Purple Belt Purgatory Part II: Feeling the Itch and Showing the Grit

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: In Part I of my response to this question, I observed that there are actually two questions in it: a question about dealing with purple belt purgatory in general and a question about the challenges of becoming a purple belt who teaches. I addressed the second question in Part I, and here, in Part II, I will address the first question: “When you were a purple belt, did you start to question everything you do? Do you feel that purple belt is a trying period in jiu-jitsu?”

The short answer to this question is: absolutely; I questioned everything and found purple belt trying. Just like I have at every belt and continue to do every time I stop to think about where I am relative to where I think I should be in terms of skill, leadership, and maturity.

I would not be me if I did not have a long answer to this question as well. This long answer involves the concept of the “seven-year itch,”1 which is the title of a 1952 play and 1955 film adaptation of the play. The title refers to the amount of time the protagonist and his wife have been married, as well as the fact that he is considering being unfaithful. The idea is that around the seven-year mark, married couples tend to feel the honeymoon has ended, and boredom, irritation, and dwindling connection may prompt them to consider divorce or extracurricular activities.2

About a year after I got my purple belt, I experienced my own jiu-jitsu seven-year itch. I had become increasingly disinterested in training, dreading going to class and being elsewhere in my mind when I did attend. I ended up turning my back on training completely for the better part of a year, instead doing things “normal” people do: happy hours, movies, jogging, sleeping in on weekends, spending time with family and friends who thought “rear naked choke” was something dirty. I liked it for a while. Eventually I was eager to get back together with jiu-jitsu, but for the time I was gone, I was gone.

Perhaps your own jiu-jitsu journey has become a bit itchy. Perhaps the Christmas-morning excitement that accompanied your every discovery from white through blue belt about where to place your foot or how to position your hip has given way to a sense of world-weariness or obligation. Your jiu-jitsu honeymoon may be over.

This, along with the awareness you are probably starting to experience as described in Part I of this response, can combine to create the purple belt purgatory you described in your question.

My friends Steve Bowers and Paul Miller run Main Line United BJJ, an academy in Ardmore, PA. It is a great place to train, and, if you are looking for motivation, it is also a great place to be a woman, because when you sit down in the Main Line United BJJ bathroom to do your business, you are confronted with this sign:

In addition to providing motivation, the sign is a reminder that neither purple belt purgatory, blue belt blues, nor any of those doubts and hesitations from white to black are isolated incidents: You are not alone.

It bears mentioning that if you are really disillusioned with jiu-jitsu, or if other life goals are competing with your training such that you really feel the need to take a break or stop altogether, then it is doubly fortunate that you are free to do what you want any old time, per the Rolling Stones. Make sure you ask yourself the tough questions about whether you still want to be doing this, and if the answer is no, honor that.

Now, what can you do if the answer is yes? The best solution for your itch just may be to get gritty.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has written a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In it, she defines grit as “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals,” arguing that excellence is not limited to those with natural talent but rather can be cultivated through a combination of interest, practice, purpose, and hope—grit. Many of her comments sound like they could be about the experience of training jiu-jitsu, particularly the times when the going gets tough. Her comments in an interview on Freakonomics Radio underscore the existence of the phenomenon we call purple-belt purgatory; indeed this phenomenon occurs in a wide variety of endeavors. She says,

“I interviewed Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 gold medalist in the 100-meter-freestyle representing the United States, and he estimates that in the years up to the Olympics where he won that gold medal, he swam equivalently around the world, right? Roughly 20,000 miles. And so I asked him, ‘Do you love practice?’ And he said, ‘Are you asking me if I love getting up at 4 in the morning, jumping into a cold pool, and swimming laps looking at a black line on the bottom, at the very edge of my physical ability where my lungs are screaming for oxygen and my arms feel like they’re about to fall off? No, I don’t, but I love the whole thing. You know, I have a passion for the whole sport.’”

The point being, we do not have to love every minute of what we do to pursue our passions. In fact, it is unlikely that we will. But if we do not love our passion overall, we will not make ourselves persevere when the going gets tough. You do not like feeling as if you are questioning everything you have learned in your purple belt-ness, and this is understandable. However, this is the price those of us with a passion pay for pursuing it. I can almost guarantee that this will not be the last time you have doubts or fears along your jiu-jitsu journey. The question is how you want to face those challenges. Are they something you do not want to deal with, or are they the shadow side of the thing you are passionate about? In the latter case, it may be time to answer the call of nature and then get gritty.

Good luck and thank you 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.

1 Nagy, J. (January 28, 2013). The seven-year itch: Fact or fiction? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-nagy/the-sevenyear-itch-fact-o_b_2443171.html

2 Edmonds, M. Is there such a thing as the seven-year itch? How Stuff Works. Retrieved from http://health.howstuffworks.com/relationships/marriage/seven-year-itch.htm