Always A White Belt At Heart

“You’re never too old to become the person you might have been.”  John Lennon

I wouldn’t say I have a terrible memory, but I don’t remember much about my life before jiu jitsu. What makes this important to mention is that I didn’t start jiu jitsu until I was 36, a married father with a career. It’s like jiu jitsu put the CAPS LOCK on my story and help me start to make sense of life. At 41, my five years of jiu jitsu only amounts to 12% of my life, but the lens that jiu jitsu gives me with which to interpret life has been invaluable.

I am currently a two-stripe purple belt under Saulo Ribeiro and John Rozzi, training full time out of Rozzi Self Defense Center in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Early on before I became a student of Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu, I purchased Saulo’s seminal Jiu Jitsu University. It is arguably one of the most popular books in the martial arts genre. What struck me early on about this text was it was more than just a manual of moves, it was truly a jiu jitsu philosophic text.

And much like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” did for me back in Introduction to Philosophy class, JJUN leaves most other manuals to cast shadows on the BJJ wall and drags you by your gi collar out beyond the mats and into the sunlight of the concepts behind those moves.

Always A White Belt At Heart: The Importance of Survival

The white belt for Saulo is the belt of survival, “nothing more and nothing less.”  It is by thinking and acting in these terms that one gets the closest to Helio Gracie’s pure jiu jitsu.  By perfecting the art of survival the white belt cannot be defeated.  The ego takes a pounding for sure, but defeat is something rare for the one who can survive.

More than a few nights after class I’ve found myself sitting reading this chapter again and again.  I may have tapped a dozen times or more, I may be walking with a sore back, shoulders, etc. but the ego is alive and well and wondering why the heck I put myself through this.  This didn’t feel like survival.  But maybe it was.

For Saulo, survival is constantly facing our fears and through this repetition the jiu jitsu player is liberated because he or she has faced fear both physically and mentally and learned to accept and to relax, ultimately planning or executing an escape.  What exactly am I afraid of?  In addition to the normal fears of failure, more experienced or skilled opponents, what my teacher might think of my performance, and will my gas tank sustain me, for the older grappler we’ve got to worry about extra stuff like trying to squeeze training in during 30+ hour work week.

As a 30 plus grappler, there are some key areas that I’ve had to examine and continually tweak to keep myself progressing on the mats.  By first understanding these areas and limitations from the white belt mentality and working to be as defensive as possible, I ensure that I’m able to improve.  It’s by applying the concept of survival that allows me to continue to train and to improve.

Conditioning is first and foremost the area that requires the most of my focus as a 30 plus jiu jitsu player.  On a good week, I make it to four hour and half to two hour sessions.  On an average week it’s two sessions.  Because work days are long and I often find myself traveling for work, I have to be smart and continue to get smarter about my conditioning.  I’m not going to lie, I’m at a point in my life where I hate working out for the sake of working out.

Whether it’s the treadmill or lifting weights, I despise it and look for any excuse not to do it.  I’d much rather be on the mats training and drilling for exercise, but when I can’t be on the mats and need to get some work in, here’s how I do it.  First and foremost, I focus on intensity.  I would rather kill myself in 20-30 minutes, than dilly dally and take an hour.  Also, gone are the days of lifting to ‘get big.’  If I lift today, it’s circuits with little or no rest between exercises.  So even though I’m not on the mats, I try to mimic sparring in that it’s short 3-5 minute rounds of intensity, followed by rest, repeated 5-6 times usually.

I also have given up on trying to find that perfect routine.  Sadly there isn’t one.  I try to focus on basics and make myself work for a specific amount of time doing things like jumping jacks, bodyweight squats, burpees, and kettlebell exercises if I’m at home.

My flexibility comes in a very close second to conditioning as an area that I have had to really focus on to keep up with the younger players.  Having started jiu jitsu as a way to rehab a disc issue in my back, the shadow of my impermanence has always hovered over my game.  It is for this reason that I describe my game as very linear and it is an area I focus on.  I have turned to Ginastica Natural and Yoga to work to increase my flexibility and comfort level with techniques that involve more rolling or inversion.  Though I don’t see myself pulling off a Miyao style berimbolo anytime soon, I have improved the range of motion in my back which has pushed the thoughts of those past disc issues  further to the back of my mind.

Diet is the final item that has to be constantly monitored and tweaked as an over 30 grappler.  Junk food of all types has much more of an effect on my gas tank and quality of training than when I first started jiu jitsu even 5 years ago.  I try to give myself a cheat meal or two usually on the weekends, but more and more I’ve been cleaning up my diet both to work on losing excess weight and to give myself quality energy to train.

Even having been on the mats hundreds of times, I continue to face and seemingly create new fears almost everyday.  The big questions common to grapplers of all ages would be things like:  Am I good enough?  Will I be able to execute my game plan exactly as I want?  As someone who travels and visits different schools, I often wonder how receptive the school is to visiting students?  As a purple belt, does one become a target for the lower or even the higher belts at that school I’m visiting?  The questions are endless and I believe if you are human, they never stop.  If there’s one thing jiu jitsu has taught me is that it’s not a destination, it’s an endless journey which is why I come back to this chapter in Saulo’s book over and over.

No matter how far I progress in BJJ, I hope I will always maintain the ‘empty cup’ philosophy that Saulo describes in the white belt section of Jiu Jitsu University.  By applying the notion of ‘survival’ to all areas  of my jiu jitsu, when faced with any new challenge, I will just grit my teeth and calmly protect my elbows and neck accepting the fact that I may not win, but also knowing that I won’t be defeated.