Monday, May 11, 2020

A Cops Journey from White to Blue Belt-The Struggle.

Brazillian Jiu Jitsu for Law Enforcement and My Journey to Blue  by Josh Laiva

To start with a little information about me- I'm not a talented athlete.  I am not particularly talented or strong.  Yes, I was a Golf Teaching Professional in my previous life.  But,  I’ve always been a little overweight.  I only learned the benefits of working out in the three years leading up to my first Jiu Jitsu class.  The reasons I started training were pretty simple.  A Police Sergeant that I had known and worked around was tragically murdered by a suspicious person he checked out with.  As many of our local Officers did, I took Sgt. Greg Moore’s shooting to heart.  I had not worked with him in a while because I changed departments to a nearby larger city, but going to his funeral brought the issue home.  At the same time I also noticed several of my coworkers from the city I was now working in getting in fights and getting hurt.  I wanted to make a change.  I needed better training and I owed it to my family, myself, my coworkers, and my city to seek that training on my own.

One of my teammates when I started training was a BJJ blue belt and former MMA fighter.  He was a pretty laid back and confident dude, that one would not want to mess with.  So I challenged him every chance I got.  It was exciting throwing each other around the shop where we ate lunch and I found out very quickly he knew what he was doing.  I had done Jiu Jitsu in my Police Academy for a few weeks and I thought I knew it all.  How hard can it be, Right?

That same coworker had mentioned that I could get a membership at a local Judo club based out of our Police Academy and several of our coworkers already trained there.  I watched some Judo videos on Youtube to get hyped and my son and I went to our first class.  One of the Senseis was a Sergeant for my agency and he had me out there helping my son with kids class on the very first day.  I had no idea what I was doing in my Judo Gi that was two sizes too big for me but I was trying.  I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed and I struggled with some of the concepts and movements.  Truth is that my lack of understanding continues still today and I have learned this is actually pretty normal.   The only way I found to be a better learner is through repetition.  I remember after that first class that I had never felt so sore before in my life.  I had been playing rec league hockey for the past few years and that never compared to how bad I felt.  I really enjoyed learning the different chokes and throws.  The Sensei did a great job of explaining how they could apply to my job and even though I had learned the Rear Naked Choke or “Lateral Neck Restraint” before it was really helpful to drill it  and work with it so much.

After a few classes I learned my first lesson in body movement and spazzing out like a big dumb animal.  While doing simulated matches and going for my throw, I thought it would be a good idea to spin, and pull, while holding onto my larger opponent who also wanted to pull away.  My right knee popped and it hurt really bad.  Turns out I sprained my ACL.  I took a few weeks off and even needed to go to physical therapy to help heal up again.  I have been prone to knee issues all my life even dating back to High School sports.

After recovering but still feeling knee pain during class, I stopped going.  I kept taking my son, however he had never done anything like the Judo classes before and at the time he did not like it.

After initially graduating from the Police Academy, lack of funding to train was the main reason I never tried to join a local Brazillian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) academy.  The Judo club was fun but I believed Brazillian Jiu Jitsu would be a better fit for my chosen line of work and I was at a point in my career where I could actually pay for training.  I chose to start my training with a local BJJ academy where I knew several other local Officers trained.  I signed up to try a class.  I remember how scared and intimidated I was during my first training session but the Professor made it enjoyable.  I started training alongside one of the instructors who had taught at my Police Academy.  I found BJJ was different from Judo, with more focus on the ground portion and it seemed to not hurt my knees as much as Judo.

I remember the first few months were brutal.  I would get tapped out by pressure or being tired.  I really feared live rolling.  I also started kickboxing at the same time and OMG, I learned I had no idea how to fight.  Up to this point in my life I had been in a pair of fights in highschool and had only punched one other person.  It was easier to see my progression at kickboxing than in BJJ.  After my BJJ classes, I would be exhausted with both of my shoulders hurting and almost feeling numb, sore ribs, and a sore neck.  The guys I trained with were great but destroyed me.  Rightfully so, because I had to learn how to protect myself.  Despite the struggles, I was having fun.  I remember I trained hard for months and then out of nowhere, there was a promotion ceremony where one of the students got his blue belt.  He was a beast, and at that time getting to the blue belt level seemed nearly impossible.  Something strange happened that night during the promotion ceremony, I got my first stripe on my white belt.  I felt invincible, with my new stripe, but it didn’t change the fact that I was still the new guy and had no idea what I was doing.  Everyone at the school was great but I thought there was something wrong with me because I could not understand more than half of what was being taught and struggled to execute what I was shown.  We would finish up many of our classes with no gi training and I also found that very intimidating.  I did notice that just days after that blue belt got his promotion, he stopped coming to class.

Our gym flooded one night during the end of the summer due to a bad water line and was closed for a few days.  When we got back to training after the water dried up, we were learning some new chokes.  While rolling with an upper belt, he was using one of the techniques we learned that day, and ended up punching me full speed in the throat.  While being hit, I heard an audible crack.  I could breathe okay and there was no blood but it was very painful and I could not stop coughing.  I took the next few days off to go vacationing with my family.  We went to a local lake cabin and after a few days my throat was still sore to the touch, like a bruise on my neck, but no further issues. 

The following day I was back at work, and while sitting in my patrol car, I had a sensation I had never felt before.  I started to have a horrible gag reflex, like someone was choking me.  No pain, just felt like gagging constantly.  It felt like a huge pressure build up in my throat like there was something around my neck.  I could barely talk, without gagging, and went home sick.  After a few hours the gagging subsided and I went to see a Doctor.  With one look in my throat, the Doctor diagnosed me with a throat infection and put me on antibiotics.  The Doctor did not believe the issue was related to my injury from the previous week.  I took some more time off work while taking the antibiotics. 

After a few days things felt a little better and I went back to work, but still with a bit of the pressure feeling in my throat.  That day things got really bad.  When trying to stand and do some paperwork, I suddenly had horrible, nearly unbearable, neck and back pain.  The pain was so intense I could barely physically stand, so I finished my paperwork, and went home sick.  Our locker room is on the second floor of the building and I could not even walk up the stairs.  I was so sore.  I went home and hoped I’d feel better.  The next morning things were worse and I had never felt so sore and sick in my life.  I was worried I was dying and Google searches were not helping.  I went back to the doctor worried I had contracted Meningitis or something worse.  After a few tests, I learned I had contracted Mononucleosis combined with a pretty severe case of Strep Throat.  A new host of antibiotics was on the way and I was told I would have to fight through the mono.  Over the following two days, I slept for 17 hours straight.  The only problem was, for the time I was sleeping, I slept on my left arm, with my head on my bicep.  When I awoke, I felt a little better but had this deep pinching pain in my left shoulder.  I was actually barely able to lift my left arm.  Back to the Doctor I went and was given some steroids for my arm.  They made it feel better but I still could not move it very well.  I went back to work a week later on light duty on account of my enlarged spleen.  The problem was now my shoulder.  I was in constant pain and unable to lift anything in my left arm.  I never told anyone other than my family and doctors about the issue.  I went to a bunch of physical therapy and Doctor’s appointments.  Turns out I had pinched the super scapula nerve when I slept on it and then caused muscle atrophy as the nerve healed.  It took nearly a year for the diagnosis and nearly two to fully recover. 

With the nerve damage in my shoulder, training seemed impossible.  I struggled to hold my arm up in a fighting stance and I was too weak to keep it close to my body.   I didn’t believe I would be able to progress in my training and I was only able to train a few times in the following months.  After multiple recurring bouts of strep and a nasty antibiotic resistant bacterial infection in my tonsils, I had to have my tonsils surgically removed. 

I had never had surgery before and was freaking out the day I had my tonsils removed.  I was in my late 30’s which is typically not good for recovery when having your tonsils out.  When the nurse told me the Anesthesiologist was coming in, I struggled to hold it together.  Just then, Trent walked in.  Trent was one of my favorite training partners at my BJJ academy.  I calmed down quickly and with some medication from Trent, everything went surprisingly well. 

After my surgery, I was very hesitant to continue training.  I was told by the Doctor that if I ruptured the surgical area around my tonsils, I could bleed out in a matter of minutes.  Plus, after all the infections in my throat, my gag reflex was really bad.  Any restriction around my chest, neck, or abdomen caused me to want to gag and throw up.  My Doctors advised I was okay but it made training miserable.  I stopped training BJJ more than once a week and focused on kickboxing two days a week.  The kickboxing highlighted the weakness in my shoulder but actually helped with rebuilding my strength.

How Brazillian Jiu Jitsu actually saved my life:

A Reserve Officer and I were working together one day when we responded to the report of a boyfriend threatening to kill his girlfriend.  When we contacted the pair, neither wanted to cooperate with our investigation.  Thanks only to the victim’s family we identified the boyfriend.  Turns out he was wanted by the US Marshals.  The suspect/boyfriend was a bigger guy, in good shape, built a lot like a football player.  When the Reserve Officer went to arrest him, he pushed the Officer, in the chest, back and onto the ground.  I jumped in and went to detain the suspect who approached me head on.  Based on his actions, I pulled the suspect into a clinch.  When I did so, he utilized my external carrier as a handle, ripping it off to the ground and pulling me to the ground with it.  My left knee hit hard on a rock on the frozen ground and instantly felt as if something was broken.  I remember being on my knees, feeling the pain, looking at his legs as he was turning to run.  Then I remembered my BJJ training, I didn’t need to be standing, and I have all I need to get the job done right here from the ground.  So I wrapped up the suspect’s legs, pulling him down and moving up to his hips as the Reserve Officer jumped back into the fight as well.  Once on the ground, I was able to continue to move up his back and secure the RNC, to effectively bring the fight to an end.  The suspect provided his hands before needing to be rendered unconscious.  Without the training I had been doing for the past year, I didn't believe I would have reacted the way I did to arrest the bad guy. 

When my knee struck the rock, it ended up just being a good sprain.  I went to a local hospital and was given a few days rest with time off work.  The bad news of the injury was I had developed a horrible case of patellar tendonitis which I deal with to this day.  When I went back to work, I still had trouble walking, but started wearing the padded knee sleeves under my uniform that I had been using when training BJJ to prevent any further knee injuries. 

The following work week after the injury, I responded to the report of a male passed out behind the wheel of his truck after injecting unknown drugs into his body.  I was close by, and was the first Officer on scene.  When I went to stop the guy, he charged out of his truck towards my patrol vehicle, with his hands digging in his pockets.  I was able to get him pushed back onto the hood of my patrol vehicle where he pulled his hands out of his pockets.  I told him why I was stopping him and he went digging in his pockets again.  As a Police Officer, I was fully aware of what it means for someone to have their hands digging in their pockets.  They are either accessing weapons or contraband and it is a very dangerous situation.  I spun the male around to handcuff him and he spun right back at me.  The witness said he swung to punch me, but I missed that because I had shot in at his hips as he spun around.  We went down to the ground and he ended up in a turtle position, still going for his pockets.  I then used the RNC to bring him flat to his stomach and he started to comply.  The helpful witness went and grabbed the bad guy’s arm, yelling he had a hold of him, but let go, when I let go of his neck and grabbed the other arm.  The bad guy then rolled on his back and was pushing me away.  Without hesitation, I went to a knee on belly position, while pulling on his wrists, holding him down briefly, before he rolled away and tried to get back up.  After the suspect got back to his feet, I took his back as he tried to run away.  As I secured the RNC again, the bad guy ran head first into the tailgate of the nearby truck.  The suspect ducked and put my head into the tailgate before falling to the ground.  After hitting my head and falling to the ground, I missed the hitch to the truck by mere inches.  I did maintain my grip on the RNC and rendered the suspect unconscious once on the ground.  I learned the true pressure it took to render a Heroin addict, who had just shot up, unconscious, and had the bruises, from my fingertips, on my bicep, to prove it.  After handcuffing him, my backup Officer arrived.  When I walked back over to the area where we had initially struggled on the ground, I observed a folding knife on the ground, around all the gear that had been yardsaled off my vest.  The knife’s blade had been opened.  The knife, and some needles, had all been located in the bad guy’s pockets and he had opened the knife during our altercation.  He was likely planning to stab me with the now open folding knife.  Turns out this bad guy had a felony out of state warrant.  Apparently he had fought and injured three Officers in another state and they had put the warrant out for his arrest. 

I wholeheartedly credit my BJJ training with saving my life from the knife wielding Heroin addict.  I had only trained for a year up to this point.  The movement, concepts, and repetition of training saved my life and prevented me from being stabbed or even worse.  After this incident, I re-dedicated myself to training BJJ.  I switched to a Renzo Gracie academy that had just opened up in the area where I live.  The Renzo Gracie school offered more classes and a pair of talented black belt Professors Jordan Damon and Tony Meonich. 

Over the next one and a half years, I continued to train, sometimes attending as many as four classes a week.  My Professors at Renzo Gracie have done an amazing job explaining the movement, concepts and submissions as I trained.  I’ve trained through bruised ribs, broken fingers and toes, and my fair share of bumps, bruises and sprains.  I love to train and there has not been a week that goes by that I don’t use some of my training at work.  I have had to take some time off for injuries, but I usually snap right back into training. 

I have attended multiple seminars at several different schools and even had the pleasure to train with Sheepdog Response.  The Sheepdog Response classes really gave unique and invaluable insight into using BJJ while defending against weapons such as guns and knives.  I have had the opportunity to learn from great instructors and competitors such as Dave Camarillo, Trevor Prangley, Guy Metzger, Marcus “Buchecha” Alameida, and Joao Assis. 

I will admit it has not all been perfect, I was in another fight last spring where I got punched a few times by a suspect after I fell down, when I tried to complete a throw while holding onto a sweatshirt that ripped in half.  Again, thanks to my training, I was able to think, and not go condition black, while being punched in the face with the suspect standing over me.  I was able to think about my training and remember to utilize my legs, as we had trained, to create distance between the standing suspect and prevent him from hitting me more.  Having a hard head helps too, but I was able to ask myself what to do, and how to defend myself, while being punched in the face.  I also learned some valuable lessons.  Trying to power throw someone by grabbing normal clothing is a risk, because it will give way.  Normal, basic, high percentage takedowns would be the most productive for daily fights in the line of duty.  In a fight, where someone is fighting to flee, or to prevent being arrested or imprisoned, there are no rules, and they will fight with no regard for anyone’s safety, to include their own.  What that means for me or any other Officer training in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, is it may take a lot of work to hold that person down, more than you would expect.  I was a little disappointed with my performance and the fact I allowed myself to get punched.  I made my training partners at the academy run through the scenario with me multiple times and my professor was so great we drilled the movements for a full week in class.  Through my academy, I got connected with an Officer from Syracuse NY, who was a former MMA fighter.  He shared how much he had struggled during one particular incident to take a suspect in custody despite his training.  It's completely different in our jobs because there is so much we can’t do and we have policies and procedures to follow.  I was reminded of a valuable tip that I don't think I’d heard since I was in the Police Academy.  Under stress, you will revert to 10% of your training.

The 10% statistic turned on a light for me and for the next half a year, I trained more than I ever had previously.  I also started recognizing movement patterns that were easier for my body type and that I felt more comfortable with.  My Professors all told me they could see the improvements.  I will admit sometimes it didn’t seem like I was moving forward.  There are a handful of white belts, a stripe or two below me that I really struggle with at my academy.  I have to remind myself that as I train and improve, they are too.  So whenever someone new comes in and I get the opportunity to train and work with them, I can get a good grasp on how much technique I already know.  Over the last year one of my favorite parts about training has been the little details.  I may have seen a sweep, escape, or submission before, but each time I see it again I try to take something new away from it.  I try to add one detail to help me out and recognize the concepts that make the movement work.  I have learned that the small things make a big difference.

I had been given my 4th stripe on my white belt in the spring, so I assumed that by fall I would be promoted to a blue belt.  I know not to focus on the belt, but for me I saw it as a symbol for all I had learned and been through to get to that point.  Ultimately I could train at a white belt for the rest of my life and still be happy because I really love to learn the endless details and how it all works.  I realize it is a valuable skill that I want to become second nature for my job, however I believe at the same time I have become addicted to BJJ.

In the early part of 2020 there was a large seminar scheduled with the part owner of our gym who also owned numerous BJJ Academies in the Texas area.   Professor Brian Marvin was a really inspiring dude, who was also an amazing BJJ Champion.  The problem was the seminar was scheduled on a day I was working.  The month before, my Professor told me that they would be doing promotions that day and I needed to be there. 

It was pretty stressful leading up to the seminar.  I was told to bring my family, but never actually told I would be promoted.  Nearly every student from the academy was there.  My sons had been training on and off with me at Renzo Gracie and I wanted to show them the value of all the hard work I had put in.  I had seen the progression of some of my teammates as well and knew for sure some of them were getting promoted, but I was a little unsure of myself. 

When the day came, I was still very nervous, but we had an amazing seminar, with the promotion ceremony afterwards.  I was one of the last few to get promoted to blue belt, and when the Professor called my name, I was ecstatic.  For me being promoted to blue belt meant I was progressing in my training and actually improving.  I’ve never claimed to be good, but I just want to work to get better.  The weeks following my promotion were especially tough, with all my other teammates no longer holding back and throwing everything they had at me.  It was like the promotion brought out another gear in everyone else.  I welcomed the challenge and was excited to work to continue to improve.

Unfortunately at the beginning of March, I had to stop training for fear of the Coronavirus.  I continue to work out at home, and will be excited to start training again once this is all over.  I can’t wait to continue this journey.

I'm writing this for all the Police Officers/Deputies/Troopers out there considering training BJJ.  The training you receive at the Police Academy is great, but not enough.  In my humble opinion, with the changing political climate for our jobs, the laws, and the policies and procedures put in place by our administration, there is nothing better you can do to protect yourself, your family, coworkers, and society than to train BJJ.  I’m not really concerned with injuries, nor should anyone who starts training be, and I have found I get hurt worse working on projects around the house.  It's an amazing cardiovascular workout that builds strength and self confidence.  Plus the bonus is it is the best stress reliever I have ever found. 

Josh Laiva

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