A nice spring evening in Kyoujin Ballymoney, a few students are getting in a quick rolling session on the mats, Conall from Local Lapels took a bit of time out to catch up with the two coaches David O’Neill and Becca Millar. David and Becca have been running their gym between Ballycastle and Ballymoney since Dec 2016, under the guidance of head coach Peter Lavery.
Local Lapels – Thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk a bit about Jiu Jitsu, we’ll just get right into it.
So why did you decide that instead of just being a BJJ athlete, that you would open your own gym at Blue Belt?
David – Myself and Becca were training at a gym in Coleraine, and we ended up taking a few classes a week and just felt that we weren’t progressing ourselves as much.
Becca – We were working with the timetable that was already there and didn’t really fit fully with our own schedule, where as here we could do our own thing and actually have a bit more spare time as well.
David – We were teaching things at 2-3 classes a week, and there were people coming in who were only at one of our classes a week and were going to the other classes and weren’t fully picking up on the techniques we were teaching so we felt we weren’t in control of what we were teaching, or what people were picking up so…
Basically the way we work now, myself and Becca travel up to Belfast twice a week and train under our head coach Peter Lavery. We then bring that information back to our club and show it, once we’ve had time to drill it ourselves and get comfortable with it.
LL – How long have you been training and when did you get your first belt?
David – I started training on 17th Feb, that’s my BJJ birthday. Weirdly I looked back through messages and could see the exact day I messaged a friend about the club in Coleraine. I’ve been training nearly 3 and a half years, I got my first belt in 2015, it took about 2 year to get my blue belt of Peter Lavery after a lovely ironman in Belfast.
Becca – I actually started before David while I was still at Uni. I started in Coleraine and kick boxing and a few other things and decided to try every class that was on, but I went back to Uni in Belfast and I didn’t know enough about BJJ at the time to think about looking up a club in Belfast… I could have been training with Peter that whole time… but I came back to Coleraine in June and have been training pretty much every day since then. We both got our blue belts on the same day.
LL – Why did you transition from kick-boxing to BJJ and have you had any other Martial Arts experience?
Becca – I started doing Fencing when I was 14, mainly because I was doing Duke of Edinburgh and I had to do a years physical so thought I’d try something new instead of running or something that I hate.
I tried it for a bit of craic, and then got really competitive in it. There were a few of the people I was training with who already did kick boxing and they said the stance was similar, so I picked up the foot work pretty easily… After a bit of kickboxing i thought i’d give BJJ a go, but I quickly found out that it takes a lot more time to learn anything in BJJ than any of the other sports, and I got hooked on it and stopped everything else.
David – I never did any Martial Arts before hand, I played Rugby for years and just got talking to a friend who said about BJJ and thought “Well I’ll give it a go”. I’ve always been interested in joint locks and submissions, but I didn’t know to much, i was just seeing something on TV and trying to imitate it.
I came in and gave the first night of training a go, after class I got talking to a guy who said “If you want to progress in this, you need to do more training”. I wasn’t sure how I’d get into the classes because of work and he said “If you really want to do it, you’ll find time to do it” and that stuck with me since then.
The next week I started rearranging work, the first week I only made 1 class, the second week I was in twice and by the third week I had rearranged things and was able to train in the morning, so I was getting four classes a week. That sorta snowballed from there and we’ve now got our own gym and are training 7 days a week.
LL – So you mentioned the start of your BJJ journey, if you could speak to yourself as a white belt, what would you tell yourself, or what would you say to someone who has just started on their BJJ Journey?
David – Advice to me as a white belt, stop choking people in the guard, I did that for a long time. Don’t be afraid to travel to learn, and always seek out the information
Becca– I think the thing is to not be scared rolling, it’s better just going for it and trying something stupid, than being nervous to try anything cause you might actually be doing the right thing and that’s how you start learning.
LL – You mentioned travelling, and I know you both travel to lots of seminars and competitions, and Becca writes for Globetrotters newsletter. So how has this influenced your game? How do you find travelling for BJJ? What do you always make sure to bring?
David– The best thing I found about travelling is, when you train in a the same gym, you learn what everyone else learns, but whenever you go somewhere new, even if it’s just another gym in town, you pick up something different that your team mates might not know, and it’s always good to have some stuff in your back pocket, especially cause no one will expect it.
Becca – The worst thing about travelling for me is the lack of sleep. If you’re going to a competition try and relax the night before, find out where the venue is and how long it takes to get there. With a lot of competitions (like at Euros) the standards are really high because people are travelling from all over the world, if you’ve just competed at local competitions and you’re travelling to your first big event, don’t have any ego. Try your best, but I think it’s a bit of a shock at a really big competition, there’s so many totally different styles, like when we competed last December in California, it’s just different to the Irish & UK events. The good thing is, you’ll find that your belt level is about the same, which I felt was really comforting because coming from somewhere where BJJ is really small, and being able to compete with people from somewhere where it’s more known, is a pretty big deal.
David- If we’re going to a competition, the main things I bring is… plenty of food. You’re waiting about all day and some places don’t have great facilities for food, or you’ve been starving yourself to stay on weight. As soon as I weigh in, I generally eat something, even if I don’t feel like eating because I’m past the stage of hunger, I usually force myself to drink loads of water to stay hydrated, and eat just to keep myself going. Whenever you go to competitions, try to talk to the people around you. I’ve been to a few competitions by myself, and there’s nothing worse than just standing about and not talking to anyone. It’s gotten to the stage now that I’ve met a bunch of the guys, and competed against a bunch of different people. Within the community in BJJ, you eventually get to know people, train with them ,talk and have a bit of craic. At the end of the day, you’re all on the same journey, waiting about for hours to fight, so there’s no point in standing about in silence, pretending that you want to kill each other whenever you actually get to know them and they’re dead on.
Becca– When I went over to the British open by myself and I met so many people there from seminars, camps and other competitions that it didn’t feel like I was on my own at all.
Another thing about competitions, there’s nothing worse than cutting down to a weight division that you shouldn’t be competing in and having that extra stress the morning of the competition, and not actually feeling like you’re ready to compete. I started at middle weight, and I’ve constantly put on weight from training BJJ (it has to be muscle), now I’m competing at medium heavy and I feel so much better at that weight than stressing and worrying about getting down, especially when travelling, it’s so much easier.
LL – As a coach, what’s the best thing a student can bring or do when they’re coming to class?
David- For me, the things that I look for are someone who listens to their coach, is willing to learn and generally doesn’t have an ego or is trying to prove themselves in the gym… especially with new people.
Whenever you’re trying to teach something, and the first thing they say is “oh but what about this? Or that?”. Some people don’t understand what we are trying to do, we’re showing you one move, but for every move there is a counter, escape or variation, you need to be patient and learn the basics before jumping ahead of yourself with bad technique.
Becca- A general commitment means a lot too, you don’t have to be in 6 days a week, but if you commit and make 1-2 classes a week it shows you’re committed instead of people who say “oh, I’ve got a new job now so I’ll just not go back”. You can definitely make at least one class a week, I think that shows a lot about a person and how dedicated they are.
LL – So you’ve got a lot of friends that do BJJ, but have you managed to convince anyone you knew before you started to come join you on the mats?
David – I’ve managed to get my little brother doing it, he did quit for a while but he’s back at it now (as of last night). Unfortunately it showed that he had quit for a while cause he’d gotten very sloppy. I’ve recommended BJJ to loads of people, but it’s harder to get them to actually come through the door. People think it’s weird.
Becca – Yeah, anyone I’ve invited hasn’t ever turned up. It is a weird thing, I have friends who always say “Yeah, I must try that”, but never make it. I’m not sure if it’s a girl thing, but people try and lose weight with Weight Watchers and other plans, but if they just came to BJJ they’d be able to lose weight, learn something practical and keep fit. I can pretty much eat whatever I want, because I’m training all the time… But trying to explain that to someone, they never seem to understand what it is, but that’s why they just have to come in and try it.
David- Jiu Jitsu is for a certain type of person, we get a lot of people who come into our gym and they try it and say “oh yeah I love it, I love it, I wanna try this, I wanna learn that, I can’t wait to get my belt” and then after 2 or 3 classes they just disappear and we never hear from them again.
Becca- It’s the type of thing that you’re not going to be an expert overnight, chances are, you’re not even going to be an expert in 10 years… for some people that’s pretty demoralizing
LL- I think it’s pretty humbling too.
Becca– A lot of people can’t deal with that, if you don’t find it fun and take it too seriously, well, it is going to be pretty depressing. But if you find the fun in it, it’s a great reason to come back.
LL – Can you think of a pivitol point in your Jiu Jitsu journey, sometime when you might have been struggling and something just clicked and everything changed from there?
David – I travelled up to Belfast once a week, and did private classes with John McTasney and Peter Lavery for a while. Basically I went up and had to relearn everything I knew about grappling, I started from the bottom again, not using strength and just working with John and Peter absolutely changed how I went about everything. Whenever I started, it was all about brute strength and trying to kill my opponent, but I remember being in a class with John and trying to bull my way out with him, and it just wasn’t working, John’s a lot stronger than me, and a lot more technical so every time I used my strength against him, he just put me back on my ass. We worked on knee cutter passes for 3 weeks straight, trying to get the positioning and timing right. Once I learnt how to break the guard and pass the guard with technique rather than strength, it just revolutionised my game. Before that I wasn’t able to pass, so my game consisted of trying to choke people from guard, which doesn’t really work and is kind of just a dick move.
LL – When you said earlier that you were just choking people in guard, I thought you meant it was people in your guard, not you stuck in someone else’s…
Becca – Yeah I witnessed him doing this in so many competitions at white belt
David – Yeah, it’s a big no no
Becca – I’ve been a blue belt now for nearly 2 years, and I’m only starting to now pick up on so many different things.
You go from White to Blue belt and you put a weight on your shoulders and think so much more is expected from you, but you’re still a beginner at BJJ. In your head you tell yourself “I need to be better now than what I am” but you start to over think things, and quickly things can start going downhill. There are simple things that you still learn and tighten everyday, like when Peter Lavery said “Be on your side” it’s the difference between being on your butt and your side and on your hip and shoulder. These are things I should have known from day one, but 3 years on, I’m finding new tweaks. A lot of it’s down to over thinking and thinking I should be a bit fancier, but doing the basics well is always going to help you win.
David – I couldn’t wait to get my Blue Belt, but after I got it I found out that there were no easy fights anymore. There’s no fresh white belts in the first round and I started to realise that when you get your blue belt, you are still pretty much a white belt, but you have to grow into that belt, you’ve been given the belt but you’re still learning and have to progress in this belt too.
LL – Given the choice would you rather have Gi or NoGi?
David – NoGi, but weirdly I train a lot more in the Gi. I just seem to do better in NoGi, It’s faster and you’re not worrying about cross collar chokes and getting pinned down by your Gi, In NoGi you can slip and move, though you need to have your basics really good… Arm bars, escapes, everything needs to be a bit smoother.
Becca- I always thought I was crap in NoGi, and didn’t like it, but then I did a NoGi competition and won Double Gold and thought “Maybe it’s not that bad”. After that I started training in it more and started getting that idea out of my head and now I actually enjoy it. Especially the SubOnly competitions.
LL – That ties in perfectly with my next question, would you rather IBJJF points and rules or SubOnly?
David – SubOnly all the way, I hate points, I’m a guard player and there’s not many points from your back. I would even travel out of my way to go to a SubOnly competition against a points based one.
Becca – Most of the competitions that I’ve lost this year are because I like to get guard, and if I don’t submit from there and the person ends up getting the pass then I lose on points, But if there’s no points in the game, then that pass doesn’t matter as much and there’s more chances for people who like to play off their back.
LL – So there seems to be some big movements towards people focusing on Strength & Conditioning and Yoga to benefit their BJJ, do either of you have a Strength and Conditioning routine or practice Yoga regularly and has it helped your BJJ?
David – I have a pretty physical enough job, I feel that after a days work, I’m wrecked but I love doing Jiu Jitsu, After a day shovelling stone or moving kerbs, I’m just not a fan of to going to lift weights. If people don’t have that opportunity to work physically, it might benefit them to do some strength and conditioning. I’ve just started doing mobility and yoga work, and it has been really beneficial. I come in with a really tensed up back, from training, fighting and working, it’s just nice to get away at the end of that. My thoughts on strength and conditioning are that yes it might benefit you to work on your strength, but I’d rather win on technique than strength, so i spend my time working on my techniques and not on being stronger than my opponent.
Becca – I have done strength and conditioning for about 2 years, as well as BJJ, but that’s basically because I’m the only girl and probably the least strongest person in the class, so anything that helps. I went to a camp in Copenhagen with Mackenzie Dern as the guest, and when it came to rolling every day there was usually 5 or 6 people who ended up sitting out because they got injured. It was a female only camp for 3 days and each day there was more people sitting out because they got injured when they were rolling and they all stood off at the end and Mackenzie asked for a show of hands who does any kinda of strength and conditioning or yoga? There were only a few people who put their hands up, and the ones that did were all still on the mats and she said “You have to do it because it prevents injury, especially because we are small in comparison to a lot of the people at our gyms, it will strengthen you up and help prevent injury”… I thought, if Mackenzie Dern is telling us this, it’s probably a good idea.
LL- So the last question, where does your passion for Jiu Jitsu come from? What drives you to come back when you’re feeling sore? Why do you do Jiu Jitsu instead of Krav Maga?
David- Krav Maga… Personally I’m not a fan of it, anything you can go to and do a day course for £200, and spend the time watching DVDs, I’m not a fan of. In BJJ you have to earn your way up, you can’t just walk in off the street as a white belt and start coaching, you have to build yourself up. I know I’m only a blue belt and not one of the best coaches (or something like that) but I like to help the guys that I have training with me, to show them what I use and what can help me or I tell can help them. What keeps me going is that I’ve got a very competitive nature and I like to test myself against other people and that’s what drives me to do competitions, but Jiu Jitsu is a social thing. The people that come to our classes, we don’t count them as students, the people that come in are team mates. We come here, we train together, we’ll show things, we’ll watch new guys come in they’ll do something different and we’ll learn from everyone. It’s a nice atmosphere and it’s a nice place to be.
Becca- I think I’m just too stubborn to give up on it, if I get tapped or think that I’ve been doing something good and then get the shit beat out of me, that’ll annoy me. I’ll go home and think about it for a long time and I have to come back the next day and work on it. I just have this thing in my head where I think “that’s really annoyed me that I couldn’t do that, so I’m going to have to go back and do it”. I love everything about it, I like the fact that I can beat up boys.
David – When we got our blue belts, we couldn’t wait and after a few months, when you’re training with other blue belts, you’re getting tapped by white belts you realise “Shit, this is getting a bit hard and real”, then there’s the whole “Blue Belt Blues”. You always hear people talk about it, but it’s an actual thing
Becca– Yeah, it is real.
David – You come in from training and you start to feel that you’re not progressing, or someone is progressing faster than you, and what can you do about it. The only things that I found that helped was to keep going at it, at the grind, find your own little things, when you see a new move try and get it in a roll and build yourself up to getting it while progressing the little things, don’t look at like “black belts 15 years away”, think “I’m doing this choke right now, how am I going to get this on this guy” and work your way up to get that.
Becca – I think it’s the whole humbling experience of it all that I actually enjoy. Maybe at the start you were kinda annoyed that you were getting tapped all the time but it’s frustrating because you don’t know what your doing. It just gets to the stage where you just laugh at getting tapped, and learn not to do it again, it’s all just a part of the fun. Your attitude changes as you’re going along. It’s amazing how it applies to everyday things, like whenever I was at school or at university I would not have spoke in a public place, if I had to do it I’d be shaking. Then competing in BJJ, I got the first one over with, I was shitting myself with nerves and then after that I couldn’t care less, and now I’m a tour guide and I talk in front of 50 people without giving a single shit.
And I know, it sounds really cheesy, but I would not have done that if I didn’t do BJJ. It improves confidence and everything so it helps a lot.
There’s loads of personal ways that BJJ has helped me, with my joints and stuff. I have arthritis and it’s helped me leaps and bounds with that, and it’s so amazing, everyone should do it. But convincing people to come do it is the hardest part.
David and Becca run Kyoujin Ballycastle & Ballymoney, classes daily.
Timetable at https://www.facebook.com/kyoujinballycastle/
Ballymoney: 1 Silversprings Shopping Centre, Market Street
Ballycaslte: Unit 16 – Moyle Enterprise Park, Leyland Road, Ballycastle