
From these three experiences, I saw that the issue I was having was not about the weight class itself, but about the eating habits that I thought that I needed to go lower, stay, or go higher. I had previously taken an all-or-nothing approach by deciding to go up a weight class and then completely destroying my stomach with processed foods. Or, in the short-lived periods that I wanted to drop a weight class, just ended up getting injured and starving all the time.
When I took a step back, I realized that it was not about moving weight classes, or gaming the system, but about being the best and healthiest version of me, and then selecting whatever weight class that happened to be. For context, depending on how I ate in the weeks leading up to competitions, I would basically eat and snack like a five year old until the deadline to change weight classes had passed. Only then would I start to panic about being close on the scale, and then cut out almost everything while also resorting to being dehydrated so I would not cut it close. It was a very reactive and stressful mindset, one that was too sudden and extreme.
Slowly, I’ve been trying to focus on a more proactive mindset, even though it hasn’t always been easy as I try to break some unhealthy habits. When I want to revert back to my older habits, I try to think about the benefits I’ve experienced so far:
less digestive disasters
peace of mind that I’m comfortably in the range of what it will take to make weight many weeks ahead of the tournament and to know that I can keep on with the habits without destroying myself in the long run
less sugar crashes and burns
What Skills I Wanted to Work On
I once heard someone say that there is an entirely different skill set to competing. When I was getting ready for competitions in the past, I thought that the skill set to competing meant to be as tough as possible in the gym which would translate to mental fortitude at the competition. As it turns out, if you have crappy jiu jitsu, no amount of mental fortitude alone can get you out of a bad position.
I’m now more undecided on whether there is a specific competition skill set that is separate from doing good jiu jitsu. Obviously, one needs to know the rules in order to make certain strategic decisions. Yet knowing what these strategic decisions are (and the optimal response) is not really a skill per se — rather, it is more akin to memorizing the alphabet. For instance, if I am down by 2 points in a match, I would need to get a submission to win, or to sweep/takedown the person and then pass their guard. (I think the closest thing that might come to a competition “skill” is remembering to count your points, but that is also largely obliviated by having a coach around.)
However, knowing how to execute on this strategy is a skill set. And here’s the kicker: I realized that in order to do this, one must simply do the following: good jiu jitsu.
Still, good jiu jitsu wasn’t too much help for me. I spent a lot of time agonizing over the order to learn new skills and to work on my weak points, but ultimately I settled on a these guiding principles:
Pick the broad area first and then cast a wide net in terms of being exposed to those techniques. Pick 2-3 from this large set of options and work on those during drilling/specific sparring. If useful, make a note. If not useful, make a note to check to see if you are missing something. Try again, or move on.
Work on systems, not single moves. Single moves can disappoint. Systems are way more forgiving. Work on techniques that will make your jiu jitsu learning experience what you want it to be. (Right now, I want my jiu jitsu to have tons of variety and focus on transitions, as well as to take on a poetic quality.)
Seek unfamiliar territory. This approach may give you a new perspective on jiu jitsu and why other people are attracted to certain games/approaches.
Listen to my coaches on what they suggest is good for me at this time: guard retention, ankle lock, turtle, half guard, double sleeve, collar sleeve, triangles/omoplatas, closed guard. (Past suggestions have included top hits like “don’t be flat in side control” and “keep framing”)
My mentor told me at the beginning of all of this prep was that my first task was in trusting myself to make the best decision in that moment for myself… that the foundation of my learning rested upon the mindset that I have the final say in what I feel like is the right thing to do.
This suggestion caught me off guard (heh, pun intended). I thought that only after I had worked on my checklist of techniques would I have the confidence to be in the competition. But as it (kinda) annoyingly turns out, having a good mindset can set you up for success, not the other way around.
Sometimes, when you are stuck in a certain operating pattern, it can be hard to break out of it. My ingrained pattern was to always “do the move exactly even if you will fall into a dark pit filled with spiders.” After a lot of soul searching, I decided I didn’t want to deal with spiders, or an over-attachment to rigidity, any more.
For the first time in decades, my brain said “you know what? let’s stop falling into the spider pit.”
It sounds a bit silly, but as a kid, I didn’t understand what motivated teachers to teach. My life centered around school, so I felt like teachers were people that simply existed from the ether.
As a grew older, I realized that not all teachers wanted to stay teachers and those who did sometimes encountered maddening obstacles that made them want to quit. Yet at the same time there are teachers that teach despite little to no money/appreciation, dangerous political climates, or a treacherous trek to even reach the school (thanks, Most Dangerous Ways to School!)
In my preparation so far for Pans, I’ve realized that the best way to become a teacher — to both myself and to others — is to be a student first. It sounds so cliche when I write it down, but I’ve come to realize that it’s so, so true. Great teachers, in my opinion, are great students first. By “great,” we mean those who love learning — who are masochistic in the lows and gluttonous in the highs.