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Question: If you could go back and do one thing differently in your jiu-jitsu experience what would it be?

This question both piques my interest and fills me with dread. It piques my interest because it takes me down Memory Lane, past experiences and challenges I will remember for the rest of my life. It fills me with dread because it takes me down Memory Lane, past experiences and challenges I will remember for the rest of my life.

Here is the short answer: If I could go back and do one thing differently in my jiu-jitsu experience, I would approach my learning more like a child approaches life. I have heard it said that the jiu-jitsu belt ranks correspond to stages of human development in terms of how much technical sophistication and wisdom/maturity about training we can reasonably expect. In this analogy, white belts are small kids, blue belts are grade schoolers, purple belts are teenagers, brown belts are young adults, and black belts are mature grown-ups.

Of course we adult jiu-jitsu students have already gone through these stages, but that gives us the opportunity to be deliberate about how we approach our learning in jiu-jitsu—and if I had it to do over, I would tap more into my inner kid.

I would recognize when to be my own authority: As a rule, young children are far less concerned about social judgment than adults. They wonder, imagine, investigate, and love with abandon. They are present, and they are more concerned with exploring what might happen than with what others will think of them for wanting to know. They do not care about being “bad” at something—they do not even really know what it means.

For my jiu-jitsu training, this idea would have translated into me playing more and worrying less about winning or about what other people thought, the latter something I did all too often as I was coming up through the ranks. I hesitated to take chances, try a move just to see what would happen, or work on my weaknesses, all because I had a problem with looking inexperienced. The thing is, I was inexperienced, and if I had it to do over again, I would have embraced my inexperience as the relatively low-stress opportunity it was to explore and play.

I would recognize when to respect authority: Of course, a child’s playful nature can also wreak havoc if left unchecked. It can lead to Magic Marker scribbles on the wallpaper, not to mention much worse. It is only over time that kids can shoulder increasing amounts and kinds of responsibility, so adults must ensure that kids have enough leeway to grow and challenge themselves, but not so much that they can harm themselves or others. This is why adults do not allow kids to have candy for dinner or ride the dog like a horse.

In jiu-jitsu, this idea translates into respect for the experience and knowledge of instructors, as well as the fact that we do not know what we do not know. I was never knowingly disrespectful, but I definitely thought I knew more than I did.

I cringe now when I think about the many times I drilled a move twice and then stopped to chat with my partner, confident I had nailed it. I was also the person who in the early years of my training dismissed takedowns, no-gi, or competing, despite my instructors’ insistence that they were important. I told myself this was because I was not interested in those aspects of jiu-jitsu, though everyone except me seemed to know that it was actually because I was afraid.

Sometimes kids do not grasp why adults are making them learn school subjects or eat their vegetables. As adult jiu-jitsu students, we have choices, and if I had it to do over, I would choose to listen more to my instructors, even and especially when I did not want to.

I would recognize when to question authority: When children get older, they start to realize that the adults in their lives are not perfect or all-knowing. They start to understand the difference between right and wrong and to assume more responsibility for speaking out in favor of the former and against the latter. They ensure that their actions speak just as loudly as their words.

Jiu-jitsu practitioners do not need to wait until their “teenage years” of training to be mindful of what they should reasonably expect from their instructors and vice versa. Our instructors deserve respect for their expertise in jiu-jitsu, of course. However, it is unfair to them for us to assume that they are experts in anything other than jiu-jitsu, just as it is unfair to us for them to assume they have any authority in our lives other than what pertains directly to the mat. Achievement and belt rank in jiu-jitsu do not equal integrity and ethics, and while many black belts and high-achieving grapplers do display these characteristics, it is not automatic.

If I were to go back in time, I would spend more time guarding against hero worship and looking to my jiu-jitsu instructor as a model of how to live my life. This is not to say that one person’s choices for his or her life are inappropriate—just that those choices are not necessarily appropriate for me. I would make a much bigger point of recognizing where my instructors’ authority and expertise began and ended—I would remember that no one has a black belt in everything.

Thanks for the question!

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.