Purple Haze: 5 Thoughts for Overcoming Frustrations in Training

And I’m back at it again. Below is a more written-out transcription of what I talked about in the podcast if you prefer reading. If you’d like to hear what I had to say, plus a Heath Ledger “joker” impersonation, I highly encourage you to go here. Thanks for visiting!


When I became a purple belt, I wrote my last, “Into the Blue” post, and first “Purple Haze” post. In the former, I ended with the exhortation to just stick with it, to not quit, no matter what. Just. Don’t. Quit. Really we could just end this current post with that. There’s something to just sticking it out, and context dependent, it could be healthy or very unhealthy to do. In the latter post, I addressed it even more. And here we are again, talking about the same thing: to quit or not to quit. The further I go down this path, the more this question or topic seems to be brought to my attention.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now. Jiu-jitsu in many respects, is a revolving door of students.

I’ve had a few conversations with lower belts about it, I’m not sure it’s the cheap cotton dyed purple around my waist, maybe its just because I’m old and still doing this. (I try not to take myself too seriously anymore, but I do enjoy the “big brother” position I find myself in and do take it serious enough.)

To quote from that first “Purple Haze” post:

“…let’s talk frustrations in training.

Are you feeling your training is absolute dog mess? Are you frustrated with your training and progress? Does it seem like others are “getting it” and progressing and you just…aren’t? Are you thinking you may just be burnt out?

What do you do?”

Purple Haze: Four Years In

I laugh to myself because, what I wrote sounds like a commercial. It reminds me of the Original Ghostbuster’s movie where they film the commercial and ask the viewer “Are you troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic? Have you or any of your family ever seen a spook, specter or ghost?” Seriously, YouTube that part, you’ll thank me later. When you’re done, pull up a chair and tell Ole Tom what’s haunting you in your training. I’m ready to believe you!

In that post, I spoke about the phenomena of everyone advancing and getting better practically at a similar rate, thus your place in the pecking order doesn’t seem to change. It’s something to consider if everyone is training consistently and efficiently. I also spoke about speaking to your Professor or Coach about your progress and how you can improve. Most Coaches and Professors are going to care about your progress because despite many academies being a revolving door of white belts: you’re a paying customer and they’d like to retain their customer/student base. And I spoke about objectively figuring out what, exactly, is frustrating you about your progress. Put precise words to it from objective observation of your performance.

Now, before we go any further, if issue that is causing you to consider quitting revolves around negative experiences at your Academy, I know this could be a Pandora’s box inside a can of worms that I am opening here, so I’m going to try to be neat and tidy and short here as I believe it is its own important topic and wiser voices than I have spoken to this.

I’ve mentioned before cult-like and toxic environments, so maybe it is that, or maybe you have issues with a student who is way too aggressive, loses their temper, etc. Or maybe it is even worse and getting over into the territory of predatory behavior and breaking the law.

First, I’d say that before you quit, if the training is good, if the academy is good, but you’re having some issues with any student, say there is a student or two that is just going crazy during rolls like it’s the Worlds Finals – if at all possible: speak to the head Professor and give her or him a chance to rectify the situation. Especially, if it is something more grievous, like sexual harassment, unwanted advances, etc. Give them a chance to rectify the situation and make the Academy safe – if it happened to you, it probably is happening to others or it did in the past and nobody spoke up. I’ve seen first hand the swiftness dealt to academy members who were giving unwanted advances and making females uncomfortable. He was dealt with and no longer trains with us. And he never will again.

That said, if you really don’t want to go down that road, I would ask you to reconsider speaking to the Coach or Professor, at least give them the feedback of why they are losing a student. If you have given that feedback and nothing has changed, of course find a new Academy!

Either way, you need to know and internalize that whatever happened there isn’t a reflection of you and doesn’t make the training you received worthless. I know the experience and training can be easily linked and I know I’m slowly moving towards uneasy ground here. But training is amoral; neutral and without meaning in and of itself – it’s what you decide to make it mean that counts. It isn’t your fault if people are abusive, toxic or worse. Find another Academy, it’s ok. You need to do what is in your best interest and you don’t need to “take it” just to progress.

Now, I’m to the border of where my input leads into ground I have no real knowledge of, so I’ll stop here by saying that if the situation is even worse than that, where the conduct in question is breaking the law, then you should contact the authorities and if the Professor isn’t doing anything about it either, then leave the Academy and let the legal system work it out.

I’m out of ammo here, so I hope that little piece was helpful and if you’ve experienced that, I hope you find a healthy and safe academy. If you’re in the Treasure Valley, come down to my Academy and you can see a safe and supportive team at work.

So, with all that as prologue: let’s get right to the meat of it.

In no particular order:

5 Thoughts for Overcoming Frustrations in Training

1. Understand that Jiu-jitsu is supposed to be hard.

However you want to call it: Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, Jiu-Jitsu, BJJ, Jitz… this is a hard sport. Sure, it’s called the “gentle art” because you can technically, theoretically and in actual reality, control an attacker and inflict minimal to no real damage on them. It is also gentle in the way that you can “go hard” every training session and last much longer in the sport than going hard every night in a kickboxing gym and getting your bell rung. I would personally recommend smart training and using varying degrees of intensity depending on the situation, but yes, technically you could go all out every night without brain damage or serious injury… theoretically.

But that’s where the “gentle” part of this art stops.

This art is meant to be hard. Make no mistake about it.

There will be seasons that will tax you mentally, physically and emotionally. Sometimes all at once. You literally will put blood, sweat and tears into this martial art at one point or another in your journey. The path between each belt is, on average, a journey of years. Outliers who’ve received their black belts in 3 years or less aside, you don’t get to black belt in this art in 1 – 2 years. The path is long. The path is hard. And for both the athlete and the hobbyist, there will be a myriad of reasons to quit. Heck, many of us who love Jiu-jitsu sometimes battle thoughts weekly of “I SUCK! I should just quit!”

So, just accept that right out of the gate: It’s going to be hard. Your body will be challenged. Your mind, your will, your emotions, your Ego will be pushed around with the challenges of this art.

The art and sport of Jiu-jitsu is beautiful and fascinating and ever-evolving…but this art is hard. Make no mistake. Embrace it. Accept it. And get back on the mats.

2. Jiu-jitsu will stay challenging, but it does get “easier”.

Hold on… wait a minute. Here I go again with some yin-yang harmony talk. Yes I am, again I’m reaching out here to the people who’ve practiced for less than three years. If you’re someone who has trained for 4.5 like me, or much longer, I hope you find value in what I’m saying and I’d love to hear your own input on what I’m talking about.

When you first start out, you’re fighting your mind and body to move in ways you’ve not moved before. You’re doing things that seem counter-intuitive. “Wait, so when someone is on top of me I’m in MORE danger if I try to just push them away?!” Yes… yes you are. But things get easier with mat time, tons of repetition and putting thought, intention and even study into your practice.

The best analogy I’ve heard is driving a car.

If you safely navigated your way to your Academy, you can do the work on the mat.

When you first learn to drive, there is a metric ton of things going on that you need to pay attention to: three mirrors, blind spots, turn signals, braking gently, accelerating appropriately, how to engage the clutch, and on and on and on. A whole LOT of stimuli. Soon enough, with time and practice you’re doing all those things plus eating, drinking, talking on the phone, doing makeup, etc.

It’s the same with Jiu-jitsu. You’re taking in a lot of stimuli all at once. Take being on the bottom in someone’s side control, the very basics are roughly as follows: your hands are creating a proper frame against the shoulder closest to your face, your elbows tucked in to your body to reinforce the frame you are creating with your hands and the back of your head is stuck to the mat – just these three things alone are to help in preventing the opponent’s cross face from closing in and making your life miserable. We haven’t even brought in the bottom half of your body: legs coiled with your feet as close to your butt as possible so you can try to do a hip escape, bringing the bottom leg from that hip escape in between you and your opponent and touching your knee to the bottom elbow of the frame you had – thus creating a stronger frame. The list goes on. And like I said, that was a very basic description. The best situation is hipping out and creating a frame, while they are passing, before the opponent is even that close to establishing side control and then you go into the re-guard options. Again, just a very basic run down here.

For a beginner… that is a lot of stimuli. Just like driving. And as you progress, those things start to become automatic.

There’s always an interesting progression to learn, at first it will be at least a little challenging, but then it will get easier.

3. Embrace Failure – Failure is an essential part of the Jiu-Jitsu Journey

Every competition I have stepped on the mat for, every time I stepped on to the mat at my Academy, training week-in, week-out has been a continuous building upon failure. Doing things wrong. Trying something new and coming up short. Getting tapped over and over again. I recently posted some pics on the Instagram account of my competitions as a white belt: every pic was a fight that I lost. My “official” record on SmoothComp.com isn’t impressive at all to anyone tallying win/loss records. I’m 0 for 7. However, the unofficial record, since the tournament organizers weren’t using SmoothComp yet is 2-15. That’s not much better at all if you are just counting the wins.

Sure, we in Jiu-jitsu have a saying, “You either win or learn.”, but you can only learn if you actually choose to learn from it and not just repeat a mantra.

Sure, wins matter. Don’t get me wrong. But they only matter for that day…barely. You could win all the Championships, go out for a celebration dinner and the chances are far higher that the waiter won’t even know you won. The wins matter, to the Community sure, but to the competitor more than anything.

And that’s not a bad thing.

I believe there is a difference between the legend of anyone in our sport and the reality. Legends are somehow undefeated, always untouchable. The incarnation of Myamoto Musashi.

Outlier performers aside, the ones who went straight from Judo champion to learning BJJ, or the D1 Wrestler who comes in and starts learning. Sure, they seem untouchable, but they have a ton of training behind them and even they had to fail.

The reality is there is no Myamoto Musashi in Jiu-jitsu.

Absolutely undefeated in all your matches from the day you put your white belt on is not going to happen. You must fail in this sport to get better. You can be shown all the things that you should do and shouldn’t do, from white belt on up, but you will still have moments of failure. Because it is on you to piece it together, to work the systems you are shown, to experiment and develop your game and to make sure your mind is centered.

You are going to tap. You are going to suck at certain things, sometimes for awhile.

Accept this and keep moving forward.

4. Reverse Engineer and Dive Deep with your sticking points.

A sure-fire guaranteed way to continue failing is first to not embrace that you will fail, to let your Ego submit you. The second is to not evaluate how and why you are failing. Let’s say during your live rolls, you found yourself consistently getting submitted by triangle choke. Well, how is that happening? Is this triangle from closed guard or an open guard? Are you trying to pass and one arm is inside the guard and one is outside? These questions and more. Ask your partner how they found the triangle on you. Ask your Professor what they see. Reverse engineer the problem to figure out what not to do.

Dive deep with the problem. Can’t seem to escape side control? Start any neutral or situational rolls in side control so you can consistently work on the problem. Having a hard time passing various open guards? You guessed it, start there and work it!

5. Your goals create your reason to stay and overcome your frustrations.

Do you remember why you joined up to learn BJJ? Is that goal still the primary reason why you are here?

My goals now are definitely different than why I wanted to join up and from many I’ve spoken with, this is commonplace. Few are the ones who come in with the goal of being a World Champion from Day One. Most of the people who’ve come in telling the Professor, “I’m going to be a World Champion!” or “I’m going to be a UFC fighter!” actually don’t. They fizzle out, get frustrated and leave.

The basic story I’ve told many people about why I started Jiu-jitsu are all the superficial reasons I started.

I’ve been in martial arts since I was a kid and wanted to learn a different art. This is true.
I wasn’t interested in competing, I was just interested in self-defense. Also true.
My brother-in-law was in Jiu-jitsu (and still is) and he had a lot of good things to say about it. Also true.
After about seven months or so of listening to the JOCKO Podcast and hearing both Jocko and Echo repeatedly talk about how LEGIT it was, I was inspired to finally seek out a school. Also true.
The purple belt at the Academy found me on social and offered a free lesson at the Academy. Also true.

Those six were the sum total of all the surface level, superficial reasons I joined.

Now, that said. I was also in a very dark place in my life and in there lay the real reasons I sought out Jiu-jitsu.

My marriage had gone through a pretty rough patch.
I was in a dark spot, suffering mentally, primarily suffering in silence and fighting tooth and nail to not give in to Nihilism and darker thoughts. I’d been using weight-lifting as a stress reliever and some sort of cathartic therapy, but I needed something more. For the most part, I’d come out of the more darker thoughts, but I wanted to do something that would push myself.
And, truth be told there were a few other stupid external motivators regarding my reasons to learn how to fight that I’m kind of embarrassed about and don’t want to go in to right now.

So – there’s all that behind my “real” reasons to start. In both the superficial and deeper reasons, many of those things have passed by.

I’m divorced now and I’m in a healthy relationship.
I’ve got four and a half years under my belt and feel pretty confident on the ground if, God forbid, I ever had to defend myself.
I know enough to know better and not want to engage in the first place, too!
Jocko and Echo were right, Jiu-jitsu is LEGIT.
I realized that Jiu-jitsu and working out are good supplemental tools to actual therapy and not a replacement for it.
I’ve been in therapy for awhile and my head-space continues to be a healthier place to occupy.

So why continue?

Well, besides loving Jiu-jitsu, my goals create my reason to stay. I’ve spoken before about how I like to help onboard the new members of the Academy as well as looking out for the other belts below me, helping them get better. We’re going to go over a goals oriented podcast in the near future, but I will share that I personally want to be a Coach for the competitors on our team. That is one of my goals. To help them get ready, help them see things about their game, being in the chair for the competitor on the mat, and leading by example as best I can, too. I also want to be an instructor, a full on Professor: helping people through the various stages of their journey.

The reasons I came were to help myself. My goals and reasons to stay revolve around helping others.

Much different reasons to stay than my reasons to come in the first place. And those are goals that require things of me if I really want them.

BONUS THOUGHT #1: Why So Serious?

I get it if you are training hard and are putting your money where your mouth is and going after some heavy metal in competitions. But if you are getting frustrated, are you taking some time with your Jiu-jitsu to just…play? Flow roll, experiment and do goofy stupid stuff and laugh. We call the way we do jiu-jitsu, our game, so… take some time to just play with your game.

BONUS THOUGHT #2: Honestly evaluate the kind of Jitsuka you are.

Your goals and words better be backed up by action. I know I am not a high-level competitor, I also know that I don’t internally need to be one. I also know that what I want to do requires competition experience but not World or even Regional Championship level performance. Not all competitors on the highest levels make great instructors or coaches, and vice-versa. But experience matters on both sides. I know things I need to do and also things I need to step up on. We’ll talk about this in the goals oriented podcast soon.

If you have a goal, evaluate it against the kind of Jitsuka you are now. Do your actions match up?

Adjust until they do.

BONUS THOUGHT #3: If all else fails, just don’t quit.

If you really don’t want to quit, and are struggling with why you should stay and the above five thoughts have failed to help. Keep coming until you find your reason to stay! Keep your mind and eyes open, journal it out, dig deep and keep coming!

I’ll see you on the mats.

11 thoughts on “Purple Haze: 5 Thoughts for Overcoming Frustrations in Training

  1. I enjoyed reading this. It popped up on the bottom of my wordpress blog post about my first three BJJ classes. I appreciate your honesty and how you lay it all out. I’m frustrated by how difficult it is to remember all the little components of each move. I feel like again and again my instructor has to remind me where to put my knee, where my arm is suppose to go, etc. Tell me it gets easier!!! 🙂

    Also, Jitsuka? Google’s not helping me much with defining that one.

    And finally, “Tom Writes and Rolls” is a great blog title!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and engaging with me here!

      With repetition, a lot of it, it gets easier. Haha! But it will always challenge you. One thing, too, is that when you revisit techniques you learned, you sometimes learn a small bit you missed or the art evolved and there is a better more efficient way. The evolution of side control is a good example of this.

      Jitsuka, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner. Aka Jiu-jitsuka. I like that more than Jiu-Jiteiro. The term isn’t used as often as more people lean on Brazilian terminology.

      Thanks for the compliment on the title, so far it’s the best one I’ve come up with lol

      I’ll be putting up more podcast/blog posts soon, so stay tuned!

      1. Jitsuka has such a cool ring to it. I’m going to make a point of using that in a future post. I love it!

        I’m delighted that wordpress led me to your blog, Tom. 🙂

      1. Happy to have you! Looks like you’re a pretty accomplished author, so major props to you!

        There’s 4.5 years of training in my BJJ posts so dig in, feel free to ask any questions, that’s what I’m here for! I’m here especially for the white and blue belts. 😎👊🏻

      2. Gosh, a blue belt sounds forever away. On Monday my three daughters and I will test for our yellow belt in Taekwondo. Those come much quicker, which is nice, and there’s more of them. That makes the blue in BJJ seem so far off and lofty a goal, and yet so much greater the accomplishment!

        Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve had a book published. (One I’m still trying to find representation for, my first novel.) So it seems martial arts has become my newfound love in the meantime. I don’t see either of those things changing any time soon. 😛

      3. Haha, yeah, don’t even worry about Blue. It’ll come when it comes. Just focus on learning and applying what’s taught and trust the process. Sounds cliché but it’s also true.

        Speaking to a fellow TKD guy in my earlier life, yeah compared to Blue in BJJ, on average a person can get their black belt in TKD the time it takes to get to blue. On average: two years.

        One of our teammates, fellow purple belt, owns a TKD school and that’s how our academy got started, renting out a space from him that he had available.

        But don’t let that timeline out mess with you. BJJ is like Chess in 4 dimensions. You’re going to enjoy the journey, I guarantee it.

      4. I pretty much woke up this morning excited knowing I have a class this morning (in about 40 minutes), so that’s a good sign. Sharing my BJJ adventures on this blog is also fun. If you stick around here, you can ignore the occasional posts about my chickens and other random things. Oddly, I’ve never written about TKD. I guess there aren’t odd happenings in that class to make it worth writing about. Cool that you’re also a TKD guy!

    1. I thought I responded to your shoutout, but it looks like I haven’t yet! How embarrassing!

      Thanks for the hat tip and nod, you are too kind!

      What was the move that put you on your head? Was it a Judo throw…? Insert thinking emoji here.

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