TOM BARLOW: FIGHTING TO WIN AND FIGHTING WELL
Finding balance. The early days of BJJ and MMA. Developing a competitive mindset. The value of teaching. Principles of jiu-jitsu. Applying what you know under pressure.
I’m beginning to sense a pattern in the recording of these interviews: I get excited at the idea of doing an interview with someone. Then I get nervous when that possibility is on the verge of becoming a reality.
But this time around there was an added layer of uncertainty and anxiety. As well as sitting down for a few hours to talk with someone I didn’t know, I also took part in a jiu-jitsu seminar in a new gym, with a new bunch of people. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a big deal. But it’s hard to keep the grand scheme of things in mind when you’re over-thinking the day ahead on the drive down to Plymouth to interview Tom Barlow.
The second part of the pattern I’m sensing is that my anxiety is always baseless. It was the same when I was preparing to interview Gwen Yi. I couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t focus. But as with Gwen, so with Tom: the anxiety I felt was unnecessary. Minutes after parking up and ascending the stairs into Tom’s gym, I was at ease. We sat down in a corner on the white mats and I explained to Tom the purpose of this whole thing. I said I had done some preparation. He said, “I haven’t. It’s my life. I know it pretty well.”
I understand the power of precedent. That how things start is a good predictor of how they’ll continue. And our conversation was like that first exchange: informal, entertaining and interesting. We only spoke for an hour and a half, but I’m sure we could have talked for much longer. Tom has a great understanding of jiu-jitsu, a deep well of stories, and a keen grasp of the psychology of high performance; I have many questions and much patience.
But I suppose that’s the problem with these interviews, and with life in general. Too many questions, not enough time.
MATT: So you’re in the U.K. for two weeks. The rest of the time, you’re in Southern California?
TOM: No, my time is split between the U.K. and California. My fiancée lives over there. I met her when I was training. We started dating and ended up getting engaged last year. I go back and see her, train over there, and then come back and do my stuff over here.
I do a lot of the marketing for both my gyms so my work’s relatively remote.
MATT: Is that a happy accident? Or is that what you wanted to do?
TOM: Four or five years ago, I read The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. I was like, “Man, that makes so much more sense.” I was grinding away, doing crazy hours. So I started looking into that [the ideas in Ferriss’ book] and learned more about how to run a business. What it takes, what it needs to grow, to be more effective, those kind of things. Then I began trying to figure out as many ways as I could to replicate myself so I didn’t have to be there.
MATT: Setting up systems and policies and processes?
TOM: Exactly. Even though I love teaching, there’s going to be times where I may not be able to be there. Even if I wasn’t living the kind of lifestyle I am now, it makes sense to have it set up so that I can step back and have nothing change. I spent a long time trying to get to that point. And I think I’ve done well.
MATT: A lot of iterations. How long did it take to figure that stuff out?
TOM: A long time. Just setting up the business systems was difficult because everything was in mine and my business partner’s head. Trying to get it across to employees was difficult. But so was changing my mindset. I used to be in the gym from ten till ten, so I was consistently doing ten hour days, five days a week, plus Saturdays. I was on it all the time.
It took me a good two, two and a half years. Then I started doing a few tests. The first time I went out to the U.S. for an extended period of time, I went with a friend, and we went for a month. Just to see what would happen. If the business collapses, I know I’ve got some serious problems. But it worked out okay. Not perfect, but okay.
Then I did it the following year, and in 2012, 2013, 2014, and after I met my fiancée I started going back a lot more. And the business has grown and flourished because of it. I don’t have to be there as much, which is nice.
MATT: Has it made what you do stronger because you’ve had to think and be more deliberate about everything?
TOM: I think so. I know what I’m doing. I know where I’m going. I know what needs to happen. I actually spent a lot of time in 2015 re-evaluating what was important to me, what was important in my life.
MATT: What did you come up with?
TOM: The most important thing is my family and my friends. Above all else, that was where I needed to be putting my time and energy. The business side was important as well, because that allows me to do what I want. And then training. I have more balance now. Still, that sometimes goes out of whack and I end up working too much, doing too many things, and I have to dial it back a little bit.
MATT: How do you figure that out? To recalibrate, do you have to get into that position, or do you have an early warning system?
TOM: No, no. I get into the position where I’m like, “Ugh, I’ve been working for fifteen hours today. Why am I still awake?” And then I go, “Maybe I should take a break.”
At the moment, the way my life is set up, split between here and California, I tend to do a lot when I’m in the U.K. because I have to. Yes, I can be working on the business from California and doing all these things with my training. But when I’m here I need to connect with my friends and family, teach seminars, maintain my training. And anything in the business that needs me to be here physically is important as well. So I tend to do a lot more when I’m here than when I’m in the U.S.
Obviously, when I’m in the U.S. my most important priority is my fiancée, spending time with her. Long distance relationships are hard anyway, and consistently spending six weeks apart and six weeks together? That’s tough.
MATT: Is that how long the gaps are?
TOM: The longest one we’ve done is nine weeks. That was really hard. Really, really hard.
MATT: Is it a pain in the ass to keep getting—I don’t know how the visas work...
TOM: I have an athlete’s visa now. I’ve been through the whole process of getting a U.S. visa, which was interesting. I was far too blasé about the process. Logistics is not one of my strong points. And when it came to applying for a visa, it was, you know--
MATT: Pretty rigorous.
TOM: I wasn’t allowed to work out there or earn any income in the U.S. So I had to show that I could afford to live out there. I went in there with a bit of paper that said, “I am a world champion,” and that was it. And they were like, “No, you need to show us this.”
Man, they grilled me. It was a really funny process. You fill out all the forms and go to the first window. There’s a person who takes the forms. This girl, she knew about jiu-jitsu, she completely understood it. She was originally from Plymouth so she knew where my gym was. I was like, “Oh, this is brilliant. It’s going to be a breeze.”
Then I went to the second window and the woman there was the complete opposite. She grilled me. “How are you doing this? Why are you doing this? I don’t get why you’re doing this. Why would you want to go there if you’re already this? I need to see this, this and this.”
I freaked out. And the problem is if you get denied a visa, then your ESTA [a 90-day pass that allows entry and travel in the U.S.] gets cancelled as well, and it becomes harder to reapply because you’ve already been denied once.
The funny thing was that, at the same time, I was buying a house. I was in the process of negotiating for a house. So I was like, “This is really bad.”
I ended up having to send in a year’s worth of bank statements and credit card statements to show that I had the funds, that I was consistently paying off bills, but not from any income in the U.S.
MATT: Can you do that, can you make a living over there?
TOM: No, not on this visa. Mine’s basically a travelling visa. It allows me to stay in the U.S. for up to six months at a time. A big part of my reason for going out there was to train.
MATT: Southern California is the hub.
TOM: It’s the Mecca of jiu-jitsu. One of the nice things about having my business set up the way it is is that I can just go and train. I don’t have to worry so much about teaching. All I’m doing is training, trying to get as good at jiu-jitsu as I can.
For a long time, pretty much until I went out to the U.S., I didn’t have a coach. I’ve never had someone, day in, day out, who was coaching me, picking up on my weak points, planning sessions.
MATT: You studied under Braulio Estima, right? But that was intermittent?
TOM: Braulio’s my instructor, but I would only be able to get up to him once a month. My journey was hell because I’d have to come back and teach in the evening.
MATT: What, the same day?
TOM: Yeah. This is what I would do. I would wake up at six in the morning. I’d drive to Birmingham—a four hour drive most of the time—to train with Braulio at eleven. He was normally late, so he’d turn up at eleven-thirty, and I would train for an hour, an hour and a half, roll, and he’d smash me. I’d finish at one, then drive back to teach at five. That’s what I did. That was my training. He’d give me guidance on where I need to improve, the areas I need to work on and I’d do it. I did that up until I got my black belt.
MATT: How long was that period where you would go back and forth?
TOM: Five and a half years? Yeah, it was rough, to say the least. And then, when I had big competitions I’d go once a week. I was fighting in six comps a year, so I’d go up once a week for six or eight weeks. That was hard.
MATT: And then at the end of it, you have to compete.
TOM: That’s kind of the reason I stopped. First, Braulio was going out of the country more so it was harder to see him. And actually, my body couldn’t take it, the driving and the training and the travelling. It was too hard.
I spent like a week up in Birmingham, once or twice, training, but I’ve never been at the point where I was training in one sole academy. Braulio originally suggested that I go and train with the Mendes brothers because they’re my size. Just after the ADCC, he had them for a seminar. I thought, okay, they’re good, incredible jiu-jitsu teachers. He said, “You should go and train with them.” So I did.
It was a kind of sabbatical. I took a month to go and improve my jiu-jitsu and spend some time working on me. Then obviously, I met my fiancée, so I had another reason to go back.
MATT: And you met her at the Mendes brother’s academy?
TOM: Yeah, she was teaching there. She’s a high-level black belt too. She teaches at AOJ: the women’s programmes, the kid’s classes and stuff.
MATT: Is that where you train when you’re in Southern California?
TOM: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve trained at a few other places. I’ve trained at Xande Ribeiro’s before. Studio 540. I’ve trained down at ATOS in San Diego. I trained with Erik Paulson at CSW.
MATT: Erik Paulson; he put you onto Braulio right?
TOM: Yeah, back in the day
MATT: Before jiu-jitsu?
TOM: Yeah. Erik used to come down and teach seminars in Exeter every six to eight months. And that was it. So I picked up some basic grappling skills from him, and then I’d go back and practice it. I think 2003 was the first time I trained with him.
MATT: What were you doing with him? MMA? A single discipline?
TOM: He was doing CSW—combat submission wrestling—which is his system. We were into MMA. It was becoming the big thing. But there was no jiu-jitsu around at the time. It was hard to find anybody outside of London.
Roger Brooking was there. I’m not sure if Roger Gracie was there. Mauricio might have been over. I think Roberto Atalla was around as well. Getting to guys and finding a jiu-jitsu teacher was really hard.
I went out to the States and trained with Erik. For a month I hung out with him, trained every day and got beaten up. I sparred with Ken Shamrock too. That was an interesting experience. He was training for a fight with Kimo and needed training partners. So, obviously, I was the natural choice, Ken being like 6’ 1” and 250 pounds and me being--
MATT: Not that.
TOM: The opposite of that. I trained with him, which was hilarious, and a few other people. It was a really cool experience, just hanging out. But at the same time, there was a guy called Paul Kelly out there. Erik used to teach at Inosanto Academy. I was training there with Erik, and there was a few guys from Birmingham. They did Jeet Kune Do primarily and they were training at the Inosanto Academy. I got chatting to them and they were like, “We trained with this guy called Braulio, he’s a world champion.” I had no idea who he was at that point. I didn’t know anybody in jiu-jitsu. I’d bumped into Royce Gracie, and that was the only person I knew. And Rickson.
Erik said, “I’ve trained with Braulio. He’s really good. You should train with him when you get back to the U.K.” If Erik recommends it, then that’s the guy I’m going to go train with.
MATT: Was it something that you immediately jumped on? Or was it one of those things that people recommend and you file away and forget about?
TOM: I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t in the position to because he was up in Birmingham. There wasn’t a website. It was hard to get hold of people. In early 2005 Braulio was at Seni, doing a demonstration. I spoke to him and said, “Okay, I want to come up and do some training with you, maybe get you down for a seminar.” At the end of 2005 he came down and taught a seminar for us. That’s when I said, “Okay, I want to come up and train consistently with you.” It kicked off from there.
MATT: So it was a really convoluted route? Did you have any exposure to jiu-jitsu before that?
TOM: I’d done some seminars, trained with some friends, but that was it. There was no-one really showing me anything. I did judo as a kid, and I think a lot of that stuck with me, so I was pretty natural at the groundwork.
But finding jiu-jitsu training partners, MMA training partners, was really hard back in the day. I used to train with two guys called Phil and Simon Holmes who were absolute beasts. They were like one hundred kilos. Proper monsters. Really good Thai boxers and super strong. It was me and those two guys. We’d just roll and fight and do MMA, you know, just beat each other up. We were training together all the time. It was like Fight Club. I was on the receiving end a lot. I remember one time I arm-barred Phil, and he just stood up and swung me around.
MATT: Like when you have a toddler clinging to your arm?
TOM: Yeah, exactly. He just shook me off. I was like, “Well, this jiu-jitsu stuff doesn’t work.”
Then there was a guy called James and someone called Matt. They were fighting in UKMMAC which was one of the early MMA promotions. So I ended up fighting MMA before I really even started training jiu-jitsu. I’d done some stuff with Erik, and I was training with these guys. Primarily, I was doing stand up stuff. So I went and fought MMA, and then I got arm-barred by Paul Bridges. That was a real catalyst.
MATT: That was the moment?
TOM: Yeah. I was like, “I really need to learn all this jiu-jitsu stuff if I want to compete.” Fighting Paul really opened my eyes. I mean, I was training a little bit in jiu-jitsu and I was doing okay. I think I was a blue belt by then.
MATT: But you decided to put a lot more emphasis on it?
TOM: I said, “Right, this is something that I want to get better at, that I want to focus on and improve.”
MATT: Did you completely drop the other stuff that you were doing? The MMA? Or did you phase it out?
TOM: At that point, I stopped fighting MMA. The reason I fought MMA was not to become a champion, or even because I necessarily wanted to do it long-term.
MATT: You just enjoyed it.
TOM: No. It was more to prove to myself that I could do it. That I could go against another trained guy and fight him. And also, to prove that I could go into a fight and actually hurt somebody. I remember my first fight. I fought a French guy, I can’t remember his name. But I remember the first time I elbowed him in the head. I was like, “Oh, I can do this. It’s fine to beat him up.”
It was a really bizarre experience because, up to that point, it’s all theory. You’re not actually fighting. You’re always asking, “Can I do this? Do I have the mentality to be able to actually physically hurt someone?” And I did.
Once I got that out of my system I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I need to keep doing this. I don’t enjoy being punched in the head. I don’t know if I want to pursue this as a career path. It’s not where I feel comfortable going.” So I stepped back from the training. I thought I’d probably end up competing again, but I just never got round to it. I started doing way more jiu-jitsu, competing more in jiu-jitsu, and that just took over my time.
MATT: Do you still have that same mindset when you go into jiu-jitsu competitions? It’s not so much about the opponent or winning. It’s more about proving to yourself that you’re good enough.
TOM: A lot of the time, yeah.
MATT: You’re not on a quest for honours?
TOM: Not really. That’s great at the end, you know. If you win it’s good.
MATT: But it’s only a day, isn’t it?
TOM: Yeah. I just want to know that I can do it, that I can go in there and compete. It’s changed a little bit as I’ve competed more. I want to understand how to compete better and how I can use my jiu-jitsu against anybody. And how to not let the mental side of it stop me.
MATT: That’s a lofty goal.
TOM: Yeah, it really is. Sometimes it happens, and then sometimes it doesn’t. I wanted to do that and challenge myself a bit. Things like Polaris, where I fought Gianni. He’s really, really good, and I wanted to see how I’d fare against him. And even though I lost that fight, I was happy with how I fought. I enjoyed being in that match. Mentally, I felt well prepared. I was bummed because losing sucks, but I wasn’t disheartened because I fought well. I made a mistake and he capitalised on it.
MATT: Which you kind of expect at that level.
TOM: Exactly. I made a stupid mistake and he capitalised on it. But I still went out there and tried to impose my game. I tried to do what I wanted to do, and up until that point it was a relatively even fight. I was happy with my performance. Sometimes I’ve won competitions and been unhappy because I’ve not opened up in the way I wanted to. I’ve not exposed—shown—my jiu-jitsu. I’ve just ground through it, I’ve stayed safe. I’ve not done the things that I’ve been working on.
MATT: You’ve done points and submission-only comps. Have you found that that’s prominent in the points system, that you tailor your game to the rule set? That you try to exploit it a little bit?
TOM: If you want to be successful you have to tailor your game to the rule set. It’s impossible not to because there’s so many nuances to the rules.
MATT: That’s what I mean. Capitalising on those nuances to the detriment of your game.
TOM: I talk about wanting to prove my mentality, but I still want to win at the end of the day. I’m not going in there with the attitude to lose. Understanding how to game the system, to a certain extent, pushes me to be able to win. Or it allows me to get those little things that can make the difference between winning and losing. But from a mental standpoint, if I don’t open up, if I don’t fight the way I think I should fight--
MATT: What does “open up” mean?
TOM: Just try things. I can feel when I’m on top and not pushing as hard as I can be, or when I’m tentative. More than anything, that’s it.
MATT: So you’re almost being--
TOM: Cautious. Not cautious, but it’s like--
MATT: You feel inhibited?
MATT: Like you’re holding something back?
TOM: Yes. Exactly. That’s the best way to think about it. I can win fights and think, “Yeah, I did okay, but I still held back. I didn’t show the world my jiu-jitsu. I know that I’m better than that.”
For example, there’s a photo up on the wall from the final of the Europeans. [I get up and walk over to it.] The bottom right. In the blue gi, where I’m almost arm-barring the guy.
TOM: I didn’t finish the arm-bar. I didn’t finish the arm-bar because I was reluctant to bring my leg over his head. He could’ve passed my guard. I should have finished that arm-bar. That’s the final of the Europeans. I won, convincingly, but I held back. And there was no reason to hold back. Even if it goes wrong, I’m belly down, my legs should come over his head, and I’ll end up in turtle. I can defend, I can fight out of turtle, it’s not an issue for me. But I didn’t do it.
MATT: [I sit back down] So you see that picture every time and think that?
TOM: Yeah. I think, “Man, I could have done better than that.” I mean, there was other stuff going on. Like in the first fight in that competition, I got knee’d in the head. I started to go underneath the guy in 50/50 and at the same time he dropped a knee on my head. I was mildly concussed whilst I was fighting.
That first fight was hilarious. When it happened, it was all going well. I decided to pull guard because he had that… You can feel when somebody’s got better stand up than you do, so I pulled guard. I was like, “Okay, I feel comfortable here.” Then I spin underneath and he drops his knee. From that point on I was like, “Hold on for dear life! This is going to be a bad day at the office!” I think it made me a little tentative when it came to the later fights.
But in the fight with Gianni. I lost, and I know why I lost, and it wasn’t for any other reason than that I did what I wanted to do. I made the choice. I made the choice to try and push the pace. We were at 50/50. I could easily have stalled and taken my time. I decided not to. I decided to risk something, and he ended up capitalising. That’s fine with me.
MATT: Is that the main thing you’ve learned? Between your most recent competition and the first competition you did, is that the biggest difference?
TOM: No, competition-wise, I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to compete. Understanding how my body reacts when I’m warming up, when I’m preparing. The mental state that I need to be in to go onto the mat.
MATT: Does it take you a long time to time switch it on, or can you drop in to that mindset quite easily?
TOM: When I go into a competition, I know how I need to warm up. I know what I need to do. Things are going to happen around me and I can’t control everything, but I know roughly what I need to do. And at a competition, most of time, I can do those things. I have a set plan that every time I compete I go through. It’ll change slightly depending on where I’m at.
That’s the biggest thing. I remember the first time I did it. It was the 2010 British Open and I won it. It was the first time I’d put it into practise. I’d done visualisation, spent time prepping myself, not interacted with anybody. I’d done everything perfectly. When it came to the fight, it was really strange. Everything I’d been thinking about actually happened as I was fighting. It really, really bizarre.
One of the things that I do is visualise the whole process. When I walk into the arena, I imagine what it’s going to feel like, what it’s going to look like: waiting in the bullpen, going onto the mat, slapping hands, the fight starting, then what happens in the fight, and me winning. I just play it forwards and backwards so that I become used to it, comfortable with it.
MATT: But how do you get to that level? Because the end goal is to be in your preferred state of mind, right? So how do you get there if you don’t know what’s going to happen?
TOM: Most of the time you do. You’re in control of some of what’s going on around you. You don’t need to interact with anybody. People feel like they should talk to others. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.
I can’t control the sounds that I hear, I can’t control the people I see, I can’t really control what my opponent is going to look like. But I don’t need to either. I’m just visualising myself going through the whole process and getting comfortable with it.
MATT: So it’s not so much the actual environment you’re visualising? It’s just your place within it? The environment around you is irrelevant. It’s just filler.
TOM: Think of it like a film. You have plot points in the film. I just visualise my key plot points. What the building is going to look like, you never see that in a plot outline. You know what I mean? So I don’t need to add that colour. I just need to know that I’m going through this sequence, and I get comfortable with it.
I think that a lot of people who struggle with competition, it’s because it’s unfamiliar to them. It’s a big thing, everything’s new, you don’t know what’s going on--
MATT: That’s what I mean. If you don’t have that familiarity, if you haven’t been there before, it’s very hard to plot out how you’re going to feel.
TOM: Yeah, but if you have a routine that you go through, it then becomes comfortable because your body gets used to it. For example, if you have a set warmup routine, you can teach yourself mentally to prepare for strenuous activity. If you do the same warm up over and over again, your mind and body thinks, “Oh, I’m going to do this now.”
MATT: It’s like a trigger.
TOM: Yeah. You can do that when you compete as well. It doesn’t really matter if I do the same warmup here, at Polaris, or at any other event. It doesn’t make any difference. My body is still saying, “Oh, we’re doing this warmup. It’s time to compete.”
You see it with a lot of guys. The UFC is a great place to see it. You see them in their corners. They have triggers or anchors. If you watch the fighter enough, you see them do the same things. They go like that [Tom hits his chest with his fist]. They’re anchoring to the state. You can do that kind of stuff as well.
A lot of my preparation is visualised the day before. And when I go to a competition, I get there an hour or two before. I want to get comfortable in the environment. The first thing I do when I arrive is walk around the arena. That’s my first anchor. That’s the first thing I always do.
MATT: Do you mind talking me through it? So you walk in, walk around…
TOM: And when it comes to the fight, I step onto the mat, have a swallow of water, and go from there. That routine, I visualise it over and over again. Regardless of where I’m at, I know the major points of what I’m going to do. Even if it’s super fast, like I get through the warm up and I’m straight into the bullpen. It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to wait. I go through those points. It makes no difference how long each one of those takes in particular.
MATT: How does the other person—your opponent, their game and their strategy—influence the process?
TOM: Normally, I know who the first guy I’m going to face is. I’ll have researched them and seen what their game is and planned accordingly. The day before I’ll have visualised the whole process multiple times, and also what my game is going to be for that person. I don’t worry too much about what they’re going to do. I know what I’m going to do to them.
MATT: I suppose once you get to a certain level it doesn’t take very long to alter your strategy, or pick up that someone’s doing something a certain way.
TOM: Absolutely. And sometimes the strategy I choose, I forget.
A few years ago, I fought Denilson Pimenta in the Pan-Ams. He had very, very good stand up. Some of his takedowns were crazy. He was an absolute ninja. And I was like, “I’m going to go in there and stand up with him. I want to test my judo and see how it stacks up against his.” Guilherme Mendes was coaching me, and he was like, “You should pull guard.” I was like, “Yeah, I think I’ll stand up.” This was in the semifinals.
MATT: Really low stakes.
TOM: We were moving around and he came in with a basic takedown, and it was so fast. I was like, “Oh my God! Jesus, what happened?” I stood back up and I braced for him. He shot again, and it was incredibly quick. Thankfully, my sprawl was on point—there’s a great picture of me sprawling on him which I’ve got somewhere. But then I realised, “Oh, I need to pull guard. I need to listen to Gui. He knows what he’s talking about.” So I ended up pulling guard.
I lost because of that. That first takedown he got an advantage on me. He took me down, I hit the deck, and I scrambled out of it. It was a very entertaining experience.
I’ve done stuff like that quite a lot. Sometimes the strategy doesn’t work. But it’s okay because--
MATT: Because you’ve got that reservoir of experience to fall back on?
TOM: Yeah. When I fought in the first round of the Euros, I was planning on standing up and working with the guy. But that wasn’t going to work. As we were moving around, he foot swept me, or went to foot sweep me. It was perfect, perfect timing. Thankfully, he didn’t have the grips. That was the interesting thing. In my head I was like, “I’m not going to stand up with this guy because his judo is better than mine.” So I pulled guard.
MATT: Do you find that you appreciate the move as it’s being done? When you watch it happen, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a really good move. That was nice!”
TOM: Yeah, it’s a strange thing. “Oh, this is lovely. That was a great technique. Well done. Oh, I need to fight you at the same time!” You talk to them about it later. It’s a good experience.
MATT: Guilherme Mendes, what was his role in the process? You primarily train at Art of Jiu-Jitsu, right? So he works a lot with you?
TOM: Yeah, sometimes he coaches me in competition, and sometimes he doesn’t.
MATT: It’s very informal?
TOM: Pretty much. If Gui’s there and he coaches me, he’s a really good coach. And he’s got a very distinctive voice, so it’s incredibly easy to hear what he’s saying.
MATT: I listened to a podcast before I came in. They were talking about cornering and they said that sometimes the guy giving instructions is not the one with the most experience, but the one that’s easiest to hear.
TOM: Exactly. His voice is incredibly easy to pick out. And Gui is an excellent coach. Most of the time I listen to him when he says “pull guard” or whatever. Sometimes I don’t.
MATT: When is your next competition? Have you got one lined up?
TOM: The Euros this year. In mid-January.
MATT: And you’re going into a training camp when you get back to California?
TOM: Yeah, I started training already for it. I’ve been working on a new training programme with my strength coach.
MATT: Is that with Will Badenoch?
TOM: Yeah. I’ve had some problems with my lower back over the last few years. My mobility is not where it should be. And doing any heavy lifting after a while becomes problematic. Heavy deadlifts, heavy squats, anything like that is difficult. So we’ve switched to a very power-orientated protocol. Lighter weights, but the reps are a lot more explosive.
And because I’m already training a couple times a day, the sessions are only thirty to forty minutes long. And they’re with lighter weights so they’re not too taxing on my muscles. I can fit them in consistently.
MATT: Do you follow this program when you’re in the U.S.?
TOM: Yeah. It doesn’t need a lot of equipment. I can modify it if I need to. I was out there for the last few weeks and I kept to it relatively easily. I just go down to the gym twice a week, get the sessions in, and we see what happens. Because if you train heavily in jiu-jitsu, particularly in competition season, you can get worn down. It can be brutal. But I’m better than I used to be. I’m really aware of how my body recovers, how it reacts to certain situations, and stuff like that. I try to avoid over-training.
MATT: There’s one thing that I remember from my first couple months of jiu-jitsu. I rolled with a purple belt, and he tapped me fives times in a row. At the end of it, I stopped and said to him, exasperated, “How can I stop you doing that?” He said, “You need to chill the fuck out.”
And in the past six months or year, I’ve got better at monitoring how much energy I’m using. I’ve been doing a lot of open mats, and when you roll, no-one tells you to stop, so you just keep going. After ten minutes, I get to this real nice place where I’m not using up my resources, my energy, quicker than it can replenish.
Are you conscious of that sort of thing when you’re prepping for a competition?
TOM: No. When I’m prepping for a competition I’m not necessarily trying to conserve energy. A lot of the time, that’s the opposite of what I need to do when I’m competing.
MATT: You want to expend as much energy as necessary?
TOM: I want to be in as good a shape as possible. My movements need to be explosive. I need to be quick to react to things. And if I’m not doing that, if I’m just going slow, it’s not reflective of what it’s like in a competition. It’s a different mindset. And I want to be in as good a shape as possible so--
MATT: So you don’t hit a barrier in the middle of the competition?
TOM: Yeah. If I’m only ever working to my limits, I’m not expanding those limits. I try to push as much as I can when I’m training because, at the end of the day, it’s just training. It doesn’t matter whether I win, lose or draw. It’s about whether I’ve improved in that session or not. And if I’m just going through the motions, not pushing myself, then I’m not going to be improving. I prefer to do less sessions with a better focus and intensity than do more with a worse focus and intensity. That’s going to be more reflective of how I compete.
MATT: That approach, I suppose, is mirrored by the other guys you’re training with. You’re all trying, not to one up each other, but to learn as much as you can and do the best you can. Which raises everyone’s standards.
TOM: No one ever wants to lose. Even in training, it sucks getting submitted. But it’s just part of learning.
The thing is, I have many different modes of training. Sometimes I’m very experimental with what I do and I’ll put myself in positions where I’m uncomfortable. Where I don’t know what’s going on or what technique to use. But that’s not for competitions. In competition, I want to be using what I’m best at. So the closer it gets to competition, the less I experiment with things. I stick to what I’m good at and try to make that better, impose that on more people.
MATT: It’s almost like the closer you get to competition, the more you look for the low-risk, high-leverage stuff. And when you’re out of competition, you try stuff that is more risky, that may not work, and might not be as effective.
TOM: I don’t even look at low-risk or high-risk. What I do normally, I try to make it better. I work on the timing, the efficiency, I try to connect it better. Everything is about making what I currently do well, better. I don’t necessarily take things out.
MATT: “Currently.” So it changes?
TOM: It progresses. My game is not the same as it was a year ago. It’s changed. It’s evolved. I’ve added things in, taken things out. It develops that way. Other times, when I’m not competing, I’ll play around.
For example, a couple of days ago I was rolling, ended up in 50/50, and a guy foot locked me. So I went straight back into 50/50, got submitted, went back into 50/50, again and again. I was like, “All right, I need to improve my 50/50 defence for foot locks.” I was just trying to get better at that. But if I was competing, if I was in competition camp, I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t have even gone into 50/50 in the first place. I would have fought to get out because I don’t want to be there.
MATT: How do you evolve your game then? Is it a one percent a day thing? Or do you have a period where you sit down and look at all your competitions, all your training, and then make changes and cuts based on it?
TOM: I do analyse what I do well and what I don’t do well. But again, it’s just playing around with things. I see something on TV and I’ll be like, “Let’s try this and see if it works.” And then attending classes, attending seminars, that kind of thing. They help to expose my knowledge and benefit me. Another one of the facets of my character is that I’m an instructor. I want to know as much about jiu-jitsu as I possibly can, so that if someone wants to play upside down, inside out, inverted guard, I can help them improve. So that I can show them where they need to go with it. Even though I’m not necessarily going to use it in competition.
If you look at the high level competition guys, the stuff they do is the stuff they’ve been doing since they were blue belts. It’s not different. But that’s the competition mindset. They’re trying to win competitions. I want to win competitions. But I’m also teaching. And I’ve been teaching for a long time, so I have a dual mentality.
MATT: Do you ever get moments when you’re teaching something, something you you think you know very very well, and you have a realisation about it?
TOM: Oh, all the time. All the time. One of the best things about teaching is it teaches you. You learn the little things. You learn how to describe it better, to break it down better, to analyse what you’re doing.
I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve done well. I started teaching—I’ve been teaching for a long time, but jiu-jitsu specifically—when I was a blue belt. Because at that point, there was nobody around to teach.
MATT: And you feel that aided your development?
TOM: I think so, yeah. It forced me to see a technique and go, “How can I actually do this?”
MATT: To think about it differently.
TOM: I’m not just copying what someone does. I’m learning to do it myself. So in some ways I think it helped me out. In other ways, I think it hindered me.
MATT: How do you mean?
TOM: It’s a slower process to really learn how to do something. Some of the things you do aren’t necessarily correct, or there’s a more efficient way to do it, but you’re not creative enough to figure it out. For example, the way I shrimped could’ve been more effective.
MATT: That’s a very micro thing.
TOM: For a long time, it was not as good as it could’ve been. But I haven’t had a coach saying “Just change this.”
MATT: At home, I’ve matted out the garage. I was trying to think of stuff I could work on on my own. I thought about meditation. It teaches you how to breathe. And if you’re breathing wrong, it affects your whole life, because you breathe thousands of times a day. I thought, “Could I apply the same thing to jiu-jitsu?” There are fundamental movements like a shrimp, or a forward or backwards roll. If you really break them down and make very slight changes to them, would the cumulative effect of those really micro changes have a big impact on your game?
TOM: Yeah, if you could figure out those movements, I’m sure it would make a difference.
I was talking to someone about this the other day. The more I train jiu-jitsu, the smaller it gets. You recognise common movements across the whole thing. When you start jiu-jitsu it seems like there’s all these different positions.
MATT: Like weight training. If you look at every exercise, you see there’s only five or six fundamental movements—a squat, a hip hinge, a push, a pull, a carry. Everything is just a variation of that.
TOM: Exactly. Jiu-jitsu is like that. You have so many moves: up, down, left, right, side, mount, back. There are all these different things. But the more you learn, the more you understand, the smaller it gets. You start to understand the core, fundamental things.
MATT: What are some of those things?
TOM: Understanding how to move your hips is one of the most important. It’s shrimping, but it’s also circling your feet, how to bring your legs around your head, stuff like that. Just the way that you move your hips. Another is understanding how to control people. How to keep your opponent flat.
MATT: Like maintaining a connection?
TOM: No. Whenever someone’s trying to escape, they have to turn to their side. There is no escape where they don’t do that. So if you can understand how to keep someone flat and stop them turning to the side, you can control any position.
This is one of the lessons Braulio taught me. He said to me, “For a month, your whole goal is just to keep your opponent flat.” So when I was sparring, that’s all I would do. And I started to learn how to use my body and my hips, the different areas, so that the second they tried to turn I was already putting them flat on their back again. It massively improved my top control. And because I wasn’t using my hands so much, it freed them up to start working and doing other things.
Another one is understanding how to move around the person. How to expose their weak side. For example, if you can’t keep the person flat and they’re exploding towards you, staying on that side is not the best place to be.
MATT: It’s almost like you’re getting out of the way of their weapons.
TOM: Exactly. You have to learn how and when to move around to the other side. That can apply to side control, mount, the back, passing guard, defending guard, all kinds of things. And once you understand that you don’t want to be facing their strongest parts, it makes life a lot easier.
And defensive framing. When you understand that your defensive frame is just keeping everything tight in, and you apply that to every position, making it your goal to get back to it, escaping becomes a lot easier. Because you no longer have to worry about the specifics of what they’re doing. “I get back to here and start my escape from there.” You can accomplish it through bridging, shrimping, pushing on them, by doing whatever you like.
Understanding those core principles can really help.
MATT: Is there anything you’re starting to work on now that could end up being something as fundamental as those things? Is there something you’ve realised in the past couple years that you’ve been missing?
TOM: Escaping is one. Keeping that tight frame has made a big difference recently, in a lot of positions. It’s the opposite of what most people do, which is expose everything.
MATT: Because you want to do this sort of thing [I extend my arms in front of me] to try and maintain the distance.
TOM: Yeah. The difference between having your arms out straight and folding them into a frame is the space. The thing is, if they’re trying to attack you, they’re going to fall into that space. You don’t need to reach out and touch them, they’re going to come to you. So why do it? And then you can move around them as they’re coming down. But it’s hard to do because everyone has this natural response to brace.
MATT: Is that something that comes from training and competition? When the stakes are high or the pressure’s on, do you have to overcome the instincts that are counter to what you actually need to do?
TOM: That’s one of the things about training. If you’re going into competition you need to train like you’re going to compete. You have to get used to the mentality. If you don’t train like that, you’ll go back to your instinctive nature. You want to be put under pressure in training so that you learn to react the correct way, not the instinctive way.
It’s not just about understanding the movement. Everybody can apply and do the movement. It’s about being able to apply it under mental stress, too. If you’re only ever flow rolling and not competing, you’re never going to be able to do it. You’ll always revert back to what you’re used to. You need to connect those two things. The mental aspect and the physical aspect. That can be tricky to do. It has to be done through pressure. It can’t be done any other way.
MATT: You can’t cheat it.
TOM: Not really, no. You have to be under pressure to do it. One of the good things they do at A.O.J. is they have superfights in competition class. Everybody sits around, and then two guys go in the middle and fight. It’s two minutes and it’s first to submit, first to score, whatever. That’s one of the things they do to get you used to the pressure.
MATT: That’s a lot of pressure because it’s not just an anonymous crowd. It’s the people you train with every day, your friends.
TOM: And in that situation, you fight everybody. You’ll fight guys that are better than you, guys that are worse. So you have to deal with that mindset of “I’m a black belt and he’s a brown belt.” You’re just learning and it doesn’t matter too much.
MATT: You just have to do whatever you can.
TOM: Do what you can. Exactly. And then sometimes you end up fighting Rafa [Mendes], and you just try to survive as long as you possibly can. I try and make him work as hard as possible. And if I do that, I’m happy.
Tom Barlow has been training martial arts since 1998 and Jiu-Jitsu since late 2005. A black belt under Braulio Estima (promoted in 2011), Tom is considered to be one of the UK's best competitors. His notable achievements include:
- No Gi World Champion 2013/14/15
- British Champion 2009/10/11/12
- European Champion 2015
- British Team Member 2007/8
- Polaris Veteran
- ADCC Veteran
Tom also runs two successful martial arts academies in Plymouth, is a Scramble-sponsored athlete, and regularly travels to compete and train with the world's best.