Today I went to a belt ceremony at Tai-Kai where one person I have sparred with (Chris Roach) earned his brown belt, and another person I saw at a bunch of NAGA competitions (Mike Bidwell, who runs bjjafter40) earned his black belt. I had to drive a couple hours to get there, which means I had a couple hours of driving back to collect my thoughts.
One of the things that I thought about was how as a purple belt, I’m halfway towards a black belt right now. I have so much to do just to get to the brown belt. It’s going to take some time.
So Many Years
Getting any belt in jiu-jitsu is hard. One of my favorite quotes about the black belt is:
These guys have worked over many years to earn their black belt. When Mike got his turn to give a short speech, he pointed out that he’s been on this path for nearly two decades. Some people get their black belt in much less time, like the new black belt that started training when he was sixteen and is now in law school. Others stalled in their promotions for a while due to other events in their life. Every black belt has a unique backstory.
What every black belt has in common is that they worked very hard to get to where they are. If you see someone who gets a black belt in 6 years, it’s because they trained constantly and consistently. If it took them 20 years, they may have had other things going on in their life. Mike in particular related how he was away from jiu-jitsu for a while after he had earned his brown belt. When he came back, he felt like he had a lot of catching up to do, and all he could do was to work hard.
This is one of the things that I really respect about BJJ black belts, and BJJ in general. There are no shortcuts. There aren’t subsidies or handouts. There aren’t massive penalties, either. If you have some life event that takes you away from training, you can come back and mostly pick up where you left off. Injuries, finance, travel, whatever it is, it’s a pause and you can always come back to jiu-jitsu.
If you aren’t happy with where you’re at, BJJ says, “Work harder.”
If you want to be a black belt in the minimum time possible, BJJ says, “Work harder.”
If you took a break and need to shake off the rust, BJJ says, “Work harder.”
If you think you can’t do it, despite the legions of examples to the contrary, BJJ says, “Work harder.”
If you need a break for any reason, BJJ says, “That’s fine. [Health/family/finances] first. When you come back, work harder.”
These guys that achieved the rank of black belt today worked harder. Sometimes they made sacrifices, sometimes they annoyed their wives/girlfriends. None of them are professionals in jiu-jitsu. They are just regular people of all different backgrounds, sizes, and ability who worked harder and will continue to do so.
The Other Halfway
All the new black belts I saw today aren’t going to stop training now that they have their black belt. They are going to continue to work just as hard as they have up through today. A lot of people treat the black belt as the goal, but the more I get into BJJ, the more I understand when I hear black belts say that I shouldn’t be worried about belts. It’s not some silly case of “hey, I already have one, so it’s no skin off my back to say to others it’s not a big deal.” They are pointing out that the belts are just milestones. The color of the belt, or the stripes on it, are a sign of progress, but none of the belts mean I’m somehow different between the day before and the day after.
It’s a good point. It’s not like once I get to black belt I’m going to suddenly rest on it and I’ll have nothing left to work on. There are so many things to perfect, and jiu-jitsu changes and evolves. I have a feeling I’ll be saying the same things the black belts do now about the different belts, and really understanding it and believing it.
I know I’ll have a black belt one day. To me it’s inevitable. It’s still a goal I have. I have to wonder if it’s going to be anti-climatic. I’ll give a speech that will probably be a derivative of what I heard today, I’ll scold myself for letting some purple belt get position on me even though I’m dead tired from the promotion process, then the next day I’ll go back in to the academy and get back to training and learning. The black belt will just be a marker that I’m halfway there.
I expect the other half of my jiu-jitsu will neatly take the rest of my life.