Approaching the Blue Belt: The Impossible Space Between Beginning and Completion

The white belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is undoubtedly the most sustained effort I have had to place into any area of my life thus far. I completed my 118th class last night and know that I now firmly stand in the purgatory of promotions: somewhere vaguely between my third stripe and my blue belt. I understand that I am close; I understand that I am far. Indeed, what I have come to understand through my training is that often one’s arrival at promotion depends upon the winds of fortune as much as one’s attendance at class and the growth one demonstrates on the mats.

Nothing about this road is particularly easy.  I never delude myself into believing that any opponent is an easy submission. The gains I have made in 17 months astound me; the flaws in my game appear infinite as I begin to piece the puzzle together. And yet, I feel the difference on the mats every time that I roll with a partner, and I can grasp how to make continual progress on a weekly basis, even if I cannot fathom how to ever reach the shores of the blue belt. But perhaps like any real sailor, I have come to simply appreciate my time on the seas and have begun to care less and less when I will finally place my feet upon the happy shores. I want to be a blue belt, but I also want to just keep rolling and learning. Maybe I am like the big fish in the pond; life is comfortable where I am because I am swimming under the safety of white belt expectations. As I have developed, other fish have died or left the pond. When we line up at Fundamentals Class I fall in near its end, and I have even been able to help a few newer students understand the basic rudiments of what they can do while rolling. I try to be humble. I always appreciate when a blue or purple belt asks me to roll, and when they offer me advice I do my very best to incorporate it into my skills by the next time we meet on the mats. I take criticism as a shortcut to improvement. I thank everyone I meet for what they give me whether it is a tough sparring session that crushes me or a light flow that lets me piece together transitions. But still…I am a big fish in the small, but deep, pond.

We lose a lot of white belts along the way. Not just my school, but I think all schools struggle to keep their white belts engaged over this part of the voyage towards a blue belt. Given the choice between drinking beers over a football game after pumping iron or hobbling home after being crushed by large, sweaty men and most will run for the gym with its ego-inflated no machines and self-managed reps. Jiu-jitsu addicts cannot help themselves, however, and understand that they can be just as easily crushed by a small, equally sweaty woman and that there is nothing “sexy” about rolling on the mats. Period. White belts surrender to time and great expectations, and then blue belts are lost to life’s demands and the fact that they made it to shore. Who the hell wants to hop right back on the pirate ship for an even longer route to purple belt?

For my own part, I have come to accept that  BJJ has become a part of my life forever. I expect, like Anthony Bourdain, to not make it to the black belt, but I think I can make it to a purple belt in the time that remains. I do not expect to quit ever jiu-Jitsu, but I do expect that my game and abilities will contract as I age past a certain point. At that point it would be impossible to develop into a brown or black belt, and that is an outcome I am at peace with. 

This week I only have two goals: begin getting to my knees in Turtle Position from inferior positions and escape from side control/knee on belly/mount. Everything else is irrelevant. I am tapping no one; this fish is aiming to focus on what I need to do to survive in the next, bigger pool of sharks.


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