About the author: Sam Joseph is a 2nd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is hard – there’s no point denying it. Not only is it hard for most people to train regularly, but it’s hard to develop your skills in a way that allows you to get promoted.
Unlike many traditional martial arts, BJJ promotions are still (in most cases) merit-based and there are fewer belt ranks. The only belts of merit are white, blue, purple, brown and black (black belt degrees and red belt promotions are time-based). This point is further supported by the fact that world champions are crowned at all belt divisions. It’s also not uncommon to find blue belts participating in mixed martial arts competitions against black belts in other martial arts.
Commonly accepted statistics indicate that only 30% of all people who try BJJ ever get their blue belt, and only 3% of all people who try BJJ have achieved the rank of black belt! Now it doesn’t take long to realise that chasing belts is, or course, not what jiu jitsu is all about. That said, it’s understandable why many people start BJJ and wonder when, not if, they will hang up their gi and quit without reaching the rank of black belt.
As someone who once doubted their ability to finish the journey to black belt, I would like to offer a few tips I’ve learned during my journey. Some of these tips are unorthodox, but they are all “battle-tested”, so assess them with an open mind!
Tip #1: MAKE A FRIEND (OR TWO)
Again, BJJ is hard. At first, the excitement of starting something new will get you to class when you have “other options”. But when that excitement starts to wear off, you will sometimes need other reasons to show up to class rather than go out to dinner, a concert or sit in front of the TV. Making friends is always great, but friends at the academy give you a level of accountability, as your friends will be in class expecting you to be there with them. The more friends you make at the academy, the more effective they will be in getting you there on days when you might otherwise skip a session. The thing about skipped days is that they turn into skipped weeks, then months and sometimes years. Friends help you avoid the skipped days that can lead to the end of your BJJ journey.
Tip 2: FIND BJJ ROLE MODELS
The idea of finding top-level BJJ athletes you can emulate is a good thing. Sometimes it’s an athlete’s style that you find attractive. For example, you may love Rodolfo Vieira’s power and control. It can also be the fact that their body type and physical attributes are similar to yours. You may be tall and lanky, like Roger Gracie, so you lean towards emulating his style.
Regardless of why you like someone’s BJJ game, you can learn a lot from studying videos of competitors as you are developing your own style. What I would add to this is the concept of finding a BJJ role model from a philosophical perspective. For example, are you “pro-drilling” like the ATOS team or “anti-drilling” like black belts such as Kite Dale? Where do you stand on “sport BJJ” vs “BJJ for self-defense”? How do you feel about teammates competing against each other? I am not saying you should blindly follow someone elses philosophy, but I am saying you should allow yourself to be exposed to BJJ topic and issues, then take the time to research and develop your own opinions. Embrace the techniques AND the wider culture of BJJ. I believe investment into developing your “role-models” will go a long way to establishing BJJ in your life in a way that will inspire longevity.
Tip #3: GO TO AT LEAST TWO TOURNAMENTS A YEAR
This is not necessarily a call to compete (although I firmly believe that there are many benefits to competing). I am simply saying that you should go to at least two tournaments a year as a competitor OR as a spectator. Allow yourself to embrace the atmosphere at a tournament. Go in support of a friend/teammate or go to compete – either way the point is that being at the tournament will serve as a real life reminder of the wider world you are a part of as a BJJ practitioner. I am a big fan of going to tournaments like the IBJJF Pan Ams, Europeans or Worlds at least once in your BJJ life. You can really soak in the culture and I have seen that excite many BJJ practitioners in unique and special ways.
Going to tournaments can give you exposure to things within BJJ that neither your academy nor the Internet will. That exposure can lead to things that inspire life-long commitment to the mat and the culture.
Tip #4: TRY NEW TECHNIQUES EARLY AND OFTEN
Do not get caught up in the competition of the training room to the point of stagnation. I am all for “going hard” but you must balance that with an attitude of humility that allows you to try new things/open up your game. Over time, this will make you better AND it will keep you from getting bored, which is the real danger.
One of the most incredible things about BJJ is how it continues to develop. Go take a look at the Mundial videos from the early 2000’s and compare them to the videos from the past couple of years. You will see developments in the open guard, new attacks from different positions and generally a different level of athlete – it’s exciting!
As you train, you must allow yourself to experiment, this will help keep you mentally invested and that stimulation can be the difference between you getting bored and walking away and staying the course to black belt. Give yourself the stimulation and joy that comes from trying new things.
Tip #5: FIND REASONS TO SMILE AND LAUGH AT THE ACADEMY
So, BJJ is hard – agreed? But, just because something is hard does not mean it cannot be fun. My last tip for achieving BJJ longevity is to always remember you’re having fun. Find ways and reasons to laugh and smile at your academy. Develop friendly rivalries, make a game of submitting a training partner notoriously hard to submit, laugh when someone gets you in a “lucky” move and embrace appropriate humor EVEN if you are the butt of the joke. This tip, as much as any other, will determine whether the academy is a safe and fun place for you.
Some of the most fun times I can remember in my own 15 year (to date) BJJ journey are “challenge” matches with friends/teammates and/or jokes that only those of us in the academy would get. If it is a place where you feel like you are able to enjoy yourself, you will find reasons to train rather than reasons to avoid the “grind” that training can become.
Remember, you started BJJ because you saw value in it. Whether that value was defined as self-defense, exercise, an athletic outlet or some other benefit, you found your way into a merit-based environment that can enrich your life physically, mentally and emotionally. The catch is that many people don’t set themselves up properly to finish the journey we all start when we putting on a gi for the first time. Like anything, it needs commitment.
I hope these tips, which helped me at different times along my journey, give you some tools to stay the course and earn a level of achievement that you will treasure for the rest of your life. See you on the mat!
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