Monday, 24 December 2012

What I Learnt At Atos

Today was our last BJJ session at Andre Galvao’s Atos Academy. We opted for the competition training. Something about the way we could have a four day break afterwards made us weirdly brave (not brave enough however, to have warmed up with the 10am class beforehand).

Two hours in we were more sweaty, exhausted and sore than we had previously thought humanly possible.

I had (accidentally) sampled a competition class before, on a day when Andy was injured, so was wise to the painful practices that went on in the 12-2pm slot (13 minute same-person-stays-on rodizios anyone?) but it still hurt.

Michael Liera Jr. pushed us through movements, specific sparring and speed drills in a manner that would have made Professor Galvao proud. Put it this way, at 12.45pm I felt utterly destroyed and like the class should definitely be winding down, and then we did another hour.

But as the Convoy Street part of our adventure draws to a close, I feel kind of sad.

I can’t speak personally for Andy (though having listened to me bang on every day on the bus trip home, he could probably speak for me) but our 11 week gatecrash of the Atos environment has taught me some amazing lessons. Even if I haven’t yet mastered that darn leg drag.

1) For a relatively small club, Atos has a disproportionately high number of world champions. We’re not talking “once got an honorary bronze at a local competition here”, we’re looking at several times a year, several years running at the top of the global podium.

Having watched those people train (and sampled the rate and precision with which they rip my limbs to pieces) it is a worthy result of hours and hours of drilling, every day of the week. You might just be touching hands on the mat, but mentally they have already passed your guard and secured 7 points, because they’ve done it 40 times at speed against every person in the class. Actually, mentally is the wrong word; they’ve done it so often it’s as automatic as breathing.

If you’re training for a competition with them, it’s amazing. If you’re up against them, be afraid, very, very afraid.

2) Given that disproportionate rate of world champions, you would expect to find one or two egos in the dojo. To be honest, if I even placed in the Worlds, I’d be wearing my medal to class every day. But you’d be wrong.

You’ll be able to identify the champions by the way they slice through your legs as if they were tissue paper, but bragging is kept very much on the downlow. And regardless of my very unchampionlike performances on the mat, everyone has gone out of their way to help me improve.

I think it’s a top-down result of having an eight times world champion with an obvious love of teaching and a devotion to his students’ wellbeing at the helm, but you get the feeling any progress you make is part of an overall victory for the club.

Which, given we could have just as easily been the BJJ equivalent of live mice fed to a tank full of snakes, is rather nice.

3) On the subject of winning, Atos fully endorses the “feel safe to make the mistakes during rolling” mentality.

People here spar hard, like they’re in a competition, but there is a distinct absence of douchebaggery, and no-one is going to mock or berate you if you try something and make a mess of it. The only mistake you can make is to just lie there, under those world champions, and stop trying.

If you score points or a submission, you’ll touch hands and start again. If they do, the same thing happens.

There’s a certain freedom in knowing it doesn’t matter if you have a bad day on the mats, and over the months I’ve seen myself slowly shifting from absolutely petrified, reactive defence lockdown to more practical defence, more continuous escape efforts and a submission attempt or two. This for me is big progress.

4) Respect is a big thing at Atos. Everyone works when Professor Galvao tells them to. Noone swears at each other or messes around.

But overall it’s a family environment (in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the word).

It’s not unusual to see Sarah, Andre and Angelica’s daughter, playing by the side of the mats, or with her dad before class. Many of the club members come as a family package and there’s hanging out across all age groups.

I’m not sure whether it’s because there are two brown belt women in regular attendance, or because Andre is so obviously enamoured by his wife, but as a woman I have never found anywhere as comfortable to train. Sleazy comments, pickup efforts, or antiquated “I don’t really want to go with a girl” putdowns are noticeably absent. I felt equal, if smaller and a bit naturally weaker, to any male student on the mat.

5) Jiu Jitsu is changing, it’s a fluid, ever-morphing commodity. We’ve all seen the traditional stand up guard passes and collar chokes, but there’s a whole world of new moves that are being invented to foil the old-school repertoire.

If you train at Atos, you’ll soon notice the predilection for close-range, seated moves, and inversion.

Well this week anyway (they’ve probably devised something more devious already).

We were in town just long enough to attend the Atos yearly grading, an event which even 27 x world champion Renato Laranja chose to rock with his presence. It ran an hour or so over time, and was filled with Professor Galvao’s proud stories of his students. And (in a completely unpredicted turn of events) both me and Andy picked up a first stripe for our purple belts.

Professor Galvao, Angelica, Chelsea, Mike Carbullido, Michael Liera Jr, Manny, Rick D, Matts Langford and Smith, Y J, Carlos, Jason, Sabara, Savannah…the list goes on and on, but I want to say one big collective thank you to everyone at Atos for making us feel so welcome, and helping to restore my interest and confidence in Jiu Jitsu. I’m very proud to wear that stripe, the t-shirt, and reflect your training in any way.

We only wish we could have stayed longer, and of course, we’re already busy saving for our subscription…


  1. Cool! I'll be in San Diego myself in June, so Chelsea was suggesting I swing by Atos using this blog as an example. Unfortunately I'm not sure I'll get time (as I've basically just got the Saturday, which I'm already intending to spend at Fabio Santos' school), but I enjoyed reading your great write-up either way. :)

  2. It's definitely worth a detour if you can manage it Can. Can't recommend it enough!