Of Black Belts and Humility

If you have been paying any attention to BJJ news recently you will likely know that Enson Inoue came back from a long hiatus from Jiu Jitsu and demoted himself to purple belt in the process.

Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Demotes Himself To Purple Belt

This set off a firestorm of opinions in both directions. Some lauded Enson for being humble and having a willingness to accept where his game was. They said that his willingness to go back to purple belt and re learn jiu jitsu showed a real dedication to the art and a humble attitude.

Others sided with legendary black belt Chris Haueter in feeling that it was a mistake. That maybe it was false humility. Fabio Santos and many other’s agreed. Their thoughts were that the best thing to do was to put on your black belt and take your lumps. That demoting yourself to purple belt was just a cover.

Chris Haueter Calls Enson Inoue’s Self-Demotion ‘False Humility’. Fabio Santos Agrees

I don’t think Enson realized that this was going to be the big deal that it became. He felt the need to explain his decision. I don’t think he necessarily owed anyone an explanation with the exception maybe of his coach. It is a testament to his character that he gave us one anyway.

Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Enson Inoue Explains Why He Demoted Himself To Purple Belt

Then, the unexpected happened. Enson decided to change his mind and put on his black belt after all. I have no bones to pick with Enson. His decision about what belt to wear is his own to make. He’s earned that right. It’s between him and his instructor to work that out. Everyone else can have an opinion but opinions in the end are not worth that much, including mine.

 

Enson Inoue Re-promotes Himself To Black Belt

That’s where we are with all this. It did get me thinking about the idea of humility and the black belt. I’m lucky enough to have plenty of opportunities to be humble. I’m a mediocre black belt who trains part time. I’m also close to 50. Those things conspire to make rolling with young athletic students very difficult at times. Add to this the fact that I share the mat with 4 other phenomenal black belts. All of whom surpass me both technically and competitively. I can tell you unequivocally that humbleness sucks. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I don’t think it’s even necessary or a good thing to be honest. If applied incorrectly it becomes cover for poor performance.

Here’s what I mean. There are many times where I get on the mat and have a very hard time with young athletic guys who are much lower in rank than me. Immediately going to ” Don’t attach to the outcome because you are humble” becomes a crutch that allows me to pretend to be OK with what happened. It’s a crutch so I don’t have to feel bad about not doing as well as I’d like. It solves the immediate problem of not letting my ego get in the way but it’s not honest.

That’s the crux. The thing I love most about Jiu Jitsu is the honesty. You can’t lie on the mat. You either perform or you don’t. You can’t fake your way to an armbar. You can either pull it off or you can’t.  The truth is that none of us is OK with getting beat by a lower belt and it’s not healthy to pretend we do by claiming humbleness. I will be the first to admit that I hate it when a young blue belt gives me hell on the mat. Claiming that I’m humble enough to not attach to outcomes is a lie and an unhealthy cover at best. At worse it allows me to be satisfied with poor performance and to give it a special seal of approval called “humbleness.”

I’m not saying that you should not be satisfied unless you dominate all the young blue belts. I’m saying that it’s OK to say “I just got schooled by a young blue belt and it sucks.” It’s OK to admit that you don’t like it and that your game was not up to par in that scenario. Why? Because that’s the truth.

Admit the truth: I’m getting older and it sucks sometimes when I get schooled by young athletic guys.

Accept the truth: I’m not OK with getting schooled by young athletic guys. I don’t like it at all.

Move on: It will likely continue to happen and more likely happen more frequently as I get older. It’s part of the game and I’ll have to accept it and put it aside if I want to continue to train.

None of that is about being humble. It’s about accepting what is. Instead of encouraging jiu jitsu students to be humble we should be encouraging them to simply accept what is. I’m an aging mediocre part time black belt who sometimes has trouble with colored belts. I don’t like it but have accepted it as part of the journey.

That acceptance has made it so that this truth doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the art and my progression in it. That’s the key for me. Humbleness is just a word but it’s a loaded word. If you are humble but ignore the truth, or even worse use humbleness to shield you from the truth, it’s not healthy. If you are fully accepting of what is on the mat and accept your feelings, attitudes, and reactions as real you can add that word back in and likely be OK. We all have some soul searching to do around this as we age and continue to do this art.

I won’t lie to you. It’s a struggle. I have many days where I wonder if I’m relevant anymore. If the younger guys are taking it easy on the old man, or if they are humoring me in some way. If I still have something to offer. I have to be careful to not stand behind the shield of humbleness because it blocks the clear view. I have to stare clear eyed at the truth and find a way to accept it and move on. I’m not always successful but when I am it’s a beautiful thing. It allows me to again and again throw my hat in the ring and take my lumps. And, if I can’t be an example of what beautiful jiu jitsu looks like maybe I can be an example of how to age gracefully within the art, and in that make a valuable contribution.

In the end you can see Enson’s public struggle with this idea. There is something comforting about knowing that a world class competitor like Enson shares the same struggle as the rest of us. It’s a natural part of the art that we do and a necessary part of aging within it. I’m grateful that he chose to share his struggle in a public way so that we can all learn from it. I’m left with great admiration for him as a black belt and for his choosing honesty over humbleness. I hope it’s a choice we can all make as gracefully as Enson.

4 Comments

  1. Wow. Thank you so much for this article. I really feel that you hit the nail on the head with this. I identify with your viewpoint very much – I am 44 years old, have a chronic, progressive autoimmune disease that impacts my mobility, and have been a martial artist for 30 years. I am a brown belt in BJJ, and have studied for over 9 years.

    Getting owned by the youngsters sucks, but it happens. To just read that I am not alone in that (not that I really thought I was), and to read that it’s just something we are going to have to deal with, is empowering in and of itself. I think the “cult of BJJ” tells us that we should “never get tapped by a (insert lower rank here)”, and that our “superior technique” will always allow us to persevere over those who are stronger, younger, faster, etc. – this just is not true. Not today, when BJJ has been around the USA for 20 years and more and more people are in on the “secret”.

    And I, too, appreciate Enson’s “public struggle with this idea”. I think at one point in our training (if we don’t quit) we can all relate.

    Thanks again!

  2. I couldnt have written this any better myself! Im also a black belt that defines herself as medicore bc with family and career obligations it really is amazing I make time to get on the mat at all…..As amazing as it was to earn my black belt it really is something that weighs me down mentally and your article really hit so many of the points right on the head. Thank you for sharing the ‘unspoken truths’ and ‘accepting what is’…..

  3. Thank you for a great article from a great person, I am sure! It is a lesson of a journey in Juijitsu that certainly can be applied to life! Thanks to people like Enson and you who are learners as well as teachers of life because you both are courageous enough to “live” life.

  4. I am 46 years old and have to deal with young hungry competitive studs. I realize that my physical skill will only keep deteriorating as I get older. However I continually challenge myself to evolve in such a way that my jiu jitsu improves to counteract the aging process. Where once I used speed, stamina and flexibility and quick movement now I use control, pressure and slicker combinations. In a sense my jiu jitsu needs to evolve with my age, I do not accept the fact that a blue belt will defeat me when I’m 65. Although that could be the case I will fight it every step of the way by using my intelligence to improve my game rather than my physical skills.

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