Purple Haze: Professor White Belt

And we’re back with another podcast and companion blog post! Today, I’m discussing what goes down when you forget your belt! Do you know what happens when you do this and you are supposed to be the one teaching?! Do you lose all the Jiu-jitsu Magic Ju-ju? Are you humiliated by the class and Professor? Tune in to the podcast or keep reading to find out!

~Tom

I’d received a text from my Professor letting me know that I was on deck to teach this evening. To say that I was excited would be an understatement. I’ve been helping onboard new members for quite some time and I had the opportunity to teach a class once before when I was a Blue Belt. Almost as quick as the feelings of elation at the opportunity to stretch and strengthen my teaching muscles, my brain raced to figure out,

“What in the name of all that is good and holy am I actually GOOD at teaching?”

~Tom, Purple Belt who is “supposed to have it all together” (right?)

I joked with him about it and he said, “I heard on a podcast recently that you’re good at the North/South Kimura.” Well, to be fair, I don’t recall saying I was good at it, per se, but something akin to I was able to get in to that position a lot. Nevertheless, the hint was dropped and challenge accepted.

So, I put pen to paper and began sketching out how I’d like to teach it, the concepts I’d like to cover to explain what makes submissions happen and how those concepts correlate to the technique I’m teaching, as well as a few progressions and a defense against the same move. I didn’t get any “real” work done that day at my actual job. Honestly, I wrote about three rough drafts before getting all my thoughts lined up on three 5×7 pages from a notepad. I then took that and whittled it down to the front side of an 8×11 sheet of paper and was mentally ready to teach.

Earlier in the morning, I’d packed my gear and had it waiting in my car. When quitting time came and I hopped in my car and headed to the Academy hyped and ready to help my teammates with the night’s instruction. I arrived safely, a smile on my face.

I may or may not have gone over the contents of my little paper from strict rote memorization once or twice in the twenty five minute drive to the academy.

I was ready.

I grabbed my gi bag and headed in to change. I’ll save you the details of disrobing and just say when I unzipped by gear bag, a frightening realization shook me out of the confident swagger I’d had going in to the restroom. Coming out, I walked with such a mix of shock and horror that I had no other choice but to laugh.

On the night I am supposed to teach, on the night my Professor trusted me to represent the Academy and teach whoever came through the doors:

I had left my purple belt at home.

What was I to do?

After all, all my knowledge of jiu-jitsu, all my experience, every single bit of Jiu-jitsu Ju-Ju magic I had was locked away in the belt! There is only a small window that a Jitsuka can go not wearing their belt before the knowledge begins to seep out. Without that cheaply manufactured and dyed, purple cotton belt wrapped confidently around my waist: I was nothing. I could feel all the knowledge and magic of BJJ draining out of me and soon, I’d be an empty shell of a man. How would anyone on my team recognize I had anything of value to add if I did not have that purple around my waist? I quickly tried to think of some solutions. Perhaps, I thought, my Professor has a spare purple belt in his supplies that I could buy from him. The purple should recognize it’s new host and help retain the knowledge, and I’d be able to get by on a close call. Yeah, let’s try that!

I went, sheepishly to my Professor and the look on his face said it all: shock, disbelief, disgust, contempt, disappointment. I begged his forgiveness, making oathes not only upon my own honor, but that of my descendents. He seemed satisfied but I was dumbfounded to discover that, unfortunately, he didn’t have a spare one. Graciously, benevolently, he allowed me to make the attempt to teach before all the knowledge seeped out of me. But I’d have to wear a white belt. It was all he had as a spare.

Vio con Dios, Amigo. He said solemnly as he handed me the white belt. My teammates erupted in laughter, pointing fingers and mocking me.

I was mortified.

Ok… so, maybe that was a bit too dramatic. Of course, it didn’t all go exactly like that.

The story is the foundation of my topic today. The “Magic Ju-ju” is my little dig at the highly questionable tradition of never washing one’s belt as your experiences and skill supposedly “reside” therein. No, my friend, what resides therein is called bacteria. Staph and Ringworm… So wash your belt!

So, what really happened?

Yes, I forgot my belt on the night I was supposed to teach and man… that was embarassing!

No, I didn’t lose all the knowledge and training I’ve put in because I forgot my belt.

Yes, I wash my belt.

No, I wasn’t utterly shamed by my Professor, but we did share a good laugh about it and some well deserved ribbing was thrown in my direction.

Yes, my teammates were gracious with me as I led them through the instruction of the night. We did enjoy a little more ribbing at my expense, but it was all in good fun.

So there I was, Professor White Belt, going over concepts that, to my knowledge so far, make submissions and positions successful or unsuccessful and teaching, again to my knowledge so far, what I liked about the North / South Kimura and the options one could play with from that position and submission.

I was tempted to talk about the concepts I covered and relay my understanding of them at my current level. But, what I want to talk about here is what I learned and took away from my second official teaching session at the Academy. So, I’ll save the conceptual talk for another time.

I’m really excited about this particular post because I am looking forward to revisiting this one in the years to come and see how I’ve grown and what I agree or disagree with in this particular post based on more experience coaching and teaching.

So, besides never forgetting my belt again, what did I take away?

Preparation

Regardless of teaching 3 people or 30, I definitely have a better understanding of the time it can take to prepare and plan a session. In a former life I used to teach and speak to college and high school age kids on a weekly basis, so the experience is similar in regards to studying, writing up what I wanted to talk about, etc.

If one is a subject matter expert, it may be easier to put something together on the fly, but I would argue that the ability to do that is only because of the hours and hours spent on that particular subject. I can’t speak to that very much since I am not an expert, but my own experience had me writing things out as well as studying and looking at other ways people use the North-South Kimura, escapes, etc., in order to give a more well rounded approach.

So the big takeaway here was the appreciation that many Coaches and Professors go through in order to teach day in and day out. And, if one is called upon to teach, to take it seriously and make sure you have a working knowledge of what you are teaching while not being afraid of not having all the answers. There is a harmony there, from what I can see.

Being Mindful of the Time – Yours and The Student’s

Balancing and Harmonizing the instruction time within the frame of 60-90 minutes is an interesting challenge too. Jiu-jitsu is an action oriented art as much as it is mental in understanding strategies, concepts, etc., so there is the instruction piece, but also time for doing the reps and exploring how a given student can properly execute the technique based on their ability, mobility and body type, answering questions and fine tuning as well as time to add progressions, alternatives or even an escape of the technique and then finally to pressure test the technique in some form of sparring to further enhance understanding of what was taught.

There is a lot to consider when preparing for a class. So the big takeaway for time is trying to boil down the essence of what I want to share and consider more carefully what to include:

  • Should I focus more on reps?
  • Should I do any sort of pressure testing, and if yes: what kind? Live rolls? Reps with incrementally added stressors like speed and pressure? Situational rolls with time constraints?
  • How deep should I go into explaining concepts behind the techniques for a given technique?
  • How do I balance the students who will continue to do a repetition until I bring them back for the next piece in the technique’s sequence, with the students who will only do 3-4 reps and then just sit and chat?
  • What is the best use of my student’s time for a given technique?

Terminology & Proper Explanations

You may know something, but do you know it enough to properly explain it and use easily understood terminology and phrases?

Albert Einstein said something that I’ve striven to use as a guide when trying to help anyone out about a given subject – if I have any working knowledge of it, that is – and the quote goes like this,

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Albert Einstein

How does one help students understand concepts without having a student’s brain melt from information overload? This is something I explored a little at the beginning of class as well as during the instruction phase. It really pays to simplify whatever it is you are explaining so you can both plant seeds with white belts and continue to water the ground of understanding for the higher belts. How does one do this?

I think part of the answer here is meeting them where they are in their skill and understanding and building off of that. With this particular move, Professor Shane was there to observe and give me live feedback as well as to top-off the instructional with some input of his own. While I was bouncing around during the repetition portion of class he pulled me aside with a small tweak for me to work on including in the technique on my own as a way to further immobilize an opponent from moving or attempting an escape. I cannot recall if he showed this tweak to everyone, but it was simple to see, understand, duplicate and retain. But because I’ve done it one particular way for awhile, it takes a conscious effort to include and implement through practice.

Moving on on this topic about terminology, properly explaining, etc., Missy Elliot has wisely said, “Put your thang down, flip it and reverse it…”

Now, what does that have to do with Jiu-jitsu?

Well, I’ve noticed many times that I have to invert and work backwards when walking a student through a given technique, especially if I am on the bottom or receiving end while instructing. This too, requires understanding and simplification. In many ways it’s like taking a technique and then, like a diagram of an engine or weapon, you have to take an “exploded view” where every piece and part is pulled apart on the diagram so you can see where each properly goes in the big picture. Think of it like a mental “bullet time” special effect from The Matrix.

Not everyone will start the rep out on their partner’s left side or right side, so instead of using terminology that seems simple like, “you’re going to use your left hand to then…”, you may be better off saying, “take the hand that is closest to your partner’s head and then…” or “take the hand that is blocking your partners hip and then…”. Simple changes like this can make it easier to walk people through a given technique.

Jiu-jitsu has a “monkey see-monkey do” facet to it, but there is also a “how” and “why” that need to be explored and understood to help your fellow monkeys out.

So, my takeaway here is learning how to communicate effectively and simply to maximize the ability to receive and learn on behalf of the student. It’ll never be perfect, but I’m striving to create a good foundation or till good soil for any BJJ student I am blessed with helping.

Embrace “I don’t know” / Be Open to your Blindspots

There are going to be questions that you don’t necessarily have the answers to and you can do a couple things here: You can bluff and BS your way through the answer, or you can say “I don’t know.” And get the answer from someone more experienced or do some studying and bring back your findings.

One of our white belts asked how I was getting in to the North-South Kimura position and catching this particular submission and it exposed the fact that I hadn’t put a lot of thought in to that portion. How to get there is just as important as what to do when you get there. I knew I was getting there by transitioning from one side of my opponent to the other, but how was I getting there. So, I had to say “I don’t know” and then began working through it to figure it out.

I could have bluffed, but what good would that do the students as well as me as a teammate and as a person?

DON’T FORGET YOUR BELT

It just looks weird and confuses the trial class students when there is a white belt in front of the class teaching and the Professor has to assure them that the white belt is one of his higher ranking students and has been on the team for over 4.5 years.

Besides that, the belt is where all the real Jiu-Jitsu resides anyways. I know for a fact that if I wouldn’t have forgotten my belt, I would’ve taught the class flawlessly.

Seriously though, it’s not the end of the world if you forget your belt.

But seriously though: just don’t. Especially if you are teaching.

I hope you found something of value here. Take a moment to leave a comment, I’d love to hear your feedback! To anyone currently coaching or teaching: did I overlook anything? What did I hit on correctly or miss out on talking about? I’m all ears!

Until next time: I’ll see you on the mats.

14 thoughts on “Purple Haze: Professor White Belt

  1. You had me a little nervous here at first. I was like, uuuuuhhhhh… primarily because I don’t even HAVE a belt for my knowledge to magically disappear without. (Not that I believed that). When I signed up, Instructor said he would give me one but then forgot, I guess. I’ve been too afraid to ask. It will be interesting when he’s ready to put a stripe on, and I’ll be like, “Um, on what now?” 🙂

    Funny that you wrote a post about an embarrassing story the same day I did, except this time, mine was in TKD.

    I too look forward to looking back on my posts and seeing how much I’ve learned and grown. It will take me a loooooong time to get to purple, if I continue that far. I just want to think about getting to blue. We’ll see what happens after that! 🙂

    1. Hahaha I’m glad my storytelling had you going for a minute. It’s an old “tradition” aka superstition, not just in some circles of BJJ but other circles of martial arts too have carried that on. I’ve been in martial arts since I was 6 so I’ve heard and seen some weird stuff 😂

      I’ll go check your post shortly!

      You got to quit before blue or at purple. Quitting at blue is so common it’s a meme. 😂😜

      Seriously though, glad you are partaking of a journey in two martial arts, regardless of how long or short your journey is. 😎👊🏻

      1. I was definitely relieved to know your Professor wasn’t really looking at you with disgust when you turned up without your belt. My “sensei” told us to keep our belts off the floor and to not wash them. I’ve heard other people say it’s bad luck to wash them. I don’t believe it luck, nor do I fully understand his admonish to “respect the belt” by not letting it touch the ground. It’s a piece of cloth! But whatever. If I had a belt in JJ, I’d certainly feel the need to wash it for the reasons you said.

        Well, shoot. Now that I know quitting at blue is so common, I feel determined to press onward. But we’ll see what happens. One step at a time. 🙂

      2. Yeah, people can get weird with traditions without putting thought into “why is this actually a tradition”. Weirdly enough, I haven’t fully explored this, but from my own experiences I’ve seen martial arts and religions have a large overlap or commonality (think ven diagram) but I digress haha.

        BJJ has its roots in Judo and that’s very possible that’s where the treatment of the belt came from – no washing, don’t touch the ground, etc.

        Like I said, it’s common in other martial arts too. Back in my TKD days it was the same.

        I think quitting at blue is common because of the amount of knowledge they have for self defense. A blue belt can do fairly well defending themselves on the ground. But this, like other skills, is subject to the law of diminishing returns: If you don’t use, you’ll lose it. I also think a lot of people quit because they see the path clearer now and it’s not a short trip to Black belt. It’s something I’ll probably cover in a podcast one day.

        One step at a time though. Your path is your path.
        😎👊🏻

      3. At least no one is silly enough to claim a JJ belt can’t touch the ground, for obvious reasons.

        I definitely hear what you’re saying about blue belt providing what is likely the necessary knowledge for self defense, but, yeah, how much will you retain once you stop practicing? I am curious to know what you learn beyond blue. More sophisticated, nuanced moves, I imagine?

      4. From my current experience, you go from technique based learning to understanding concepts in more depth. The more you can understand the concepts behind why a technique is effective, the easier it can be to learn a new technique. But that’s just something I’m seeing currently, I may have a different answer in a year.

        JJ is constantly evolving, that’s one of the beautiful things about it. But something profound happens at the high levels in training and competition – the “basics” are even more effective.

        If memory serves, I think it was Roger Gracie who finished multiple world title matches with “simple” cross collar chokes.

      5. Is the cross collar choke the same as the triangle choke, do you suppose? Sounds like it may be. I’ve been hearing about, I think, Royce Gracie, winning the first 3/4 UFCs with a triangle choke. Maybe we’re talking about the same thing.

        I was saying today (in my 14th class), that the instructor and the other student made everything look so simple. The other student said, once I get to Master Cycle (post blue belt) it will all be second nature to me too. And actually, I was shrimping like a champ by the end. I’m getting there! Way better than I was the first few days!

      6. Yeah the first few UFC events Royce finished with “simple” techniques.

        Roger used the cross collar choke during World Champion matches, I think in the IBJJF. The only things a triangle and cross collar choke have in common is that they are blood chokes. Blocking the carotid arteries in the neck. Cross collar uses the Gi collars, triangle uses your leg and the opponents arm/shoulder.

        Little improvements day by day are what it’s all about.

      7. Oh! Cross collar! That must be what we learned at the end of a class last week. I didn’t know what that was called. I was calling it, in my mind, a lapel choke. Cross collar makes sense. 🙂

  2. Really appreciate your eagerness in learning and absorbing! Go watch UFC 1 & 2, it’s pretty interesting. The Gracie’s pretty much financed the UFC to showcase BJJ. But, I also love how it showed so many martial arts that they were complete BS in matters of actual fighting.

  3. I hate it when I leave the house without my purple belt containing all my knowledge and experience of jiu-jitsu, as well as every single bit of Jiu-jitsu Ju-Ju magic. It’s like I’m naked without it.

    Nicely done, Tom!

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