It’s interesting that much of what we see and hear from Jiu Jitsu black belts comes from well known guys and world champions. We form much of our understanding of what it means to be a black belt from these guys. It’s certainly a worthwhile goal to aspire to the achievements of the greats. There is much to be learned from listening to Rickson, Saulo, Marcello, or any of the big name black belts. Their experience and knowledge of the game is invaluable. They are experts in what it takes to get to the highest levels of the art.
What is often missing is the voice of the hobbyist. The student who has a full time job, maybe a family or other demands and chooses to not dedicate the bulk of their life to the art. This is where the vast majority of people who study Jiu Jitsu live. Either by choice, circumstance, or necessity we are part time grapplers. We enjoy the art as much as anyone and aspire to be the best grapplers that we can be but we are realistic that we don’t choose to train in a way that will make us the next world champion. This is the realm of the hobbyist.
It’s okay to be a hobbyist. There is no shame in it and it doesn’t make you any less of a Jiu Jitsu student. Everyone has their own role to play in the art. A good thriving school has many hobbyists in its ranks. We need people who are successful parents, professionals, educators, tradesmen, students, doctors etc. These people give the school a wonderful diversity and richness that it wouldn’t have if everyone was full time athlete. A healthy school has people of all ages, races, incomes, men and women, hobbyists and dedicated athletes. Each has an important role to play in creating a rich tribe that nurtures everyone’s aspirations and respects everyone’s path through Jiu Jitsu. With that said here’s the voice of a part time hobbyist black belt:
Confessions of a hobbyist black belt
We have a hard time with all levels of student. In a roll I can have a very tough time with even white belts. There are times when I try my best and can’t get a sweep, or submission that I want. I can find myself unable to execute basic techniques. I can be flustered and stymied by something that a white belt does naturally. Yesterday I rolled with two different white belts that I could not submit from guard bottom. I tried my best for triangle chokes, armbars, uma platas, and couldn’t pull them off. Their posture was too good and I couldn’t break it. What I’m trying to say is that black belt doesn’t always mean that you dominate the other guy. I’m not likely to get tapped out by a white belt but I can be frustrated by them pretty consistently. Much of the time Jiu Jitsu is still a struggle regardless of who I’m rolling with. From the outside it may look like I’m having an effortless time in a roll but I can assure you it’s almost never that way.
There is a lot about Jiu Jitsu that we don’t know. I remember when I first got my black belt thinking how different it felt than what I had imagined. I thought I’d have a real mastery and understanding of Jiu Jitsu at black belt. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve been a black belt for several years now and there are so many things I don’t understand. I still can’t manage a collar choke from guard bottom. I can’t do an effective hip bump sweep in a live roll. I have no idea how to execute a berimbolo sweep. Honestly, I’m still perplexed by guard passing. Most times I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I get guard passes all the time but it feels mostly like luck or that I’m finding them somehow in the midst of a struggle. It rarely feels like a well planned and coordinated attack.
We constantly struggle with training/life balance. There are many times that I’d like to go to the gym but make other choices. I see many younger guys at the gym 5 or 6 days a week. I’m lucky if I make 3. Usually it’s 2. I always want to be at the gym and would be happy to be there 5 nights a week but the stuff I’d have to give up to make that happen are too important. Many nights I have to weigh spending time with my family or spending time at the gym. It’s a hard sell to leave my family responsibilities for an entire evening. As much as I love going to the gym I have to make different decisions many times. I don’t want to look back 10 years from now and think that I got really good at Jiu Jitsu and was a mediocre family man. I’ll be honest though it’s a constant struggle. I see the younger guy’s games improving rapidly and feel a bit stagnant at times because I’m not training as much. It can be a bit of an ego buster if I’m not careful. Even at black belt I can tell myself that I’m not good enough, or dedicated enough, or not a good asset to the gym because I don’t prioritize it in the way some people do.
We have to train and roll different. I don’t have the time in training to constantly explore and find new techniques. I do experiment and look for new solutions but much of my training time is spent refining what I already know. In fact I’m constantly trying to make my game smaller so there is less to maintain. I probably have about 3 submissions. Maybe 3 guard passes. Most things I can do effectively on only one side. Making my game smaller makes it easier to maintain and grow on even 2 days a week.
When I roll I can’t go fast and hard. If I do I’ll gas after one or two rolls. Instead I roll at about 50 to 60% most times. This allows me to roll as long as I want. I can roll for hours at this pace. It also allows me to build a game that is not based on conditioning, or speed, or strength. It’s a game I can keep as I age and it doesn’t take a ton of conditioning and strength work. This means though that the young athletic purple belt will catch me in stuff. They’ll get the guard pass sometimes. They’ll get submissions. I could match them if I wanted to. I have about one or two rounds in me at young guy athleticism and speed. If I needed an ego boost I could burn up my tank in a pissing contest.
I choose not to though. I’ve come to learn that the younger guys respect me for my experience and knowledge and not because I can dominate them at will. I have value to the gym in that. I have found my place. My place is to get people’s game better as efficiently as possible regardless of strength, size, speed, conditioning, and frequency of gym attendance. I can do this because it’s how I chose to build my game. It’s an advantage I have over Rickson and other full time instructors who have a great luxury of time. Mine can’t be wasted because I choose to dedicate only a small amount of it to Jiu Jitsu. I think this is good Jiu Jitsu though because to me Jiu Jitsu is about getting the most benefit from the least amount of effort. In that hobbyist black belts can truly shine.
I’ve been surprised at how much this post has resonated with people. I’ve gotten both positive and negative responses. It’s interesting how we all bring our own baggage to what we read. People can read the same text and get completely different things from it. I wanted to clarify a few points to clear some things up. I think my writing was a bit too succinct and maybe missed a few points of clarification.
When I said that I had a tough time with white belts I’m not saying that I get dominated or lose a match to white belts. When you get to black belt level you have more nuance in your game than that. Simply beating a white belt is of little consequence. What I mean is that I can’t always impose my game at will. I wanted to dispel the myth that a black belt can do whatever he wants at any time to beginning students. This is simply not true. Not for any of the black belts that I’ve known. It may be true for the 1% at the top? I really don’t know. For the rest of us I can assure you it isn’t true. It looks like this from the outside because the black belt is usually always winning. What is happening behind the scenes though is the black belt is changing tactics as they run into barriers. Even with a beginner there can be lots of barriers. These barriers are the “frustration” that I’m referring to.
When I say that I can’t do a collar choke from guard bottom it doesn’t mean that I don’t know how. I have taught the technique many times and know the technical details of how it works. It’s just not something that I include in my game because it has never clicked for me. People think that black belts are good at every technique that they know or every technique that they show others. This is simply not true. We have to know a bunch of techniques in order to be good coaches. It just isn’t possible to have all of them in our games. It just doesn’t work that way. Instead we learn a bunch of techniques so that we can pass them on to our students but in our personal games we choose a small subset. For me personally I keep the subset small and try my best to make things work in as many different situations as possible. A smaller personal game is easier to maintain and refine with limited time on the mat. I can teach you a flower sweep well even though I hardly use it at all.
When I talk about rolling slowly I’m not saying that you can/should never go hard. I roll once a week or so with our competition team. We have comp team classes that are designed specifically for people who compete. These rolls are designed to be fast paced and hard. I do it because I enjoy it and the competitors benefit from rolling with me. In these classes I’ll push myself to exhaustion. I don’t think it’s necessary in order to learn the art though. Jiu Jitsu is about efficiency in technique and energy. If you only roll hard then you develop a game that requires it. If you also roll light you can develop a game that works well at that pace. I’m interested in the latter because it will be a game I can have when I get older. If I wanted to compete or if I wanted a fast pace game I’d have to train differently. Training hard and “leaving it all on the mat” simply isn’t necessary in order to advance in Jiu Jitsu. It may be necessary if you want to be the 1% but for the vast majority it isn’t at all.
Lastly, I am perfectly comfortable tying on my black belt. I have watched my coach tie it on quite a number of people over the years and not a single one didn’t easily deserve it. There is nothing special about me that he would give it to me if I didn’t deserve it. I welcome anyone who is in the Portland area to come in and get a roll with me at any time though if they need to satisfy their curiosity. Or they can contact me and I’ll give them a list of black belts whom I’ve rolled with. As a black belt you have to never be afraid to throw your hat into the ring. I’ll never back down from a friendly roll with anyone for fear of not looking like a black belt. That fear thwarts growth and has no place on the mat.
Incidentally, I heard a story from a long time black belt this weekend. He was talking about a bout he refereed at a tournament a while back. The match was between a well known world champion black belt who’s name everyone would immediately recognize if I said it. The black belt was matched up against a no name purple belt. The black belt got destroyed by the purple belt. It happens. Black belts aren’t indestructible and the cult that exists around the belt is unhealthy as it sets up unrealistic expectations. We all lose. I wouldn’t have it any other way.