The Illusion of the Super Athlete Upper Belt

Chris Henriques was a purple belt when I was a white belt. A tattoo artist and professional fighter, Chris was tough-looking in that he had tattoos up his scalp and a fight record to match, but he had a Hawaiian smile and a friendly melody to his speech. A regular at many of the noon classes I attended, he often had the patience to be my partner and the kindness to answer my questions before and after training.

Chris was nice to me, but spider guard was not.

For an entire month we drilled spider guard, starting class with the same set of fundamental spider guard movements and drills. The hardest movement drill—a sort of forward shrimping where you alternate extending and retracting your spider guard hooks to close the distance between you and a retreating opponent—was beyond my comprehension. I simply couldn’t get the coordination right. Five days a week, for four weeks, Chris watched me jerk and bumble my way down the mat with a seemingly unending reserve of understanding and perhaps a little pity.

At the time, what frustrated me more than not being good at jiu-jitsu (still working on that part actually) was seeing upper belts like Chris almost instantly do the movement correctly, even the ones who had not seen it before. They seemed to have some athletic gift that I did not, and this gift allowed them to casually stroll through the world of jiu-jitsu, picking up new techniques for their games as easy as one might pluck a flower.

I now realize that I mythologized upper belts. To me, as a white belt, they all felt god-like. They moved effortlessly, and even when I was significantly larger, they took my game apart and crushed me with physics-defying pressure.

When you are a white belt—or any lower belt really—all you can see is the gap between you and the upper belt. You see what they have in terms of ability, and you see what you don’t have. When you look at the difference between yourself and higher-level grapplers this way, it creates the illusion of those grapplers being super athletes. After all, who but a super athlete could jump a gap in physical ability so mind-blowingly large?

And that’s just it. The distance between you and someone better than you is not a chasm. When you look at jiu-jitsu in terms of have and have not, you ignore what was likely a long and arduous training journey. You don’t see the journey. You just see the end result, so the grappler ahead takes on this aura of super human athlete when in reality he or she is a regular person that has devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to learning and improving.

Yes, there are super athletes turned super jiu-jiteiros among us, but the vast majority of instructors and training partners would not describe themselves as such. That’s surely the case for me. I have no natural talents beyond a stubbornness to not give up. In high school soccer, I sat the bench until midway through my junior year. Literally, I didn’t play a varsity game where we weren’t ahead by four goals. After games (where I didn’t play), I’d come home, turn the outside lights on, and practice until someone yelled at me to go to bed. I brought that mindset to my jiu-jitsu, and I was fortunate to have people like Chris who understood that not everybody gets it on day one or even day twenty.

I tell these stories not to lament my lack of ability or to brag about my work ethic (truthfully, my work ethic pales in comparison to many of the jiu-jiteiros I know). Instead, it’s because I see my own students get frustrated by their progress and get frustrated by the same spider guard movement that once frustrated me. I see myself in those moments—their instructor demonstrates the move with little effort, and their upper belt training partners take to it quickly—and I worry that their enjoyment of the art is tainted by some perceived inferiority.

You are not inferior. You are not surrounded by super athletes. Your training partners and instructors are people just like you. They are not examples of what you can’t have, but rather they are proof that a normal person can accomplish incredible things through persistence, practice, and patience. It just takes time.

Don’t give up.