Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper
Drew, Chris, Bryan, Jerod, Travis, Mike, another Mike, Matt, Ryan, Phil, Kyle—These are all people that I personally convinced to sign up for a jiu-jitsu membership at my home gym, and none of them train with me anymore (that I can recall). A few moved to different cities and continue to train, but most simply quit altogether.
Anecdotally, the wisdom goes that 1 out of 10 people will make it from white belt to blue belt. 1 out of 10 blue belts will in-turn become purple belts. If you follow that math through black belt, 1 out of 10,000 people that start jiu-jitsu will stick around to earn a black belt. Unfortunately, we don’t have the hard data to make this a scientific fact, but most of the grapplers I’ve talked with agree that these numbers reflect their general experience. When someone disagrees with these ratios, it’s because they believe that it is far worse than I’ve described.
Jiu-jitsu is a hard sport, and training for life is not for everyone. In fact, expecting someone to try a new hobby and to stick with it forever is almost unfair. People will leave, and that’s okay.
But where does that leave you if you’re a lifer? Well, after a few years on the mat, there will come a day when you sit down and reflect on all of the training partners you’ve seen come and go. And oh boy will it depress the hell out of you.
For me, it happens a few times a year. Usually the downward spiral starts after a hard roll, when I’m leaning against the wall, and someone asks, “Hey, whatever happened to ______?”
These moments hit me hard because I typically quite like my training partners and it makes me sad to see them leave. While losing training partner still bums me out, here is what I’ve learned:
A jiu-jitsu gym is not immune to the natural ebbs and flows of life. People come and go all the time, but the static four walls of a mat room can warp that perception and make it feel more intense.
Jiu-jitsu is a fantastic art that can transform one’s life, but it’s not a lifetime hobby for everyone. Some people simply lose interest, and if you look back on your own hobbies, you can probably fine a few that you’ve quit that people you used to know will stick with until they die.
If you want to help lower the attrition rate of jiu-jitsu, you need to be helpful and understanding. Welcome new students, talk them through the hardest moments, and don’t apply your standard of commitment to everyone that comes through the door. Just because you’re in the gym 7 days a week doesn’t mean that everyone should be. Acting like people are somehow less engaged because they don’t train late at night like you do can actually push people out the door.
Enjoy the time you have. People leave a gym for all sorts of reasons, so don’t take your time with a training partner for granted. You never know when an injury, a job, or some other real life obligation will pull them away. Learn as much as you can from the people around you because they could be gone tomorrow.
Losing training partners can be emotionally difficult. You can invest so much of yourself in others only to have them leave. Know that it’s usually not personal. It’s just life. Treasure the time you have and be extra thankful for the brothers and sisters that stick by you for the long haul.
White belts are special people. Their enthusiasm has an intense innocence. They have just stepped into a world full of possibilities and rich with history. They want to experience it all right away and they really sincerely want to get better. Even if they think “knee on belly” is “neon belly” and that a “whizzer” is a “wizard,” their hearts are in the right place.
And that’s what many veteran grapplers lose sight of: most white belts mean well.
In online communities and in my travels, I sometimes see higher ranked jiu-jiteiros rolling their eyes at newer students or growing frustrated with an unending stream of questions. They go online to complain about a white belt coaching other white belts or worse yet having the nerve to give them to critique an upper belt’s technique.
We forget what it’s like to be a white belt, and in many cases, we are much harder on them than we should be. Before a newbie pushes you to frustration, keep these things in mind:
- The sport needs white belts. New students keep the sport growing, and a new student likely means that more people outside of jiu-jitsu will hear about the sport. By the time you get to purple belt, everyone you know is aware that you train and is sick of hearing about it.
- The depth of jiu-jitsu is overwhelming, and it’s getting worse. There are so many techniques and positions to learn—all with varying names and terminology—that a white belt is hopelessly outmatched. If a white belts asks a lot of questions, be nicer about answering, and don’t be afraid to remind white belts that it’s okay that they don’t know everything yet.
- Because white belts are often the first of their social circle to enter the sport, they can sometimes feel like they have a responsibility to be a jiu-jitsu missionary, which means having to speak authoritatively about the art. They don’t have enough knowledge, of course, to get it all right, but no one talks to them about how to balance their enthusiasm. Again, they mean well, so don’t be too hard on them.
- Gyms are really bad about teaching jiu-jitsu culture and tradition. A white belt is rarely given an explanation of gym decorum or an introduction to the culture of our sport as a whole, so it’s not the white belts' fault when they forget to bow or don’t wash their gi every training session. When you expect someone to learn these things by feel alone, you put an unfair amount of pressure on that person. Higher belts should talk to white belts about these things!
- White belts don’t know what they don’t know, and they have no way of knowing that you have answered the same question a thousand times, so be patient. Higher belts helped you when you were a white belt. Pay it forward and lend a hand.
Go help someone new.
Do you have a story about an upper belt helping you when you were new? We’d love to hear it!
With Tobey Maguire doing the podcast rounds for his new movie Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby Fischer is reentering the public conversation. Well, maybe not the general public conversation. Chess isn’t the sexy Cold War sport that it used to be, but a few of us probably remember winding our way through the dusty stacks of a public library to find a hidden backroom where dozens of young children quietly hunched over chessboards.
Bobby Fischer was something of a hero at the time (and that legacy has been tarnished by his mental unhinging). Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film about child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin—now a Marcelo Garcia black belt—was just hitting VHS and my brothers and I were giddy with chess fever. I, unfortunately, was never particularly good. My older brother never held back when we played, and I didn’t fare much better against children my age in the dingy corner of a Pennsylvania library.
I took to studying. I would sneak into my brother’s room to borrow his copy of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and worked through the exercises in secret in the hopes that I could launch a surprise comeback.
That never worked, but some twenty years later I am thinking about that book again because of jiu-jitsu, and it has helped me to better understand how I train and how I can help my students.
Start at the End
In his book, Fischer begins by teaching endgame. Most of the pieces are removed from the board, leaving you to figure out how you could achieve checkmate with the handful of pieces available. The first big chunk of instruction is done this way. Fischer walks you through a variety of endgame scenarios and challenges you to find the right solution.
The logic goes that working backward from the end is not only more efficient, it’s more effective. If you start from the beginning, with every piece on the board, you can get overwhelmed by all of the different ways you can start. The problem becomes that you don’t know where you are trying to go, so no matter how you start, you almost always end up getting lost. If you an endgame that you prefer, you can build your game in reverse to steer the conflict in that direction.
I stumbled across this idea in jiu-jitsu by accident. I was trying to learn to wrestle, and my wrestling coach recommended that I start with the single leg because of how I played my guard. My shot was garbage, but I could initiate the single leg from my butt scoot and from my half guard, so I started to get reps in on finishing the single leg long before I could successfully change levels and shoot into a single leg.
Knowing that I could finish the single leg once I had it actually made me more confident in my shot. Working backwards from the single leg made the limitless possibilities of the takedown game less intimidating. I wasn’t trying to decide between a few dozen throws and takedowns. I knew where I wanted to go—the single leg—so I built my standing game around techniques that would lead me down that funnel and nowhere else.
I am not a Genius
When I first came to this realization, I thought I had come up with something original, but not only was Bobby Fischer talking about it decades before I was derping around a jiu-jitsu gym, but according to Tim Ferriss in his book 4-Hour Chef this is one of the reasons that Dave Camarillo has a small obsession with armbars. When he works with students, he teaches them the overall endgame of jiu-jitsu—getting the submission—and works backward from there. If you like armbars, these are the kind of throws that are ideal, this is the kind of guard you should play, and here’s how you should play your top positioning. If your endgame is a guillotine, that overall strategy could be radically different.
If you are working on a new jiu-jitsu skill, you could apply this approach to make that process easier. Start at the end, and work your way backward, the Bobby Fischer way.
But skip the part where you get weirdly paranoid about vast conspiracies. Stick to the jiu-jitsu.
(Photo credit to Evonne on Flickr.)