Shouldn’t you be a blue belt by now? I get asked that question quite a bit. A lot actually. Usually by new people I meet (and am about to or have just finished rolling with) or people I’m attempting to spread the gospel of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to, and typically more often than I enjoy answering.
It’s a question that, quite frankly, perplexes me—especially when asked by fellow jiu-jitsu practitioners. I feel the paradigm in a sport where most gyms adapt a “ranks are earned not given” makes the answer pretty clear:
I do not have a blue belt because I am not at that level yet.
I'll get there, I'm just not there right now.
It's not life ruining, nor is it a travesty. I trust in the judgment of my instructors and, no, I don’t think they’re out to get me. As a guy who spent the better half of two years trying to find the right the right gym and BJJ mentors, I have a great deal of respect in my instructor's assessments of my skill. They’re not the type to set an alert on their Google Calendar and say, “shit, it’s time to advance Esparza.” They also are not the type to sandbag. If they say I’m a white belt, that’s what I am.
Of course, that never makes the follow up question any easier to swallow:
Well, how long have you been doing this?
The cliff notes version of my background reads something like this:
- Two years of consistent training at the same gym (occasionally supplemented with cross training at other gyms). The first year averaged training about 2-2.5 times a week, with the second year averaging about 3 days a week. Most of my training taking place in a gi. - Prior to my current two years of training streak, there was a period of highly inconsistent off-and-on no gi training for a little over a year (that was nothing to write home about). - And before that, there was an eight-year layoff of regular athletic activity during college (I affectionately refer to as my “age of lethargy”), where my metabolism slowly lost all of the work 11 years of soccer and other sports worked so hard to establish. - I never received any martial arts or wrestling training while growing up or in school.
It’s the two years training part that always seems to catch most people’s attention.
That’s about the time the average person starts to progress, but I am not the average person. I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, I don’t pick up things naturally, and I don’t compete (and have zero desire to do so).
When I get asked these questions, it’s hard not to get embarrassed or feel ashamed like a kid who realizes he’s getting held back a grade or three. Which is why my most consistent answer is: Well, have I mentioned I’m terrible at jiu-jitsu?
This is probably the point where I should mention I write comedy for a living. As a comic, my deadpan delivery and timing tends to get a laugh and elicit an “aww, that’s not true,” but I’m never quite sure how one seriously answers a question inadvertently designed to remind you of why it’s so fantastic to advance way slower than everyone else.
It’s also a reason why I constantly have to remind myself: My journey is my own and unlike others around me.
I didn’t get in this sport to be the best, win Mundials or because I wanted to prove I was some thirty one year old BJJ prodigy who the world has been sleeping on. My rationale for doing BJJ is quite simple: I want to become a better person. I want to feel healthy as I ease into an older age and do something that feels a thousand more times fulfilling than being cooped up in a gym for hours.
I have no interest in doing any other sport, nor do I get excited about the prospect of things like long distance running or crossfit to compliment my training (muscle confusion? The only reason my muscles would ever get confused is wondering how in the hell they picked up a weight in the first place).
For me, just getting on the mats is a success. One that literally keeps me from being obese or substantially out of shape (as opposed to my current condition of “grossly out of shape”)—and, perhaps most importantly, one that forces me to face a great deal of my own anxieties.
I do, however, think it’s important to note, I’m not a crazy advancement person. I don’t hover around my instructors and pester them with questions like “how long do you think it’ll be until I’m ready?” I’m a pretty patient person and know that all good things take time, drilling, and a great deal of trial and error. There’s no substitute or shortcut for that.
So when people like to politely remind me I’m behind the learning curve, I don’t tend to get fixated with the color of my belt. If anything, I sometimes get down about the following two items:
1) I constantly fail at remedial things. As any fan of math, I know there's nothing wrong with being outside of the norm. It is, however, discouraging when you find your self consistently struggling with the remedial (especially when you know just enough to recognize it). Stupid things like sidewise shoulder rolls and putting pressure on my neck always look and feel terrible (I carry a lot of my stress in my shoulders). I’m not very flexible or mobile (my back is all shades of screwed up), so I often have to do things as best I can. While small movements feel like mini-accomplishments, I never feel like I have full control over my body—which makes it feel difficult implementing simple movements into my repertoire. Couple that with being a guy who often feels jiu-jitsu dyslexic and struggles to even demonstrate the the basics while rolling—and often who watches a number of people (new and old) get and implement those same techniques at a much faster rate—that’s the stuff that stings way more than the need for a different colored belt around my waist.
2) The stigma that’s associated with being a white belt. This never really feels bad during years one and two, but when you’re getting into your third year of training, it’s not so fun being categorized at this level. Some of it is self-imposed (you feeling stupid about everything), some of it is implied (shouldn’t you be a white belt by now?), and some of it is deserved (frankly, white belts haven’t put in the years of mat time others have). It’s this very stigma that’s often prompted me not to talk at great length about my own training and, sometimes, even to feel ashamed of displaying my white belt around others who train in public.
So I guess now is as good a time as any:
My name is Raf Esparza and I am a three stripe white belt (it feels good to say that out loud). I’m a perfectionist who’s often too hard on myself and consistently makes self-deprecating comments how terrible I am at jiu-jitsu, but only because I have a great deal of confidence in my work ethic and potential. I don’t care how long it takes to get any belt, I will always go the gym and ask myself the same question every day: How do I get better?
When my friend Amechi Akpom unveiled his new project BJJTrainingJournal.com—an online website designed to track your progress in BJJ through the use of stats, charts, and online videos—I realized I might finally have a tool that can help me improve my game. So after months of contemplating, I’ve decided to finally pull the trigger on an open online training journal (the idea of me writing a training journal actually predates our podcast).
I’ve gone back and forth on doing this for some time—a great deal of my trepidation coming from the stigma of being some no name white belt with nothing to offer and a nervousness of documenting how much I struggle with it. But much like you find the older people in your life who stop censoring what comes out of their mouth, there comes a point where a two year white belt stops caring what others think. Maybe I’m already hitting old man status a little too early, but I’d like to think I’m at a healthy place in my life where I don’t care if others see or read how truly bad I am at jiu-jitsu. I own it (and wear it quite well, actually).
I truly believe my time in jiu-jitsu has started to make me a better person. I’ve lost close to 20 pounds, I feel healthier and more alive than than I have in over ten years, and I’ve seen a dramatic shift in my own philosophical approach to life that’s made me a happier person in the process.
I think that may also explain why I’ve stopped seeing my white belt as a limitation as of late. What’s often a rank that provokes eye rolls on the faces of some advanced practitioners actually presents a great deal of freedom. You get a free pass to mess up and make all the mistakes you need to grow. It's kinda a chance to change things up, experiment, and modify your game without any major consequence.
It took me a long time to think of it in that context and, ever since, I’ve been way more open at discussing my own struggles, without care of how it makes me sound. I’m a white belt, I’m supposed to say and do dumb things. What of it?
I think what’s ultimately helped reshape the way I look at my training is this simple concept: I’m not going to get any better just obsessing over the negative. Off the mats, I'm good at finding the humor in the struggle and enjoy facilitating conversations with my friends about the trends we see in the sport. More specifically, the humor is cathartic to me and is a fantastic reminder that the journey is bigger than just the one I face.
So it only makes sense to lend one of my strengths (writing silly narratives) to something I constantly feel not so great at. By doing so, I also get the chance to chronicle the beginnings of an experience that's already made me a better person in the process.
I’m a storyteller at heart and hope to share some observations that even the most seasoned of jiu-jitsu practitioners can laugh at. If you’re one of those people who feels stupid for being on the outside of the curve, this is also for you. If you’re entirely new to the sport, hopefully this thing will let you know that your struggle is my struggle. And if you’re one of those people who just naturally gets things in jiu-jitsu… well, you can go straight to hell.
Yeah, I suppose this blog’s for you, too. If you’re a BJJ prodigy, you still face a great deal of challenges that are completely different than mine. We all share the same desire to get better at the sport and a shocking number of parallel experiences, and that's good enough for me.
It’s my hope that this journal also serves as a tribute to the good people who help me achieve my goal of getting better every day. I have an exceptional team, great coaches, and a ridiculous amount of support within the jiu-jitsu community through this podcast. I still can’t believe so many within the community have taken me in as one of their own. I’m truly lucky to have that in my favor and want to do something positive to reflect that feeling.
So in response to the question at hand, I’m well aware it’ll likely take me at least another year to get near my next belt—and even longer to move my way up to any further advanced rankings down the road—but I’m pretty ok with that. It just means I’ll have plenty of material to write about as I continue my journey. I hope you all will come along for the ride.
You can find me and friend me over at Raf Esparza on BJJTrainingJournal.com for more.
And to listen to our podcast interview with Amechi Akpom about the BJJ Training Journal website, head on over to this link.