Things I’ve Learned Studying Jiu Jitsu, Lesson 5: Belt Blues – The Struggle is Real

Most of you have heard of the ‘Blue Belt Blues’, a phenomenon many people will experience soon after getting their blue belt in which they begin to think they don’t deserve their new rank. The new blue belt might question their skill level, lose confidence in themself and often, quit Jiu Jitsu alltogether. Conservatively, for every blue belt that stays on the mats to purple, 2 have quit. Granted, life can also steer someone towards giving up on BJJ, but feelings of inadequacy can play a big role in why a blue belt leaves. The fact of the matter is that at every level you will question yourself. Every belt level experiences the blues, not just blue belts. How badly and for how long depends on the individual.

Virtually everyone who have experienced ‘The Blues’ have associated it with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Most have said that at some point they wanted to give up Jiu Jitsu all together, and many also indicated that these feelings lasted way longer than they were comfortable with. Many felt that as soon as they earned their new belt, they became a target for those sitting in the upper echelons of their previous belt- often losing to them- as well as chum for the more experienced sharks within their new belt rank. Basically folks report losing to training partners they expected to easily tap. What we can take from this is that often we feel like we ought to be better at Jiu Jitsu than we actually are, which has a tendency to swing us too far in the opposite direction and make us think we suck way worse than we really do. On any given day, most of us experience this inner battle, and most folks with a healthy sense of self worth tend to balance out and accept that there is always someone better, quicker or sharper on the mats.

The problem the person experiencing ‘The Blues’ is facing however, is a sense that they’ve leveled up, therefore ought to magically have the new super powers associated with that rank. ‘Yesterday, I was a white belt. Today I’m a blue belt, but I still can’t pass that other blue belt’s guard and some three-stripe white belt just caught me in a kimura. I must really suck’, goes the logic that’s churning mercilessly in the mind of someone suffering from ‘The Blues’. It’s a tough transition from being the King of the White Belts one day to just another blue belt the next. But let’s be real here, a ranking system is simply a way of tracking yourself along a spectrum of skills. Expectations will be a bit higher once someone moves up in rank, but no coach expects a fresh blue belt to pass like Keenan, dominate like Drysdale or submit like Garcia. So when the time comes, don’t put those expectations on yourself. Toronto- and I’m sure the BJJ world-over- has a veritable blue belt army, but only a handful of purple, brown and black belts. ‘Blue Belt Blues,’ and how individuals deal with it plays a big role in blue belt attrition, and that is clearly reflected in the number of individuals who remain to achieve higher ranks. Self-doubt is normal and will only last as long as you let it. Decide to accept your skill level as it is at all times, and trust that experience and time- rather than belts- will provide skill.

‘The Blues’ is a bit of a different beast for higher ranks; by the time someone reaches purple, they generally expect a bit of self-doubt and frustration while adjusting to their new rank. This time around however, they know that it doesn’t last forever and that they simply need to continue putting time in on the mats and trust the process. That doesn’t mean ‘The Blues’ doesn’t get under the skin of higher ranked students, it simply becomes easier to face and overcome after surviving the growing pains of adjusting to their blue belt. That said, by purple belt, expectations are pretty high. ‘The Blues’ hits hardest for higher ranked individuals on the bad days; those days when you’re not at your best, people are catching you and looking pretty smug about tapping a purple, brown or black belt. White and blue belts expect to be submitted by their peers and superiors, and it’s a treat when the roles are reversed. At purple however, some people start to believe their own hype and get the notion that they shouldn’t be caught by certain people. A lot of purples have reported being targeted heavily by blue and brown belts. A purple belt knows what they’re doing, but they’re not without holes. It can become difficult on the ego when others on the mats wish to capitalize on those small gaps, while everyone is watching from the sidelines. Use this inevitability to sharpen yourself! People want to roll with you because you’re skilled and they’d like to measure their rolls against yours.

Before you throw your 4-stripe white belt in for good to avoid ‘The Blues’, remember that the growing pains don’t last forever, and all the feelings of inadequacy and doubt you may experience are the building blocks to humility and self-mastery. Embrace the grind, it’ll only make you stronger.

Feel free to share your ‘Belt Blues’ experience with us.