Paul Michael Johnson
10/7/1976 – 3/19/2017
Paul was one of the funniest, kindest, and most frustrating people I’ve ever met. He had this disarming quality about him that put you at ease right away, and he had the best laugh you’d ever hear.
We met in 1996 at the UCLA Extension Audio Visual Department, where we worked setting up audiovisual equipment around campus. It was a bizarre, overpaid, crap job that we both got while still in college at UCLA. He was 19. I was 21.
We were roommates twice. Once for a summer when I turned 23 and again when I was 27, this time for three years.
Paul was from Los Angeles, and I was not. Whenever I’d be driving and get lost, which happened a lot, he’d just shake his head and say, “How your people ever found the New World is beyond me.”
I remember the first time I heard that laugh. We were talking about jogging with some of our coworkers. One of them ashed out a cigarette and declared, “Jogging’s not healthy, man. It jiggles your internal organs.” He was dead serious. Paul burst out laughing.
Forever more, when he laughed, I laughed.
He was an easy guy to like. I think anyone who ever met him would agree. He just seemed so comfortable around everyone.
I met his whole family one Thanksgiving. We went out to his parents’ house in Moreno Valley. I remember him saying, “I’m not sure how to introduce you. I’m going to say you’re my roommate, but they’re going to think we’re gay lovers.”
He had theories on a lot of things. My favorite was his take on bagels – “They’re dry, stale, tasteless donuts!” – though his opinion on tea was a close second. “It’s hot water poured over grass clippings. You put milk in it and sugar, and guess what? It still sucks!”
I can still hear him say that. It still makes me smile.
I’d like to see him one more time and see him smile as he said “Fisk,” and I replied with “Johnson.” I’d like one more night at Canter’s deli eating the awful food, drinking the crap coffee, and talking about life.
To quote someone much smarter than me: “The place you live in is that much more drab and empty now that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
Rest in peace, my brother.
How to Increase Your Timing and Sensitivity in BJJ
Here’s a simple tip to increase your timing and sensitivity in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: when you roll, try closing your eyes. As a wise man with a light saber once said, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.”
There are many times in BJJ when you think a move is there. And visually it may look like it is But in a game of inches, sometimes just because it looks like it’s there, doesn’t mean it is.
If you keep your eyes closed when you roll you will may notice a couple of things:
#1 – You don’t force moves as much
It’s much easier to feel whether a sweep is there or not when your eyes are closed. You can sense where your opponent’s energy is going much more clearly when your mind focuses on feeling vs seeing.
#2 – Your timing gets better
With your eyes closed it’s much easier to know when and where to move. Sweeps become much more effortless with the eyes closed because you can simply feel where you opponent wants to go. You just have to guide him there.
#3 – Your endurance improves
Greater timing and sensitivity translates to more efficiency which in turn allows you to train for longer periods of time without getting tired.
What to watch out for
#1 – Other people!
Obviously you need to be safe doing this. If it’s a super crowded open mat or really hard training, this is probably not the best idea.
#2 – Not panicking
You may need to slowly ease into keeping your eyes closed the whole time. It can get especially unnerving when your opponent disengages then reengages. Often times you may not be able to feel exactly where he is.
At first, it’s okay to peek every now and then. But use this is an opportunity to discipline yourself to remain calm as you feel your way around.
Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!
Sidemount sequence #1
Wrestlers are a great resource for BJJ people. To me the goal should be to become a complete grappler. And there is no way to do this without learning wrestling. However, when most BJJ guys think about wrestling they only think about takedowns. Many wrestling coaches are brought in only to show takedowns. And I think this is a waste of a good resource because wrestling can add to your BJJ in many ways beyond just the takedown. Here are 5 things to learn from wrestling
#1 – The all fours (referee) position
In BJJ we are always told “never give up your back”. And while this is true overall, good wrestling complicates this rule a little bit on both the attacking and defending point of view.
From the defensive stand point, wrestling teaches you how to stand up and escape this position. This is a huge thing to learn from a purely grappling point of view and even more important in a fight. One thing that BJJ practitioners often forget is that there are three dimensions to grappling. Most of the time both people are on the ground because they’ve agreed to it. But if one person does not want to be on the ground, that can make a big difference.
Wrestling gives you the tools to disengage from the ground and get back to your feet. In my mind, this is usually a lot safer option for a fight/self defense situation, than rolling to guard.
From an offensive point of view wrestling does two things very well from the all fours/referee position:
#1 – It teaches you to stop someone from standing up. Like I mentioned before, in BJJ it’s always assumed that both people want to be on the ground grappling. But in a fight/mma situation, or even grappling with a wrestler, one person may not want to be on the ground. Wrestling helps you gently “insist” that they stay on the ground. This is a great skill for law enforcement to learn as well.
#2 – It shows you how to break down the all fours position. A wrestler buddy of mine described it like this: you want to either flatten their stomach on the ground, or get their hips pointed to the wall before you put the hooks in. The way this is accomplished is through various rides. One of my favorites is the spiral ride which Jason Layton shows in this video here
#2 – Using single leg attacks from the half guard
Since wrestlers are usually pretty good at scrambling and finishing single leg takedowns, the half guard bottom usually becomes a strong position for them. The reason being is with a good set up to an underhook the half guard becomes a single leg takedown. Here’s a good sequence from one of my favorite BJJ teachers to watch: Nick Albin aka Chewy
#3 – The quarter nelson turnover
This is a great demoralizing move. My friend Jeff does this really well and I hate him for it! In wrestling it is used to pin your opponent. In BJJ it can be used to stop someone from escaping sidemount and put them right on their back again. Once again Jason Layton breaks it down from the wrestling POV.
And as a special bonus, here is internet forum sensation Shen aka Perry Hauck showing this from a BJJ perspective
#4 – The front headlock
BJJ guys tend to use the front headlock mainly to set up a guillotine/d’arce/peruvian neck tie or to take the back. Both of these are great options but wrestlers have some great details on setting up the front headlock, using it to get takedowns, or just plain torturing you from the position!
Here is one example of many options you have from the position. It’s a front headlock to far ankle pick as shown by former Wisconsin wrestler Steven Hoffmann
#5- The re-scramble
This one is the hardest to explain as it’s more a general strategy than a specific technique. The best example I’ve seen online was BJJScout‘s breakdown of the GSP vs Johny Hendricks fight. When GSP got the first takedown, rather than fight the takedown off, Hendricks immediately pummeled his left arm in for the underhook. By the time they hit the ground he was already working his way to his feet again and GSP had to try a guillotine. The actually example is at the 3:35 minute mark.
Convenient vs Ideal – what school to pick for BJJ
Picture this scenario:
School A is 15 minutes or less drive from your home or work. It’s an okay facility with a handful of good training partners and a good but not great instructor. Overall the attitude is low key and not very enthusiastic.
School B is 45 minutes (at least) away. It’s a beautiful facility with a ton of high level students and a very enthusiastic instructor. The attitude is intense but still fun.
Which school do you choose to train at?
I had this same dilemma a few years ago. And like a true cheater, I chose to train at both schools. I started off at school A, then started at school B and trained at both for quite a while. Finally I moved far away from school A so I trained exclusively at school B.
If I was faced with the situation now, I would choose school A, the convenient one, and here are some reasons why:
#1 – Convenience is a great tie breaker
Life happens. We all get busy and sometimes training BJJ gets put on the backburner. One thing I know for sure though is something is usually better than nothing. And if you’ve had a long day at work, or are having some other time sucking issues, the difference between a 15 minute ride to go train or 45 minutes plus is day and night. When pressed for time, you will be able to go to the convenient location much more than the ideal one. And that leads to consistency which ties in with the next reason.
#2 Consistency is dependent upon convenience
I love a good story about someone walking 5 miles to school every day as much as the next person. But ask yourself: is that really something you are capable of doing? And do you believe that story to begin with, because I sure don’t. The reality is, for something to be consistent, it needs to be convenient. I’ve heard many an ambitious plan from people who say they are going to start waking up at 5:00 and doing some crazy workout every day when this same person lives two blocks away from a gym. It’s better to consistently underperform than to wait for things to be “ideal”. They never will be.
#3 Consistency builds relationships with other students
Familiarity breeds affection. The more of a fixture you become at a school, the easier it is to meet people and form relationships. Making friends at a school is important for a lot of reasons, but one main one is your training partners are just as important (and sometimes moreso) in getting better at BJJ as having a good instructor is. This is especially true nowadays when we have a ton of instructional information out there. Finding out new techniques is not usually the problem, getting good at those techniques is and having good training partners to drill with becomes important.
#4 With consistency you will have more access to your instructor
Teachers will always play favorites. No one wants to say this out loud but most teachers will favor the students who come to class consistently. The reason is simple: most people quit BJJ. So it’s tough for a teacher to get invested in a student that they never see. When you are consistent at your convenient school A, your teacher can start to see your dedication. And once you show dedication, you can start to have some influence.
What I mean by influence is you can start asking to stay after class or come early to get some more drilling with your new friends. You can also ask your instructor questions and are much more likely to get a more in depth answer if you are a consistent student. This may not sound fair, but instructors don’t want to invest time in people who are not investing it back. The more teaching I do, the more I understand that.
#5 You can transform the convenient place into the ideal one
When you have a place you can train at consistently with people you are friends with, everyone will start to get better. One of the best things about establishing jiu jitsu relationships is they are based on honesty. And because of this, it becomes easier to progress as everyone gets better because you are all giving each other honest feedback. The result is similar to open source software where everyone is contributing to making this better. So rather than having just one instructor that you are reliant on for all your information, you have a lot of “scientists” who are all working on their own solutions to the problems. Your instructor is like the guide but you are all scaling the mountain together.
Why kids should learn BJJ
There are a lot of reasons why kids should learn BJJ. People often talk about confidence, discipline, bully prevention etc. I think these are all great things for a kid to have and BJJ can certainly give them these things. However, I think the real value in BJJ is something more than those things.
Reason #1 why kids should learn BJJ: It teaches you how to fail.
I think one reason almost all of my friends are BJJ people is because we know what it’s like to fail on a regular basis. Even as a black belt I rarely go more than a day without tapping. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. BJJ teaches you that losing in the moment does not define who you are. It doesn’t make you a loser. It makes you not fear failure. You fail over and over until suddenly you make leap forward in understanding.
If there’s anything I wish I had known at a younger age, it would be understanding this. Because as I look at my life in BJJ and in business it has been failing until I succeed. I don’t expect anything to work or go smoothly. I just expect that I will keep showing up. And while it took me until my late 30’s or early 40’s to really understand that, I think that a kid who learns BJJ could realize this lesson much sooner.
Reason #2 why kids should learn BJJ: It teaches you how to learn
Another issue that BJJ really helps with is teaching people how to learn. The mat does not lie. When you know a technique well and when to do it, you will be able to do it against a fully resisting opponent. If you cannot do this, then you do not know the how and the when as well as you’d like to think. You can deceive yourself, but the reality of the mat will always keep you in check.
In this day of safe spaces, play dates and whatever other attempts parents make to shield kids from reality, in BJJ this is simply not possible. When you lose, you lose. And when you have a breakthrough in a technique, it is undeniable. And it is extremely important that a kid have both experiences. Also the sheer intimate reality of giving up when you tap, is a lesson you cannot learn in almost any other sport that is offered a kid with the exception of wrestling (which I think they should also do).
Reason #3 why kids should learn BJJ – It shows you the reality of adults
BJJ will teach a kid that an adult is subject to the same realities of the mat that a kid is. Many kids will see some of the best and worst behavior from grown adults on the mat. Both of these things are good things for a kid to learn. The worst behavior shows a kid that becoming an adult is not simply a matter of biology. One needs to make conscious decisions to grow as a person and handle things like a man or a woman, not like a child.
Nothing looks worse than an adult complaining or making excuses for their poor performance. And yet I have seen it in every BJJ gym I have trained at over the past 2 decades.
But kids will also see the best in adults. I’ve seen men in their 60’s and 70’s with looks of joy and elation as they discover details about a technique that they never knew before. BJJ shows kids that an adult can still be passionate and childlike in their wonder of what they don’t know. You will be very hard pressed to find a lot of jaded adults in BJJ. It’s just too much awesomeness to be unenthused for too long.
Reason #4 why kids should learn BJJ – It teaches them about the tortoise and the hare
There can sometimes be a huge disparity in both physical differences as well as skill levels in BJJ with kids. Often times the more athletic and aggressive kids will learn BJJ more easily at first. The smaller kids will definitely have a tougher time, as BJJ is still a sport and size and strength make certain things much easier.
However, many of the greats in BJJ started off as children and many of them trained mainly with adults. As a result they needed to learn techniques that would work on people much bigger and stronger than they were. I’ve told certain students who were very frustrated that they just need to keep working on their precision and timing. When they start to get adult level strength there will be a huge leap forward.
I often see this same thing with smaller male and female students as well. They have to go through harder times at first. But they will catch up to the more athletic practitioners. And the ones who had it easiest are usually the soonest to quit.
Reason #5 why kids should learn BJJ – It teaches them to never rest on their laurels
No matter how much you think you know in BJJ, you better keep studying. I have seen many times where people get their black belts in BJJ and basically stop training. They quickly become hesitant to come back since they know that others will have caught up to them. This is a great lesson for a kid to learn early on. There is no being content in life. You are either getting better or you are getting worse. If a kid takes time away from BJJ he or she will quickly realize this lesson. And it can be a painful and embarrassing one. But that means it’s also one that will stick with them.
The other reality is, in BJJ your training partners are always trying to figure out how to beat you. You may develop a new attack or set up but sooner or later they will catch on and it will stop working. This is another great lesson for any kid to learn. You have to keep training and improving in life. This is something a lot of people like to say, but when you are getting smashed on the mat, it is much easier to believe this.
Dealing with injuries in BJJ
If you train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu long enough, you will get injured. How you handle that injury really will determine your overall success and longevity in BJJ. Dealing with injuries in BJJ is just part of what you sign up for, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything when you are injured.
Like everything else in life, I am a slow learner. It took me ten years to learn that injuries in BJJ are no reason to skip going to class. Now this doesn’t mean I turned uber macho and just started rubbing dirt on it and getting back in there. It meant that I started refusing to let an injury prevent me from continuing in the momentum and ritual of coming to class and being engaged in what was happening.
It all started about ten years ago when I had just moved to Austin. I was a purple belt and it was my third class in a new school in a new town. I was trying to make a good impression on people and make some new friends. Like many of you out there, BJJ was my way of networking and meeting people. Well after a good training session, I changed clothes, put my gear in my bag, and headed towards the door.
I took a step down and “rrrrrip”! I felt an awful tearing feeling in my left knee. Being an expert in bro science, I immediately thought, “that’s not good.” The knee swelled up and after a few weeks, I got an MRI and was told I had a bucket handle tear in the meniscus. Given my love of strangling people, the Dr. said I should get it operated on and have the tear removed.
I remember thinking, “Shit, there goes my chance to meet people. I won’t be able to train for months and then I’ll be around a bunch of people I don’t know as a purple belt.” I was sad and probably listened to some early 90’s Morrissey to cope.
It certainly wasn’t my first injury in BJJ. And the reason I was so bummed is my normal protocol was just to start lifting weights more often or do some other exercise to fill the void. It was part of a larger story in my head that I would never really be good at BJJ because I just too frail.
But since I was so motivated to meet people, and I had a fairly open schedule, I decided to do something different this time: I kept going to BJJ class. Instead of letting the injuries in BJJ keep me away from class, I decided to double down. The twist was that I just showed up to watch. And I showed up to every class. I had been involved in BJJ for a long time, but this was taking it to a new level.
I would watch one person spar like I was playing a video game and they were the character I controlled in the game. I learned something pretty quickly: I was pretty bad at that video game! There were so many moments in a single match where I didn’t know what my “character” should be doing. I thought about what I would be saying to them if I was coaching them and I had no idea what good advice would be.
For some reason this feeling of helplessness made me want to come to class even more so I could become a better coach in my head. I would watch one person for a match, then switch to “coaching” the other one. I started to notice people’s habits and games in a way I had never really thought about.
By the time I was able to get back on the mat, I did pretty well against people right away simply because I knew a lot of things they were going to do and I had been mentally preparing for several months.
It also started a new mentality for dealing with injuries in BJJ that I have continued to this day. No matter what I show up to training. There are days where I only shadow box. There are days where I just drill a certain technique. There are other days where I pick the scariest guy in the room and get smashed for an hour. But no matter what I show up. When I feel tired or worn up, I show up. I want my bjj to work against stronger, more athletic, younger, and any other person on this earth. But I want my BJJ to work when I am hurt, tired, and mentally weak.
You would be amazed at how doing many days of very little adds up after a while. A wise man once said, “80% of success is just showing up”. So that’s what I keep doing.
My 2 cents for today.
Positional sparring in bjj – bridging the gap between drilling and live rolling
So one thing I’ve seen a lot in both training and teaching is that many times people won’t try to use what they’ve just been drilling in class. It makes sense as most people want to win and in their mind they will work on that technique “later”. I’ve been there and I’ve thought the same thing. My perspective only changed when I started teaching. I got frustrated that I would spend all this time working on the lesson and then when it came to sparring, it was like the class had never happened. So I dug around a little bit and decided to give positional sparring in bjj a try.
In the past I had done a decent amount of positional sparring in bjj but it was usually just starting sparring in a certain position. Once the position changed, the sparring continued. The problem with this is if training partners of unequal are matched together then the lesser skilled partner is going to get much less practice. For instance let’s say your side mount control from the top is not very good and your partner is a Houdini of escapes. Well you will probably only be able to hold him for a few seconds before he escapes and if you continue training for that you may not even get back in the sidemount position for the rest of the match!
This is where controlled and short interval positional sparring comes into play. The idea is to keep a competitive resistance and allow one person to control and/or finish the position/submission and the other person to escape. After a minute you switch places. You repeat this three times then switch to a new partner. What this give you is many reps with resistance on a variety of opponents who have different experience, instincts, strengths, and skills. But it’s important to stay disciplined in the parameters of the drill. Oftentimes people will just keep rolling after the position is lost. You need to start right back where you were and keep repeating for the allotted time. This type of positional sparring in bjj will help bridge the gap between regular drilling and live rolling.
You can watch me ramble about bjj positional sparring here.