Stay the Course


People get involved in BJJ for a number of different reasons. Some want self defense, some MMA, some love the sport and some just want to be a little more badass. A common goal most of these jiujiteiro will share is the much revered black belt. Arguably the most prestigious black belt of all martial arts, a BJJ black belt is certainly not a guarantee for any student. The average black belt in BJJ has put in at least something like ten years of consistent training, although for many it takes even longer than that. In fact, each and every rank might signify two years of training or more for an individual. When these milestones are so far apart, a lot of practitioners find it difficult to stay motivated to reach that goal. A lot of people in BJJ joke that as soon as someone gets a blue belt, they will quit, and unfortunately it is often the case. So how can keep ourselves motivated and excited all the way through our careers?

It’s About the Journey

 

Although black belt should ultimately be a goal for everyone, too much focus on outcomes is going to end up being discouraging. If your mind is on that black belt, your progress will feel insignificant and slower than you can imagine. Know that your rank is symbolic of the journey that you’ve been on and focus instead on the journey itself. Set daily, weekly, or monthly goals, rather than always thinking about the roughly bi-annual belt promotion. Think about a sweep that you want to try to incorporate into every day of rolling, or improving the amount of time it takes for that big upper belt to pass your spider guard. It can help to have little bite sized accomplishments that are within your reach. Not every class will go your way, not every week or month either, but know that having a rough class doesn’t mean you got worse, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t growing as a martial artist. Removing yourself from outcomes will all-in-all make the journey a more smooth one for you.

 

Breaks are OK

 

I personally have taken significant time off. I lose full weeks here and there, and that doesn’t set me back. Most significantly, I went off to college not long after getting my blue belt. I had no job and no way to pay for my training in my new city. I took a year off of Jiu-Jitsu because of this. I did however put a lot of time into strength training. When I made it back to the mats I was much bigger, much stronger, and extremely rusty and fell back into some of my spazzy white belt habits. I won’t pretend like it wasn’t a setback in some regards. Not unrelated, I watched some guys who started around the same time as me or even a little after me pass me in rank. That was hard for me, but I was the only one responsible for my own progress. I had to learn that and internalize it. I recognized some of the differences between our games and learned what I could from them. I broke out of the slump I felt from my time off and learned how to apply my newfound strength to push my BJJ well past any point it had previously been. I got myself right back on track and built a stronger love of the art in the process, and here I sit, a month away from my very own black belt test. A little time away from BJJ might help mentally reset you and bring your motivation back up. Don’t take a lack of motivation as a death-sentence to your BJJ or even your MMA career.

 

Avoid Comparisons to Others

 

Competition and comparison can help push us along but there are reasonable limits for these things. In organized competition BJJ is broken up by age, weight, sex and rank. An adult only IBJJF tournament could have 600+ different divisions when you do the math. There are 9 weight classes, 7 age divisions and 5 belt ranks. There are only a narrow range of people who might be appropriate to gauge yourself against in the first place, but fact of the matter is that really isn’t a perfectly level playing field to make these comparisons on in any case. Understand that everyone’s journey is their own, and everyone’s motivations are a little different. Maybe you’re the worst practitioner in your school, maybe that means your have the toughest school in town, maybe someone newer will sign up next week. These things ultimately have no bearing on your ability to improve, however. You are in charge of that, and your coaches and teammates will be more than happy to help you if you have a real desire to improve.

 

The road is long, there’s no two ways about it. It will not be all sunshine and rainbows. You are more than likely to invest real blood, sweat, and tears into a black belt if you stay the course. If you didn’t would it wouldn’t hold the meaning that it does. Every day on the mats will push you toward it even if by just some minute fraction of a percent. But that’s ok.  Even if you stop, even if you have to take the occasional step backward, even if the guy next to you goes twice as fast, you will get there if you keep moving forward and you stay the course.

 

LOSING IS MY FAVORITE SPORT

Everyone at some point is a “competitive” person. Who (in sports, in life) thoroughly enjoys not connecting successes and highlighting repeated failures?
The stages of grief (and loss) are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What in the world does that have to do with Jiu-Jitsu?!
The stages of loss are applied often in difficult sports.  Oddly enough, you see practitioners from beginners all the way through to experienced, upper belt competitors cycle through the stages throughout their martial arts journey. The stages of loss surface and become quite hard to hide. So what can we do?

 

COACHING 
It’s always interesting to see how coaching plays into the Jiu-Jitsu artist’s psyche. Some coaches will just butter the artist up, time and time again. Some practitioners feel the need to be buttered up, and will gravitate immensely towards positive words not entirely aware of what stage of loss they are stuck in, or not entirely aware that constant praise is harmful and builds complacency. Other coaches can creatively have the student work towards targeted praise that is more coded and nuanced. Nowadays lots of practitioners whether they want to accept it or not, cycle through a variety of coaches and often end up landing in a phase of a “most opportunistic fit” as opposed to practicality and longevity. The less your coach knows truly about you, the less they’ll be able to help you. Often, the more focused the coach is on themselves, the less they’ll be able to help you. Usually speaking, the more a coach is focused on themselves, the more you’ll focus in on their style and well, styles are nice and all but we need to factor in ability, age, and body type while factoring in the practicality of said style. This is why the whole “the best competitors don’t always make good teachers” motto actually has some merit. A great way of identifying a good fit for you is identifying your goals and seeing if they align with your coach’s daily practices…For example: your goal may be to become more disciplined. Is your coach a BJJ robot with little discipline anywhere else in the world?  Another example: your goal may be to be a well-rounded purple belt one day…… Is your coach well rounded? Can they only do stand up? Can they only pull guard? Are their credentials diverse? Coaches have an obligation to provide a diverse resume of the art, not just hone in on what they like or feel is the coolest trick of the year.

One of my goals during the earlier part of my Jiu-jitsu journey was to control my anger. I knew quickly that a hot-headed coach was a terrible fit for me, and although I didn’t have the chance to know the coach on a deeply personal level, their internet presence gave me more than enough information that I needed to know on why that goal and that person couldn’t work together. (Food for thought….Have I accomplished this goal or is it still a work in progress?)

PRACTITIONERS

Your job as a student is to be a trial and error warrior. To show little emotion and control pride as often as possible when facing adversity (when winning, obviously, but, when losing, to be specific). To act as if you have a perfect handle on your psychology is even more prideful than to act as if you are unaffected by winning and losing, so it’s perfectly alright to lose sight every now and again. At the top of the list of martial arts principles is self-improvement. (New students- If you prioritize self-improvement you can surpass many practitioners who don’t). If you aren’t improving yourself you could be focused too heavily on the abstract. Jiu Jitsu should be more than “something to do”. It could be more than something you currently enjoy. It should definitely give you the confidence to not have to fight if a situation arises and there is a choice in the matter. It could help you transcend your younger, immature self.  A lot of this ability on transcending your younger self will be based on who you associate with. Group dynamics are one of the most influential pieces of the puzzle. You can learn a lot by where you’re going by who you’re surrounded by. Are they normalizing unacceptable behavior? Are you beginning to normalize unacceptable behaviors? Are you becoming you? Are you becoming them? Where do you want to go, and what do you want to do with this journey when all is said and done? Has the thought crossed your mind before? Are you rushing this decision? Is this decision yours and yours alone? Are you just, “waiting your turn”? Be aware that even people you usually disagree with can somehow influence you if you are watching them ever closely (social media).

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but plenty of higher belts in Jiu-jitsu have not appropriately addressed the “self” component well enough to have them be appropriate role models, especially for anything outside of “the mats”.

For coaches and students…..Handle adversity. Don’t shy away from a good challenge. If you’ve played sports you’ve learned: Don’t diminish the ability of others. Your weaknesses are always ever present. It’s your job to conquer them, not the team’s job to rise to your ever-changing expectations.