Rank advancement in jiu-jitsu is slow. Unlike many martial arts in which belt testing is regular and frequent, it can take a year and a half to two years before getting a blue belt. During this time many people drop out and quit training. So what are the major reasons for the washout? Obviously there are personal , financial , family, work, and school reasons that might cause a student to quit. We will consider these to be unavoidable. However, what about the student who just chooses to not train anymore? There are four points which most test a student’s resolve during the early phase of training.
One and Done
Often a new student will try a class or two (maybe a full free week) then decide jiu-jitsu isn’t for them. Sometimes it is the level of physical contact or exertion that is the problem. Watching every UFC doesn’t quite prepare a newbie for how strenuous grappling actually is. Sometimes it is an ego problem. These students have a hard time dealing with the fact that they aren’t good at this and that someone half their size is crushing them. Groups who have the worst time with this are former star athletes in other sports, law enforcement officers, and “alpha male” types who are used to beating their buddies in the back yard at parties. These are people who aren’t used to “losing” in a competitive physical situation. Jiu-jitsu is like any other skill. If you are afraid to admit and/or expose your ignorance of it then it will be impossible to learn anything.
Three Month Hump
Much of the first three months or so of training involves repeatedly getting thrown, crushed, choked, and joint locked by the instructor and other students. Students come into a situation in which most of the students know more techniques than them and are in better grappling shape. This means most of their offense doesn’t work most of the time during live sparring and they spend most of each sparring match in a futile attempt to defend the inevitable submission. Students will start to wonder if they are learning anything at all or if they are just wasting their time. Many will drop out at this point because they don’t feel they will ever be any better. Those that can stick it out into the 4-6 month range will be there as new students sign-up. To their surprise they will be able to use their techniques on these brand new people quite easily. This provides ample reinforcement to keep them on the mat.
A Year and No Belt?
After about a year many students have developed a base level of grappling proficiency. They can handle most of the new students easily and give some of the blue belts a reasonably competitive match. At this point the blue belt promotion starts to become a real possibility. It can seem closer than it actually is. If there is too much focus on the belt at about the half-way point, some students will feel as if they are under ranked and get frustrated with speed of advancement. After positionally dominating or possibly tapping out a blue belt during a class they will feel as if there is nothing that should stop them from getting promoted. Even the most precocious competitors usually need more time for technical development and are still most often very deficient in either top or bottom game.
Blue Belt Masters
At the rank of blue belt, students can handle more or less any untrained opponent with minimal effort. For some this achievement will mark the end of their study. Perhaps that is all they wanted to be able to accomplish and feel that further training is unnecessary. These students should realize that grappling technique and conditioning is a perishable skill. Other blue belts can’t bear the thought of ever losing to a white belt again. This is worsened by the fact that wearing a blue belt is sort of like painting a target on your back for every white belt. At this point some blue belts will start ducking any white belt they feel might beat them in a sparring match. These white belts are the very students that will hone their grappling skills to the greatest extent. As a result of this resurgent ego, many blue belts quit shortly after getting promoted.
Making it to blue belt and continuing to train is a true test of character. It proves to me as an instructor that they are a cut above those who wash out early. New students who read this should understand that these mini-crises are normal and find their own ways of dealing with them. In my experience those who make it to blue belt will usually stick with it until purple. The road from purple to brown and brown to black comes with its own trials and will be covered in another post.
Brian Jones, PhD