Ask a Panda: Purple Belt Purgatory

Part I: Knowing Is Half the Battle and Most of the Problem

Question: I recently heard someone call purple belt “purple purgatory,” and it seems to fit. When you were a purple belt, did you start to question everything you do? Now that I'm teaching more, I'm really starting to question everything and sometimes I feel that I was a more confident teacher at blue belt. Is that something you experienced? Do you feel that purple belt is a trying period in jiu-jitsu?

Answer: I see two questions here. The first relates to whether purple belt seems to be a challenge—a purgatory—in general. The second relates specifically to how, at purple belt, the writer has started to question everything that used to feel like a given, particularly regarding teaching jiu-jitsu. In this response, I address the second question and will address the first in a future response.

We grapplers must be a special kind of crazy to stay in jiu-jitsu, given all the Sturm und Drang it causes in our lives. Or maybe we are a special kind of intrepid for being willing to go to that place time and again. Probably equal parts of each.

You mention you are questioning everything, particularly your teaching. Now that you are a purple belt, you are becoming an older-timer, someone who has shown staying power and gained some wisdom and experience. As such, you can be more of a resource for others, and more is expected of you in terms of mat maturity. For instance, it is never acceptable to refuse to tap because of ego or demonstrate unsportsmanlike behavior, but by the time we reach purple belt, we should be far more likely to be policing these crimes than committing them.

More is expected of purple belts than lower belts in terms of responsibility to others in the academy, but at the same time you may also notice the world of jiu-jitsu is opening to you in unprecedented ways. Your hard-won wisdom and experience have enabled you to make technical progress. You have more cognitive capacity for mastering more of the nuances in your game and for adding onto or even transforming it. You can help less experienced students with technical details. You know the ins and outs of your academy’s environment, the structure of classes, the kinds of training you will get with each teammate. You see more possibilities leading from a single sequence than you could earlier: you recognize that along with Plan A, there usually must be a Plan B, C, D, and on and on, depending on your partner’s reactions.

All of this, the increased responsibility and the increased capacity for learning and leading, is natural and good, though it usually feels anything but. This is because this process represents a sea change in your orientation to jiu-jitsu: Like Skynet, you are becoming aware.

Unlike Skynet, you do not plan to initiate a nuclear holocaust (I hope), though you may feel like something of that magnitude is happening. This is because awareness can be painful. We say “ignorance is bliss” with good reason. As a purple belt, you may become more aware of the options and paths available to you in your jiu-jitsu. However, increased awareness of those options and paths also increases your awareness of how much—or little—you know about them. You become more aware of how little you really know relative to how much it is possible to know.

This is daunting enough as it relates to your own training, but as you mention, now you are also more aware of how you come across when you try to impart jiu-jitsu knowledge to others. As a purple belt, you say you feel less comfortable teaching than you did when you were a blue belt, and the fact that your understanding of jiu-jitsu is broader than it was when you were a blue belt is no coincidence. These feelings are reflective of the stage of skill acquisition known as conscious incompetence. People in this stage are not as adept at a given skill as they will be someday. Worse, they know it.

Conscious incompetence is the second stage in the 4 States of Competence learning model, which describes “the psychological states that are involved in transforming skill incompetence to competence or outright mastery.”1

When we are white and low blue belts, we are mostly in the first stage, known as unconscious incompetence, where we are not as good a teacher or practitioner as we will be someday, but we do not realize it. How many upper belts have been “corrected” during drilling by cheerfully confident lower belt partners who did not actually know what they were talking about? I know I cringe when I look back on those times in my white and blue belt days when I drilled a technique 5 times and thought, “Ok, got this. What’s next?” I was not embarrassed by this behavior at the time because I was not yet aware there was anything problematic about it.

Your teaching ability when you were a blue belt was probably fine—commensurate with the ability of a blue belt. Of course, there is room for improvement because you are still working your way up the ranks, and even when you get to black belt, if you choose to grow and transform for as long as you train and teach, that will require that you put yourself in this stage of skill acquisition time and time again.

The plus side to your questioning of everything and the fact that you are uncomfortable about it, then, is that it means you are maturing. The conscious incompetence stage of the model is considered the stage that causes the most discomfort, precisely because it is in this stage that we realize how little we know.

Eventually you will move to the third and fourth stages of the model. In fact, you may already experience them here and there in various training and teaching situations, and the proportion will continue to shift. The third stage is conscious competence, where you know things and you are aware you know them—you can perform well, but you must still concentrate to do so. In this stage, you may prepare for teaching by writing down a list of the technique details you want to go over to make sure you do not forget any. In your training, you may recognize the opportunity for a sweep a split second after it presents itself, and depending on the skill and timing of your partner, you may or may not pull it off.

At times, you probably even experience unconscious competence, the fourth stage, which is when you can perform a task so well that you can do it without thinking about it. For instance, at this point in your jiu-jitsu career, how much thought do you give to tying your belt? Not much, I bet. You are unconsciously competent at this task.

Do not let your discomfort derail you. The reason you are questioning everything you thought you knew is because you care about teaching well and training effectively. If you did not care, you would not feel uncomfortable. The fact that you do will help you progress through the skill acquisition stages in your own teaching and training, and it will also help you when you start the cycle again, whether because you must teach something you have never taught before or because you have decided to work on a part of your game that you think needs improvement.

This is how jiu-jitsu goes. If you want to continue to grow, you will continue to experience the stages of skill acquisition. What WILL change, though, is that you will become more skilled at handling the uncertainty and discomfort of the conscious incompetence stage, because now you know how it works. Good luck and thank you for writing!