From Devastating Trauma To Achieving Triumph | Max Barnhart's Jiu-Jitsu Story
Submission Shark Community | Instagram: @brooklyn_lejon
Full Name: Max Barnhart
Belt Colour: Brown Belt
Professor: Rodolfo Rocha, 1st Degree Black Belt under Daniel Gracie
Short Term Goals: Improve my instructing abilities, specifically the ability to simplify movements for my students to easily comprehend and display.
Traumatic experiences can happen at any time with no warnings. You never truly know what life has planned for you. This article isn't a plea to live in fear but rather inspiration and reminder that no matter how dark and scary your life might be, you can always find some light to guide you through the madness. For Max Barnhart, this light came through in the form of Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu. Max is a dedicated BJJ practitioner and highly qualified strength & conditioning coach that selflessly expresses his passion for this art by both teaching class and being a role model for his community.
Learn more about the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu for mental health and physical wellbeing as well as specific strength and conditioning exercises for grapplers and a heart-wrenching story involving a tragic moment. This interview is filled with interesting topics and discussions around varies topics and benefits of BJJ.
How long have you been doing jiu-jitsu for?
Where do you train out of?
I train out of UFC Gym Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.
Do you prefer gi or no-gi?
I have always preferred the Gi because it represents tradition. That tradition is what altered the course of my life, directing me away from a very negative path toward being a more peaceful human being.
The only thing that makes sense in this world is a kimono, the belt, and the mat. The kimono strips us of all that we are except for our spirit, mind, emotions, and physical attributes (essentially our physiological, and mental fortitude).
You can’t hide in a kimono. You are revealed for all that you are and aren’t. There is order in that structure, in an otherwise unpredictable world.
Have your instructors helped you in other aspects of life other than jiu-jitsu?
Rodolfo has helped me as a man, as a human being. I’ve learned from him that not every wrong must be righted. That if you can seek peace in a situation that you indeed should. He has opened my mind to the fact that our belt, our rank, doesn't make us superman. We are all human, and all susceptible to a loss on the mat.
What are some lessons you learned from jiu-jitsu that apply to everyday life?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has helped correct my train of thought from a very aggressive, hyper-vigilant state stemming from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and OCD, to a more peaceful mindset. I have come to understand that if you train incessantly, you have to bear the responsibility that you are a martial artist and the knowledge that the proficiency you have obtained isn’t to be abused.
You are obligated to uphold what is the most honourable course of action in all situations.
How often do you train?
I train roughly 5-6 times a week in the gi, and weightlift/strength train for jiu-jitsu 3-4 times per week
What made you want to start training?
I recognized that the sole reason I was getting into altercations, and coming closer and closer to jeopardizing my life’s upward trajectory was due to the simple fact that I didn't know how to fight. Obviously, there were other factors, mostly biochemical imbalances, at play, but learning to actually fight was a solvent for a destructive lifestyle. In my personal experience, you fight when you don't know how to, and you don't fight when you absolutely know-how.
Do you plan on training your whole life?
Man plans, God laughs. I suppose as I age, there will be more of a reliance on strength training, and drilling, to endure the rigours of jiu-jitsu. However, the goal is to be able to still spar with maximum effort when I’m 50 years old.
What’s it about jiu-jitsu that makes it so addicting?
Jiu-jitsu calms the mind. I’m at peace after rolling; it’s the only martial art where you can go 100% every sparring session. Due to that, it changes your vantage point regarding physicality. Some of the most humble, calm individuals are the most savage, capable people on the mat; their demeanour belies their true abilities. Additionally, Jiu-jitsu forces you to accept reality.
When my passing got better, my professor looked at me and told me my guard simply wasn’t good. I had to accept that, swallow that bitter pill, in order to play guard and improve it. Without these two essential abilities (to be at peace, and to accept reality), you can’t really change your life, and Jiu-Jitsu will force you to either improve those qualities or quit.
What has jiu-jitsu done for your physical health?
I coached strength and conditioning at the Division-I level for the greater part of a decade, so size and strength were my primary goals. However, in the pursuit of strength, I disregarded physical health. I got as heavy as 295lbs. After getting back on the mat following a long hiatus, I lost 40lbs. in less than a year. I’ve been sober for 9 years. I don't go out on weekends to bars, or any other similar establishments. Sobriety, a choice I made after my father died of alcoholism, granted me nights of full rest.
How Jiu-Jitsu Helped Me Recover From Drug and Alcohol Abuse | Justin Bachman's Story
I believe this to be a massive advantage over most others. I can train harder, and more frequently due to restful nights and the proper hydration and nutrition that are byproducts of that lifestyle. This is an important point to note, due to the fact that Jiu-jitsu will force you to face the fact that you either prepared correctly or incorrectly for that session. As a consequence, you will do poorly, regress, and possibly quit. For me, to digress is to die.
Therefore, I must perform at the highest level of every session. Simply put, Jiu-jitsu reinforces the need for a healthy lifestyle and emphasis on the factors that affect physical well-being. Weight loss and sobriety wouldn't be enforced without Jiu-jitsu.
Has jiu-jitsu benefited your mental health?
I’d possibly be in prison, or an institution, without therapy, my mother, my psychiatrist, God, and Jiu-jitsu. If I fail at upholding attentiveness to any of the aforementioned I will falter. Consequently, Jiu-jitsu is vital for my mental stability. It soothes my hyper-vigilance, which in a significant way, forces you to incessantly monitor your surroundings, compare yourself to others, and draw negative attention. BJJ reinforces confidence in my abilities, so I look around far less. I can actually be present in the moment, rather than in fight or flight mode.
What would you like to say to someone that's dealing with mental health issues and is upset about how society treats them due to it?
Society hasn't gotten it right. We are ostracized constantly. Sometimes it’s on a macro scale, and in other instances, it’s on a micro-level. I was listening to a clip from a podcast recently that portrayed Klonopin in a terrible, malicious light. This medication, one of four that I take daily, has saved my life. So, this podcast that has garnered millions of followers successfully maligned a positive form of treatment.
At the micro-level, I’ve found dating and friendships to be adversely affected due to the constraints my mental health places on social activities. I can’t be at bars, clubs, in large crows, arenas. A past girlfriend said that it was too difficult to constantly think if “Max would be ok doing this” when she was planning out activities for us. That hit hard. I was blamed for something that is biochemical. Neurochemistry can be changed, permanently, by trauma. Yet, there are still those who refuse medication, saying “oh, you don't need that,” who are also the same ones that view socializing with us as burdens.
This may be rejecting to read, but there is a massive silver lining here- the friends and relationships that emerge out of the fog of the war we fight every day are the strongest bonds we will ever have. Those are the people who care, who don't brush us aside because of our ailments. Their bond is unbreakable. They are with us during the darkest part of the night, enabling us to see the dawn. Talk to your friends, significant others, and family.
Whoever doesn't support your battle isn’t worth your time. Forget them. Quite literally expel them from your social circle. And by talking honestly about your suffering, the truest supporters will emerge.
If you can actualize a support network, you are creating a microcosm within society. In essence, you are forming your own society in doing so. While there may be misunderstanding at a general level, control your surroundings, specifically those within them, and you affect change.
Discussions lead to questions, which generate new concepts. Enlighten your friends. This is the change. This is how we survive. This is how we win. Society will eventually follow suit.
The Submission Shark Community is an example of that. More lives are positively affected by articles that Submission Shark puts out than by us all staying quiet. I am happy to say that Submission Shark is helping views on a macro level.
If you could restart your jiu-jitsu journey, would you do anything differently?
As shitty as many things have been in my life, I have to own what’s been done. I have to own that I hung out with criminals and saw what some of the worst ones do.
That my father was an alcoholic my whole life until the day he died from it when I was 23. If I don't own these things, I have no control over how I respond to them. As awful as the relationship with my dad was, if it weren’t for the terrible example he set physically and mentally, I wouldn't put such a high price on working my hardest in spite of the little money it produces, and I wouldn't have found the “digress and die” mentality in the gym, and on the mat. I wouldn't have strived to be who I am today, the exact opposite of him, without his example. So, in that way, I owe him thanks. The same applies to Jiu-Jitsu.
I have to own that I quit at one point; that I wasn't mentally prepared for the rigorous training and dedication. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn't have had to acknowledge that I had to improve my mental and physical fortitude. Without that, I wouldn't be the practitioner I am today.
What’s your advice for someone that’s never tried jiu-jitsu before but is interested in trying it?
Realize that it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. If you accept that, then it is easier to handle the difficulties of getting submitted, injured, and looking yourself in the mirror to peel back the layers of who you are, and what exactly needs to be fixed.
Do you have any aspirations in jiu-jitsu?
My goals are to fulfill the rank my Professor gives me in all of its implications, and to improve my ability to instruct.
What’s your favourite move?
There are three that I will always rely upon for their fundamentality, and consequential effectiveness: the Kimura, Cross-Collar Choke, and Ankle lock.
If you didn’t discover jiu-jitsu, where do you think you’d be now?
I’d be a loser, having succumbed to my anger, living a destructive life. Jiu-jitsu and my previous professors taught me how to view long-term goals. Because of that, I was able to tackle my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I can’t put into words exactly what they said, but it made the attainment of a long-term goal become possible in my mind’s eye, and eventually a reality.
Would you like to see the sport become more mainstream?
Yes, absolutely because the people who do this for a living are doing it as a labour of love, not for some sizable profit. That struggle is still very real to this day. And while the financial woes help the profession rid itself of those truly not in love with all things jiu-jitsu, it certainly doesn't financially benefit those who have sacrificed everything for this martial art. The bigger the sport, the bigger the classroom.
Have any of your training partners pushed you to reach your full potential?
Brian Medici, a brown belt under Professor Rodolfo Rocha, has pushed me to elevate my passing, and awareness defensively speaking. One slip and he will sweep and submit you. He also makes me a better instructor, as he is far calmer than I am, bringing a different approach to instruction that I am constantly learning from.
When you were first starting, what was the most difficult concept of jiu-jitsu that you had trouble getting?
Amazing question. I’d say being calm in the storm; breathing regularly under mount is a true test of where you are at in your training. You can have all the physical gifts in the world, if your mind isn’t right, none of that matters.
If you could roll with any practitioner, dead or alive, who would it be?
Royler Gracie. He has published two books that are essential to jiu-jitsu, and I am indebted to him for the impact those books had on improving my jiu-jitsu IQ and on-mat ability.
What makes you want to inspire and motivate others?
Mental health. To paraphrase David Goggins, you don't need a gun to be a warrior because we’re all going through a battle between our two ears. I want to demonstrate how much a person with clinical Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can accomplish. I want those suffering to do even more than I have so that one day I can look to them for advice on how they accomplished so much.
The world's a crazy place. I've found that the youth class seems to make everything make sense. It centers on me. This refocuses my attention on what's important. We're lucky here at @ufcgym_parkslope to have both parents and children that are truly passionate about the Martial Art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Every one of these kids is doing a tremendous job of displaying not only technique but the character of martial artists. Keep up the great work!!!
How important is strength and conditioning for Jiu-Jitsu? And what are some simple exercises a practitioner can begin doing at home?
If you are at all like me, someone who wasn’t given the gift of athleticism, then strength and conditioning is probably the most important element for your off-the-mat preparation for Jiu-jitsu. I was 165lbs. soaking wet at the age of 17 when I began BJJ. I was told I needed to eat and was reminded of how frail I was. Neither fast nor strong, I had stamina and that was about it. I have dedicated 11 years to lifting seriously and now wake up at over 235lbs.
I’m now known for my strength, and pressure than anything else. How times have changed. And that’s what the weight room will do for you. You can become the biggest, and strongest on the mat by taking lifting seriously. If getting big isn’t on your list, then be the strongest you can be for your weight class.
Generally speaking, BJJ practitioners and even MMA athletes have yet to approach lifting in the appropriate way. I am writing a short book on the exercise science principles I have followed for years to be where I am now as a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, and I believe when it is published it will help many in our field.
Areas to immediately address Grip; Neck; Traps; Lats; Hamstrings, and Glutes. That is literally all you need to be the strongest on the mat. Exercises I recommend that you can begin immediately are as follows: Neck Bridges; Shrugs (barbell, dumbbell, bands, or with plates); Lat Pulldowns and Dumbbell Rows (with Fat Gripz, as well); and Cable Pull Throughs. All of these are demonstrated and discussed at length on my Instagram account.
I have just begun testing my students in the pushup and will be instituting neck bridge testing, as well. We have to begin to monitor our students’ strength levels. Even John Danaher said that when two people are matched technically, the stronger person will win.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
Everyone can follow me on my Instagram at @Brooklyn_Lejon. I’m also on YouTube under Max Barnhart. Feel free to read articles I’ve had published on elitefts.com, as well. My Instagram is the main platform I use to showcase what I do in regard to strength and conditioning to physically and mentally prepare for jiu-jitsu.
What's Brooklyn mean to me when it comes to influencing my approach to Jiu-Jitsu? It means simply being tough. A warrior. Where the hard life is just what you've always known. And you just keep putting the notches on the belt of life with each tragedy, battle, bad news, and injury.
That hard life made me lift. I'm forever indebted to the weights. I was never strong. Never fast, agile, athletic in basically any regard. I built myself. Jiu-Jitsu was no different. I wasn't special at anything in particular. I took the most basic of basics and stuck to those. Kimura. Ankle lock. Toreando. Clock Choke. That's it. So when I say simply being tough that refers to the grind. To the build-up.
The making of who you are from your circumstances by being more stubborn than the obstacle itself. The weight may not move when you want it. The lock or choke may not go on when you want. BUT if you keep trying, you sharpen the sword, whether it's the barbell or the submission.
Eventually the weight WONT stop you and the SUBMISSION will go on. Eventually, even if they know what sub is your favourite they still can't prevent it. Eventually, even if the bar is too heavy it still can't stop you from moving it. 385lbs.x5.
Was there a difficult moment in your life where jiu-jitsu helped you get through it? If so, please explain.
Getting assaulted, witnessing children lose their life, losing my grandfather, my mom getting hit-and-run being left for dead, all of that happened within a calendar year. Jiu-jitsu and the friends it provided me with to confide in got me through it all.
If you don't mind sharing, what happened to you in your early teen years that caused your PTSD and what would you like to say to someone that is going through something similar right now?
During my teen years, around the age of 15, I was associating myself with someone fresh out of prison. I can’t reveal names or the nature of the event, but what I can say is that it was something I witnessed before my very eyes that profoundly impacted me.
Then, roughly a year ago, I witnessed what the ADA would call one of the worst tragedies in Brooklyn when a car ran the light and killed three children (one in utero). I saw the gore, the absolute violence, the instantaneousness of death. One second- you’re dead. No rhyme, no reason. The children were 4-years-old and 1-years-old. Abigail and Joshua, respectively. Two stuffed animals remain tied to a light post on that corner to preserve their memory. May their spirits live on, and may their souls exist peacefully in Heaven.
I chased the car down, which crashed into some parked cars halfway down the avenue, opened the driver’s side door, and found a woman convulsing behind the wheel. She was told by doctors to not drive due to her physical health, including cardiac issues and epilepsy.
She had a previous hit-and-run incident, and 8 major traffic violations for speeding in school zones and blowing red lights. A few months after I testified to help get her indicted, she killed herself with a do not resuscitate letter.
The events of that tragedy made mortality the most real it has ever been to me. I saw how unpredictable life is. How there is no order to things, except for the order that we create. So we must be steadfast in creating that order around us.
Helping structure the jiu-jitsu community I’m involved with, by strengthening bonds and upholding values, has given order to my immediate surroundings. For that community to grow, you need to devote that extra 10-minutes after class, sparring, drilling, or just speaking with your team. It doesn't sound like much, but cultivating that culture requires simple gestures like that that actually go a long way.
Even having a group chat on social media or through text messaging helps strengthen the team. Order pay-per-views and have everyone over. This is how we bond and become stronger. Strength in numbers. Without numbers, there’s no community.
If you have witnessed violence in person, you need to talk to someone. If you can’t afford a therapist, which unfortunately many cant, there’s an app called talk space. I haven’t utilized it, but I’ve recommended it to students who need help and aren’t financially able to get the help they deserve.
You may feel great one day, and like the world is ending the next. When I was 16, I committed myself to the emergency room because I wasn't sure what I would do to myself. It was a panic attack about having no self-control. I was kept on watch overnight and then released. My mother was there for the whole event. The takeaway?? TALK TO ANYONE AND EVERYONE WHO WILL LISTEN. That's what kept me alive that day.
If you don't trust yourself, go to the emergency room just like I did. Live to see another day. And then keep talking to friends, family, whoever will listen. Do not keep your thoughts to yourself no matter how crazy they may seem! Everyone thinks the craziest shit, they just don't discuss it. But trust me, everyone has what they think are insane thoughts. The biggest surprise is when a therapist doesn't even bat an eye after you say the worst things on your mind because they’ve heard it before- you’re not the first person to feel that way. The truth will set you free.
Do you believe Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts have the ability to help take away emotional pain? If so, how can more people be aware of its amazing benefits?
Absolutely. Anecdotally speaking, Jiu-jitsu has weakened the formerly potent sense of physical and mental inadequacy and inferiority I was made to feel from traumas. I believe reading Submission Shark articles is a great start to understanding the art’s benefits.
Also, check out the YouTube account BJJ Hacks TV. They did a documentary of Fernando Terere, one of the greatest Jiu-Jitsu players ever, who suffered from mental health and came back from despair to be an example in his community, and for us all.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring coaches?
Get ready to be broke, stressed, and overworked. Make sure it is a labour of love, and those things won't matter. If you love this, if you love jiu-jitsu, your students will know. They will know you love them. That you love art. Give everything you have, and when you’re burnt-out physically and emotionally, give another 10 percent. I will rather be a broke ass black belt, than a wealthy no belt.
What would you like to say to everyone that has supported you on your journey?
My mother, my grandfather (who paid for those first years of training and instilled fighting into my being), God, my therapist, my psychiatrists, my brother, my friends, thank you all. To all of them, I say that my successes are yours, that my happiness, health, and breaths I take every day are gifts I don't take for granted, especially because I know they couldn't have happened without you all.
When the journey is over, how would you like to be remembered?
As a warrior.
Wow, Max. What an inspiration you, and this article, are. I’m proud of you for how you’ve found such a positive way to overcome adversity, and share it with others.
Great read. Max is one of the best known examples of what anyone with mental health issues can accomplish. Mat Legend
An honest discussion about uneasy topics. Beautiful..thank you
What a wonderful, open and honest interview. You have come thru so many storms and become an incredible young man. You have made your family proud. Love you more than you know❤️
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