About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
A common timeframe quoted around earning a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu is 8-10 years. When we consider that the adult belt system only has 4 colored belt promotions of merit (blue, purple, brown and black), we are faced with the reality of an average of 2 plus years at every belt rank. In our world of instant gratification, this sheds some light as to why so many people walk away from BJJ or never even choose to start. Even for those of us committed to the BJJ lifestyle, the truth is that this can be challenging. It can have us wondering when our next promotions are coming, or if our professors are even monitoring our progress. This misguided focus can sap the joy out of training.
There is a way for us to overcome this potential pitfall and keep positive momentum in our BJJ journeys: we can focus on enjoying the journey. This can be difficult, so to make it easier, here are some specific things we can lock in on and take pleasure in as we walk our BJJ paths.
The relationships we form on the BJJ mat are among the greatest benefits we receive from the BJJ life. Obviously, friendships develop with teammates as we train and grow together. Training partners are with us as we grind through day-to-day workouts, grow and develop. We share the highs with them and we often help each other deal with the lows. It is easy to see how strong bonds of friendship can be created in this environment. We also often find common ground with people on other teams. I came up representing the Yamasaki Academy and have many close friends from that great team, yet I also count people from teams like Alliance, Renzo Gracie, Atos and many smaller independent teams as good friends. When I consider my BJJ journey, it would be hard to overestimate the benefits I have gotten from these friendships. I have reaped the benefits on and off the mat in a variety of ways. Focusing on the great relationships we cultivate as we enjoy the BJJ lifestyle is a key component of enjoying the journey.
Whether we compete or not, tournaments can be events to savor as we live the BJJ life. When we are the ones on the mat, emotions run hot as we experience excitement, nervousness, fear and anticipation. This heightened state often reminds us that we are ALIVE and provides us with a huge dose of fun – whatever the actual results of the competition! Even when not competing, we can be caught up in the flow of energy and emotion, especially when we have teammates putting it on the line. I have had more than one person tell me that it is harder for them when a teammate is in a match then when they are actually participating.
Sharing the tournament experience with teammates not only has a way of bringing us closer together, it is often just plain FUN. On another note, tournaments are often the vehicle by which we meet new friends from other teams and academies. On a personal note, some of my best friends in the sport have come via meetings and introductions at and around tournaments. I have simply found that as people who have committed to personal growth through BJJ, we have more in common than not most times.
Winning, though my overwhelming preference, is surprisingly not the deciding factor of whether I remember tournaments with fondness. I have won my share of medals, but right up there with those for me is the 2012 IBJJF International Masters & Seniors tournament in Brazil. I went to Rio with a group of friends who were also competing and had one of the best vacations of my life. From discovering that daily acai bowls and cutting weight do not mix, to running on the beach at Copacabana, I loved every minute in Rio. Unfortunately, I lost the first match in my division to a game opponent, but I came home far from empty-handed as I still smile every time I think of my time there.
Many of my favourite BJJ memories are from tournament trips. Winning gold medals or losing fairly early, competing or supporting teammates, local day trips or long weekend trips to major events – these times stand out as highlights in my personal BJJ journey and I encourage all to take the opportunity going to tournaments represent.
Learning to appreciate the grind that is training BJJ is KEY to enjoying the journey. Medals come and go, some tournaments are more fun than others and we cannot always train with our best friends, but the constant, what we can always count on, is the grind. Day in and day out, we can step onto the mat and improve ourselves technically and physically while contributing to others’ efforts to improve themselves. When we learn to recognize and love the little steps we take and tiny distinctions we make daily via consistent training that lead to huge advances in our BJJ, we find joy in in-between the “events” in our BJJ lives.
Another reason to embrace the grind is we often find laughter and good times in the heart of it. Some of the funniest things that have happened to me in BJJ have been on non-descript days in the academy. When my students decide to hang out after class, I often have them rolling in laughter with stories of when I was a colored belt putting in daily shifts at the Yamasaki Academy HQ. The stories range from in-house tournament rivalries to locker-room practical jokes to training bloopers and they almost always come from the days spent in the grind. When we learn to love the grind, every day we get to train is fun and full of promise.
As indicated earlier, promotions in BJJ are few and far between. If advancing rank is our main focus, we set ourselves up to flame out or, at best, grudgingly continue to train as we simmer at our coaches’ lack of desire to give us our next belt. This misguided focus will suck the happiness right out of our BJJ if not corrected.
That said, promotions should be celebrated as part of our BJJ journey. It is often difficult to communicate to non-BJJ practitioners how much belt promotions mean to us. How can they appreciate that it can take 1-2 years to get a blue belt? They have almost no way to comprehend how few people ever even get a purple belt or how far away a brown belt felt when we first put on a gi. And forget about conveying how it feels to put a BJJ black belt on the first time – it would be easier to explain the berimbolo to a boxer! While these things may be hard to explain to a non-BJJer, those of us who train can understand and appreciate them and we should take the time to truly enjoy these hard-earned moments. Belt promotions should not be the main target we are working towards but they should be given the respect they deserve as important and hard-earned milestones in BJJ.
The beauty of the question as to how much we enjoy our BJJ journeys is that we control it by controlling our focus. When we make the conscious choice to turn our minds towards the positive things that happen along the way, we give ourselves the gift of perspective and we empower our ability to achieve longevity in the BJJ lifestyle and the fulfillment that comes with it. See you on the mat!