As a blue belt in 2007, Nathan Mendelsohn traveled to Brazil, excited to compete in the World Championships. To his surprise, the competition was moved to the U.S. for the first time that year and also scheduled a month later. He was still able to compete and maybe more importantly spend a month immersed in the Brazilian culture and Portuguese language.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, Nathan was your average, quiet, laid-back surfer kid in one of the most socially liberal cities in the world. An only child, Nathan started jiu jitsu when he was 7 and began a life course that would take him around the world and grow his family beyond his wildest dreams.
During that month in 2007, he took his only formal class in Portuguese with Dennis Asche, founder of Connection Rio. There he learned some basic vocabulary and phrasing which he brought home to California, but ultimately his native Brazilian instructors would become frustrated with his limited knowledge and would ultimately switch back to English.
Nathan’s parents were always extremely supportive of Nathan’s BJJ and would ultimately open their home and give their spare room to an endless stream of jiu jitsu luminaries. At many points, there would be multiple black belts to not only train with, but to also perfect his Portuguese on.
This constant immersion back home in Santa Cruz with the visiting Brazilian guests would not only increase his overall language ability, but would ultimately change Nathan as a person. “Santa Cruz is very liberal, with a hippy mentality,” Nathan says “I grew up being not very aggressive. Brazilians are much more aggressive. They are not shy when it comes to relationships with each other and with the opposite sex.”
Overtime, Nathan began to associate himself much more with his Brazilian friends. “My American friends will eat a bag of chips or cookies and won’t offer anyone any, but my Brazilian friends will share,” he says, “They are much more communal. I find myself buying my Brazilian friends lunch, because I know they will get me back. My American friends, not so much,” he laughs.
Nathan recalls another story of this cultural difference when walking with a group of Brazilian friends and meeting up with groups of American friends, the Brazilians will have a tendency to introduce themselves to everyone, but the American friends will hesitate or continue to look at their phones, staying in their personal bubble.
Meanwhile, this immersion in the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture also had a direct impact on his BJJ. Being exposed to training and teaching methods in Brazil, opened Nathan’s eyes to a different way to think about jiu jitsu. He found it very interesting that in some ways Brazilians were more formal about their training and in some ways they were much more laid back. He was influenced by the typical class in Brazil having much more sparring and less formal instruction. “The old style was a half-hour warmup, a half-hour of technique, and finally a half-hour of sparring,” Nathan describes. He goes on to explain that he thinks newer instructors tend to over-teach by teaching 2-3 moves per class. He enjoyed training more in Brazil because there was much more sparring. Nathan brought that idea back to his own classes.
During our conversation, Nathan tells of one of his Brazilian friends who is studying English and talking about different ‘tenses’ and technical grammatical aspects. “He’s talking about present-perfect tense and I’m like bro, I don’t even know that, ” Nathan laughs. This becomes the key point when understanding Nathan’s own journey, which was a more organic and almost accidental learning of Portuguese through his pursuit of BJJ gold.
“Talking about a BJJ move in a circle is nice, but that’s not how it’s going to work,” Nathan explains, “In every match you’re going to find yourself in new positions–no two berimbolos, de la rivas, or sleeve grips are ever going to be the same.”
Nathan goes on to describe his idea of jiu jitsu as a ladder. “You don’t want to get to the top of the ladder and fall all the way to the bottom,” he says. If you study only moves as isolated things, you never really address the spaces and reactions that can happen between moves.
“Positions keep you from falling down the ladder,” Nathan continues. “One or two moves from each position is all you really need.” In other words, if the opponent counters one of your “moves”, as long as your positions are solid, you don’t fall back to the bottom of the ladder. Instead, you maintain position and go after an alternative move from that position.
Learning a language, like learning jiu jitsu can come in many forms. Clinical dissection of words and techniques might teach you the elements of both, but jumping in and experiencing them more organically might open you up to the poetry of each.
When asked for shoutouts, Nathan shared the following: “I’d like to thank Trick or Treat Studios, Clinch Gear, Show the Art, On the Mat, Tournament 360 for always supporting me. I’d like to thank Greg Amundson and Crossfit Amundson for helping me with fitness and mindset training. I would like to especially thank my instructor Claudio Franca, who always has my back. My biggest thanks would be to my parents for their hard work which allows me to live this lifestyle. And finally, thanks to Jiu Jitsu Times for thinking of me.”
Nathan Mendelsohn is a great example of a shy American kid who broke out of his comfort zone and experienced both the language of jiu jitsu and the dynamic energy of Portuguese, and vice versa. As critics of technology and social media are fond of touting the idea that these tools make us more socially isolated, you can break this cycle and use the tools to your advantage. Make some friends with people from other countries or natives of other languages and get to know them. Facetime with them, travel to visit them and share your culture and language with them and who knows, maybe it will make your BJJ better and more importantly, your life.