This was two weeks ago. Class had just finished, and I had not performed as well as I would have liked. We all know these days, the days when you don’t understand what you’re working on, when you just can’t seem to do it, everything about your jiu-jitsu is messed up and so damn woebegone awful.
Then I started having an impulse. And it stayed in the forefront of my thoughts for a good many minutes, as everyone packed up to leave. ‘I should set my belt on fire in the parking lot.’ If I had had a lighter on me, or had other some way to guarantee the belt would be engulfed in flames before some academy member tried to stop me, I would have done it.
My blue belt. Up in flames. My tattered, stripeless, faded and weathered blue belt. Up in flames. I wanted to feel the heat in my hands, until I could no longer bear it. Then I would have dropped it safely in the middle of the parking lot, and let it lie, lie, sizzle away, and die.1
Honing our skills in jiu-jitsu is something we do over the course of weeks, months, and years. A day of either ‘tangible heroics’ on the mats or ‘lamentable performance and defeat’ is less important than the long-term trends associated with your learning. Everyone has good days. Everyone has bad days. (And why does it seem as though everyone else is having a good day on your bad one?) But, all other things being equal, it is more often than not about taking a step in the right direction. Then another. And another. After a set number of these iterations, of these small steps, you are, in an objective sense, better than you were before.2
In the end I did not set my belt on fire, if only because I could not find a lighter at the time. But the impulse did eventually pass, and is now gone. God knows what kind of reaction I would have been met with, had I gone through with it. The burgeoning ass-chewings would have been justified, after all. I should no more burn my belt after a bad day than promote myself to black belt after almost beating one once.3 While lying in the shadow of failure, however, it is sometimes difficult to remember that the investments we make on the mats – investments we make as both (a) individuals in ourselves and (b) members of a larger team in our teammates4 – are the kind which pay off in the long-term. Even after five years, it is still sometimes easy to forget.5
1. Just to be clear, I am not stating, either explicitly or implicitly, that I wanted to set some place on fire. Do not do illegal things.
2. All other things being equal.
3. A fictional supposition, as I’ve never beaten a black belt. But the point stands: anyone who thinks a single victory over someone is a patent indication of increased skill is patently delusional.
4. While it is plain to see that we invest in our own jiu-jitsu, the fact that we invest in the jiu-jitsu of our teammates is a more elusive one. Being part of the right team matters as much as any other variable – physical fitness, natural aptitude, flexibility – related to your jiu-jitsu.
5. I subtract the time injured, traveling, or otherwise not training from my total training time. So while I started training January 2006, about six months of the time between then and now was spent off the mats.