White Belt Woes: How Focus Overcomes The Urge To Quit

 

I was thirty-two years old, sitting at Buddy Guy’s Legends, a Blues bar on Wabash in Chicago, the day I quit playing guitar. I was both a new parent and from the Eastern Time Zone so I found myself there early, around 10:30 p.m. It’s the perfect Chicago Blues bar: dim, a little dirty, tables with uneven legs, beer served mostly in cold bottles and jambalaya offered on a paper plate in a red, plastic holder. On stage the opening act was an older black man with a well-worn guitar.

I’d been playing and singing for about six years and managed to land a regular Friday night gig at a local brewery. I played my heart out, but I was mostly ignored. I practiced until my fingers bled, hoping one day to have the skills to make my audience notice me. Skills like the opener at Buddy Guy’s Legends had in spades.

I found out later he taught Blues theory at a local college. He certainly had the chops. His fingers were a blur of precise note choices. He nailed the bends, had just the right amount of vibrato and never misplayed a string. When he sang, it was like heart break spilled out of his mouth and into your soul through your ears. I was impressed, captivated, moved and — alone. The other thirty odd patrons gave just a passing notice to what I thought was a master class in music. But, to be completely honest, I remember neither his name nor the college at which he taught, so in spite of my admiration I would have forgotten him altogether if he had not also inspired me to quit playing guitar.

I quit because I knew I could play, and practice, and learn, and study, and play some more and no matter what I did, I would never be as good as him. As I watched him ignored by his audience the way I was by mine, I knew the likelihood I would ever reach my musical goals was small. If he couldn’t do it, how could I?

Playing guitar wasn’t going anywhere. It was a waste of my time. I quit.

A similar moment occurred in my jiujitsu life. I was a white-belt rolling with Alvin Robinson, a Royce Gracie black-belt who fought both Nate Diaz and Kenny Florian in the UFC, and has a professional record of 13 and 7. Alvin was a great partner who, over my time as a white-belt, taught me more than he probably realizes. As usual in my rounds with Alvin, I was on the bottom, desperately trying not to be submitted. I was doing great. Still a step behind, but managing to thwart all of Alvin’s submission attempts. Or, so I thought. Suddenly, Alvin went to defcon three, and in about seven seconds I was in an arm bar tighter than a gnat’s ass. I tapped. The timer buzzed. Alvin patted me on the chest, “I saw the time!” he laughed.

I hadn’t been defending Alvin trying to submit me, I’d been defending Alvin graciously trying to teach me how to defend. He could have tapped me out in any seven second period of the round, he just chose to wait until the last seven seconds. Alvin is one year younger than I am. I could practice the rest of my life and Alvin will always be better.

But, I did not quit Jiujitsu.

It’s not that I like Brazilian jiujitsu more than guitar, or martial arts more than music. I love both, but honestly there’s a lot less pain and ER visits for the musician. And, I suppose if I ever find a genie bottle and can wish to either do Jiujitsu like Leandro Lo or sing like Justin Timberlake you’d be more likely to see me on the Tonight show with Jimmy Fallon than on the podium at worlds.

The difference is this: Jiujitsu does things for my life that have nothing to do with how good I am at it. I’m in better shape, more focused, sleeping better, eating better, have more friends and laugh like a giggly schoolgirl through every class. Even the ones I get crushed in. Jiujitsu’s impact on my life has been profoundly positive. Being on the mat brings me joy that sneaks its way into every aspect of my day. Playing music was something I did for others. Jiujitsu is something I do for me.

As a white-belt it’s easy to be discouraged. Often it’s not being smashed under mount and continually tapped that does the discouraging. It’s the confusion. You are getting smashed and submitted, you don’t know why, and you’re pretty sure it’s never going to get better. You feel like you’ll always be the worst guy or girl in the class, so you quit. That’s a mistake.

If you want to train jiujitsu for a long time, you have to learn to control your focus. If you become focused on what you can’t do, the tournaments you didn’t win or the people in class you couldn’t catch, you will never feel good about your training. But, your training isn’t about them. It’s about you. Instead focus on what jiujitsu can do for your life. How does training make you a better person? Do any of the benefits have anything to do with how good you are at it?

What do you get by struggling, even in vain, to improve your jiujitsu? Everything I’ve already mentioned. Fitness, friendship, self-defense skills and a few laughs — some of them at yourself. So, don’t worry about how you stack up against everyone in your class. Run your own race. Be happy that you are better than you were and don’t worry about being better than your partner. Focus on what jiujitsu adds to your life, and keep plugging away. One final thought? You are getting better, whether you realize it or not.

 

About the author: Dan Vigil is a writer and MMA coach who runs The Fighter’s Pen, and is available to write websites and manage blogs for martial arts schools.

 

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