Inverted Gear Blog / Valerie Worthington

Please Don’t Make Me Pull Rank

After I had been teaching jiu-jitsu for a while, a twenty-something man started coming to my classes. He had never trained before, but he had somehow decided he knew a lot already—shades of the Dunning-Kruger effect plus, I’m guessing, YouTube. From the get-go, he had a habit of telling his training partners how to do techniques (usually incorrectly) and asking questions that seemed less about clarification and more about proving what he knew and what I did not. I tried to be patient with him, letting him know I was happy to work with him but asking him to stop being disruptive in class. He would either laugh or stare at me, and then during the next class he would shout out again.

One time he must have hit my last nerve, because I changed the way I responded. He called me over to say that his partner was not doing the technique sequence correctly, and could I help. When I started walking the partner through the sequence, he interrupted repeatedly and “corrected” me (e.g., “Don’t you mean X?” I didn’t. “Why wouldn’t he do Y there?” Because he would lose position). I finally said, “All right. Your turn.” I made him run through the technique sequence, and every time he messed up, which was often, I said, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.” He started to get flustered, and I made him complete the sequence. Then I said, “You need to think more about your own training and less about everyone else’s. Got it?” He did not respond, but I could see from his face that my message had started to sink in.

When it was time for open training, I pointed at him and said, “Let’s go.” Then I tapped him with the same mounted Americana 5 or 6 times in a row. This required that I get to the mount each time from a neutral face-off, which I had no problem doing.

After I tapped him repeatedly, there was a little time left, and I decided to let him sweep me. He said, “Oh, you gave me that.” Progress? I chose to think so.

I responded with “Yup.” Usually I would tell a student that he got the sweep because he had gotten all the details right, but this guy got no quarter.

After that, he continued to come to my class, but he was noticeably quieter and less brash. I did my best to let him know he was still welcome, and to indicate that the change in his behavior was much appreciated.

I did not like doing that to him. I do not even like describing how easy it was for me to do it. However, I had to weigh his need to feel like he knew more than he did with my need to provide an effective learning experience for the entire class, because the two needs were mutually exclusive, my need took precedence, and my subtler attempts to send the message had not registered. If I had it to do over, I would probably come out and tell him the same point I am making here: I do not like to pull rank, but I will if I must.

To me, pulling rank refers to those times when I must remind one or more other people that there is a pecking order, and that the person or people I am reminding are lower on it than I am. Usually the behavior that prompts me to pull rank involves some disruption of class or some transgression against another student, though there are many other reasons.

I am not alone. I know many people—friends, colleagues, and mentors—who have worked hard to earn their rank in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and continue to work hard to live up to it. Like me, these people see their rank as an important part of who they are. But also like me, based on my observations of them, at least, most of the black belts I know and respect do not enjoy lording that over others.

I do not like pulling rank because it forces me to highlight power and authority differentials, when I much prefer that students and instructors alike recognize and respect our different roles because we respect each other as people. When I am teaching, it is my job to lead class, and it is the students’ job to learn and, I hope, enjoy. Sometimes I am the student, too, and when that is the case, I act appropriately. Ideally, all of us recognize our roles and commit to fulfilling them. In situations where I feel I must pull rank, it is because some among us have decided they need not adhere to the group’s shared agreement of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the training context. It is as if all of us are all reduced to the color of our belts, and that way lies danger.

Sure, it can be difficult to suss out what constitutes appropriate behavior in a jiu-jitsu context, and I daresay that jiu-jitsu academies as a group do not have the best track record for establishing expectations up front. Academies are getting better at this, though, and if you do not know, there are ways to figure it out: observation, asking your drilling partner, and asking the instructor, for instance. When we are new to jiu-jitsu or a specific school, we can commit to learning how to enhance the learning environment instead of acting in a way that forces the instructor to protect it—and to rely on something other than mutual respect for keeping order.

Instructors and coaches, what are your thoughts on pulling rank? Students and teammates, what questions do you have about how to make sure you are not the person your instructor has to pull rank on? Post your ideas to comments.

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Ask a Panda: How do you deal with tapping to a lower belt?


I just received my purple belt a couple of months ago, and I’m starting to feel more pressure to perform well, especially when I roll with lower belts. The other day I had to tap to a white belt. It was fair and square, which means I have no excuses. I felt awful, like I didn’t deserve my promotion. How do you deal with tapping to a lower belt?


In jiu-jitsu, there are many milestones. An obvious one is earning stripes or the next belt. Or completing your first submission. On the flip-side, though, are the milestones that may not be so enjoyable. The first time you feel completely and utterly controlled. The first time you are sidelined by injury or illness. And, yes, the first time you must tap to a lower belt. You are certainly not the first person to have to tap to a lower belt, and you certainly will not be the last. You may even have to do it again… and again and again.

It can feel awful, and, as you say, can throw you into doubt about whether you really belong at your belt level. Think about it, though: Given the countless options you have and the countless options your partner has, it stands to reason that eventually and every now and then you will get caught by someone you think should never be able to catch you. Sometimes the stars align for you, and sometimes they align for the other guy. Here are just a few reasons you (or any of us) may get caught by someone lower ranked:

  • You had a lousy day, a day where you were the nail rather than the hammer during every roll
  • You got cute, trying to skip steps in a sequence or underestimating your partner
  • You were trying something new and unfamiliar
  • You plain and simple got caught

Okay. It happened. Now what? You may want to crawl in a hole. You may want to switch to no-gi so nobody can tell your rank. Believe it or not, I condone that, temporarily, and as long as you keep a poker face in public. You can drown your sorrows as much as you want in private, for a few days. In public, though, keep it together. It will help you work on your game face, and it will help lower belts learn the appropriate way to react to an upper belt getting tapped by a lower belt: with, if anything, vague interest that passes quickly.

Once you have licked your wounds, here is a list of things you can do to move forward.

1. Touch base with your humility. What can you learn from this experience, technically, strategically, and philosophically? I know, learning can be unpleasant. (I am a learning theorist, so you can trust my expert opinion on this. Still, it’s important to do, and the results—and even the process—are usually always beneficial.)

2. Rest assured that you are not alone. Just because this may not be a common topic of conversation does not mean it is not a common occurrence. I am willing to bet that most people who have reached black belt have experienced this at least once, and the ones who are committed to learning have experienced it multiple times. (Present company included, probably at least once between the filing and the posting of this story.)

3. Accept that it will probably happen again. It may not feel right, but it is inevitable.

4. Control the spin. If you make a big deal of it and list 10 excuses for why it happened, OR come at your lower-belt partner after the fact like the Terminator, that sends a certain message. If you tap, say “Good one,” and keep rolling the same way, that sends a different message. Think about which one you want to send.

Finally, let it go. I am trying to do two things here. First, I want to help you maintain perspective: This is by no means the most challenging or embarrassing thing you are likely to experience in training. (That is both great and terrible news.) Second, I want to do my part to normalize what is probably a far more common occurrence than most of us are willing to admit.

You said you are a relatively newly-minted purple belt. (Congratulations on your promotion!) Conventional wisdom indicates that purple is the teaching belt, the level at which students start to become leaders. This is because it is the entirety of the experiences and expertise you have earned over the amount of time it usually takes to reach purple belt that qualify you to have your rank, not a single isolated incident. Though it may not feel like it, getting tapped by a lower belt is a perfect opportunity for you to start exercising that leadership and teaching muscle: How you handle this experience can give you practice setting an example for lower belts of how to act with grace in even challenging situations. Good luck, and remember that you are not alone.

Have a question? Get an answer from Val!

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.

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Teaching Grapplers to Teach

If you train jiu-jitsu for long enough, you will likely be called upon to teach jiu-jitsu. Maybe your instructor needs to take a call just as class is starting and asks you to run the warmup. Maybe she or he is unexpectedly detained and calls upon you to cover. Maybe you have a particularly effective take on a given technical sequence and some of your teammates ask you to show it. Or maybe you want to teach on a regular basis but do not yet have much experience.

Learning to teach jiu-jitsu is like learning to do jiu-jitsu: When you start, you will not be nearly as good as you will become over time, and your skill improves directly as the amount of time and effort you put in. In other words, time and experience will help you become a better jiu-jitsu instructor.

While you are developing your teaching skill, or even if you are a seasoned instructor, here are 10 things to consider that may help you create or enhance a productive learning environment for students in your jiu-jitsu academy when you are instructing.

  • You can learn a lot about how to teach by observing your teachers. If you are interested in teaching, watch your instructors from the perspective of someone who wants to teach. Pay attention to the language and analogies, the breakdown of the available time, how the instructor interacts with students in the large group and one on one. You do not have to copy your instructor’s style completely, but you can emulate some of the basics as you develop your own teaching personality.

  • It is useful to give some thought to time management. How long is the class? What are the usual components of a class at your academy (e.g., warmup, technique/drilling, live rolling)? How many techniques do you want to show, and how long do you plan to allow students to drill each one? Less seasoned instructors may sometimes find it challenging to partition a class session effectively, and in this case, the clock is your friend, as is a bit of advance estimation. Time management is also a good thing to keep in mind as you observe your own instructors.

  • Good instructors do more than show technique. Technique is important, of course, and is the reason people are coming to class in the first place. However, good instructors see to the care and feeding of the whole grappler. They create an environment conducive to learning by setting expectations, being present and attentive, even playing appropriate music. They put the students’ needs before their own, which may mean not training to give students their chance. They always remember they are representing their school and their colleagues and instructors, and they become comfortable with asserting authority in times of emergency or uncertainty.

  • The target audience, the time of day, and even the season may have an influence on the class. The expectations placed on students in a fundamentals class will differ greatly from those in an advanced or competition class. If you are teaching a fundamentals class, less is more, while an advanced class will require more intensity. I teach early in the morning, so I usually run a gentle warmup. And if people are coming in from 20-degree weather, they may need a bit more time to get the blood moving than if it is summertime.

  • It is a good idea to plan more than you think you will have time for. Sometimes even experienced instructors find that what they have planned takes less time than anticipated. Those instructors are good at modifying on the fly, adding drills or situational sparring to support learning. Newer instructors may not have mastered this skill yet, so it is a good idea to plan more than we think we will need. If we do have too much, we can cut the presentation short as necessary. That can even seed anticipation for the next class. (I.e., “Next time we’ll cover how to counter the sequence we’ve been working on today.”)

  • Repetition is a good thing. Sometimes when I prepare to teach something I have taught before, I get concerned that students will find it boring. As a student, however, I know that I need to revisit techniques time and time again, and there have been many occasions when I have been happy to discover that the class will be focusing on a technique I think I know well, because I also know there is always more to learn.

  • We become better teachers with time and practice, just as we do as practitioners. I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating, especially after a particularly challenging class Revisiting techniques is what helps students encode them into muscle memory. Similarly, teaching the same techniques repeatedly helps us become better at teaching them. The same goes for classroom management and our comfort with assuming a leadership role in general.

  • It is helpful to practice out loud. Before you are scheduled to teach, talk aloud through the different sections of your class. Find a time and place where you can talk to yourself without evoking stares or, better still, find a few people to act as your class so you can run through the details physically and verbally. If I am planning to teach something I am not as comfortable with, I will talk to myself on the drive to the academy. As anyone who gives presentations knows, it makes a huge difference if you practice first. Even if you stumble over your words, better to do it in private than in front of the group—and it will make your performance that much better when it is show time.

  • If you get stage fright, you can teach to your friends. Or the wall. Particularly if you are teaching a big fundamentals class, it can be overwhelming at first to have all those eyes on you. The old trick of imagining everyone in their underwear has never worked for me, but teaching to friends has. Chances are there will be a few people in your class whom you like, and who like you, and you can make eye contact with them. If that is not the case, ask a ringer or two to attend, so you have friendly faces to anchor you. If all else fails, find a spot on the wall just above the heads of the students, and direct your words to it.

  • For the most part, nobody will remember your mistakes. People may not even realize you have made what you consider to be a mistake, depending on how you play it. If you apologize all over the place, that sends one message. If instead you say something like, “You know what? Scratch that. Let’s do something different,” that sends a completely different message. In other words, fake it till you make it, and act as if everything you do is correct—not obnoxiously, but in a way that inspires confidence in your leadership. Eventually you, too, will feel the same confidence. Even if you do make a big, honking mistake, you will survive, and it does not mean you are worthless as an instructor or a practitioner. It means you are in the same club as the rest of us.

What other advice would you give to your teammates and students who want to teach jiu-jitsu? Post your suggestions to comments.

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.


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Five Steps to Jiu-Jitsu Expertise

Want to be good at jiu-jitsu? That puts you in illustrious—and sometimes obsessed—company. Thousands of people are striving for the same thing, all over the world. Numerous theories about learning can help explain the process by which people go from being unskilled at a technique sequence, to becoming somewhat skilled, to becoming ever more skilled. Research and best practice remind us that different people require different types of inputs and supports for learning.

That all sounds impressive, right? Lots of big words and concepts and whatnot. Here is the truth, though: When I try to learn a new technique, it feels like I flounder around for days and weeks and months and lifetimes, convinced I will never be able to execute it on even the most collaborative partner, let alone a resisting opponent. Somehow, though, I make progress, to the point where over time, moves I once struggled with become go-tos.

It used to seem like a mystery, how I went from not being able to jiu-jitsu, to being able to jiu-jitsu a little bit, to, over time, being able to jiu-jitsu better and better. One day I could not pull off a move, and the next day I was all about it. But with the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the reason it seemed like an on-off switch was because I was discounting many steps in the process, steps that did not look like progress to me because I was still “losing.” I started to realize that before I could effectively pull off a technique, there were conditions that had to occur first, and those conditions tended to follow a set pattern. Here is what I discovered about how I learn jiu-jitsu techniques:

First, I am exposed to a technique in class and drilling. The nature of the technique dictates how much context I will have for it. If it is a variation on a technique or sequence I am familiar with, I will have a pre-existing structure for understanding it. If it is something I have not seen or experienced much, I will have less understanding of how it works and how it fits with other things I already know. If I am at the beginning of my jiu-jitsu journey, I will have very little context and very little experience contorting my body into the necessary positions, which means that old learning curve will be steep.

Second, I encounter the opportunity to set up the technique during live rolling but do not notice. It is not until class is over and I am going over the live rolling in my mind that I will recognize that missed chance. Believe it or not, though, this is progress. Want to know how I know? Because I can almost guarantee that there were many earlier training sessions during which the exact same opportunity presented itself and I never realized it, not later, not ever. The fact I recognized it at all is a step forward.

Third, my recognition synapses kick in more quickly, and I notice during the roll that the opportunity presented itself. I have still missed my window, but this time I missed it by seconds or minutes as opposed to hours or days. I may even miss an opportunity to execute a different move because I am in the process of realizing I missed the first one. Again, it may not feel like progress because the result is the same, or even worse, but my brain and body are slowly coming into sync. Like the raptors in Jurassic Park, I remember.

Fourth, I notice the opportunity to set up the technique, actually set it up, and fail. For the first time, the opportunity to apply the technique I have been drilling makes itself plain at the exact moment I need it to, shining like the pearly gates. I go to work—and still end up on the losing end of the exchange. I miss a detail or wait a split second too long, or on the flip side, I rush it. My partner counters effectively, and I come up short again. I rage inwardly for the umpteenth time because I did not “do it right,” though yet again, this is a step forward: I did not earn points, but I scored the advantage.

Fifth, I notice the opportunity to set up the technique, set it up, and succeed. This is the pay dirt step. The step where I look around and say to myself, “Where the heck did that come from? Did it really happen?” The step where it seems like I pulled the move out of some part of my anatomy. I felt this exact way the first time I ever took the mount during live training. I had side control and clumsily threw my leg over my partner’s body, expecting I would be stopped mid-throw. But I got on top, and if I had been in a movie, the soundtrack would have swelled and the camera would have zoomed in on my disbelieving face. I looked around and saw that the view was breathtaking. I realized I had no idea what to do next, and then I got reversed. It was the best reversal of my life.

It is lovely to have that out-of-nowhere feeling step five brings, but since it often takes so long to get there, it is also nice to have a sense of the steps that come before. I have learned that when I am aware enough to realize I “failed,” it means I succeeded. Then the goal is to succeed a little more successfully the next time.

That is the process I follow for becoming an expert in jiu-jitsu. Of course, there is also a sixth step: I repeat the steps for every one of the thousands of techniques I want to learn.

Do you notice yourself “failing” as part of your learning process? Post your observations to comments.

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.


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You’ll Never Die of Exposure in BJJ, Though You May Want to

The other day I was talking with a student who had recently competed for the first time. He recounted how anxious he was as he waited to compete, how fast he started to experience the adrenaline dump so common for inexperienced competitors once his match started, and how frustrating it was not to be able to apply his game effectively (he lost via a collar choke at about the 3-minute mark). “It really exposed some of my shortcomings,” he said.

I started thinking about the concept of exposure and how often it is linked in my mind with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I can share countless times during my jiu-jitsu career when I felt completely exposed—embarrassed, frustrated, frightened, anxious, disappointed—because of something I said, did, or did not say or do. Times when I got so frazzled at not being able to drill a given technique correctly that I just wanted to go to bed and never get up. Times when I was the uke but did not provide the correct reaction, which made me look stupid but also annoyed the instructor. Times when I was convinced the rest of the class was communicating silently with each other about how hopeless I was or how needlepoint would be a much better use of my time.

And, more recently, times when I must acknowledge that, while I still have many active years ahead of me, my prime performing days are over. Times when I have explained a technique incorrectly or had to say I did not know the answer to a technical question. Times when I am on the defensive while training with someone I “should” be able to handle.

When I feel exposed like this, I become convinced that my soul is on display for the world to judge. It is as if my top layers have been peeled back, but instead of the goopy, bony stuff inside a normal person’s skin, it is all my shortcomings and insecurities about my worth as a person that are revealed. Dramatic sounding, I know, but there is something about the combination of physical exertion and mental gymnastics that jiu-jitsu requires that can leave me feeling vulnerable and, well, exposed.

You might wonder why I keep coming back, if this is what I can expect to happen. It is a question I ask myself before every competition class, every visit to a strange academy, every time I teach a series of techniques for the first time. I have tried to explain it elsewhere, as have many of my fellow long-suffering contemporaries. Suffice it to say that, as a good friend of mine has said repeatedly, I can’t not train. And that tells you something about how compelling it is, if I am willing to lay myself bare so completely and so often.

Or to feel like that is what I am doing, at least. One truism about feeling exposed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is that it is usually worse in our minds than it is in reality. It can feel like everyone is watching or judging, and maybe in the moment that even approaches the truth. But people have a short memory, and eventually, it is likely that the only person who will remember how exposed I felt during that painful jiu-jitsu moment is me. When it comes right down to it, there is an element of self-centeredness to our feelings of exposure, and it does not hurt to try to refrain from taking ourselves too seriously. As other friends have said, it’s only jiu-jitsu.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Feeling vulnerable and at the mercy of others’ good will is stressful and unpleasant, even if we like and trust those others. The student I spoke with about his competition experience is obviously still processing several weeks later, for example. I, too, carry those exposure memories with me, and they do not soften as much with age as I would like. So I tried to be supportive while he talked through some things, and I reminded him that it takes brass ones to take ourselves outside our comfort zones on purpose. This is something jiu-jitsu requires each of us to do on a regular basis, whether in competition or at the academy. None of us who steps on the mat gets away without having to expose ourselves, in all kinds of ways.

This provides a bit of comfort. As does the fact that we are not likely to die from this kind of exposure, though sometimes we may want to.

Have a memory to share about a time you felt completely exposed in jiu-jitsu? Post to comments.

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.


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