Nick McGirr - Blue Belt Advice

What motivated you to start training BJJ?

My kids were enrolled in judo and the kids class was right before the adults class. My oldest daughter got sick of me offering expert advice from the sidelines so started asking me (in front of the adults and instructor as they arrived to their class) when I was actually going to get on the mat.

I ran out of excuses after a while so ended up giving it a go. After a while I realised I really loved the ground aspect of judo (newaza) but hated the stand-up and kept getting injured, so was ducking those classes. It then dawned on me that if I loved the ground so much perhaps I should do BJJ instead! It was a great move :)

What advice would you give to beginners who are just starting their BJJ journey?

Be patient - it's a marathon not a sprint. If you've never done grappling before then the initial experience is strange. You are up close and personal with people in weird positions and no understanding why. Trust the process. It will start to make sense after a while and you will see how the various aspects takedown, guard pass, position, submission etc. fit together.

Calm down - it's not a fight to the death. Your job as a newbie is not to try and beat people or prove how amazing you are, your job is to learn. You may have watched UFC or have a friend who showed you a move or two. People who turn up with this mindset tend to focus on winning and rely on using speed and brute force to make up for a lack of knowledge and skill.

If you are that person then you risk injuring other people, no one will want to partner/roll with you and you won't learn anything. Trust me, I was that guy. Awkward.

What motivated you to continue training BJJ, even when it was challenging or frustrating?

My daughters. Both started with judo and they were the reason I started grappling. I remember driving home with my oldest one night and her telling me that she really liked that I was training with her. <3

My youngest has carried on with BJJ and I love the fact we train together. I'm also really motivated by the skill of the higher belts and the desire to be able to do what they do, coupled with their support and encouragement.

There are some incredibly skilled people at the club - I've watched Rom hold blue belts down with his hands behind his back. Amazing stuff. Finally, there's the "what would I do instead?" factor - ie if I stopped then what else would I do that provided the physical, mental and self-defense benefits that BJJ does in a way that's fun and (relatively) safe? I can't think of anything else that ticks all those boxes.

Did you ever experience any significant injuries during your BJJ journey, and if so, how did you deal with them and continue to train?

Most of my injuries have been minor tweaks and twinges - largely because I'm now in the masters age group :D There are plenty of ways to manage this by warming up/down properly and not rolling (sparring) like a 20 year old but accidents happen.

The only serious thing I've experienced has been a staph infection that the doctor (and then specialist) mis-diagnosed over a period of months. Some significant time (months) off training and a scar to prove it. This sort of thing can happen so it's important to insist the doctor gets lab tests before just prescribing any old antibiotic. Overall message - take it easy, warm up/down and get anything serious checked out ASAP.

Were there any specific training partners who played a significant role in your development as a BJJ practitioner?

Yes. Reece Hawkins was a blue-belt when I started. He would routinely defeat my white-belt "go as hard as you can with no skill" approach with patience and control. The absolute model of how to approach BJJ if you want to get better. The coloured belts in general are very generous with their time and advice, however Tony and Shano have been particularly helpful.

I remember Tony once asking "why are you so exhausted when you're the guy on top?" - a great reminder about slowing down and thinking. Also, when you train BJJ you tend to find yourself in a cohort with other people at your level. I find it really motivating to see my peers progress, try new things, get promoted etc. As they get better, you naturally get better as well as you adapt to the changes they make.

How has BJJ impacted your life outside of the gym, and what benefits have you seen from your continued practice?

Mentally, BJJ offers a place to "decompress" from work. I'm always way more relaxed after training than I was before I walked in, which is a benefit not just to me but also my family when I get home! It's also a great confidence builder and a lot of fun. Physically, it helps a lot with fitness, conditioning and to some extent strength and flexibility. People I work with are constantly amazed that I can pack away a couple of pies or fish and chips for lunch and still be in reasonable shape :D

How did you balance training BJJ with other commitments in your life, such as work or family?

Making a plan. Our family is busy with all sorts of activities so we have had to negotiate a schedule (including cooking nights, travel arrangements etc.) to make it work. Sometimes work can be busy but generally planning in advance means I can make it work. The old adage "if you fail to plan then you are planning to fail" is true when you have a bunch of competing priorities.

Did you ever go through a period where you felt like you weren't improving or plateaued in your BJJ journey, and if so, how did you push through it?

Definitely, although I think part of this is in comparing myself to others. We all grow at different rates and have different things going on in our lives. I've had my share of injuries and time off and it can be hard getting back into it after losing routine. Getting to blue belt is also tough as the higher belts then change the way they roll with you (leg attacks in particular!).

With all those ups and downs, the key thing is just to keep turning up and leaving the ego at the door. The people around you are getting better, but so are you - so remember you are part of a team that are all improving. The key is to keep turning up, even when you don't feel like it. There have been plenty of times I haven't felt like coming to training (eg a stressful day at work and wanting to just go home) but I'm always glad when I do.

Were there any particular techniques or concepts that you struggled with as a white belt, and how did you overcome those challenges?

Plenty. I found de la riva and the things that happen from that position weird (and still do). As a result, I don't tend to try it...which means I don't get better at it. Perhaps I should take some of my own advice on that! I also find there are things I used to do that I don't do any more. We tend to evolve as we go and find things we like. The people who do the best are those who aren't afraid to try the techniques they learned in class, fail, then keep trying...still learning that lesson!

What role did competition play in your BJJ journey, and how did you approach preparing for and competing in tournaments?

I've only entered one competition and did terribly. I entered the masters division but there were no other masters so got thrown into general pop. I decided to enter a weight division below and cut weight, but got injured (rib) and couldn't train/exercise for almost four weeks before the competition.

This meant I had a brutal weight cut before comp day. I competed with my rib strapped up, gassed out quickly and got smashed. Perhaps a better approach might have been to realise that entering the white belt division in a local comp is not the same as the world training sensibly, eating healthy and entering my actual weight division might have worked out better.

Looking back on your journey, is there anything you wish you had done differently or advice you would give to your younger self starting out in BJJ?

Absolutely. Slow down, stop trying to win and don't be afraid to try new stuff and lose. The people who progress the fastest and last the longest are the ones who do this and it's something I know I need to continue working on. You don't get a medal for being the "alpha white belt" in fact it'll probably just slow you down from getting to blue belt. Be like the training partners you enjoy training with.

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