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Hidden Milestones in BJJ

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Image result for one stripe white belt

The older we get, the more we realize that there are different types of milestones that we pass through as we move through our lives.

There are the obvious ones: the promotions at work that come with added responsibilities and a corner office.  And there are the stripes and belts that mark our progress as we go from clueless newbie to the more polished and skillful students that we had long dreamed of becoming.

But the stripes and belts and corner offices don’t always reflect our mindsets at the time.  Plenty of Jiu Jiteros confess that when they received their new belts, they feel more anxiety than pride.  Their new belts came with an unhealthy dose of imposter syndrome—that feeling that we don’t deserve the rank or position that we’ve achieved.

Imposter syndrome is one of those nasty mental fake-outs that we do to ourselves.  Instead of trusting our coach’s judgement, we insist on holding ourselves back mentally, peppering ourselves with guilt over our new rank and undermining our own self-esteem.

Not even a vale tudo match with Gordon Ryan or Rickson Gracie could do the damage to us that we do to ourselves.

Imposter syndrome happens to us because we don’t pay enough attention to the other type of milestones we pass on our life’s journey.

Those other milestones are the ones that might slip by without us noticing.  They involve the baby steps that build up over time. For a white belt who always got tapped within the first minute of a roll, surviving for two minutes without tapping is a milestone.  

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Most of the time, we don’t notice those steps.  Instead of remembering that a white belt’s job is survival and congratulating ourselves on surviving longer than we’ve ever survived before, we berate ourselves for not actually getting a submission.

It seems that the glass is not only half empty, but it’s tipped over on its side, and the water has spilled all over our pants.

We could make our lives easier by recognizing those moments.  Then, when our coach ties that new belt around our waists, we would feel like we deserve it.

For me, a big milestone was exactly the kind that no one noticed except me.  I was a one or two stripe white belt, I don’t remember which, but I had less than a year of training under my still-new white belt.

I had started Jiu Jitsu because I was in lousy shape after an extended illness.  The medications that cured my sickness resulted in a lot of weight gain. Plus, the fatigue that accompanied my illness kept me on the couch, resulting in a lot of muscle loss.  While most people who start Jiu Jitsu realize that their cardio sucks; mine sucked on a whole other level. In short, I was in lousy shape. And, oh yeah, I was also closer to 50 than 40. 

By my first stripe, I was seeing some improvement in my health, but I still had a way to go. 

On the other hand, a new student showed up on this particular night.  He was the opposite of me in pretty much every way. He was a good decade younger than me.  He was a wrestler in high school, and it was obvious that he spent as much time in the weight room as I had been spending on the couch while I was sick.

Even though I had a few months head start in my training, this guy gave every appearance of being more formidable than me.  

As it turned out, I got paired up with this new guy for a roll at the end of class.  Remembering his wrestling training, my partner started hard. Like lots of new white belts, he had the mentality that rolling was competition and that I was a competitor, not a teammate.  To that end, his focus wasn’t on anything except winning.

But that’s where things got interesting.  He didn’t win.

Every time he muscled me into a bad position, I slipped out.  When he got mount, I broke his posture, captured an arm, blocked a leg, and swept him.

After that, it took a few minutes, but I passed his guard and got into side control.  His solution was to bench press me off of him, and we both scrambled to our knees, where he tackled me, and I ended up in bottom side control.  

For me, bench pressing my opponent wasn’t an option, but I bridged him and used the space to hip escape away from him.

The roll went on that way until the buzzer went off.  We bumped fists and went our separate ways.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized the significance of what had happened.  Six months earlier, this guy would have beaten me easily. He was bigger, stronger, and was looking for a fight.

But he didn’t.  My first thought was that “This BJJ stuff actually works!”  But then it occurred to me that I was the one who made it work.

That was my hidden milestone.  I realized that something had changed.  I was by no means a master of Jiu Jitsu; I was still very much a beginner.  (I still consider myself a beginner!) But that roll gave me the opportunity to see that I was no longer the same clueless guy I was on my first day.

Hidden milestones like that one have made it easier for me to accept promotions graciously.  It doesn’t mean I never get tapped by lower belts. And it doesn’t mean I beat higher belts. But it does tell me that I’m moving in the right direction, and it’s put a damper on any worries that I might be an imposter.

We all have moments like this that we could recognize as hidden milestones, and we should recognize them.  We should quietly celebrate them. After all, as long as they don’t make us arrogant, they can help us see our own progress in ways that stripes or belts don’t.


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