Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as is the case with many martial arts, has a very high rate of attrition. Many practitioners quit long before reaching the coveted level of black belt. This may be for a number of reasons; ranging from family or health issues to a simple lack of motivation. Many beginners end up believing that they are simply “not cut out” for BJJ.
Even though it is often said that BJJ is for everyone, it is often sadly the beginners that have the highest dropout rate due to a wide range of factors. According to most however, the highest dropout rate beyond the ‘total beginner’ level is at Blue Belt; the first colored belt and level to be achieved after the beginner’s white belt.
What happens at Blue Belt that leads to so many practitioners quitting or fading away? Many seasoned practitioners will be able to recall a vast number of students who are elevated to the level of Blue Belt, only to fade away and eventually disappear from the gym altogether. Why do people quit at Blue Belt? Why is it such a common narrative within the BJJ community?
The Blue Belt
For any practitioner, achieving the rank of Blue Belt is a big achievement; it is the first significant benchmark in the art; representing an important transition between complete beginner and journeyman Jiu-jiteiro.
The promotion to a Blue Belt can take anything from one to five years of training. Promotion is also largely depending on a number of factors; including skill & ability, a coach’s expectations and regularity of training. But why does this group of practitioners sees the highest rate of attrition amongst the colored belts?
Attrition can occur for a number of reasons:
The “Blue Belt Blues”
One common reason for people to drop out at Blue Belt is a lack of perceived progress. For many students, this may be where they experience their first dreaded ‘plateaus’ or big obstacles in their learning.
By the stage of Blue Belt, many students are not making the huge leaps in learning that they may have experienced as a White Belt. Where a person might have seen an armbar setup for the first time that blew their mind; they now battle to perfect much smaller details and more challenging transitions. This can be a big blow to a person’s motivation and may even turn them off to training right away, others might persist for a while in spite of the frustration but the sheer lack of perceived progress can often derail even dedicated practitioners. This is sometimes referred to as “The Blue Belt Blues”.
It takes focus and dedication at any belt level to persist in the face of adversity and the difficulties of grasping complex techniques and concepts. No one gets to black belt without endless hours of repetition on even the most fundamental of BJJ techniques. It’s important to accept that the challenges are just as much part of the journey as the successes are.
Competition: The Small fish in a bigger pond.
One of the more misguided reasons for people quitting at Blue Belt is competition related. Some students may be competing regularly even as White Belts, possibly finding success in the beginners’ divisions in local or even regional competitions. Likely relying on athleticism or natural talent, these competitors may even find success against higher belts in the gym and more experienced grapplers in competition.
These active competitors may find themselves being quickly promoted to Blue Belt on the merit of their competitive results or athleticism & natural talent. As they continue to compete, now in a higher skill division, they come across more seasoned competitors with technical game plans and skills that are superior to theirs. They’re now the small fish in a far bigger pond.
This can be discouraging and the student may stop engaging as regularly in competition, feeling demoralized about their perceived level of skill. In the training room, they may begin to battle with motivation and struggle to maintain consistent training patterns & habits. Natural talent can only take a person so far in BJJ, technique will always be superior and it is important to invest heavily in this for competition.
It’s important to remember that there is always a bigger fish: someone who has been training longer and harder out there. That should not be discouraging, it should be motivation to work harder to achieve those competitive goals you might have.
Relationships: “I’ll do anything for love.”
Many a practitioner has been lost to a new relationship. Unable to balance time on the mats with a budding new relationship, some people will naturally begin to favor one over the other.
All of us have a variety of demands on our time and it can be a challenge to balance them all. For some, training is not as high a priority as maintaining a relationship. Many of us feel the pressure of having to please others; often sacrificing from our own pursuits and hobbies, including our training time, to accommodate for others.
A similar narrative in the same vein is that of the out of shape beginner; who after a few years of training gets into great shape. Their self confidence grows and, by the time they reach Blue Belt, may find themselves in a new relationship.
Once again, this divides a person’s time and creates a conflict: “Do I love BJJ more than I love this person?”. That is a very challenging question, and is sadly one that many a practitioner (Blue Belt or otherwise) has not been able to reconcile.
Giving up something you love for someone else is rarely going to end well. When u sacrifice the from your passion, you are more likely to end up with regrets or feelings of dissatisfaction. Never forget what you receive from your BJJ pursuits and the kind of person it has made you. By giving up on it, you’re giving up on the very thing that helped to make the person you are.
Injury: The Terminator & “I’ll be back.”
Unfortunately, injuries are often unavoidable in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. The severity of an injury can sometimes be completely out of our control and, as a result, the amount of time recovering from an injury can vary from short to extended.
By the time most practitioners are reaching Blue Belt, they have put their body under a significant amount of strain from training. Some may have already had experience with injuries, however many may not have yet.
This larger second group is of the most risk of becoming ‘The Terminator’; whom after experiencing an injury keep promising that “I’ll be back”, but are never to be seen again (except for on your facebook news feed sliding back into their old habits and lifestyle).
Some Terminators do indeed come back, but may become demoralized by how much their fitness has deteriorated and how many techniques they’ve forgotten in their time off. They may persist for a time before giving up; saying it’s too hard or that their body isn’t the same since they were injured. Some may even come back and stay back. Sadly, just as many will re-injure themselves as they doggedly try to make up for lost time, neglecting proper recovery methods or easing back into training.
The importance of recovery and a conscientious return to training can’t be understated. If you’re serious about your training and plan on making it a lifelong pursuit, you need to take the correct steps to return after an injury.
The Self Esteem Issue: “I don’t deserve this belt.”
This is one of the most disappointing reasons for people quitting at Blue Belt. Some students sincerely feel that they are not ‘deserving’ of their promotion.
Some of the most dedicated & knowledgeable students are also the most critical of their own abilities. When promoted, these students feel the huge weight & expectations of a new belt level and feel that they are not up to the standard of their new Blue Belt peer group
in the gym.
This self criticism is often unfounded; as the student’s coach has likely promoted them for any number of the positive qualities they see in that student. Those that find themselves to be their own harshest critics end up moving away from regular training because they feel that they cannot represent their belt level the way that they would like to. Many of these students are so hard on themselves that they fail to see that many of their peers have been working for just as long, or even longer than they have to reach the level of skill they are currently at.
Don’t compare yourself to others, even those who share your belt level. Jiu-jitsu is hard enough without telling yourself that you aren’t good enough.
For many, the journey to black belt is a long road. That road is walked by many, but completed by few. It requires- no, demands– a physical dedication, mental fortitude and emotional strength that many believe they are not capable of fostering. We’re here to tell you that you are. You have all the tools at your disposal to overcome the challenges you face. Whether you’re the beginner battling with the physical demands of training, or you’re the Blue Belt teetering on the edge of quitting for any reason; you must persist. Persist because the feeling of achievement, however small, is far greater than the feeling of regret that you will have your entire life if you quit.
Jahred Dell is a committed blue belt from New Zealand and the author of Articulate BJJ
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