Why do people tend to quit at blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

I’ve talked a little bit about this topic on Quora and even made a video on YouTube about the high attrition rate of blue belt students in their practice.

Video link:

But I think it’s worth examining again. Especially for a lot of my readers that are not familiar this fact. Most practitioners will not progress to blue belt and even less move on from blue belt.

Jiu Jitsu is not easy

Jiu Jitsu is not an easy art or sport. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and humility to progress in the ranks.

In the past, there was this running joke online and on many of the major grappling/mma chat rooms and forums that a Bjj blue belt was all that was needed in order to beat Mike Tyson in his prime.

I’m not sure where it originated but it shows just how much influence and notoriety that Jiu Jitsu gained in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

During that time period in the U.S. there was this hunger for Jiu Jitsu even though there were not enough instructors or higher belts to fill that demand.

Being a blue belt was rare.

They were looked upon as demi-gods among men.

Fast forward to today, and blue belts and all other belts have become significantly more common place.

Yet, I’m sure the trials and tribulations from white to blue are still the same.

Going from unconscious incompetence or wrong intuition to conscious incompetence or wrong analysis.

Blue belt is the stage where you realize that you really don’t know Jiu Jitsu.

You know some Jiu Jitsu techniques and even a few concepts but not how everything fits together and flows.

At white belt you’re ignorant of this fact. Every day you train. You learn something new and get better without trying. Just being able to recall a few moves is a big accomplishment when you first start out.

But starting at blue belt, you have to put more effort into your training and studying techniques. That feeling of leveling up after every session is quickly replaced with plateaus and working toward developing your own style of Jiu Jitsu.

As a blue belt you will need more awareness of your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Of course, your instructor will be there to guide you by showing you techniques and giving you advice. But as you progress, your instructor’s guidance will be less hands on so you will have to be more proactive in training.

That could mean taking private lessons, studying competition videos, competing, etc.

Expectations

As a white belt there’s no expectation on you to do well in training or competition. Just by showing up consistently most white belts will see exponential progress.

I’m happy when my beginner students can remember past techniques and have the fundamental techniques such as shrimping, rolling (backwards and forwards), and can tie their belt properly. I could care less how they roll in sparring or how many times they get tapped out.

So they actually end up doing better because there is no pressure on them to do well or to have the techniques down one hundred percent.

But at blue belt, you have more experience under your belt. You’re no longer an innocent white belt. Your instructor has higher expectations on you to learn and demonstrate your technique(s) as well as you being able to effectively transmit that technique to newer students.

Many times during my classes, I will pair a newer student with a blue belt (or more advanced belt) with the hope and expectation that they will be able to guide the student in our fundamental techniques or to help them along with more advanced movements.

You represent your academy

Newer guys coming in to your academy are going to look towards you as a representative of your school as well as a target so you will want to do well against them, and higher belts are going to use more advanced techniques and attributes on you like strength and timing as you become more proficient and a tougher training partner.

Or as I like to say. They’re going to take your lunch money but there’s nothing you can do about it but just learn.

The experiential belt

As a blue belt, you will have a few go to techniques but no overall developed game. That’s why many blue belt students spend most of their time experimenting.

Experimenting with different types of guards, passing styles, and submissions. It’s no surprise that many blue belts will go through a phase when they will only use a single technique or style of Jiu Jitsu like berimbolo or wormguard.

Slave to trends

The most experiential belt is also the one that most follows the trends in the sport of Jiu Jitsu.

I remember when I was a blue belt and Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard was popular at the time. Of course, like any fan boy I added it to my game and relied heavily upon it for the majority of my time as a blue belt.

There’s nothing wrong with following the trends in Jiu Jitsu. It’s very important to keep you skills and knowledge updated but many blue belts fall into the trap of building their entire game around that one technique that they saw online.

There will always be this cycle of new techniques or strategies that become popular but then they are replaced by an older move or a technique that was “forgotten” but then rediscovered.

I think a lot of people’s time and energy would be better used by continually developing their fundamental techniques in addition to experimenting with the new guards and passing styles.

You should aim to be well rounded in all the major areas of Jiu Jitsu including: self defense, sport techniques, takedowns, leg locks, escapes, attacks, etc.

You’ve achieved the desired skill level

One argument that I haven’t fully explored in my writing or videos is the fact that many practitioners are happy with the skill level that they’ve developed at blue belt and decide to pursue other goals.

Again, Jiu Jitsu takes a lot of time and study commitment in order to progress. I can see how an blue belt could feel like they’re good enough. If you train at a good academy, then the average blue belt should be able to handle themselves both in a self defense situation against most untrained individuals.

Blue belt blues

If I think about it, being a blue belt is very much like being the unpopular kid in high school. You just have to put in your time and work until your skill level rises and you begin to develop confidence in your game.

My advice to you is that if your practice of Jiu Jitsu is meaningful to you. Then keep at it.

But if you don’t feel that training has any value on your life. Find something that does bring meaning and value. Then pursue that wholeheartedly.

You have to decide.

Losing

This is a topic that’s hard for many athletes to talk about it.

We put so much hard work into achieving our goals but sometimes we end up falling short.

I’ve seen people handle losing in different ways. The humble ones are able to acknowledge their loss(es) and learn from their mistakes which I think is the best possible action. While others might not handle losing so well.

Rio 2016

If you were watching the 2016 Olympics in Rio, there was a lot of controversy over an Egyptian judo athlete refusing the shake the hand of an Israeli athlete after losing in their match. While there are obvious political and religious factors at play. Which I will not touch on. I’ve seen this behavior a few times even absent those factors.

I don’t know what causes athletes to act so unsportsmanlike or maybe sportsmanship is more dependent upon the individual athlete and their values and attitudes. But I think we can all recognize bad sportsmanship when we see it such as in the case above.

I’m not going to talk about the numerous reasons why losing occurs but instead I’m going to focus on how we all can better handle dealing with losing.

Losing is something that I have personally experienced during my career in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

It kind of sucks writing about it but it’s true.
I will say that there are times when losing and having the right mindset can drive you to achieve more. But without the proper mindset, it can become a pit of despair and really hinder your growth and potential.

I’m going to draw from my own personal experience for a bit.

My Past

I received my purple belt during my first year of college. This also coincided with a well know World Champion moving to my academy. I had everything that I needed to succeed. I had great training partners that were a lot better than me, I had the best instructors in the world, and I had all the time in the world to train in between attending my college classes. You would think that I would start tearing up the competition circuit.

But I didn’t. In fact, I lost my first campaign at purple belt, losing my first match at the World Championship that year. I don’t remember if I was down or not, but I do remember being really frustrated. So, I went back home and decided to train harder.

The next year I had a little bit more success than the previous year. I even made it to the finals of the world championship this time. But again, I didn’t come out on top.

It took me three long years at purple belt before I was able to win at the major tournaments like pans and worlds. During that time I trained my ass off and competed as much as I could.

But if I never lost during those earlier years I’m not sure if I would have stuck with Jiu Jitsu and be where I am now. My losses forced me to focus even more on my technique, train harder and smarter, and to continue competing. Losing really is a learning experience but it’s up to the individual in how they handle their losses and move forward from there.

Current favorite athlete to follow

One of my favorite athletes to follow right now is Tammi Musumeci because she writes a lot about her experiences on and off the mats and she doesn’t sugarcoat her life. It’s really refreshing to get that level of insight into the inner workings of a high level competitor and how she deals with the same emotions that we’ve all experienced.

Namely, dealing with setbacks, the expectations, and the obstacles that athletes face in trying to make it to the top. I think we often put our favorite athletes and competitors on a pedestal. We admire their victories and personalities but we often don’t understand the time and the amount effort that it took to get them to that point.

But what about those people that don’t handle losing well?

I believe the people that have the hardest time dealing with loss are those whose entire identities are completely tied to Jiu Jitsu and how well they do in competitions, rolling in the academy, etc.

When they’re winning they feel great. As anyone would. But when they are faced with a setback, or loss, then a lot of times they don’t know how to handle it.

I’ve seen this a lot with students that were considered really talented. Jiu Jitsu came easy to them and they didn’t have to work hard to improve initially. But when it was no longer easy or when they lost to someone with the same amount of experience or less, but considered less talented or gifted. Their first action was often to just quit. That’s why it’s important to have instructors and higher belts to help encourage students through these rough periods.

Higher belt duties

It’s easy to let these students fall off and quit than to actually help them. But from the standpoint of a martial arts business owner, an instructor, and a student. You are losing out on an important part of your academy.

Jiu Jitsu is a people business. Not only are you training their body but you are also developing them. Molding them into something more than what they were when they first began their journey. But if you just let them walk out, not only are you missing out on a client that sustains your business, but also a precious student to pass your knowledge on to, and a valuable training partner.

I remember when I was a brown belt and being one of the best prospects to do well in the 2011 world championship. I felt great going into this tournament and was tearing up the competitions leading up to the event. But I didn’t win. In fact, I didn’t even place.

When I got back home I was so angry and down on myself. I was even bringing my emotions into my training and being an asshole to many of my training partners. I feel like I could have easily continued down this path until something bad would have happened. If it wasn’t for my friend Chris reaching out to me, I might have quit doing Jiu Jitsu.

Chris is someone that I’ve always looked up to and was the top guy in our academy but I’m sure he had been in the same position as me at some point during his competition career. Everyone that competes a lot, or wishes to compete is going to experience loss. We are pretty much courting defeat.

I was lucky enough to have Chris to help me get through this at an important part of my development and it shows the power that a higher belt can have in helping junior students struggling.

That’s why I now make it a point to help lower belts whenever I can, either in person or through my writing and videos. You never truly know what impact your words and actions will have on others. So, let it be for the better.

Asian Influence

This is something that I gleaned from Asian (Japanese) culture that seems lost to us in the U.S. Of course we have respect for elders and those more experienced than ourselves. We have that part down, but the part that we seem to lack is the emphasis of senior students and instructors looking after the well being of the junior students.

In Japan, this is considered the sensei-sempai-kohai relationship. The sensi being the instructor or teacher. The sempai being the older, more experienced student and the Kohai the younger, less experienced student.

Don’t get me wrong. Some academies have a similar setup but it’s not built into the framework of Jiu Jitsu like how we show respect for our training partners before sparring with the fist bump and slap.

I would like to see a greater emphasis from Jiu Jitsu and martial arts instructors in promoting their students in going out of their way to help the lesser experienced students. Of course make sure that they get their technique down and train hard, but to also to take an interest in them personally and their wellbeing as well. As I said above, Jiu Jitsu is a people business.

Development

I remember when I was just the Jiu Jitsu guy. I knew a lot techniques and I did well at tournaments but outside that I really didn’t have any other life experiences or knowledge outside the mats. No one was going to ask me for relationship advice, or my opinion on business matters or anything for that matter.

Now, imagine all you’re good at is one thing and you lose or fail in that one thing.

I hated that feeling.

When you limit yourself to only being good at Jiu Jitsu. Then, what are you left with when you’re not good at Jiu Jitsu either due to circumstance or injury?

I’ve known so many great Jiu Jitsu instructors and competitors over the years that simply got by because they were good at Jiu Jitsu and surrounded themselves with people that looked up to them and only told them what they wanted to hear because they were a black belt world champions.

But there’s no balance in that.

Develop yourself outside Jiu Jitsu

because it’s so important to develop yourself outside of Jiu Jitsu, outside of your career, or your family. Because you need to be more than that, because you are more than that.

Develop other interest, have some skills that you can hone that doesn’t involve Jiu Jitsu or that utilizes your Jiu Jitsu in an entrepreneurial way. Jiu Jitsu is a great martial art. But it’s also a great tool that you can use to better and improve yourself.

For me going to college, traveling, and working in business helped give me a sense of purpose that didn’t revolve around me being good at Jiu Jitsu. There will come a time when we will no longer be able to compete at the highest levels or when other obligations will side track us. That’s when you will be happy that you have other skill sets.

Let go

Learn to let go of your losses. There’s so many things that can cause you to not perform to your best such as:

  • Not feeling well
  • Bad weight cut
  • Opponent had a better day
  • Bad refereeing
  • Wrong gi

There will always be factors that get in your way and sometimes it does temporarily block your progress. At that point it’s up to you to learn from your losses and try to fix whatever might have caused you to not perform at your best.

Even after all of that, sometimes you still won’t be where you want to be and that’s okay. It’s okay to not win every match, it’s okay to be nervous, it’s okay to be the underdog. As long as you’re able to get back on your feet and try again with even more focus and effort, I know you will be alright.

Surviving in Jiu Jitsu

Listen, there is no way to survive in Jiu Jitsu without experiencing loss. Starting out you will be losing to everyone in your academy. That’s just the way that it is, but if you stick it out you will improve and get better.

I think at the colored belt level is when thoughts of losing, or overcoming loss becomes harder. We let our egos get in the way of our development.

I’ve talked about this before in the white belt mindset that white belts are more free in this regard because there really are no expectations for them. Any small victory is a step in the right direction. Every set back a lesson.

But like any skill. The white belt mindset can be developed and honed for any imaginable task.

Martial arts is about being more and gives you the tools to be more. I promise you that after a few weeks, months, and years from now you won’t remember the majority of your losses and setbacks.

In fact, those that you do remember you might begin to think of fondly as the point in time that you decided to rededicate yourself to your training, or as the event that you needed to overcome in order to improve.

Every loss is a lesson

When dealing with losing it’s best to learn whatever you can from the experience and then move on. Keep developing yourself outside of Jiu Jitsu and help others whenever you can. Even a few words could keep someone from completely quitting Jiu Jitsu.

Every loss is a lesson but it’s up to you to figure out what you need to learn from the experience.