Getting Through the Blue and Purple Belt Growing Pains

Photo credit to Mike Calimbas.

At the end of “Advice for Newbie White Belts and Anxious Blue Belts” I promised a follow-up for higher belts. Here's my advice for you blues and purples who want to keep making progress.

Looking back on it, the path through white to blue belt is fairly straightforward: come to class, learn new techniques, drill, spar, call it a night, and repeat. You’ll never get away from this general structure, but as you rise up through the ranks, especially into purple belt, the old routine can feel stale. The progress comes slower. You feel like you’re getting less out of the “here’s today’s technique, now drill it” approach. You may have felt you got more of your instructor’s attention as a beginner, but now you’re being left to figure it out by yourself.

The middle belts can be an awkward stage, but here’s my best advice for pushing through to the next level:

Take greater ownership of your personal development. In this modern age, this can mean watching instructional videos for specific techniques or studying match footage of your favorite competitors. Without going digital, taking ownership can mean setting goals and working towards them each time you train. Your goals could be to focus on specific techniques, positions, guards, submissions, etc. When you walk into the school, already have a clear idea of what you are going to improve that day, regardless of whatever happens in class.

Train combinations of basic techniques with a focus on timing and momentum. Most of the progress as a white belt comes from learning new techniques where you previously knew none. The problem is that this approach stops working once you have more than enough techniques for most positions. Now it’s time to refine the moves you already know, using the experience you have gained from years of live sparring. Set up drills to develop your ability to flow between techniques and positions to take advantage of timing and momentum. An analogy is that white belt is where you learn your alphabet and basic words, blue belts are building their vocabulary and learning grammar, and purple belts are expressing themselves in full sentences and paragraphs.

Develop your personal style, but stay open to new additions. By now, you should have a good idea of the positions and techniques you like. Have you ever taken the time to really lay out your gameplan? You’ll never get good at everything, but you can start by getting good at what comes naturally. Your gameplan should be adaptable (or rather you may need multiple gameplans) so you can handle problems like an opponent with aggressive wrestling, high pressure guard passing, tricky and flexible guards, sneaky footlocks, etc. When you identify a weakness in your gameplan, now you know the next goal to set.

Set handicaps when training with less experienced partners. Once beginners stop being a challenge, it can be easy to go on autopilot with your “A game” to get some ego-satisfying taps so you can lay your head down on a pillow that night with a smug smile on your face. Set a goal of only using specific techniques or positions, or putting yourself in bad spots so you have to defend and escape. Try this extra ego-destroying mode: don’t tell the lower belt know what you’re doing, let them feel like they really earned the position (instead of just laying there like a dead fish), and don’t say “Oh, I let you have that, so you know” if they tap you. Just smile and say “Good job!” and go on to the next round. (You can always smash them tomorrow if you really need to.)

Reevaluate your reasons for doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Years have passed since you first walked on to the mats. What were your original reasons for joining a school? Did you want to learn self defense, or lose weight and get in shape, or have a competitive outlet after leaving high school or college sports? Your life has likely changed since then -- have your broader goals changed too? Many people will achieve (or abandon) their original goals, but still keep training because they simply enjoy being on the mats, even without any specific goals. Not everyone is training to be a world champ, but you can always try to be better than you were yesterday.