Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Atos Attitude

Three days after landing in San Diego, we took our first class at Andre Galvao’s Atos academy. We had made a visit to 4425 Convoy Street on the Saturday, but that was to mainly gawp in awe and trepidation, before scurrying back to the Suites to speculate what it would be like to train there.

My own relationship with martial arts, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in particular, has been up and down over the years. After some hard-partying in my teens and twenties, I fell into kickboxing around 2004, during a two-week pre-holiday gym binge. I’ve always been entranced by contradictions, and relatively arsey to boot, so when the instructor seemed less than thrilled to have a girl in his class, it only made me want to prove him wrong. And at a statuesque 5’7’’, making my body stronger, fitter and athletically capable seemed more achievable (and mentally healthy) than the size-zero aesthetic championed by all the women’s classes.

Over the years I’ve felt a little chuckle every time someone asks what I do in my free time. I enjoy seeing the shock on their faces when they realise that the woman in front of them chooses to roll around on the floor, grappling with a variety of men and their sweat, for relaxation. And the day that I got my purple belt, back in 2011, was one of my proudest achievements. But with obsession comes a whole heap of heartache, and there have been some definite slumps over the past four years of BJJ training.

As anyone who does it knows, Jiu Jitsu is hard, progress is slow, and your ego and body take a pounding. On a day where you beat the odds (being female, 10 or 20kg smaller and a decade older than anyone in the class) it feels great. But after a run of weeks or months where you’ve been smashed into the mat and pinned down by complete beginners who have zero official technique to their name, it can feel pretty lousy. The black dog of “who are you kidding?” kicks in, swiftly followed by “you really should have started this when you were younger” and “everyone’s wondering why you’re wearing a purple belt”. If anything is going to mess with your flow and rolling, it’s being caught in a cycle of introspection. But, and this is where BJJ is a cruel mistress, whilst walking away will temporarily alleviate the embarrassment, long-term you will miss it. ’50 Shades of Grey’ can take a hike, this is sado-masochism at its very finest.

And this is, for better or worse, where I find myself on this trip. Since last summer my mat time has been seriously sketchy, my technique is rusty, and my body could do with an overhaul. In terms of timing, only a lunatic would decide to embark on a five-month BJJ sabbatical. Whether it’s my body or sanity, something looks likely to break before Christmas.

Here we are on the first morning of training. F*ck knows why I am smiling.

Andre Galvao is a multiple world champion. His wife, Angelica, is a world champion. A quick glimpse through the internet confirms that most of the folk on the mat are competing, and pretty much all of them seem to be winning. It’s no lucky accident.

The first class, where we focus on back control, is relentless, precise, and nearly two hours long. We do one position, over and over, flipping between drilling it (for two minutes) and specifically sparring it (for five) for six rounds. Note, I did not say flipping between drilling, sipping drinks, chatting about our weekends and sparring. It might be fiendishly hot, you will certainly be fantasising about the water cooler with the fervour of a Pattinson fan at a Twilight premiere…but until Andre decides it is time for a break, you stay on the mat, and you work. Hard and with zero excuses. We finish off with five rounds of non-specific sparring. There is a distinct lack of dickishness or egotism, but once again, the intensity is up there at competition level. Your partner will smile at you, but once you touch hands, you may as well be in the Mundials.

Our second BJJ class of the week, on Wednesday, confirms the same level of precision and relentless exertion. Format-wise we drill the same trio of De La Riva moves continuously for around 45 minutes, before dividing into groups of three, with one person on the bottom and the other two jumping in to attack for nine minutes at a time. Overall, it’s another two hours. At one point I get kneed in the eye and quickly realise that stopping to feel sorry for myself just isn’t an option. Even more so, I am embarrassed to have sworn out loud in front of the class, and manage to cap it through the next couple of eye jabs and scrapes with a bit more dignity and restraint.

A peculiar kind of ‘luxury’, I have two amazing brown belt women kicking my ass. Angelica Galvao is the Pan American Champion 2012, Abu Dabi World Pro Trials Champion 2012, Houston Open Champion 2012 and bagged third place in the 2012 World Championships brown belt division. That’s if my research skills serve me correctly, she’s way too polite to tell me directly, though her incessant pressure, aggression and strength would seem to rule out any element of doubt. Chelsea Bainbridge-Donner, the other brown belt, has, according to her blog, been training BJJ for circa 12 years. That’s about eight more than me, and in Atos years, about a lifetime. Peculiarly, these facts comfort me as I am wristlocked into oblivion.

The Atos academy is supported by a fitness studio, Suples, next door. Having sampled the delights of Joint Mobility*, Bulgarian Bag and a women’s conditioning class, I can confirm that Suples is run to the same exacting degree as the BJJ side of things.

Ex navy SEAL Stephen Nave and conditioning obsessive Maurizio Tangari are perpetually on hand to correct every last detail of your technique, all of the time, whether you want them to or not. Their nurturing brand of sadism translates quite often into ‘motivational’ shouting, which is the same as normal shouting, just with slogans on the wall.

The ceiling might read “Be someone special” but they should probably add “someone whose body burns like napalm” in brackets at the end.

The upside is that the studio has the kind of fitness toys that a martial artist dreams about – bone dummies, normal dummies, bars, bags, ropes, kettlebells, soft kettlebells, cycley-wheely things – and the drills are precisely tailored to mirror fighting movements (no running machines or wide stanced press-ups here).

The downside is that every single one of those toys will be used to torture you past limits you never imagined you had.

In the past week, I’ve regularly gone from “I’m just getting back into it, and I’ll take it at my own pace” through “how on earth do I control this bag/weight/rope whilst speeding up yet again”, “I’m not sure how much more I’ve got”, “I haven’t got the energy to control my face anymore”, “I’m gazing into the abyss of muscle failure/cardiac arrest”, and beyond, all whilst being yelled at.

On one particular occasion I wept silent tears onto the mat as my arms failed to complete a punishment push up. The shouting continued. Being good at something is cue only for a heavier weight, or increase in speed or technique. Even Andre gets shouted at.

Atos has a drinks machine, containing a range of energy-type beverages. Post workout or BJJ session, you will gaze into this machine, searching for an elixir to heal all misery. Nothing will help you enough.

One week in, and I can safely say, there is nothing comfortable about this kind of training. Mentally and physically it will break you. There is a very strong chance of Post Training Stress Disorder. But in an odd way, I console myself with the thought that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. And (as I sit coated in Tiger Balm and aching in more ways that I thought possible) suddenly the idea of heading back onto the mat with a big white belt seems more manageable. I’m proud of myself for surviving. And if next week I last ten minutes longer before I cry silent tears into the exercise abyss, I’ll call that progress.

(*it still hurts. Think forcing your joints into mobility with a blend of mental and physical persuasion.)


  1. Loved the article! You are an inspiration!
    I know exactly what you mean about being a woman on the mats. I am young, only 18, small, a new blue belt, and an instructor at the gym (kids' classes). There may as well be a massive target painted on the back of my gi. Some days it doesn't matter how big the guy is, I can still handle him just fine... but others I get smashed by huge muscle heads on their first day and wish I could just put a white belt back on to save myself the embarrassment, because surely I don't deserve my blue. It's tough, really tough, and I try to remind myself that there comes a point where strength can overpower technique, but I can't stop thinking that that's NOT what the sport is about, I SHOULD be able to do better.
    It sucks.
    Anyways, great article, brilliant writing, I will most definitely be following along on your blog!
    If you get a chance I would love to hear how you deal with that feeling because sometimes it makes me want to quit. Sometimes I think I'm chasing an impossible dream.

  2. Hi Quincy (and sorry for taking so long to get back to you!)

    I know exactly what you mean, when you're getting smashed it's so easy to feel like you don't 'deserve' your belt. I don't know if I have a tried and tested formula for those times, other than it really does happen to everyone. I know blue belts, purple belts, brown belts...right up to black belt world champions, and everyone sometimes get squashed by big meatheads. It's probably the number one frustration of the smaller grappler.

    At the end of the day, I think the only thing you can do is ride it out till you hit another confident period. If you are actually getting hurt, politely stop, tell your teacher and don't roll with those guys again (I've learnt that it's good to be selective with my training partners). If not, use it as an opportunity to practice your defence, and don't put pressure on yourself that you should be 'able' to submit them. Setting yourself smaller targets (I'm going to avoid getting armbarred, I'm going to try and practice my back defence etc) can help too.

    Rest assured that your teacher would not have given you a blue belt if they didn't think you are a blue belt (and every graduation generally comes with a 'I'm not sure I'm there yet' feeling whilst you get used to it).

    It might help if you joined some facebook groups so you can compare your experience with other lady grapplers (where I am, there's often only one or two women per club). Where are you based? If UK/Europe I would be happy to recommend some for you.

    Stick with it! x

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