In The Beginning I Put Blue Belt Promotion on a Schedule
I recall my first Jiu Jitsu class at the old Ralph Gracie academy in Mountain View, now relocated to San Jose. It was taught by our black belt instructor Justin “Machine” Holder who was ably assisted by “Mr” David Lee who was blue belt at that time. After a pretty significant warm up we moved into the technique of the day. I recall Mr. Lee as being in great shape, knowing all the movements and attendant minutiae that made the techniques work. I was amazed at his dexterity, confidence, bearing, and knowledge. After that first day and subsequent days, which turned into weeks and months, I decided to set for myself the goal of earning my blue belt within 1 year. After all, what else does someone who is a competitive chronic over-achiever do?
I went at it pretty hard. Upping my training to 5 days a week with double classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every guard pass drill, every spar, every drill, and every warm up I set myself the goal of earning my blue belt through sheer force of will. My goal was to impress our instructor and make him believe that I was budding blue belt material.
Yet, my performance suffered, I became discouraged, picked up injuries, and frequently wept tears of frustration and pain. This Jiu Jitsu shit is hard. It’s just too hard. So I tried harder …
Yet I couldn’t emulate Mr. Lee or the other blue belts in class. They seemed so good, so knowledgeable, seasoned and relaxed. I felt I would never become one of them. I was starting to break. After 18 months I still didn’t have my blue belt. I determined that either I let go of that goal or I would just get ground down and quit from frustration. I let it go.
In the following weeks and months, little-by-little, the training became more enjoyable, I started to learn more, became more coach-able, more open and more friendly. Sparring rounds that were previous death matches started to turn into opportunities to learn and grow. I focused on the basics, stopped trying to impress my instructor, and translated willfulness into sustainable willingness. I was starting to learn. After two and a half years I won my coveted prize. The blue belt. It was awesome, timely, and humbling.
So you want to be a blue belt? Allow this blue belt to offer some words of advice…
#1 – Relax
First and foremost … relax! My biggest mistakes as a white belt came from placing way too much pressure on myself and training too hard for me to sustain. Every time I was submitted, was swept or had my guard passed I felt ashamed, considered it a dreadful failure, and would mentally collapse. Failure and losing are essential aspects of the journey. Without losing you won’t humble yourself and without failure you don’t get better. So relax and enjoy it. If you’re getting anxious and fearful before rolls you may have claustrophobia, but more likely than not you’re putting too much pressure on yourself.
#2 – Focus on Learning BJJ
Second. Being a white belt is what you should be until you are not. So, let go and enjoy the learning process as a beginner. I am fortunate enough to have realized this beginning when I started training in my forties. It’s not often that a professionally accomplished man in his forties gets to have beginners mind in an amazing practice such as Jiu Jitsu. The lessons learned as a white belt about tapping early, surviving in difficult spots, cleaning the mats, and having mentors younger than I are true blessings that enrich my life to this day.
#3 – Train BJJ Diligently and Consistently
Third. Getting your blue belt is a really good thing and is a significant accomplishment, especially in an academy that has high standards. So set your goals appropriately. Train diligently and consistently, and try be better than you were last week. Consistent effort and time will produce good results. You will get there.
#4 – Find a Role in the Dojo Community
Fourth. Learn your place in the academy. This is very much meant as an encouragement, and not as a put down. The academy is a community made up of people spanning an enormous diversity of human life. You have a place at the academy. So jump in and bring your personal gifts to the community. Offer to help with the newbie white belts, clean the mats, be a willing drilling partner, donate a gi to someone who is less financially fortunate, and so on. Be right-sized. Let go of your bullshit and be a part of something beautiful. You are going to need your community and they are going to need you.
#5 – Every BJJ Journey is Unique
The fifth and final piece of advice. Your journey is just that. It’s yours. Do not compare yourself to anyone else. If your fellow white belts get promoted before you, be happy for them and don’t compare yourself. If you are training consistently and diligently your time will come. Your instructor probably promotes people with a dynamic set of criteria in mind. His/her criteria for you maybe different if you’re a forty-something year old engineer compared to a twenty-something year old with a black belt in Judo or who wrestled at a DI school. Nothing will discourage you or rob you more of your tenacity and enjoyment than comparison.
I am truly fortunate to have friends who encourage me on the trying days and keep me in check on the occasional great days. I hope that this autobiographic vignette will encourage some in their journey.
Now about that purple belt … LOL