“It is often said that managing expectations is the key to happiness. With that in mind, consider how white belts typically celebrate their first stripe and belt promotions.”
About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
In jiu jitsu, white belts are typically looked at as being on bottom of the food chain. They are the newbies who are typically long in enthusiasm but short in “know-how” and relative perceived value. The general consensus is that if and when they stay the course, they will graduate to blue belt and truly start contributing to senior students and the academy. I propose that this kind of thinking is the opposite of the truth. White belts not only have tremendous inherent value but they also have a lot to teach us all! Here are a couple of specific lessons we can learn from BJJ white belts.
We Should Be Learning All The Time
Speaking of learning, the first piece of wisdom we can take from these newbies is that we should be learning all the time and from many sources! White belts understand that they are the least experienced and knowledgeable students on the mat. This allows them to learn, without ego, from their coaches and teammates with enthusiasm.
In a martial art like Jiu Jitsu, which has and continues to evolve in so many ways, maintaining that open attitude is extremely beneficial. Unity BJJ, led by Murilo Santana, is a great example of this attitude bearing fruit through their athletes, as even their most successful black belts continue to evolve. In the colored belts, the Miyaos were mostly known for their berimbolos and incredible guards, but now we see their top-level guard-passing winning matches – gi and no-gi. Unity has also benefitted from adding former Renzo Gracie team member, Eddie Cummings and his world-class leg-attack game. Again, this “open” attitude seems to have helped generate success for them in the no-gi and submission-grappling circuit. Whether it is a stated strategy or just a reflection of their leadership’s philosophy, Unity is the picture of a commitment to constant evolution and the benefits of that mindset.
That state is where white belts live, where they thrive and grow into blue belts and beyond. The beauty is senior students applying the same concepts will generate success and momentum towards our BJJ goals.
Success Is Best Measured By Inches
It is often said that managing expectations is the key to happiness. With that in mind, consider how white belts typically celebrate their first stripe and belt promotions. Most of the time, the students are surprised and they are always happy! One of the best things about being a coach is getting to be a part of this process. White belts get senses of achievement and belonging with the simple recognition that comes with promotion. They are focused on learning class-to-class, technique-to-technique and the task of putting together cohesive games in a new sport. This is where we can all learn from white belts: whether they do it consciously or not, they are setting themselves up for happiness by focusing daily/class to class improvement and enjoying the process.
To illustrate this, think about the joy a newer person at your academy shows when they hit a technique they just learned in sparring. Now, contrast that with a more experienced athlete whose focus is on competition who quits the sport because they failed to win a particular tournament, “lose” in sparring or hit another roadblock. I have seen very talented BJJers leave the mat because some goal was “out of reach” while seeing others, who were far less talented, have their lives enriched by BJJ because they took the white belt view of enjoying the day-to-day process of constant learning and improvement. That is not to say they did not have goals but rather that they defined success in and prioritized improvement and forward momentum over accomplishment. Looking at and focusing on improvement and momentum in terms of inches allows us to have consistent and incremental growth… and that sets us up for success. This is almost forced upon white belts and we would do well to hold on to this mindset!
Treasure Our Teammates & Training Partners
In today’s social-media heavy world, people tend to get very “look at me, look at me” even with moderate success. Nothing is wrong with celebrating success but it becomes counter-productive if and when we lose sight of the longer-lasting value that our teammates provide in terms of their friendships and even to our growth in the sport. As white belts, there is no “look at me” as, by definition, we have not achieved anything, yet. That reality encourages us to celebrate and appreciate people around us and, in the long run, we get much more from that than anything else.
My former training partner and legendary black belt, David Jacobs, was a tremendous example of this in practice. David was a college wrestler prior to starting BJJ so he had enjoyed his share of success but he saw our sport as an opportunity to truly enjoy the process. David passed away last year and is remembered fondly throughout the BJJ community as a teacher, referee and athlete who always seemed to appreciate the people around him. As we trained, traveled, competed and taught together I got to see him truly prioritize the relationships he developed in the sport and the people around him over hype and recognition. The interesting thing about this approach is that his focus on the people around him helped him build a strong enough support structure to be an accomplished competitor and world-renowned instructor. It also led to his recognition as a great ambassador of our sport and lifestyle whose legacy lives on via his former students who run successful academies like Standard BJJ and High Noon BJJ & Fitness. David never forgot what it was like being a white belt in that he always kept sight of the fact that the people around him on the mat were just as important as he was and should always be treated that way regardless of belt rank.
A truth in life is that when we tend to take things for granted when we have them over time. We can start to miss out on some of the benefits and beauty of things due to familiarization. That is the beauty of adopting a white belt’s view of Jiu Jitsu in the above areas: we can take these lessons, put them into practice and immediately start reaping the rewards.
See you on the mat!