Lessons from Upper Belts

Lessons from Upper Belts

Jiu-jitsu is passed down. Your instructor passes down what he learnt from his instructor to you. One day you will pass on what you’ve learnt to others. But that day is a long way off for most of us. For now, you’re a white belt among the sea of upper belts.

The best way to describe a white belt is “a sponge.” A receptacle, an empty vessel. For now, you are relatively empty but others will fill up your vessel. I am too. Jiu-jitsu is about knowledge and accumulation. Experience is the greatest equalizer.

Sure, you go to your instructor’s classes. However, developing relationships with upper belts will often yield something much deeper that goes beyond just improving your game.

Slow Down

Regarding actual jiu-jitsu, the lessons given to a white belt are the simplest instructions. We’re just starting! Sometimes the most basic things are revelatory. Using a Kimura grip as a form of control was mind-blowing at the time. I felt like a ninja.

But, realistically, the most common advice you’ll be getting is to either “slow down” or, as a purple belt would only half-jokingly say to me, “stop making mistakes.” We’re friends, so it’s funny. 

It’s the eternal lesson. To lose all the unnecessary space. To apply that slow, total, unstoppable control. The control of my instructors, not of me. Every lesson I’ve learnt feels like it’s another way to slow down.

Make Friends

This might be the most important thing! I remember the first few weeks of having to get pumped up for class. To get in the competition mindset. It’s embarrassing now, but it’s a universal mistake. Class isn’t a fight; it’s a hangout. 

I saw the upper belts, just hanging out and talking. Practice and the gym was part of their life. A part they enjoyed and relished. I wanted that! So, I started remembering names, remembering things about each person. You know, making friends. 

From there, I have developed my central goal of the white belt journey: Don’t show up to get good. Instead show up to have fun and improve. Never neglect your training partners as people, because they will keep you on the path more than anything else.

Remember The Date

It was night one, hour one. I had just finished my first practice. A blue belt asked me how I liked it, and we got to talking. Eventually I asked how long he had been training. His reply shocked me, “It’s been five years, two months and … umm, seventeen days?” 

He remembered the exact date he started. I couldn’t believe it. I realized how important jiu-jitsu was to him and did the same. I never wrote it down, but I sure as hell commit it to memory. And I’m glad I did. I now pass along this idea to newcomers and hope they do the same.

And though I have so few things of substance to pass along, I try my best. I never advise on technique, it’s not my place. But as a man, an adult with a decade-plus of being alive on some of our guys, I know a few things. When it comes to jiu-jitsu, more times than not it comes down to appreciating the moment and going slow.