I want to preface this interview by explaining just how incredible Tom is. When I play around and wrestle with my young children, they aren’t exactly a threat. They can only really attack me when I let them. This is how it feels to roll with Tom McMahon. Only three people have made me feel completely helpless while rolling. Tom was the first to do so.
He was kind enough to sit down and do an interview with us here at Jiu-Jitsu Times. Check it out below.
JJT: What got you started in BJJ?
Tom: I’ve been involved in martial arts since my first Taekwondo class when I was 5. I did stand up for years and had a black belt by the time I was 14. Shortly after getting the belt I was jumped and when the fight went to the ground I didn’t have an answer and I got beat up badly. I thought I knew how to defend myself and realized how ineffective what I had learned was. After that I went from style to style searching for something that would be effective on the street. I tried everything I could find: Kenpo, Aikido, Hapkido, Ishin Ryu, and even ninjitsu. When I saw Royce Gracie in the first UFC that’s when I knew I had to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It took several years as work and moving got in the way but I finally found Pedro Carvalho BJJ and got started.
JJT: How long have you been training for?
Tom: It’s been almost 8 years now. I picked it up really quickly in the early stages (white-purple), mostly due to my previous martial arts experience, being athletic, and training 6+ times a week.
JJT: You’ve had some really big wins in your career. How do you balance Jiu-Jitsu with your family and career?
Tom: I’ve definitely had some good luck in competition. I’ve gotten multiple medals at Panams, including gold, and won Worlds as a purple belt in 2009, as well as Masters Worlds in my weight division and the open in 2012. I won my weight at Masters Worlds and got silver in the open last year. Those two victories ranked me as the #1 Masters Brown Belt for two straight years. There have been many other tournaments and medals, but those are definitely the ones that are the most memorable.
It really is tough balancing life and work with Jiu Jitsu. I don’t have kids, but my job is very demanding and stressful and that impacts my energy level and recovery tremendously. I’m fortunate that I have an amazing girlfriend who is very passionate about fitness, so our lifestyles align. She pushes me to watch my diet, train hard, and push myself in competitions. It’s critical to surround yourself with people who both understand your goals and support your achieving them. There have definitely been times where I’ve sacrificed my performance at tournaments for work but you have to place priority on what puts food on the table. At the end of the day I try to be as efficient as possible with my time so I can train smart and I focus on peaking for a few key tournaments each year. The rest of the time I just enjoy the journey and try to get better and have fun in training. Competition is stressful but training is always fun, even when it’s grueling and painful!
JJT: How do you handle all of the pressures that come from maintaining life both on and off the mats?
Tom: With mixed success! (laughs) I find the biggest factor to be sleep at this point. If I can adjust my schedule to ensure I have enough time to relax and enjoy my friends and loved ones while getting good sleep, I usually do pretty well. Sometimes I like to tear it up on the guitar to let some emotions out too. And when I’m really stressed I lean on my friends, family, and girlfriend to get my thoughts off my chest. They are always patient and understanding and help me find balance.
JJT: What does a typical training camp look like for you before a major competition?
Tom: A good training camp is the key to success and I’ve tried a lot of different ways of prepping. My home gym is Alliance Minnesota. Working and living in Canada has definitely made it challenging to prep at times. I often travel and set up camps with key training partners. I try to get back to MN to train with my teammates several times a year. I usually make a trip or two to Marcelo Garcia’s in NY for tough training before big tournaments. This year I tried something new and flew to the Dominican Republic for a week and a half to train with Abraham Marte. It was a really fun and challenging camp doing two a days and I definitely got better. The downside of travel is that I find it throws me off my routines and impacts my rest.
The best camps are when you get a handful of really hungry guys that are close to your level and physicality and push hard. I like to start dialing it up 2 months out from a big competition. I usually try to get 2 days of heavy lifting in and 1 day of Crossfit style total body/strength/cardio training in a week. On top of that I try to train 5-6 nights a week. My training focuses on drilling various guard passes/sweeps for the lengths of matches and a lot of hard sparring and shark tanks. If I can get a group of upper belts together once or twice a week for really hard training that is the extra edge that helps. The last week or two before competition I start to taper. I keep the intensity high but shorten the rounds to let my body heal and I cut out the lifting. It’s not as ideal as getting to train multiple times a day but it’s the best I’ve come up with as I balance work and life with training.
JJT: Have you ever considered quitting? Why or why not?
Tom: There was a period of time just after college when I stopped doing martial arts. I remember my step-dad saying that it wasn’t anything to worry about because I had done it for so much of my life that it was a part of who I am. Sure enough, I got back into it. It’s hard to imagine wanting to stop doing BJJ. There’s so much to learn and so much to accomplish. Like everyone, though, I go through peaks and valleys. There are times when traveling is hard or injuries keep me from getting the best training in. I’ve never wanted to walk away, but I’ve certainly been frustrated. It’s the tight relationships I’ve formed through the sport that keep me coming back regardless of how painful the training is or how I feel. People often say I look as happy as a child when I roll. I hope I never lose that.
JJT: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be world champ material?
Tom: The first thing I would say is, “That’s Awesome!” I love when people have drive and fire and set goals for themselves! In terms of how to get there: there are no shortcuts, just hard training. Diet and conditioning become more and more important as you get into the higher ranks of the sport and technique is always paramount. They need to develop a go-to game plan, be prepared for the unexpected, focus on mental toughness, and make sure there body is as hard as there mind. With some support from friends, family, teammates and coaches and a little bit of luck, it can be theirs.
JJT: What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Tom: I have a few exciting projects I’m working on for the upcoming year. I recently got sponsored by VVVFightCo. It’s awesome to work with great people and even better when they have great gis and fightwear! I’m putting together a website that I hope will give people an idea of how I view BJJ and help people improve. I’m also working on a Wrist Lock DVD. I’ll be putting on a seminar with my good friends at Nova Uniao Mississauga on August 23rd and will be using some of the footage to put together what I hope will be a really unique and fun DVD.
We here at Jiu-Jitsu Times would like to thank Tom for agreeing to do an interview with us. He’s a stand-up guy with lots to teach on and off of the mats. Be sure to keep an eye on him in the future.