5 Tips to Keep You on the Long Road to Black Belt and Beyond

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is frustrating and humbling. I’ve got five pieces of advice if you want to make it a lifelong pursuit.

Aim for the top of the mountain, but keep your feet on the trail.

The path to black belt takes many years, and when you finally reach it, you realize the path toward mastery continues on for decades and then lifetimes (I’ll leave it to the Buddhists to figure out how to be reincarnated with all our jiu-jitsu skills still intact). Setting your sights on a distant goal will help you stay on the path toward it.

The mountain path metaphor is a particularly good illustration, if you imagine it accurately. You don’t simply starting at the bottom and walk straight up to the top.

It’s not that simple.

The path is winding. It goes up and down. You’ll run into obstacles. You’ll get lost. You’ll go down dead ends and need to backtrack. Often, you’re making progress even when you don’t feel like you are, and when you finally reach a peak and start feeling proud of yourself, you look up and see there’s another, higher one…

The only way to stay sane is to not get too emotionally invested in any particular high or low. Certainly, enjoy the good times, and don’t get too bummed about the bad times, but as King Solomon’s ring reminded him: “this too shall pass.”

Jiu-jitsu is a lifelong endeavor, if you stick to it, so don’t worry about rushing. Keep pushing forward, but settle in for the long haul.

Keep your body from breaking down by doing corrective exercises.

Injuries and chronic joint pain are, in my estimation, the main reason people quit jiu-jitsu. Whether or not that’s true, every other reason to quit becomes easier when you’re in pain.

For years, I would have told you stretching is a good way to prevent injury (because that’s what I was taught since childhood PE classes, as were most people), but the research doesn’t back that up, at least not for the old fashioned “touch your toes” stretches. The science points towards strength, stability, mobility, and endurance being more important factors.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a 4-hour mobility and conditioning seminar by Steve Maxwell. He advocates for following practices that develop joint health, especially by counteracting whatever postures and muscular tensions your sport and daily life overdo. For most BJJ guys, this is forward head, rounded shoulders, hunched back, tight hips, weak glutes, crappy knees, and stiff ankles. That’s doubly true if you’re a desk jockey.

The world of fitness is mind-boggling, with countless “experts” selling a million different “best” exercise systems. You’d go insane trying to find the “perfect” program to follow. You can retain some of your sanity by finding something simple and sticking to it until you need something more. This could be yoga, kettlebells, bodyweight, barbells, etc.

Whatever you pick, keep it simple. You can do a lot with basics like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and bearcrawling around the mats. Realize that working out for your overall health is not always the same as training to be an elite athlete or to “make gainz”.

Come to appreciate simplicity, and reinvestigate “old” techniques in greater depth.

A hot new trend sweeps through the competitive Brazilian jiu-jitsu scene every year or so. We call this “Instagram jiu-jitsu” these days, and before that, it was “YouTube jiu-jitsu.” (Before that, I imagine it was “Grappling Magazine jiu-jitsu.”) Some make a lasting impression, like leg drags and berimbolos, but most fade away (sorry, velvet x-guard).

These trends can be very fun, so I’m not saying you should ignore them. Having fun with training is good. Whenever my friend (and black belt under Marcelo Garcia) Leo Kirby saw a cool new move he wanted to try, he called this tossing up another “spinning plate.”

Just accept that every time you toss up a new plate, you risk letting another fall. You only have so many hands and so much time and attention.

What you’ll find with most old timers is that they stop being too concerned about the hot new techs and instead return to their roots. When you reach black belt, those techniques you learned in your first year of training have a way of “suddenly” having so many more details or core concepts than you remembered. You can mine these for a much greater understanding of essential movements of jiu-jitsu.

Your approach to a subject can be measured in two dimensions: breadth and depth. Seeking breadth is like visiting a city and trying to run around to every tourist spot on the map, just to say you’ve been there. Seeking depth is picking a few favorite spots and spending the day really getting to know everything about them.

Jiu-jitsu has an incredible depth, and as you get older, you’ll appreciate how those fundamental moves rarely require extreme strength, flexibility, speed, or any other trait that diminishes with age. And you can always jump on Instagram for a cool move when you want to spice things up.

Befriend training buddies who are committed to putting in the extra work.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not a solo sport. We don’t have katas, we don’t break boards, we have no astral projection (at least not that I’m at liberty to discuss with non-black belts). You can do a few solo drills (maybe to follow my earlier advice about joint mobility and healthy movement), but when it comes down to it, you need another human being to practice on.

You may need some interpersonal skills to make a friend at the gym, or you can at least aim for someone who’s equally socially maladjusted as yourself. However you do it, get someone who wants to put in extra time practicing with you. You want someone who shows initiative and enjoys thinking about how to improve and studying outside of class.

Find and accept the role jiu-jitsu fills in the changing seasons of your life.

Your life will change over the years, and the role jiu-jitsu will play in it will change too. We can’t all be 19-year-olds who train 7 days a week, though some of the lucky ones reading this were. Though your opinion on how “lucky” you were may change when your joints are falling apart before you’re 30, since teenagers don’t listen to boring advice about healthy posture.

Many life events will affect your ability and desire to train: Getting married. Having kids. Being promoted at work. Moving to a new city. Finding other hobbies.

I’m not saying to let all these events knock you out of training, as they often do. You will need to figure out how to keep jiu-jitsu in your life (which mostly means keeping it in your day planner schedule) and finding the motivation to train when your old reasons may have faded away.


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