Ask a Panda: How do you deal with tapping to a lower belt?


I just received my purple belt a couple of months ago, and I’m starting to feel more pressure to perform well, especially when I roll with lower belts. The other day I had to tap to a white belt. It was fair and square, which means I have no excuses. I felt awful, like I didn’t deserve my promotion. How do you deal with tapping to a lower belt?


In jiu-jitsu, there are many milestones. An obvious one is earning stripes or the next belt. Or completing your first submission. On the flip-side, though, are the milestones that may not be so enjoyable. The first time you feel completely and utterly controlled. The first time you are sidelined by injury or illness. And, yes, the first time you must tap to a lower belt. You are certainly not the first person to have to tap to a lower belt, and you certainly will not be the last. You may even have to do it again… and again and again.

It can feel awful, and, as you say, can throw you into doubt about whether you really belong at your belt level. Think about it, though: Given the countless options you have and the countless options your partner has, it stands to reason that eventually and every now and then you will get caught by someone you think should never be able to catch you. Sometimes the stars align for you, and sometimes they align for the other guy. Here are just a few reasons you (or any of us) may get caught by someone lower ranked:

  • You had a lousy day, a day where you were the nail rather than the hammer during every roll
  • You got cute, trying to skip steps in a sequence or underestimating your partner
  • You were trying something new and unfamiliar
  • You plain and simple got caught

Okay. It happened. Now what? You may want to crawl in a hole. You may want to switch to no-gi so nobody can tell your rank. Believe it or not, I condone that, temporarily, and as long as you keep a poker face in public. You can drown your sorrows as much as you want in private, for a few days. In public, though, keep it together. It will help you work on your game face, and it will help lower belts learn the appropriate way to react to an upper belt getting tapped by a lower belt: with, if anything, vague interest that passes quickly.

Once you have licked your wounds, here is a list of things you can do to move forward.

1. Touch base with your humility. What can you learn from this experience, technically, strategically, and philosophically? I know, learning can be unpleasant. (I am a learning theorist, so you can trust my expert opinion on this. Still, it’s important to do, and the results—and even the process—are usually always beneficial.)

2. Rest assured that you are not alone. Just because this may not be a common topic of conversation does not mean it is not a common occurrence. I am willing to bet that most people who have reached black belt have experienced this at least once, and the ones who are committed to learning have experienced it multiple times. (Present company included, probably at least once between the filing and the posting of this story.)

3. Accept that it will probably happen again. It may not feel right, but it is inevitable.

4. Control the spin. If you make a big deal of it and list 10 excuses for why it happened, OR come at your lower-belt partner after the fact like the Terminator, that sends a certain message. If you tap, say “Good one,” and keep rolling the same way, that sends a different message. Think about which one you want to send.

Finally, let it go. I am trying to do two things here. First, I want to help you maintain perspective: This is by no means the most challenging or embarrassing thing you are likely to experience in training. (That is both great and terrible news.) Second, I want to do my part to normalize what is probably a far more common occurrence than most of us are willing to admit.

You said you are a relatively newly-minted purple belt. (Congratulations on your promotion!) Conventional wisdom indicates that purple is the teaching belt, the level at which students start to become leaders. This is because it is the entirety of the experiences and expertise you have earned over the amount of time it usually takes to reach purple belt that qualify you to have your rank, not a single isolated incident. Though it may not feel like it, getting tapped by a lower belt is a perfect opportunity for you to start exercising that leadership and teaching muscle: How you handle this experience can give you practice setting an example for lower belts of how to act with grace in even challenging situations. Good luck, and remember that you are not alone.

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About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.