About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
Those of us living the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lifestyle sing its praises and cannot stop talking about the positive impact it has on our lives. Our friends and family are subjected to a consistent stream of pro-BJJ social media posts and field numerous invitations to join us on the mat. That said, we all remember people who started BJJ with us who have since abandoned the sport we love so much. It confuses us that they would walk away, but the reality is that we are the exceptions. Commonly quoted statistics tell us many quit before getting to blue belt level and the vast majority of people quit before achieving the rank of purple belt – which is an advanced rank when comparing BJJ to other martial arts, but still well short of black belt. This begs the questions: “Why do people quit BJJ?” and “What steps can be taken to make it easier for people to stay the BJJ course?”
Reason # 1: Injuries
The scary thing about injuries is that they can happen to anyone in BJJ. From new practitioners to the best black belts in the world, we are all equally vulnerable to the injury bug. For example, in 2015, the competition circuit has been greatly impacted by the losses, via injury, of Rodolfo Vieira and Buchecha. While these injuries are significant, few doubt these two life-long BJJ athletes will return to the mat given time, so these injuries are looked at as inconveniences in the grand scheme of things. As practitioners, we all know people whose injuries completely derailed their BJJ journeys. Sometimes the specific injury mandates a stop to rigorous exercise but often the injury itself is not what ultimately ends their participation. Many times, the injury causes a temporary stoppage that allows other activities (social, alternative workouts, etc) to fill the gap in the schedule and that person never returns to BJJ.
Derek Kaivani was a blue belt with me in the late 1990’s, but had to stop training due to some serious injuries. I moved away and we lost touch but I got an email from him in 2007 after he saw that I won my brown belt division in the Pan Ams and was being promoted to black belt. We reconnected and he was inspired to start training again. Derek came back to BJJ full-force and, after re-acclimating to the sport, improved at a rapid rate. One of my all-time favourite days in BJJ was the day I was able to witness Derek receiving his black belt in 2013. Since then, Derek has become a huge part of the local and regional BJJ communities in his native Atlanta and his positive influence is expanding as he is the co-owner of the Lucas Lepri BJJ and Fitness Academy in North Carolina, a world-class facility and academy. Injuries, and then a full schedule, took Derek away from BJJ for a time, but he found his way back and many of us are the better for it. The lesson here is clear – while injuries can strike any of us, we get to decide the ultimate impact they have on our journey.
Reason #2: Lack of Personal Connection
It is stating the obvious when we say that BJJ is hard. It usually takes months to feel any measure of competence and, after a short initial intro period, every class ends with sparring. Even when we get a handle on the core basics and start to have some success, we are still well aware of our position at the bottom of a long food chain of coloured belts. That is a recipe for sore muscles and a frustrated mind, which often lead to our questioning whether we should continue in the sport. Almost all of us have been in this situation sometime early in our BJJ careers. One of the determining factors as to whether we continued to train or hung up our gis is whether we made strong personal connections in our academies or in the BJJ community.
In 1999, I moved to the Washington DC area as a blue belt and started training at the Yamasaki Academy. I was engaged at the time and had just been promoted within my company, so life conspired to take up huge parts of my schedule. I went from four to five classes a week to one or two classes a week and I could see my game suffering. My frustration grew and I seriously considered quitting. Luckily for me, the strong personal relationships I had both with old friends from my previous academy and the ones I was starting to develop at the Yamasaki Academy kept me in BJJ. When my fiancée and I broke up and I grew comfortable in my new job, I was able to return to regular training, which allowed me to enjoy an extremely fruitful couple of years in jiu jitsu that I treasure to this day. Personal relationships with people in the BJJ community kept me in the sport when I would have otherwise quit and my life has been much the better for it.
Reason #3: Not Managing Expectations
This leads us to another potential issue that often arises in BJJ. The adult ranking/promotion system is fairly informal. The belts are established – white, blue, purple, brown and black – but it is up to the individual instructors, academies and associations to determine when students pass from one belt to the next. Most of us either enjoy this or came to accept this fairly early in our BJJ lives, as it is how our instructors and everyone around us on the mat are and were promoted. However, there is no escaping that as we mature in the sport and start to look around us, we develop our own opinions as to what the different belt levels look like and we start to “self-assess” our readiness for promotions and ranks. We can also start to form our own ideas as to how quickly we should be improving in relation to those we are training with. The problem with these assessments is they are often based and/or weighted on factors that mean less to our over-all progression than we believe them to be.
As an instructor, I have had many conversations with new students expressing frustration that they cannot “pass that blue belt’s guard” or “tap that purple belt”. After reminding them that the goals of BJJ, and often their expressed goals, are not simply to “tap everyone”, I also reminded them about their relative inexperience compared to the people they were talking about and we often enjoyed a laugh together afterwards. The worrying thing about these exchanges is they speak to how easily we can focus on “winning” and lose sight of reality and even our own big-picture, personal goals.
Self-assessments and wanting to quickly progress are not “bad” things, they just need to be properly and maturely managed in ways that support our over-all goals and positive BJJ lifestyle. In 2013, I went to the World Masters & Seniors tournament to coach Chris Jones, then a blue belt under my good friend and Renzo Gracie black belt Paul Creighton. Chris fought very well and won his way to the final of his division. In the final, he lost in a tough match to an excellent competitor. When I went to congratulate Chris and tell him how proud of him I was, I found him in tears as he was “all in for the gold”. The story does not end there though. When we got back home, Chris was back on the mat with a big smile and the same intensity he had going into the tournament. While he was driven by a desire to win, he did not lose sight of all the benefits he was receiving via the PROCESS of training and preparing. Chris not only received his purple belt in 2014, but he also won his division at the 2015 Pan. Unlike many people, Chris did not allow his expectations around winning nor worries about rank take away from his enjoyment of the sport. That maturity and proper management of expectations have allowed him to continue to prosper.
Reason #4: Not Being Challenged
Sometimes we start to fall out of love with BJJ when we let ourselves get bored. I purposely use that language because “getting bored” with the sport is something we bring on ourselves with our own lack of initiative. As a sport, BJJ is changing at a rapid rate. If you watch footage of the Mundials from ten years ago and compare it to any recent editions, you can see the changes at the coloured and black belt levels. The BJJ lifestyle is also growing as the sport’s global influence is at an all-time high. Europe, the United States, Asia and Australia all have and are continuing to contribute new voices to what started in Brazil and we are all reaping rewards in terms of new perspectives, ideas and experiences. Challenges can come physically, via the training room and competitions, or socially/mentally, via new ideas and views from other cultures. The beauty of challenging ourselves via BJJ is that it keeps fans in love with the sport and lifestyle that we have chosen.
Keeping people in Brazilian jiu jitsu enriches us on and off the mat. When people stay, they offer their unique physical attributes and ideas to the house of ideas that academies represent. That participation helps improve their training partners, teammates and even competitors with a ripple-like effect and is one of the reasons that team bonds often run deeply. From a social perspective, every time someone leaves we are losing more than a teammate. We are missing out on the good times that are BJJ road trips, new memories on the practice mat and potential close friendships built pursuing personal improvement via BJJ. When people decide to either leave or stay, they impact both themselves and those of us committed to the BJJ lifestyle. When we understand some of these problems, we can help address and resolve them positively with teammates before they become “ex-teammates”. This puts us in position to mutually profit in a clear win/win.
See you on the mat!