The Optimal State of Arousal

We all know about that one athlete who has the crazy superstition or pre-game ritual. You know, the one that won’t wash their game socks all season, or the one that has to have sauerkraut and hot dogs before every game, or the one who has to run to the center of the field and touch the team logo before every home game. Are these just crazy superstitions and rituals…. or are they something more?

Let’s consider the above paragraph while being reminded of who Ivan Pavlov was and what he contributed to science and psychology. Ivan Pavlov was a scientist who did the bulk of his work in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s winning the Nobel prize in 1904. Ivan Pavlov is probably best known for his work in classical conditioning and in particular a series of experiments he did with dogs. The dogs were conditioned to expect that food was imminently forthcoming with the ringing of the bell. Eventually the dogs would have the normal physical responses to eating (like producing extra saliva) as soon as the bell rang as opposed to shortly after beginning to eat.

As a way of dragging this onto the mats let’s look at one more idea: the optimal state of arousal. This theory as it relates to athletes says that different athletes engaging in different activities will benefit from specific levels of arousal. When speaking of arousal, we are speaking about adrenaline levels, heart rate, intensity of mental focus, etc. If we use American football as an example; a linebacker would most likely benefit more from a higher state of arousal than a quarterback. If a quarterback comes in and he’s too “pumped up” he’ll be jittery in the pocket and inaccurate with his throws. It’s extremely important that he comes into the game in the right state of mind. Every athlete is an individual and the optimal state for one will be different than for another. It’s up to the athlete to find the right state for him or her….and this is where we get back to rituals and superstitions, it’s up to the athlete to find a way to put themselves in the optimal  state of mind.

So, back to those crazy superstitions and rituals that some athletes have: they may not be simply eccentric quirks, maybe they’re part of the process an athlete uses to tell his mind and body that it’s time to perform. When a baseball player goes to bat you will notice his routine – tap the right toe, tap the left toe, adjust each batting glove, take a practice swing, step into the box, and tap on the plate twice….and every time it’s the same self-talk “relax, follow through, and put the ball in play”, or something like that. For each batter it will pretty much be the same every time.

For those of you reading this who compete regularly: How consistent is your “pre-fight” routine? Do you have a standard warm-up that you use? How’s your self-talk before the match? Do you have a ritual/routine for stepping on the mat and beginning the match? Incorporating this into your routine won’t make you a champion overnight, but we’ve all had matches where we just didn’t “have it” and our opponent scored the first points and we never caught up. We’ve also had matches where we were so hyped going into the match and the gas tank was empty 3 minutes in. Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate these two possibilities? Try incorporating some of these ideas and see if it helps.


Train hard. Train smart. Get better.


More on the optimal state of arousal; grapplearts….the optimal state of arousal

For more information about Classical Conditioning; simply psychology

Byrons ideas about the optimal state of arousal; meet-an-inmate

New Info on the Gi vs No-gi Training Debate

As a student you should be training both gi and no-gi, as a gym owner you should be encouraging students to train both. We can forget about the technical reason to train both. Although I do believe the technical arguments for training both gi and no-gi are strong. I have data from the BJJ training app Marune, and this data reveals some amazing information about students that train both gi and no-gi.

Students that train both gi and no-gi train longer per average session and roll longer per average session. The comparisons draw a stark difference in training time.

This pie graph above shows a break down of the people that are using the Marune app. Most people (using the app) train just with the gi 54.55%. Only 10.52% are exclusively training no-gi. 34.93% of people train both gi and no-gi. These are not people that claim to train one or the other they are actually logging their mat time and choosing gi or no-gi. Someone that has never logged a no-gi session simply gets put in the gi category. If someone has done both they are categorized as gi and no-gi.

Statistically people who only train “no-gi only” spend less time on the mat per training session. People who train both are training about 14 minutes longer than the people training only gi, and almost 27 minutes longer than the strictly no-gi crowd.

Training time discrepancies are shocking, but BIG difference is time rolling. People that train gi and no-gi roll much more time than the people that only train one sport. People training both roll almost 9 minutes more that people training only gi, and 15 minutes more than people training only no-gi.


I don’t know but here are some ideas.

  1. It could be that people training both have found a greater passion for training and rolling and get more mat time every time they walk in the door of the gym.
  2. Perhaps the data is affected by shorter classes and gyms that only teach one type of training. It could be that on average a gym that has both gi and no-gi has longer classes.
  3. The times could be effected by the students ability to train and push themselves. If your gym has 2 gi classes a week and 2 no-gi classes a week and you only train on the no-gi days you are probably not in as good as shape as someone training all the classes. This would result in you rolling less at the end of class.
  4. Open mat sessions could be attended predominantly by people that roll both, and this would push the data in their favor.

What to do about this data?

  • If you are a student that only trains one, try training both. You may find yourself training more per training session. You are likely trying to balance a busy schedule with jiu-jitsu. Train when you can regardless of the grappling clothing materials (try not to skip training because it is no-gi night and you like gi).
  • If you are an instructor you should encourage students to train both. It is no secret that students that train more have an accelerated learning rate. Talk about the benefits of training in the other classes and continue to invite them to try the other side of grappling.

Here is a video talk about this data.

Check out the Marune app here

The best defense is….


The best defense is a good offense. This is an old adage in sports and is true much of the time on the mats. Let’s look at a few examples of when this is definitely true and at least one time when this might not be the best philosophy.

This is true when you are in a dominant position. In fact you might say, launching a good offense in this scenario can keep you from having to play defense at all. Once you’ve secured a dominant position you need to be active, either looking to advance position or secure a submission. If you are idle it will give your opponent a chance to formulate a game plan, get their frames and grips set up, and execute an escape. On the other hand if you are relentlessly attacking they will be unable to do anything more than defend against your offense.

This is also a good plan in scrambles. While it’s true that coming out of a scramble in the most dominant position possible should be your first goal, an offensive grappler who is always looking to win by submission will find many opportunities in the chaos of scrambles. If you are looking, you can find an arm extended or a neck exposed. If you are always looking for the win by submission you will sometimes see an opportunity to start setting up a choke as you are passing guard or taking your opponents back. You will be finishing the submission before they have a chance to even start setting up their escape or defense.

The best defense is a good offense is often not true when you are in an inferior position. There are always exceptions and some people have a degree of success hitting submissions from unconventional positions. But generally speaking when you are in a position such as bottom mount, bottom side control, or your opponent has your back; your priorities should be defending and escaping. Trying anything other than fundamentally sound escapes from these positions often lead to easy counters from your opponent. Maybe the most classic example is trying to choke your opponent from within his closed guard which almost always leads to being armbarred.

In conclusion: it is almost always the best strategy on the mats to be active and relentlessly attacking. But be aware, sometimes you must defend and advance before launching your offense.


Welcome to Jiu-Jitsu :)

Awkward is never how I like to feel.  I can remember 15 years ago when I interviewed for my first position with my current employer.  I was feeling confident when I pulled up to the building.  As I entered the building, I was not prepared for the feeling of awkwardness.  I did not know where the receptionist desk was located, and no one would make eye contact with me.  Finally, after what felt like an eternity (mostly likely was 5 seconds) a smiling face greeted me and asked if I was here for the interview.  She walked me to the elevator and even pulled some lint off my suit coat.  She was a big reason I got hired a few days later.  She made me feel comfortable and confident going into my interview.  If she was not working that day, I may have never received the job offer.  I would have gone into my interview feeling awkward and it would have showed during my interview.

This reminds me of what I have seen in Jiu Jitsu.  A prospective student enters a school and would like some information about the classes.  I have seen instances where no one will even acknowledge the prospective student.  This person will feel unwelcome, will not join the school and may never join the Jiu Jitsu revolution.  I have talked to people about this situation and the one thing I hear is the owner or instructor did not do a good job of welcoming the new student.

I would pose the question is it only the instructor or owners job to welcome new students and grow your gym?  I do not think so.  I feel that students of the gym should also be taking a proactive approach to welcome everyone into the gym.  Jiu Jitsu is a team sport and to grow our gym requires a team effort.  Notice how I said “our” gym.  When we join a Jiu Jitsu gym, we should be joining a team, a family, a collective group of individuals that all are striving for the same ends results.  We want to learn and get better at Jiu Jitsu. By having a growing and progressive gym, we will have more opportunities to learn in terms of number of classes and training partners.

So next time you see a new student walk into the gym, why not be the first person to extend a handshake, offer a smile and say welcome to the gym, my name is Gary, what is yours?


Never Underestimate the Value of The Comfort Zone

It’s often said, “growth takes place outside of your comfort zone”. While that is true, the implication is often that outside your comfort zone is the only place growth happens, and that’s not true at all.

Studies indicate that children do better in school when they come from a stable home, grow up primarily in the same community (as opposed to moving around), have an extended family network, live in a community with a low crime rate, etc. In other words, they flourish where they feel comfortable or safe, e.g. their comfort zones. People who work for companies that are stable and well managed with decent compensation that show appreciation to their employees and offer opportunity for advancement are generally happy and productive at work. Why? In part, because they are working from their comfort zone. Do children and adults also experience growth when the step out of their comfort zones? I think the answer certainly is yes, but in order to step out of their comfort zones, they must have a comfort zone to begin with.

I am proposing that jiu jitsu is probably not unlike other areas in life and that we benefit from having a comfort zone and operating a good deal of the time from there. Finding a home gym where you are comfortable and cultivating a good relationship with your teammates, then developing your “A” game, are a few crucial components to creating your comfort zone. A comfort zone in jiu jitsu would be one where you feel comfortable trying new things and failing. In your comfort zone you can expose your weaknesses and work on solving problems.

Even when you challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone you can do it from within your comfort zone or take your comfort zone with you. Whoa…. Let me try to make sense of that. If you’ve been doing jiu jitsu for a while and have decided, it’s time to step outside your comfort zone and enter a competition you could just sign up for the next competition whether anyone from your team was going or not. It would make more sense though, to sign up for a competition that your school was going to as a team. You would be exposing your self to the rigors of competition intensity training while training with your teammates, you would be going through the weigh in process and finding your brackets and the correct mat with your teammates, you would have your coach or another teammate in your corner, you would have your team with you to support you if you lose and celebrate with you if you win, etc. etc. If you’re going to re-invent your game and try some things that are completely new, wouldn’t it be easier to do that with your favorite teammates in an environment where there was no pressure to be “winning” rounds?

In closing, I wouldn’t suggest that you take the one or the other approach, but that you would seek a healthy balance of both. Cultivate a great training environment that would be your comfort zone and then stretch the limits as needed and as appropriate.

Train hard. Train smart. Get better.


The Brotherhood Extends Beyond the Mats

Much is made of the comradery between teammates and the relationships developed on the mats. Have you ever wondered why relationships run deep and the level of trust between training partners is so high?

I would suggest that there are two main reasons:

1) As it relates to jiu jitsu, the truth is always revealed on the mats. If you talk a big game and exaggerate your skill level, you will be exposed as a fraud very quickly. Being completely honest and transparent in one aspect of your life leads to being honest and transparent in other areas so teammates get to know the real you fairly quickly.

2) You are literally putting your physical well-being in the hands of your teammates and they are doing the same with you. When you’ve trusted someone not to break your arm when they’ve had the chance it’s pretty easy to trust them with less crucial things.

I recently was able to benefit from this brotherhood when I needed the old siding on my house removed and replaced with new. One of my training partners Javier San Miguel runs a roofing/home repair company, San Miguel Roofing. San Miguel Roofing is located in Clute Texas which is due south of Houston. I just got done doing some interior work and had a horrible experience with the contractor so for the exterior work I was definitely looking for someone I could trust. My wife cautioned me about hiring a friend out of concern that if things went sideways the friendship would be ruined. I told her I felt I knew Javier pretty well and had good reason to trust him (see paragraph A)

We couldn’t be happier with the outcome. Either Javier, or his father Jose who helps manage the business, was at the job site every day to ensure the work was being done correctly and getting completed on time. I would summarize the outcome this way: Quality work done by professional craftsmen.

Not only has this relationship benefited me, but it has benefited Javier as well in that it was additional work for his business. If you have a teammate who owns, operates, or manages a local business consider giving them your business before you hire someone else. Jiu Jitsu is a community both on and off the mats, and as such, when we have the opportunity to support and/or help one another we should do so.

If you are a BJJ Brick listener and happen to be in the Houston or Brazoria County area and know someone who may be looking for home roofing or home remodel services Javier can be contacted here — San Miguel Roofing or Facebook – San Miguel Roofing

Train hard. Train smart. Get better.


Value this time on the mats kids

The following is a monologue by Billy Crystal from the movie City Slickers and was sent to me from my friend and 60+ year old grappler Andy Dicky. In the movie Mitch (played by Billy Crystal), Phil, and Ed are all experiencing their own mid-life crises and take a two-week vacation at a dude ranch to figure things out. The scene that this monologue is from features Mitch speaking to his son’s middle school class on career day prior to leaving for the dude ranch.

Value this time in your life kids… Because this is the time in your life when you still have choices, and it goes by so quickly. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, “what happened to my twenties?”. Your forties, you grow a little pot belly, you grow another chin… the music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery…you’ll call it a procedure, but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still too loud, but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating dinner at two, lunch around ten, and breakfast the night before. You spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering “how come the kids don’t call?”. By your eighties, you’ve had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand, but you call mamma. Any questions?

What’s the point of sharing this with you? Is it to make sure we understand that this is as good as it’s going to get? To warn you that from here on your life will get progressively worse with the passage of time? Not at all. But things will definitely be different, and not all those differences will be “good”. Our knees, our backs, our shoulders, our central nervous systems and reflexes, etc. are examples of things that deteriorate with age. This means our experiences on the mats at 45 will not be the same as they were in our 30’s…in our 50’s our experiences on the mats won’t be the same as they were at 45. Our experiences won’t be the same over the years, but they can still be great.

Don’t waste time looking back with regret because you did not start sooner or did not pursue jiu jitsu with the passion that you now wish you would have. Don’t waste time looking down the road and worrying about your physical attributes fading and your body breaking down and the things that you may no longer be able to do. Instead, live in the moment. Enjoy your time on the mats today. Make the most out of each class, each round that you roll, each tournament you enter, each seminar you attend, etc. This moment is the only one that is guaranteed. Value this time on the mats.

Train hard. Train smart. Get better.


Here is the clip!

Never Miss an Opportunity to Learn

You can learn something from everyone. That’s a common sentiment on the mats. In theory, it’s great. In practice….sometimes not so much. Even the mellowest colored belt can sometimes struggle when the 4-stripe white belt starts handing out advice or the more advanced student takes them to school on the mats. Let’s look at two distinctly different ways we can learn from our training partners — tactile feedback and verbal feedback or advice.

If you want to be able to learn from anyone via tactile feedback i.e. through rolling, you need to roll with everyone and you will want to experience all aspects of their jiu jitsu including their A-game. If every time you roll with better students you do everything you can to avoid being drawn into their best positions you will miss the opportunity to study up close and personal what it is that makes that particular position part of their A-game. If every time you roll with less experienced training partners you simply crush them you will also miss what they have to offer. In an ideal world you will spend some time being the hammer and some time being the nail. When you are the hammer, you are letting your training partner feel and learn from your A game. When you are the nail, you are learning from theirs.

If you want to learn something from everyone via verbal feedback or advice you must be humble and approachable. If every time someone gives you feedback you allow your ego to interfere and become dismissive or confrontational people will not be likely to continue to try and help you. Sometimes it is helpful to encourage others to give you feedback. This can be asking directly or you can be a little more subtle like just comment on something you were trying to do during the roll i.e. “I was having a heck of a time passing your guard” or “that was a great triangle”. Feedback is often revealed in casual conversations if you’re looking for it.

There are many ways of learning jiu jitsu: In class instruction, seminars, video study, drilling with your favorite training partners, as well as tactile and verbal feedback from your classmates and training partners. Take advantage of them all.

Train hard, train smart, get better.

Joe Thomas

Training Muay Thai for Better BJJ

After a few years of training, gaining a better understanding of jiujitsu has become a main priority in my life. And if you’re like me, you probably incorporate other physical activities or movements in the context of jiujitsu. We run, bike, practice wrestling & judo, or take a yoga class not necessarily to get good at that activity but to improve our jiujitsu: better cardio, improved takedowns, more flexibility. Well heck, some of us even shrimp out of bed or perform a technical stand-up to get up from the ground. The benefits of running, yoga, judo, or wrestling to improve our jiujitsu are obvious. However, it has taken me a few years and a few conversations to realize that Muay Thai is one of the better, if not the best physical activity to compliment jiujitsu.

Joseph Marquez

The most obvious benefits that Muay Thai provides are the physical ones. The strength, conditioning, and flexibility benefits are great, but more importantly is the loose and ballistic movements that balance out grappling’s emphasis on having a tight squeeze. Focusing on the upper body: when we have somebody’s back (literally) we are tightening up and squeezing to prevent escapes in the hopes of eventually submitting the other person. When focusing on the lower body: a good closed guard, triangle, or tight armbar. However, in Muay Thai (or any striking discipline) we want the opposite of tight and constricted muscles. Loose and relaxed muscles allow for quicker, more ballistic and less telegraphed strikes. Focusing on the upper body, the effectiveness of being loose is most evident during a set of burners in which you throw straight jabs and crosses as fast as possible for a minute or so. You have to “let your hands go” because if you tighten up you will struggle to throw quick punches. The same principle applies when focusing on the lower body. Hitting the Thai pads with fluid and powerful kicks require one to loosen hips and legs. After an hour of Muay Thai, I definitely feel the burn, but I also feel great. My muscles and joints from my ankles all the way to my wrists feel loose and relaxed afterwards. The warmups and drills in Muay Thai have effectively “shaken it out” the tightness from grappling. (In a Tim Ferris podcast with Pavel Tsatsouline, Pavel goes into better detail on “shaking it out” as an effective way to help muscles recover.)

There are other benefits that may be subtle at first, but comparing the similarities between grappling and striking in terms of range will help clarify these concepts. Three fundamental concepts learned in the first lessons of striking are range management, footwork, and creating angles of attack. If they are not in range to kick or punch you, they are not in range to trip, grab, take you down, or pull guard. Knowing what will not work in a certain range is just as important as knowing what will work. The distance from your opponent will help determine whether shooting double, single, low single, or not shooting at all is the best option. The footwork fundamentals (proper weight distribution, pivoting, or not crossing your feet)  used to enter and exit striking range are similar and can be applied to enter and exit shooting range. The same can be said about creating and attacking not straight on, but from an angle. A wrestler confirmed this to me by showing me how takedowns from the side are harder and more awkward to defend than takedowns you see coming head on. The concepts  of range, footwork, and angles are heavily emphasized in striking but they are also applicable to BJJ, especially since these fundamentals fluidly combine.

As we move closer into striking range, we also move into hand-fighting/grip-fighting range. As stated above, and because I think it is worth repeating: if you are in range to punch, you are in range to grab. A training partner demonstrated how he was able to repeatedly and easily grab my lapels in order to take me down or trip me from a standing position. He used the concept of boxing combos as way to get grips. In this specific case it was simple two-punch combo a straight jab to rear uppercut combo. He simply replaced the strikes in the combo with a collar grab. The main purpose of initial “jab” (high collar-grab) was to find range and distract. If it was not defended, the grip is taken. Most of the time this was defended and the “uppercut” was thrown to get my collar on the other side. Drilling combos and shadow boxing can be incorporated into BJJ simply by replacing punches with grabs and leg kicks & knees with trips.

There are many other ways that Muay Thai, and other striking arts or activities for that matter, can help improve our jiujitsu. I hope this helps us in our journey and that even more connections between BJJ and other activities will be investigated and shared.


Joe Marquez

Too Much Knowledge Can Slow the Learning Process in BJJ

This may seem counterintuitive but stick with me for a bit.

Let’s step off the mats for just a second and look at learning a golf swing. The golf swing can be broken down into many parts. Let’s just look at the setup as outlined here 50 Best Swing Keys. You need to have your legs properly positioned with your feet outside your hips, and your toes pointed outward at a 25 degree angle. Now you need to have your upper left arm on the top of your chest, and your right arm needs to be slightly bent at the elbow. Then you need to have your right shoulder slightly lower than your left, and you need to be holding the shaft perpendicular to the ground.

That is a lot of stuff to do and you have not even started to move yet. The article goes into much more detail about how to properly smack the life out of the ball.

Even if I did have some knowledge of golf (I don’t) taking in a long list of different aspects all at once is a lot to ask of someone wanting a better swing.

The same thing can happen in BJJ if you are coaching to correct every little detail, the learning process can actually slow down. Instead fix one or two main things, and acknowledge one or two things that are done well. When the corrections have been made, build on that by fixing one or two more things.

Teaching too much can make students overwhelmed. Frustrated students are not in the state of mind to learn.

You might think that this coaching advice is mostly geared toward helping new students. I would argue that novice or expert will struggle to make more than one or two corrections at a time.

We can all improve, gaining knowledge needs to be at a rate that is conducive to learning.

Ideas for this article were inspired from the books Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better and Peak secrets for the new science of expertise