Last week, I got to train for three hours on Friday night with SGBI head Matt Thornton, who was in town for his annual jiu-jitsu seminar. I was supposed to attend all three days but another rule of post-40 BJJ is that your best plans are subject to change at the last minute due to outside circumstances. In any event, there was so much to process from the training on Friday that it will take me a while to digest. I did, however, learn something extremely valuable that helped me the next night.

I attended Matt’s seminar last year and felt overwhelmed with information as a brand new student. What I did remember, however, were two things: Matt likes us to warm up with about 30 to 40 minutes of light rolling. Second, Matt emphasized then and now that you should always breathe and relax when you roll. So while the cross collar choke he introduced late last summer is a work in progress I didn’t forget his exhortations to work on posture above everything else and slow down your breathing. That second tip proved extremely useful from the outset.

As we closed the roll session Matt motioned me over. And even though it was light rolling among friends I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel somewhat intimidated. We tapped hands and started. I tried to move and quickly found myself wedged uncomfortably under Matt’s frame. Matt coached me the whole time. As I tried to escape he said: “don’t do that, you’ll give me your neck.” My only thought was: “this is the only way I know how to get out!” Without any options and under world-class jiu-jitsu pressure I just tried to breathe and think. I couldn’t find an escape route, and the tap did come, but I also didn’t spaz or try to muscle out. I accepted that superior jiu-jitsu was in play. On the next roll, Matt said: “I’m giving you top.” So I went for it and got swept. Again, I was in an uncomfortable position and could see no exit routes. Matt was completely relaxed the entire time and his movements were sparse but extremely effective; it was kind of amazing to be part of it.

I could go on about the ground we covered that night: the variations of spider guard; why most people (especially me) grip too tightly and “grilled chicken.” But I took the biggest lesson from that single roll. I remember seeing the SBGI video where Matt mentions how there’s nothing you can fake about jiu-jitsu – that it demands sincerity. And that roll proved that: when you are learning to swim, there are times when it feels like a dog paddle in the deep end.

At the same time it also reminded me that when things don’t go right or you are in a bind you need to breathe and work with what’s there. The night after the seminar, I played a concert in San Jose. Pretty much nothing worked. The guitarist missed his leads and my harmonica mic went on the skids in the first chorus and dropped out during my solo. It wasn’t a great situation and I was annoyed that the performance was suffering. But as I tried to work with what was there I remembered the roll. I took a breath, and tried to adjust course with what was happening in the present. We got through the song and while it certainly wasn’t what I wanted it got finished and I think a few people even liked it.

That patience and ability to try to see things through and to work with what you have seems like it’s one of the hallmarks of jiu-jitsu. And it’s another reason to keep training: the more you try to work in narrow spaces, the wider your vision.

JUSTIN NORTON has been a member of SBGI-Modcom since 2012 and started training jiu-jitsu in 2013 at 41. He is a former Associated Press reporter and now freelances for magazines including Decibel and Fight!