Dear White Belt: Please Come Back When The Gyms Open Up Again

The coronavirus shutdowns have brought the world, and thus the jiu-jitsu industry, to a screeching halt over the past few months. Since then, a lot has changed for a lot of BJJ practitioners. Many have been itching to return to training, spending every day practicing solo drills and obsessively watching footage. Some have enjoyed the time off, but are looking forward to getting back on the mats. And some of us — perhaps more than we think — will not be returning at all.

Those of us who have made jiu-jitsu a years-long habit (or, you know, obsession) are less likely to consider quitting entirely, even if we’ve decided to dedicate less time to training and more time to our families and other hobbies following the COVID-19 outbreak. But if you’re relatively new to the sport and inexperienced, it’s no great shock if you’ve been thinking about hanging up your gi for good.

Jiu-jitsu is tough. There’s a reason it’s hard for gym owners to keep up retention rates. The “gentle art” leaves you physically and emotionally beat up after virtually every class, and it’s objectively easier to just hit the “normal” gym for an hour every day… and, even easier, to just sit on the couch and continue to bingewatch TV instead of working out at all. If you’ve only spent a few months getting your feet wet, you’ve been on the receiving end of far more beatings than you’ve dished out. You may have spent multiple nights a week coming home and being hard on yourself, feeling like you haven’t made progress at all or that this is something you’ll just never be good at.

After a few months of waking up pain-free and not replaying failed submission attempts in your head until you fall asleep, no one would blame you if you decided you liked your quarantine routine a bit more than your everyday BJJ routine. No one, that is, except yourself.

I’ve been training jiu-jitsu for a couple years shy of a decade now, and while I’m nowhere near as experienced as a great number of other BJJ practitioners out there, I’ve still thought about quitting more times than I care to admit. The possibility becomes even louder in my head when I have to take time off, whether it’s for injuries, work, or the occasional global pandemic. Sure, I love jiu-jitsu, but I also love free time and not waking up sore every day.

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While it’s easy to focus on the negatives of training, though, the positives are worth just as much consideration. Jiu-jitsu is a far more social activity than most other workouts (and really, isn’t a bit more social interaction what we all need after this?), and very few forms of exercise will teach you a new, practical skill while you build muscle and burn calories. Plus, even if you’ve only been training for a year or less, it would be silly to not at least make it to blue belt (and then purple… and then brown… and then black belt), right?

Even if you leave all that aside, though, your teammates will, in fact, miss you if you don’t come back. Yes, even though you’re “just” a white belt. Yes, even if you feel like most of them don’t even know your name. Everyone can provide valuable learning opportunities for everyone else in the gym, and even if you’ve only been training a week and don’t know a kimura from an Americana, your absence will be felt — if not immediately, certainly down the road when you would’ve been a blue belt who could serve up a decent challenge to some of the upper belts. Especially if you’re training at a small local gym, the presence of each and every student matters. If you’re hesitant to go back for yourself, think about the hole you’d leave in the academy for your teammates.

The good thing about jiu-jitsu is that even if you decide to quit, the door is always open for you to come back. But the longer you stay away, the more difficult it is to get back into it. Don’t let your experience (or lack thereof) convince you that staying away from the gym permanently wouldn’t have an impact on you or your teammates. Just show up for a few comeback classes, and you’ll remember why you fell in love with it in the first place.

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