What I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know about Jiu-Jitsu

It is said that we do not know what we do not know. Just think of any teenager trying to talk about adulting. Or any adult trying to understand any teenager. When I was earlier on in my BJJ journey, I thought I knew some things, but the longer I spend training, the more I am reminded of a lyric by Jackson Browne: “I don’t know how I believed some of the things I thought.” Here are a few:

A person is not necessarily a BJJ wizard simply because s/he can beat my signature move. I remember years ago becoming pretty confident with my ability to keep people in my clampy half guard, because, relative to everything else I could do, I was able to do that pretty well. Note that I did not say I could do it well—but rather that I could do it well relative to all the other things I tried to do. So, when people came along who were able to walk through my half guard, I decided they were part of a breed of ninjas. And, perhaps they indeed were ninjas, but they weren’t ninjas because of how they did against me. And for me to think so was more than a little uppity.

“Long overdue” is actually an insult. Before Twitter, Facebook, and the like, there were message boards devoted to jiu-jitsu nerds, and it was on these message boards that people found out news about who had won at tournaments and who had gotten promoted. Often, upon hearing that someone we knew had been promoted, people (including me) would respond, “Congrats! Long overdue!” That comment was supposed to be a nod to the mad skills of the promotee, but in retrospect I realize it is actually a dig at the promotee’s instructor. Instructors promote their students when they believe their students are ready, and for me to gainsay that, even with the best of intentions, is a bit insulting.

Praising a higher-ranked belt is presumptuous. I get pushback on this, but I stand by my belief that telling people who outrank me that they “did a great job” after we train is not okay. Exceptions to this may exist but are limited to situations where I have a relationship with the person who outranks me and/or I know that person has been working on a sequence that seems to be coming along. Even then, I tread lightly.

People who run jiu-jitsu academies do not spend all their time training. When I was a white belt, I was envious of my instructors because they were living the dream: Running a jiu-jitsu academy obviously meant they were training all day every day. I had no sense of what it actually takes to run a jiu-jitsu academy, or even what it takes to be a good instructor. Turns out when you become responsible for the progress of other people, it can eat into your own training time. Just teaching takes a different type of attention to jiu-jitsu and the people around you compared to focusing on your own training, and if you want to run an academy, it is even more complex. You may still get to train a lot, but that is not the only thing you will be doing—not by a long shot.

A black belt in jiu-jitsu is not a black belt in everything. Unfortunately, we do not have to look very far to find examples of people who are great at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but who are also lousy at having integrity and ethics. When I was a jiu-jitsu young’un, I made the mistake of believing that anyone who had attained the rank of black belt was also somehow a paragon of virtue and wisdom. People you know who have a black belt are pretty good at jiu-jitsu. However, this is all you can accurately surmise about them. If you want to take their advice, do your research to confirm that they know something about the domain you want advice about.

On the flip side, a white belt in jiu-jitsu does not mean the person wearing it has less value than a person wearing a higher belt. People who are white belts are people. Sometimes, even when I was a white belt, I lost sight of that fact. I assumed that people who were higher belts were more important and worthier of my attention. Since I interacted with all hese people in the context of jiu-jitsu, and since that is all I cared about, I forgot that jiu-jitsu people are not just the sum total of how well they take the back.

Earning a black belt does not solve all problems. When I was coming up through the ranks, I couldn’t wait to get my black belt, because I somehow believed it would make my life perfect, similar to when people think they just need to lose those xx number of pounds and things will be all better. It seems obvious in retrospect that this is not true, but when you want something badly, it is jarring when you get it, only to realize that the challenges in your life are still challenging.

My love of jiu-jitsu does not absolve me of my other responsibilities. I am not proud to say that when I was falling in love with jiu-jitsu, I began to neglect other people and things. I daydreamed at work, I canceled plans so I could train, and eventually I stopped making plans altogether, unless they were jiu-jitsu related. Eventually the pendulum swung back toward a balance that is better for me, but it took a while, and I had to atone for some irresponsibility and some neglect.

The more I train, the more I learn about how much more I have to learn. What have you learned about what you used to think you knew since you started training? Post your insights to comments.

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  • Christopher Cook says...

    Love this article!

    The human element to jiu jitsu is something that gets lost on me. The belt color, the technique of the class, and the rolling at the end are such a focus that the person across from me transforms into a gi and belt. I no longer see a mother or father with a day job. Then, once the class is over, regular discussions take place that reminds me of their human side and the fact that walking out the same way you walked in is a priority.

    April 12, 2018

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