A Grumpy Old Grappler’s Life on the mats. “It’s not about the belt”

John A Murray, courts controversy with his grumpy old man’s point of view.

“Forget about the belt and enjoy the journey”.

“The belt only covers two inches of your ass; you have to cover the rest.”  

Do these gems sound familiar? If not, hang around the BJJ crowd for long enough and they definitely will. If you take a contrary stance and obsess about the piece of coloured cotton tied around your waist, then according to some you’re guilty of jiu-jitsu heresy; nonetheless, a healthy chunk of practitioners don’t actually  believe the party line, and I’m here to tell you that’s OK.

When I was a schoolboy, I was a fairly proficient golfer and even considered making the sport my career. Along with my contemporaries, I battled to lower scores and reduce my handicap. Later in life, as a university student, I burned the midnight oil in the hope of eking out one or two extra marks – exam results mattered.  I know the 0-60 time of my motorcycle and the grade of rock-climb I can haul myself up. As a species, we measure to evaluate, categorise and compare. We want to know where we stand, against others and the system, but as Scotland’s Robert Burns realised, we find it difficult “to see ourselves as others see us” and prefer that a trusted, external source does the totting up.

A black-belt friend once told me, “The belt doesn’t mean a thing. In any jiu-jitsu gym, everyone knows who can kick whose ass”. He’s right, but that’s not the whole story. A 59 year old brown belt, no matter how fit, is slowing down a bit and isn’t going to pretzel a competitive 23 year old of the same grade, yet both are real brown belts in their own way. Given the uniqueness of the BJJ ranking system, which can also take account of non performance-related matters such as age, circumstances, role in the academy etc, it can be hard for an individual to know how they  measure up. That’s one of the reasons I compete. The chance to pit oneself in combat, against another with similar attributes, is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating and leaves nowhere to hide from the truth.

For sure there are some among us, who truly are indifferent to attempts to define them, but I’ve seen sufficient tears of joy accompany receipt of a new belt, and delight on the acquisition of a small strip of athletic tape to know that grade matters to many.  Join one of the “Old Boy BJJ” groups on social media, and you’ll quickly realise that the main topics of interest are treatment of minor injuries and peacocking of belts and stripes; you’ll see a photograph of a white belt bearing a solitary stripe and accompanying dialogue such as, “36 years old, training for six months and last night this happened!” Whether or not we as individuals, think being 36 and/or having trained long enough to have a first stripe is newsworthy, a bunch of people clearly do. As an older grappler, to me the colour of my belt and to a lesser extent the number of notches on it, is important. It’s an external reference, confirmation that I’m on the correct track, or maybe an early indication that I’ve lost a bit of ground, so it’s strange that discussing the belt out of turn is, in some circles, like having a dirty little secret.

A BJJ grading is a grand occasion, the chance to enjoy teammates’ successes, and maybe your own. Even there, the paradox of “Don’t mention the belt (unless you just got one) ” can rear its head. There is after all the mantra that, “It’s your journey not anyone else’s”, and while there is truth in that. It’s hard not to make comparisons, to recall submissions and guard passes, from both sides of the equation and to try to make evaluations that maybe we can’t or shouldn’t.

I love jiu-jitsu, I’ve sacrificed a lot for the unremarkable progress I’ve made, and I’m loyal to my team, but the idea that something can’t be appropriately questioned is anathema to me. As an undergraduate student, I struggled with the complexity of several subjects, when degree exams loomed and failure was a possibility. It seemed logical to ask course tutors where I stood and what I needed to do to improve my position, at no point did they say, “Your marks don’t matter, enjoy the journey.

I’m a 61 year old man who has raised a family, been there and done that, and although I’m not “counting down”, time is precious. As with much in my life, I have a plan and a schedule that includes targets. I know things go wrong, and we all fall short now and then, but we don’t need to cloak any of that in mystery. It’s no secret that we each have our own agenda, and although part of a team, we’re individuals who should also celebrate our uniqueness and successes.

So if you wonder what progress you’re making, or why you’re not, you should feel free to ask, maybe just don’t mention the “B word” and when you get that 2nd stripe on your white belt at 37, please copy me in on Facebook and I’ll send you a like!

John A Murray is The Grumpy Old Grappler, his healthy life balance involves splitting his time equally between doing jiu-jitsu and complaining about everything else.