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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!

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Ask a Panda: How Do you Cope with the Ups and Downs of BJJ?

Val Worthington is taking questions about jiu-jitsu and life. Submit yours here and it could be featured in the next installment!

Question: Can you please discuss how you deal with the peaks and valleys of passion with BJJ? I don't think I have lost my passion but for a few months I have noticed that the mats are not my happy place. Changes in the school, life challenges, new students...all may be reasons. I am not giving up but I am fearful at times, unhappy sometimes, and not sure how much I am learning. Thanks!!!

Thank you for this question, though I am sorry to hear you need to ask it. I can guarantee that you are not alone in feeling this way, because I know many grapplers who have had these experiences, myself included. I hope it helps a little to know there are others who can relate, but I also know that this on its own does not solve the problem. So let’s discuss a few things I do to help me ride out the stormy times.

The longer I train, the more similarities I notice between my relationship with jiu-jitsu and my relationships with people, almost like jiu-jitsu is a sentient being with needs and preferences that I must balance against my own. One of the biggest similarities is the cyclical nature of my feelings about these relationships. My friendships, love relationships, and family connections go through phases where I feel very in sync with the people I care about, followed by phases where I feel neutral or even disconnected or dissatisfied. These latter times may bring the relationship to an end or prompt me to do what I can to reconnect, including being patient and trusting that no bad time or situation is permanent.

I am not recommending that you “break up” with jiu-jitsu. Rather, I am pointing out a reality that you noticed yourself: Your feelings about jiu-jitsu, just like your feelings about a significant person in your life, are likely to be cyclical. So many factors influence our jiu-jitsu experiences that it stands to reason some of these might be out of alignment at times. Here is what I do when I am feeling out of sorts and like jiu-jitsu just doesn’t understand.

First, I reaffirm my basic relationship with jiu-jitsu. Some relationships are intimate and enduring. Others are more fleeting and casual. Still others are everywhere in between. No type is better or worse, but awareness of this can help us determine how many resources—emotional and otherwise—we want to invest. After 18 years of training, I know I am with jiu-jitsu for the long haul. I am not going anywhere, and neither is it. During those times when I wish it could be a teeny bit less demanding, like Scrabble, and a teeny bit more supportive, like my family, I make a point of reminding myself that jiu-jitsu and I are just going through a phase.

Keep in mind, though, that it is perfectly okay, when you go to reaffirm your relationship with jiu-jitsu, to discover that you and it are not committed to each other for the long haul, or to discover that you need a break.

This leads to the second thing I do when I am feeling out of sorts with my jiu-jitsu relationship, which is confirm that my training-to-life ratio is optimal. When I first started training, I wanted to do it all the time, and I allowed other relationships and responsibilities to suffer, kind of like you do when you are in the early, crush phase of a romantic relationship. I still want to train, just like I still want to spend time with the people I care about, but I have found that the ardor of those early days of a relationship—any relationship—is unsustainable for the long haul. Either it burns itself out or it must deepen into something mellower and built to last.

For me, this has meant less training (e.g., no more two-a-days) and modifications in how I expend the energy I do have available for training (my own training, teaching others, writing about jiu-jitsu). It turns out that sometimes when I feel anxious about my training it is because something is getting short shrift, either it or another priority in my life, or maybe I just need some time to myself to do something else. Then I find I can go back feeling revitalized and eager again. For this to happen, I must inventory my priorities and my time, to make sure I am doing all I can to keep myself on the track I have identified as being important to me.

This brings us to the third and most difficult thing I do when I am feeling stressed out or anxious about my training: Own what I can and let go of the rest. You mentioned that the mat is not always your happy place these days and that you are feeling anxious about some of the changes your academy is experiencing. Changes can be particularly nerve-wracking when we feel we have little or no control over them, but one thing we can always control is our own actions and reactions. If you are nervous about training with people who are unknown quantities, consider holding off until you get to know them a little and making a point to approach them to facilitate the getting-to-know-you process. If you are sensing negative energy in the academy, smile even though you might not feel like it. If you feel like you are not learning, go back to basics. Ask for help from the instructors and teammates you trust.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to navigate the ups and downs of a jiu-jitsu life, but there is a simple one: Know thyself, be willing to do what you can to meet your own needs, and trust that this too, shall pass.

Best of 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.

Photo by CAM Photos & Design.

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Heal Up or Jump Back In? Getting Back on the Mats After Injury

Val Worthington is taking questions about jiu-jitsu and life. Submit yours here and it could be featured in the next installment!

Question: Hey! I'm a blue belt from New Jersey. Is it better to fully recover from injuries or to scale down my training?

Oh, the injury question. When things go our way during training, we may feel practically invincible. Then we land wrong. Tap too slowly. Get a limb tangled in a gi. We get injured. This, along with death and taxes, is a certainty in the life of a jiu-jiteiro: If we stick with training long enough, we will at some point be sidelined by an injury.

The very first thing I want to do in responding to this question is make it clear that I am not a physician. I am not authorized to give medical advice of any kind, and this response is based on my own experiences and those of my friends and teammates, not on any kind of medical training.

Thus, the very second thing I want to do in responding to this question is encourage anyone who is injured or sick, or who suspects they may be either, to consult a licensed medical professional for advice specific to that injury or illness. Jiu-jitsu practitioners as a group are notoriously reluctant to seek medical help, instead “training around it” or “just shoving it back in its socket and using the other one.” We do not want to miss training, which anyone who trains understands, but sometimes our passion for training clouds our better judgment.

Believe me when I say I know health insurance and medical care are expensive. I know many of us try to get along without them, and I cannot speak for anyone besides myself regarding whether they are a priority, let alone an affordable one. Given what jiu-jitsu requires of us, however, if I had my way, it would be on everyone’s short list of considerations.

This leads to the third thing: Make sure any doctor you consult has some sense of what you do and what your goals are. I have heard many a horror story about doctors who, upon completing their examination of a grappler, make the dastardly pronunciation, “You should probably just stop jiu-jitsu altogether.” I am fortunate to have a physical therapist who understands my passion for jiu-jitsu and an osteopath who himself is a blue belt. Add to this the fact that they are both highly skilled and dedicated, and I know the care I get for injuries is oriented around helping me get back to my regular routine as quickly, safely, and cost-effectively as possible. Do your best to find qualified physicians who have a similar mindset.

Now, the heart of the question—whether it is better to heal completely from an injury or scale back your training as you regain strength, stability, range of motion, or whatever else you lost when you got injured. This will depend on many variables, including the nature and severity of the injury, the types of positions and movements that do and do not aggravate it, whether you will be prescribed physical therapy, and the level and type of physical demands in the rest of your life, to name just a few. You will not be surprised to read that I strongly suggest you work closely with your doctor(s) when considering these variables.

There is another variable, however, over which you have more control, and that is your awareness of your own well-being and personality. In other words, how well do you know your body and mind? Regarding your body awareness, in recent years, a raft of experts has begun to turn athletes’ attention toward improving mobility and being aware of their own bodies’ baseline capabilities. This serves multiple purposes, including helping to maximize performance and prevent injury. It may also increase individuals’ recognition of when they are operating at 100% and when they are not, when they are simply expanding their comfort zones and when they are doing themselves real damage.

Regarding your personality, think about how much you can trust yourself. In other words, are you one of those people who sticks to it when you say, “I am only going to drill, no live training” and “I am going to class, but I will just sit on the edge of the mat and take notes,” or does the voice in your head slowly but surely change its tune to, “I’ll just roll this one round,” and “You know, I’m feeling pretty good, so I’m gonna see how it goes”? Can you trust yourself to listen to your body, common sense, and the best medical advice you can access? Or will you go full-bore against everyone’s better judgment?

I have just used a lot of words to convey a relatively simple message: Know thyself, body and mind, before you get injured. Prioritize finding trustworthy doctors who value your well-being and your training priorities in equal measure and who understand your financial situation. If you do get injured, listen to your doctor and your common sense to put yourself on the fast track to recovery.

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.

Photo by CAM Photos & Design.

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Introducing Ask a Panda with Val Worthington

Val Worthington is taking questions about jiu-jitsu and life. Submit yours here and it could be featured in the next installment!

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.

Read more →