Size Matters, But Training Helps!

Most of my jiu-jitsu training partners outweigh me by at least a hundred pounds. Sometimes more. I’m a 5’0” 41-year-old bookish introvert. This sport is hard. I get mat burns and sore fingers and bruises. Am I doing well? Do I look like a purple belt? Everyone’s bigger and stronger. Why keep coming back?

A lot of folks seem to rely on quite a bit of strength at first if they happen to be built that way. I wasn’t born that lucky or with a particular interest in spending hours on the machines in a gym next to guys flexing for themselves in mirrors. Why stick around if you’re not winning?

In working with bigger folks, I have had to be mostly technical and that can be demoralizing, especially as a beginner without many tools in the toolbox. Even later I think – I’m a purple belt after all, I should be somewhat good at this. This sweep should work! It’s hard and I spend a lot of time figuring out how to escape – which is to say on the bottom sucking stale, sweaty air, ineffectually shrimping, being the proverbial nail instead of the hammer, as the Gracie quote goes. I don’t have it all figured out now, but I’m better than I was when I started! That’s a win for me.

There are some advantages to being small like speed and fitting into spaces people don’t realize they’re leaving, but if all my weight isn’t in the two or three points I’m using for the technique, it’s probably not going to happen. Even when I’m doing it perfectly, their strength gets the better of me many times. Size matters. That’s just a fact. That doesn’t have to ruin the fun though! Is crushing everyone you meet what you consider winning? Is that the goal of your training?

Not all competition and vigorous training is bad. I do kind of dread the type of competition when you first get your purple belt or a new guy thinks “oh, this tiny lady should be an easy submission.” But when you find good people who respect each other and watch out for one another, a little competition can be good. There is a way to push each other, up the pace, but still in a playful controlled way. You both understand that your life doesn’t depend on “winning” this particular session. If your guard gets passed or you get swept, it’s not the end of your career. It means a little more work maybe. Now you have to pass guard again. But it certainly doesn’t reflect poorly on who you are as a person. It’s not a character flaw. If you’re on the mat, you’re learning and getting better. If you’re doing the work, you’re winning.

Though I enjoy friendly competition, I’m also putting my life in your hands as a smaller person. We smaller folks have to stay vigilant about a partner muscling through techniques or whether or not to invert or turtle if a heavier person might do something dangerous. Even if not explicitly stated each time, we all – no matter our size – still trust each other with our joints and necks. Training partners are there to make each other better and take care of each other. You’re not there to practice “street techniques” or mark off “wins” in your jiu-jitsu notebook. At least I hope not – not in an open mat and especially not during a regular class. There’s a high degree of trust involved that we don’t necessarily think about on a day to day basis. But if we’re all – regardless of size – in it for cooperative, respectful competition rather than skull crunching, spine crushing, knee wrenching wins we’ll all last longer, learn more and have more fun doing it.

No husbands were harmed in the making of this photo. Well, not permanently…

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