I was asked what I would be willing to do for a Black Belt in BJJ.
Of course, the first answer that came to mind was “ANYTHING!!!” I mean, who wouldn’t? Who doesn’t want to see years and years of “blood, sweat and tears” manifest into something so tangible and rare?
And although I feel that the goal of achieving the rank of Black Belt in BJJ is an awesome idea, I also think that sometimes we miss out on what is really important here….
The development of yourself, not only as a BJJ practitioner, but a person.
Of all the Black Belts I have met, not one of them is a jerk. Even with interaction through social media, the higher the belt rank of the person, the more down to earth and humble they seem to be.
I saw a quote not too long ago, and I can’t remember it word for word, so I am going to paraphrase it: there is a world of difference between GETTING a black belt and BECOMING a Black Belt.
I am NOWHERE near achieving this highly coveted honor. The following is a general compilation of advice I have seen from others that ARE there, and what I feel will help me get there.
I feel like the first step to this is just walking through the door of a BJJ gym. Once you’re interested in the art, you are so much closer to that achievement. However, step 1(a) is pretty important too. Leave your ego at the door. When I first came into BJJ, I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in a class with pretty much all beginners, most of whom I outweighed by near 200 lbs. I thought I was a monster. I thought that the fact I could control these guys and make them tap made me a beast. I was pretty cocky. Not outwardly, but in my head I thought I was the best BJJ player in the class, even though I was just bigger than everyone else. Enter a massive blue belt. The guy was huge, but I still outweighed him by quite a lot. Our first sparring session was a very humbling experience for me. I wrestled in college, but I couldn’t take him down. He took me down. We started with him on bottom in side control. He escaped like I was nothing.
I was pissed. I hated seeing this guy. I never wanted to roll with him. Eventually the thinking turned around into the realization that it was NECESSARY to roll with people like this. The ego needed to be eradicated for the true learning to begin.
Failure breeds success. We learn by doing. When a technique doesn’t work, we tweak it to work for us. Losing a gold medal match by an advantage drives us to work on our passes, sweeps, etc. that much harder. Failure, and lots of it, is an extremely important part in the development of a Black Belt. The mental fortitude, gumption, whatever you want to call it that allows us to learn from the mistake and move on is extremely important. This is not only applicable in competition. Tapping early and often in sparring sessions is important as well. After you tap, take a second to analyze how you ended up in that situation, and do what you can to fix it. I fail constantly and do everything I can to make it into a lesson.
Learn to love the grind. Find peace on the mat. Falling in genuine love with every aspect of the sport is so absolutely necessary. There are no legitimate “black belt programs” in BJJ. You’re not going to pay $1500 and go through a curriculum to get a black belt in 18 months. You will pay thousands in gym dues. You will spend thousands of hours on the mat. Gallons of sweat. Hours and hours of frustration and pain. I feel, however, a true Black Belt will love every second of this. He will crave it. Cauliflower ear is a testament of time put in on the mat. I cannot think of any person I know with cauliflower ear that does not wear it like a badge of honor. The gnarly fingers from playing grips, the busted lip, black eye. True Black Belts collect these along the journey with as much love and fondness as they do victories.
Belt chasers are missing the point. Promotion and advancement in this art takes time. BJJ is so deep and intricate, there are so many positions, movements, submissions and escapes that to get even a working knowledge of the sport takes years. To this end, I am not going to stress about when I get promoted. When I get my next rank is of virtually no importance to me. I have been told that I am almost there, but I do not personally feel I am ready. When it comes down to it, as far as advancement goes, I’m going to trust my instructors. They have been doing this much longer than I have, and there is a reason they are in the position they are in. The next rank will be achieved when he says it is, and that is that.
Sparring and drilling are awesome ways to see just how far we’ve come. However, aside from a legitimate self defense situation, I personally feel that competition is the rawest way to truly evaluate our skill set. There is something about live competition that puts us more to the test than anything we would see in sparring or an evaluation from our instructor. During an evaluation, an instructor might call out a position and ask us to perform as many techniques as we possibly can from that particular position to see where we’re at. It’s easy to rattle off the triangle, arm bar, omoplata series when you are working on a partner that is not resisting. When in the throes of a live match, however, everything takes on such a different feel. The instructor is on the side of the mat yelling a bunch of stuff we can’t quite understand, so it is up to us to problem solve very quickly, using what we know. They see these things. They watch and observe and if I’m seen making the same mistake over and over, it is obvious I have more work to do before any sort of promotion. On the flip side of this, if I blow through 8 tournaments throughout the year, and win with a variety of submissions, maybe it is time to be considered for the next rank.
Finally, the thing I feel is the most important and rewarding part of this journey is developing the family like relationship within the team. I feel as though my training partners are family. I love my team like family. I would do anything for anybody on that team, and they would do whatever they could for me. Through this strong bond, the instructors get to know the students on such a deep level, and know when they are ready for the next step. When a student is with an instructor long enough, the relationship that is forged can be one of the strongest in either of their lives. To have someone guide us through such a long process full of love, hate, pain, joy, frustration and damn near any other emotion you can think of builds something between the two that is difficult to understand unless you’ve been there yourself.
When it comes down to it, I am nowhere near my Black Belt. I have simply taken the first steps up the mountain of knowledge that is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But I have done a few things that I feel will help me in this climb.
- The passion I have developed for the sport. I have never been this passionate about any sport I ever participated in. I have never felt the type of bond I have with my instructor with any coach I have ever had. The same goes for teammates.
- I use BJJ as an escape. For those hours I am at the gym, nothing else is clouding my mind. This keeps me coming back.
- I love the rawness of competition. The feeling you have when your hand is raised at the end of the match is wonderful. Again, it keeps me coming back.
Having these reasons to come back has started me on a path that will eventually lead me to my black belt. I also understand that the path doesn’t end with the Black Belt. It never ends. And I feel like that is the ultimate goal. To never stop learning and improving.