A few weeks ago I was promoted to the rank of brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
In adult class, there are 5 different belts to achieve before you get to black belt. White, blue, purple, brown and, finally, black.
Most martial arts take around 3–5 years to achieve a black belt, while BJJ takes on average 8–10 years to achieve the same feat.
BJJ is technically quite difficult. It takes many years to build your game, learn all the techniques and be able to apply them against many different opponents with varying physical attributes. Now, I’m not trying to compare BJJ to any other martial arts, I’m just stating facts. It’s takes a long time to progress through the rank system, and for good reason.
It’s easy to learn the techniques, but it’s hard to apply them in pressure situations against non-complement training partners. You may be able to apply a certain technique to one person, but be totally inept at applying to another, even though you may be the same rank. Different body types and wrestling styles will hinder your efforts and force you to adapt. It’s challenging.
This is why BJJ mimics life to some degree. You begin your journey with no clue whatsoever. It’s hard and it feels like you’re in a constant uphill battle. Progression is slow and you get ‘tapped out’ 20 times a session to younger, lighter opponents. After a while, you start to make some progress. You begin to get on a roll and some of your techniques actually start to work. You’re gaining momentum and killing it!
Then all of a sudden you come to a screeching halt. Those same techniques don’t seem to work anymore and you seem to have plateaued. Everyone has worked out your game and you rarely tap anyone out. Your neck and back always hurt and your fingers are constantly swollen. You start to think: “Is it worth it?”
And then one day you have an awesome roll. You’re smooth, technically on point and efficient. You’re back! After 1 x5 min wrestle everything seems to be back on track. You start to feel encouraged again, motivated and excited. Who cares about your neck and back? You don’t need to bend your fingers anyway!
One small win and your BJJ world is in order once again and your entire life seems to benefit.I attended my first BJJ seminar in Darwin back in 1999. There were no BJJ schools consistently running classes at that time, so a BJJ seminar run by an actual black belt was exciting. I loved it! I didn’t get a chance to attend regular classes until I left the Army for the first time in 2003. I was living back on the Sunshine Coast and would drive for over an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays to Brisbane to attend BJJ classes.
Finally, in 2004 a top Brazilian black belt by the name of Roberto Traven moved to the Sunshine Coast and started up a school. It was great. I trained hard with Dan Higgins and future UFC fighter Kyle Noke. Training was intense and we all progressed fast. I went in a couple of tournaments, which I managed to win and was promoted to blue belt at the end of 2004 after a tournament win.
Then at the end of 2004 I received the opportunity to work in Iraq doing private security and took off quick smart. I would come back to the coast periodically over the next 3–4 years and train when I could. Then in 2007 I rejoined the Army and went to Commandos in 2008.
While in Commandos it was hard to train in BJJ. I simply didn’t want to have the same neck and back trouble I experienced with BJJ while trying to do my job as a soldier, carrying heavy weight and performing at my best, day in and day out. On a few occasions, particularly in Afghanistan, we would set up the mats and have light rolls, trying desperately to tap each other out. The old saying “leave your ego at the door” was hard to uphold with a bunch of SF boys.
When I left the Army for the second time in 2013, I once again took up BJJ. I was back in the game and loved it. I trained hard throughout 2013 and was promoted to purple belt at the end of the year. I was processing well. I thought, “I’ll have my brown belt in 2 years, then my black belt 2 years after that.”
I went in a couple of tournaments over the next 2 years. Lost one and won the others, including the Arnold Classic in Melbourne in 2015. By the end of 2015 I was feeling confident I would receive my brown belt from my professor.
End of year grading came. The blue belt and purple belt promotions were handed out and it was time for the brown belts. My professor pulled out one brown belt and promoted a mate of mine from the club. He deserved it; he was definitely at brown belt level.
And then… nothing.
My professor didn’t have any other brown belts to promote and the grading wrapped up.
I was disappointed to say the least. I thought I definitely deserved a promotion and was ready for my brown belt. I stewed on this for a while, longer than I probably should have. Finally, I accepted it and moved on. I thought, “I’ll get it mid-year after I win some more tournaments and prove I’m at brown belt level.”
I did just that. I went in some more tournaments and won. I was happy with my progress and was sure I had proven myself. However, there was a setback. My professor decided to not run a mid-year grading… damn! There was, however, a seminar being held by a world renowned BJJ world champion by the name of Robson Moura at our club around the same time. I was sure my professor would use this opportunity to promote some students.
And he did.
The seminar was held and during it my professor interrupted it to hand out a brown belt. I was in, I was sure of it.
He called out another training partner of mine and promoted him to brown belt. The seminar continued and I was gutted. I didn’t understand and couldn’t quite work it out. Again, I stewed on this for quite a while. I was angry and frustrated and confused. I was sure I’d done enough to warrant my brown belt and couldn’t work out my professor’s logic.
Then, I woke up to myself. I finally began to employ some emotional intelligence and actually live in the now. Not the past and not the future, but the very moment. I asked myself, “What does this really matter?” So what if I didn’t have a brown belt? Did that make me a different person or a better BJJ exponent?
No. It just meant I had a different coloured belt on. It’s not as if one day, at a lower belt, you’re at a certain level and then the very next day, after a promotion, you’re at a higher level. It doesn’t work that way. The journey makes your jiu-jitsu game, not a belt (although this definitely helps with confidence – more on this later).
I decided to do a couple of things…
- I changed my view. Rather then taking this as a negative situation of not getting what I wanted, I decided to take it as an opportunity to better myself. Rather than be a brand new, low level BJJ brown belt, I would be an awesome, high level BJJ purple belt. Then, by the time I got promoted to brown belt, I would be more than ready.
- I got out of my own head. Instead of constantly trying to work out why I didn’t get my promotion, I decided to focus on what I could do right now. I decided to commit to further training and develop a stronger game. I let go of things I could not control and took charge of what I could: personal development, training and improvement.
- I put it into perspective. What did not having a brown belt really mean? F#ck all. It didn’t actually mean anything. It was a belt, not a tragedy. I have an awesome life with a beautiful family. My business is going well and building. I have great friends and live in an awesome country and… I’m not getting shot at. All good things!
Choosing these 3 mindset shifts allowed me to relax, let things go and focus on what mattered and what I could control. I worked hard throughout the last half of this year and got my promotion to brown belt a few weeks ago. Nothing much changed. I wasn’t any better at jiu-jitsu all of a sudden… although brown really does bring out the colour of my eyes.
If you find yourself in a similar situation and you’re not processing at the speed you want, or you think you’re being held back, employ the above mindset strategies…
- Change your view and find the opportunity.
- Get out of your head and focus on what you can control.
- Put it into perspective. Use cognitive reappraisal to reinterpret the meaning of your emotional stimulus and, thus, the situation. Look at it as the glass half full.