“Wow, you’re a lot shorter than I thought you were.” 20

Drew wrote a great post here about whether or not size matters in judo and grappling.  It really made me think, so I’m going to write a post about size too (sorry man!), albeit from a somewhat different perspective. Considering my moaning about weight and cutting lately, you can tell this issue is on my mind, haha.

One of the main selling points of BJJ has always been “with BJJ, a little guy can beat a bigger guy!” And this appeals to us, I think. Everyone for different reasons– in Asia, it’s appealing because there are a lot of little guys. In my (American) generation, it’s appealing because of what I like to call the Karate Kid Syndrome– everyone wants to beat up that bully with mystical, magical ease. For many women, this is a fundamental reason to get into BJJ: if I take BJJ and practice regularly, I’ll never be raped, I’ll never be assaulted (wrong; maybe someday I’ll write about being assaulted and very nearly raped by a big MMA dude who wears a purple belt to my brown belt). Regardless of why, for most people, “little people can beat big people” is a really alluring concept. It really sells the art to people who may have otherwise been on the fence about participating.

I have to confess, everyone: I bought this, hook, line and sinker, from day one, and it’s one of those myths I wish I had never believed. My ego will never recover. 😛

Back in the day, “size doesn’t matter” was more true than it is today. It ignores (and ignored) the fundamental caveat, though: size doesn’t matter if the bigger person is untrained. Not even “less trained.”  Untrained. A less-trained person can still win against a better-trained individual. So I can buy that before BJJ and the UFC became ubiquitous, “size doesn’t matter” was more true in a street fight than it is today. But now everyone has at least seen BJJ on TV in some form, and that exposure makes a huge difference.

I’m small, even for a woman. I know, intellectually, that if I’m beating up on (male) purple belts that are bigger than me, those people shouldn’t be purple belts. Even significantly bigger blue belts; I shouldn’t be tearing them up. I know size matters. I have a large friend who regularly deals with my evil, tricky, drunk alter-ego by picking her up one-handed and tossing her into taxis. If I could tap him out against his full strength, he doesn’t deserve to tie a purple belt around his waist.

But guys. I STILL get annoyed. I STILL get frustrated. And then I get really angry when I hear our black belt perpetuating the old saying: “In BJJ, power doesn’t matter.”  I respect the hell out of that man, but it makes me want to scream at him: “when you are of average size for a man, and of large size for a Japanese man, how can you know that size doesn’t matter? How can you sit there and say, with a straight face, that your arm length, leg length, strength, and weight doesn’t make a difference?” This is what I want to say. Because if you don’t actually know what it’s like to be small, shut it. I have to say, I did take great pleasure when he got absolutely pancaked by a massive Brazilian black belt and came out looking quite shaken and smushed.

Instead, I take the smaller guys and gals aside. I tell them it’s ok; I tell them not to get frustrated when they just don’t have the power to complete a movement. I tell them not to feel bad about refusing to play with people who are too rough or just too big. I tell them that bigger guys are not necessarily less technical players, but they usually play a less technical game because they don’t have to be technical. And no, it’s not fair, but little people are either technical or fast, or ideally both. Maybe at first, what I say rolls off them like water, because they are too frustrated or too angry to really accept it. But I see them slowly grow and learn to accept their limitations without all the anger, frustration, and ego I carry around (do as I say, not as I do, right?).

Because I’m the teacher now. How weird is that? I have some semblance of control over the attitudes and techniques of new players. I want to get rid of this “size doesn’t matter” crap, because I think it’s toxic. I think it’s toxic to people’s growth as players and I think it’s one of the things that chases people away because of frustration.

So instead of selling BJJ to people with “size doesn’t matter,” tell the truth, teachers. Size does matter. Size matters a lot. What BJJ does is give a small person the tools he or she needs for survival, not for superiority. If I were attacked by a large man tonight, I would probably escape intact, but not unscathed.  If I fought Gabi Garcia or even Luanna Alguizar in a match, I would lose, because guess what? Size matters. People who I’ve met on the mat and then go out with in a social setting are always saying to me: “wow, you’re a lot smaller/shorter than I thought you were.”  What more can a little person ask for when it comes to BJJ?

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20 thoughts on ““Wow, you’re a lot shorter than I thought you were.”

  • Steiny


    I find the reverse though – here in oz I’m a medium player at 80kg and get frustrated playing with little people (that sounds like an insult but you know what I mean) because I never know with them whether it’s just cos they’re small that I beat them. Try as you like to not use size/limb length I find I can do bizarre moves that shouldn’t work but do on them (at least I don’t think they should work). So – the best thing you could be is small bcos you have little choice but to be good. You can’t bluff it.

    Likewise with fitness. Enduro guys will outdo me often (I’m an office geek), so to win I’ve gotta be technically better. I use this as an excuse to not exercise or watch my diet. The fatter I am the better I have to be!

    • purplekettle

      But that’s exactly what I mean– you can win because you’re bigger and more powerful. Sure, it’s not great for your technique, but you are STILL WINNING over people whose technique is better than yours. That’s where the frustration is born from, haha. Yeah, we don’t have a choice to be good, but we also don’t have a choice about getting squished by guys a lot bigger than us.

      • Steiny

        Depends on what you mean by winning. I win the match, but against smaller dudes it’s cos I’m bigger. It’s like winning an arm wrestling match against my wife, not much glory or satisfaction in it. For what it’s worth I’d rather be tiny and taking on Goliath, when you win it’s because you’re good – not because your parents were from Viking stock.

        I’ve always been a fan of the perspective never pick on someone smaller than yourself. Besides douchey, you can only lose – even if you win.

        I wondered a while ago withi whether you could equate best levels with weight advantage. Not a linear scale as you progress through the belts but it seemed to me after 12 months a belt was ‘worth’ about 10kg of advantage…. Not sure if I still think that but thought it might be worth the question

    • Anonymous

      That’s a pretty unfair comparison. Yes, both large and small have disadvantages, but they’re hardly comparable. Pitting “I don’t know if I REALLY won.” against “I get tired, frustrated, demotivated, hurt and embarrassed”…it’s just wrong, and I say this as a large framed, tall, heavy, strong woman who knows what it’s like to be the big hulking strong one, and the weaker, smaller player.

      • Steiny

        I suppose I’m just trying to look on the bright side of it. In terms of learning the art itself, if you have the mental strength, being small is actually an advantage.

        I understand the frustration , my wife is 5’1 and weighs nothing. I see what she goes through every night on the mats.

        Sorry I didn’t mean to offend, I’m just looking for the positives..

      • Steiny

        I thought I might also add: there are two people that come to mind for me at my gym. Both blue belts, one a 250lb athletic male the other a 60kg female. The male I can keep up with if I’m having a reeeeally good day. The female were about even I’d say.

        The levers and strength the male has to play with are crazy. I recognize I need to modify my game so the failing is mine when passing and his far leg just tractor beams me back in.. I remember once thinking ‘wtf how is that even possible’? Other times it’s just bench press out of situations. In the end I just shrug and go yeah well just becase god gave you the body doesnt impress me.

        The female, after rolling with her doesnt give me the same trouble as tr male obviously – but I tell you what I’ve got 10x the respect for her! She knows her some bjj.

        In 10 years if they both get their blacks n maybe open a hypothetical school I know who I’ll go train with.

        So after all that – while it’s frustrating to be small, it’s actually pretty inspiring to roll with someone do much smaller n weaker but to have your butt handed to you. We’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to train with you all.

  • drewbrunning

    I’ve stole topics from you. I’m more flattered than anything.

    It’s always nice to see your view on things. I’ll never be female. I’ll never be small again. I would never have your same perspective. I think the survival aspect is a really important topic I didn’t discuss. When we focus so much on winning it’s important to see that sometimes, not losing is a lot more important.

    • Biru

      Nice. I hadn’t seen that scale before. Very funny.I think I’m with you in the same boat. Except mine may be gitnetg swamped and capsizing. I feel the same way as you when my attention towards bjj wanes. And my training has been on the decline.I have found it becomes easier and easier to stay away from the gym the longer you’ve been away. Excuses in my head are much easier to accept if I have already accepted them the previous 7 days.Going to the gym, gitnetg good, tiring rolls in definitely gives me something to point at and feel good about. I don’t know what makes it so hard to seek out the feeling each day.I too have no life so I really have no reason not to be going which makes it even worse.Thanks for the post.Steve

  • leslie

    Thank you. Just, thank you.

    I have been slowly (and unwillingly) arriving at this same conclusion over the last six months, and I have been worried that it’s all in my head and that no other females feel the same way. My coach is also of the opinion that “size doesn’t matter,” and he has been adding directly to my frustration & insecurity by making related comments to me recently, as well as suggesting that if I just trained more (I already train 4 days) that it would help.

    The one thing I’ve been substituting in my head is that BJJ allows a little person to train at a high level with a larger person without injury. That helps me deal somewhat with the frustration.

    I do find it interesting when a Division I football player comes in to train with us, and he’s 250-300lbs of tall, strong, fast, athletic man — so 1.5-2x the size of my guys, as most of them are 1.5-2x larger than I am — and my guys afterwards make the same comments about size & strength & athletic ability & feeling completely overmatched physically that I do (in my head). Sometimes one of them turns to me and says, “Wait, is this how you feel every day? This sucks!” And I say honestly, “Yes.” Unfortunately, these guys don’t come around often enough or stay long enough.

  • grapplingvet

    I suppose I’m one of the lucky ones. I have three black belt coaches, all different sizes and shapes. Some of them started out training with much bigger guys, so even though they aren’t “small” they get it and relate to what I feel. ALL of them make us understand at some point that when it comes to self-defense, BJJ isn’t about winning–it’s about survival. Especially as a smaller person.

  • Jim McCormick

    Soon after the first UFC, I trained with Royce Gracie (on the East Coast of the USA where he would come for a week every now-and-then and teach out of Steve Maxwell’s Maxercise gym in Philadelphia). This was back when there was still a magical aura around Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Even though Royce had won the UFC, few had heard of him, Brazilian (Gracie) Jiu-Jitsu, or MMA/vale tudo/no-rules fighting.

    Out of ignorance I asked him, “Are you the best fighter in Brazil?”

    “I’m not even the best fighter in my family!” He answered. “And in Brazil, there are much bigger men studying jiu-jitsu. They are much strong than me and my brothers.”

    Royce knew, even back then. Size matters.