The White Stripe: A Neurotic Conversation I Had With Myself

What Is A Stripe And How Do I Get One?

When you are newer to a hobby, I think it’s only natural to question if you’re getting any better as time goes on. With jiu-jitsu it’s very difficult to feel like you’re making progress. For those of you who are newer to the gentle art, you’ll notice that certain people have white pieces of tape on the tip of their belt. This is to signify almost like a mini-promotion. Think of a stripe like the series of stages where a baby starts to walk:

  • A baby stands up on their own (stripe)
  • Takes a step and falls (stripe)
  • Takes multiple steps and falls (stripe)
  • Walks a short distance (stripe)
  • Walking becomes the new crawling (belt promotion)

As the title mentions, this was a conversation I had with myself. To help better organize the cascading inner-battle that will follow this sentence, I will use Aaron (A) for the part of me that is trying to remain positive and Insecurity (I) for the part of my brain trying to convince me that I will suck at jiu-jitsu forever. Strap in, it’s going to get weird.

Aaron: Oh wow, that person got a stripe, good for them.

Insecurity: You’ve been doing jiu-jitsu longer than them, why don’t you have a stripe?

A: Well my foot was broken and I couldn’t do jiu-jitsu for a few months, that had to set me back.

I: You’re probably just not that good. Every person you roll with submits you. Maybe you should stop going. Find a new hobby.

A: That’s a little drastic, but maybe I could pay for some private lessons and find out what I’m doing wrong.

I: That’s not going to help. You should have been promoted already, right? Think about it.

A: This is a little short-sighted. Jiu-jitsu is going to be a long journey, it would be like running a marathon and getting pissed that you’re not the first person to reach the one-mile mark. Just need to be patient and keep working at it.

In actuality, this was a much longer conversation over a period of days, but I want to be polite to any readers so I selected snippets from the inner monolog with myself.

Be Patient, Notice The Small Improvements

I’ve played a lot of golf in my life. One of the hardest things for people playing golf is that the sport doesn’t offer too many instant verifications that you are getting better. Jiu-jitsu is a lot like golf in that you can be really terrible at it, but you do one thing well and all of a sudden it leaves you wanting more.

For me, when I first started, I got arm-barred constantly. I stuck my arms out really far and when someone grabbed an arm, I would turn away from them and try to yank it out (which is EXACTLY what you’re not supposed to do). While I don’t yet have my first stripe, I have started to realize when I’m getting in trouble and things I shouldn’t do to get out of said trouble. When you’re new to jiu-jitsu, you don’t always get immediate feedback (either from promotions or submitting partners) that you’re getting better, but trust me, you are.

This is a marathon, not a sprint, be patient.

Advice For Your First Time Rolling

One thing that’s overlooked in jiu-jitsu is just how rare an injury is. Yes, you will have aches and pains and yes, your body might need breaks. What I’m talking at specifically is just how rare you are a victim of someone else’s carelessness. I’ve been practicing jiu-jitsu for a little over four months now and last week was the first time somebody accidentally hit me in the nose.

Oddly enough, the scariest rolls I’ve had are with individuals who are trying jiu-jitsu for the first time. So, I’d like to offer some tips based on my first time rolling and things I wish I’d known.

Don’t Be Scared

My first time walking into Neutral Ground, I was incredibly nervous. I’m a pretty fat, out of shape guy with no grappling experience. My first thought is that everyone would be super annoyed by my presence. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Jon was incredibly nice and welcoming as was everyone I encountered that day. You might have butterflies in your stomach when you walk in, but you’re going to meet a lot of great people who are very willing to teach and help as you begin your journey.

You’re Going to Look and Feel Dumb

If you’ve never grappled or wrestled before, make friends with feeling out of place or silly. I’ve played basketball and football most of my life, I felt like that gave me a good sense of balance and center of gravity. Nope. Turns out that while I know what momentum is, I have no idea how to use mine, or make sure it isn’t used against me. If you have an older brother (at least 3 to 5 years older) picture being 6 and wrestling with him. It’s a lot like that.

Slow Down

Rolling is super fun. However, if it’s your first time taking a class, and you’re trying to recreate the top 5 UFC submissions it’s not going to go well. Most likely what will happen is you’ll hurt your partner. Take it slow, everyone is really bad for at least 8 months. Just learn and have fun.

What is Bruce Lee Talking About?

If you’ve read any of my prior pieces, it’s no secret I’m a big fan of analogies, similes, and parables. Before ever signing up for jiu-jitsu, I remember my friend had a Bruce Lee poster with his famous “Be water, my friend,” quote on it. It didn’t make a lot of sense and I loved making fun of him for it. Obviously there isn’t a whole lot to it. Just keep an open-mind and don’t take a myopic approach to martial arts. Such an obvious idea, why does everyone love it so much?

A few years later I started to roll. I felt like the only thing really separating more advanced students than me was that they obviously knew more than I did. If an opponent took their arm, they know how to get their arm back. If their opponent goes to choke them, they know how to get out of harm’s way. In my mind, all I needed was more experience and more knowledge and more YouTube tutorials and I could start closing the gap.

Oh, Bruce Lee Knows What He’s Talking About

When I got injured, all I could do was watch. Jiu-jitsu was by far the most fun I’ve ever had and to sit and watch for three months was brutal. However, the more I watched the advanced students, the more I realized how stupid I was. It wasn’t that the more advanced students knew more than me (I mean it was) but it’s also that they flowed better.

I know, a few paragraphs ago I said it was kind of a dumb concept, but I get it now. Go figure the guy who many consider the greatest martial artist of all time knew what he was talking about, eh?

When I roll, and an opponent grabs a hold of my arm, my initial thought is “f*ck you, I’m going to get my arm back,” it’s all I focus on. When someone is, as Bruce Lee said, “being water” they take notice when an opponent takes their arm, but it isn’t all they focus on. A more proper mindset for me to have when an opponent grabs my arm is “Ok, so they have my arm, what are they leaving open that I can exploit?”
You’re rarely going to always know what to do when you’re just starting out and often when an opponent grabs hold of your arm or puts you in a choke there won’t be much you can do. However, forcing your brain to stop focusing on the thing you just lost and instead focus on what your opponent is giving you is a great first step. If you’re interested in what a more experienced grappler has to say on this topic, Jon has some great posts about Effective defense and weathering the storm.

The Worst Parent In The World

The closest thing I have to grappling experience is playing offensive tackle in high school. You’re taught to extend your arms as quickly as possible. This helps keep defensive lineman off of you. So, whenever I roll, pretty much the first thing I do is extend my arms. Recently, I was rolling with a brown belt and he said something that stuck with me, “your elbows are your babies, you should always know where they are.”

I never know where my elbows are. You know why? Because there is so much other cool stuff to think about and pay attention to. The other day, someone used my gi to choke me. A piece of clothing I was wearing, was used to choke me. That’s like straight out of Steven Segal movie. Last week, we learned how to perform an Anaconda choke, which is essentially the coolest thing I’ve learned in 30 years of living on this planet. We’re constantly learning so many cool chokes and transitions, so who cares where my elbows are?  

Why You Should Care Where Your Elbows Are…

Armbars. I get arm-barred at least 7 times a session. Knowing where your elbows are will help keep you from getting arm-barred. Knowing where your elbows are, you’re also less likely you’ll just give your opponent your arm and let them do whatever they want with it.

If my elbows are my babies, when I started doing jiu-jitsu, I was essentially putting them into a stroller, and rolling said stroller out to the middle of the street and then deciding to check my phone. I was literally the worst parent in the world.

However, the great thing about jiu-jitsu is the more time you invest the quicker you recognize mistakes. Slowly but surely I’m realizing how much the little stuff matters. Pay attention to your elbows, treat them like they are your babies.

The Awkward Part About Chokes

Prior to breaking my foot I learned two different chokes. Even though you learn them slowly, and over the watchful eye of instructors you’re bound to have some awkward miscues. Mine happened when repeating the choke we had just learned.

I was partnered with a black belt which was really cool, because he could diagnose exactly what I was doing wrong and then dumb it down so my brain could understand. The first three times I did it, I wasn’t keeping the choke tight enough and he slipped out of my arms. I have a fear of hurting someone (weird that I chose a hobby that involves choking people, right?) so often times I’ll try and be as gentle as I can.

The fourth time I performed the choke perfectly. Well, as perfectly as a third-week white belt can, and he tapped. Then a weird thing happened. We were wrapped up so tight, that when I let go, the choke didn’t immediately alleviate. My partner needed a minute to catch his breath. I felt like an asshole and profusely apologized. He told me there was no need and he had me drill it again.

The same thing happened. Regardless of how limp I went with my arms, legs and chest, it still didn’t give him immediate relief when he tapped. What was I doing wrong? I in NO way wanted to hurt this guy, or have him think I was holding onto a choke for an extra second to really be malicious. So I asked.
My partner told me that sometimes it happened, as long as I was letting go, it was completely fine. “People who come here understand and don’t mind it, so don’t worry about it.” We then switched roles and he performed the choke on me. And while the same thing happened to me, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was.

Missing Jiu-Jitsu

I haven’t written about my jiu-jitsu experiences for awhile, because I haven’t had too many. On August 29th I fractured my foot while playing basketball. I talked to Jon, who encouraged me to keep coming, just to watch and chat with people. There were days where it was really great getting back to the gym to talk and see people I had gotten to know over the last two months. There were also days where it sucked and it was just a reminder of just how physically limited I was. At the start of November, I started getting bummed out, my foot wasn’t really healing. I stopped going to classes and wondered if jiu-jitsu was just an interest that quickly flamed out.

It wasn’t. A few weeks later I was in physical therapy and then cleared to roll. I’ve been bad at a lot of things in my life, but it’s difficult to describe the excitement I felt driving to my first noon class since my injury. It’s often an overused cliche, but I really did feel like a kid on Christmas. I couldn’t wait to get back and have strangers start trying to choke me or bend my arm at a weird angle.

Given that I had been out just over three months, I was a little nervous. While I was given the greenlight to return to jiu-jitsu, I am not yet 100 percent. But that’s what I love about training at Neutral Ground. Jon personally talked to everyone I rolled with and let them know I was coming back from injury and to take it slow. And they did.

Dealing with injuries really suck. While I had only been a member at Neutral Ground for two months, Jon and a handful of others regularly sent me messages of encouragement and checked in on me if they hadn’t seen me in awhile. It really is like a family.

I’m super excited to be back and continuing my jiu-jitsu journey.

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