Over the years, one of the hardest things for me to learn to say in jiu-jitsu hasn’t been “ashi garami” or “omoplata,” but “I don’t know.” Or “Can I see that again?” Or “Can you please help me?”
I’m a chronic perfectionist who often doesn’t have the knowledge or experience required to achieve perfection. I set high goals for myself, and when I don’t meet them, I practice self-care by going home and bathing in self-loathing. In jiu-jitsu, where perfection is never accomplished and “kinda good” still takes years to achieve, my mindset has hindered me more than it’s helped. I’ve been scared to raise my hand to answer technique questions I knew the answer to, just in case I was wrong. I’ve avoided practicing what I suck at because, in my mind, it was better to just not do something than to do it and be bad at it. As I moved further and further away from the rank of white belt — where you’re supposed to suck — the expectations that came with being a colored belt crushed me.
If my own expectations for myself weren’t heavy enough, I had also been told by former coaches and teammates that I “should” know techniques or details that I just… didn’t know. When I was paired up with lower belts for drilling techniques, I felt like I was expected to understand the technique right off the bat and be able to demonstrate it to my less experienced partner. The fact that I was also a student and the fact that the technique should have been a challenge to me so that I could also progress wasn’t relevant.
As I’ve progressed in BJJ, I’ve met a surprising number of practitioners who tell me that, due to their own perfectionism or their coach’s, they have also felt the same kind of pressure — that they, as blue or purple or brown belts, feel ashamed when they don’t know something that they “should” know, or they’re not good at something they “should” be good at. They feel stupid when they’re the only ones asking the instructor to repeat a demonstration one more time. They feel unworthy of their rank when their lower belt drilling partner picks up on a technique quicker than they do. They ask questions in class and receive replies like, “How do you not already know this as a blue belt?” as though they’re the ones who decided when to get promoted or which techniques have been taught on the days they were able to come to class.
This isn’t to say that that such surprise is never warranted. I’ve met brown belts who don’t know how to do straight ankle locks and blue belts who didn’t know escapes that I learned in my first few months of jiu-jitsu. But when your instructor voices this shock, and worse, acts like it’s your fault, that’s a problem. Everyone learns and teaches at a different pace. Some people are athletically gifted, some people are walking technique encyclopedias, and some people have the time and money to attend three classes a day, six days a week. For many of us, however, this isn’t the case.
A good jiu-jitsu coach will make you feel comfortable being a student in their class. Sure, they will push you to reach your full potential, and if they feel like you’re quitting on yourself, they’ll call you out on it. But when you’re trying to reach that potential by asking for help, experimenting with what you’re not good at, and making all the errors that you need to finally get it right, they should support you in that journey.
This was a quality in a coach I didn’t realize was so valuable until I had coaches who made me feel comfortable coming to class and simply learning. I was treated as someone who was supposed to be there to see a technique they weren’t good at, and then practice enough to get good at it. I was treated as a drilling partner for lower belts rather than a personal coach for them, and if I did know the technique well enough to help my partner with it, that was just a cool bonus. I was encouraged to ask questions, and even when I didn’t know techniques that I probably “should have” known at that stage in my BJJ journey, I was never made to feel stupid for not knowing them.
The results have unlocked areas of my mind and jiu-jitsu game that I’d thought were closed off forever. My anxiety in class has greatly decreased, my enjoyment of jiu-jitsu has skyrocketed, and I have learned more in a relatively short amount of time than I ever thought possible. I’m no longer mentally confining myself to the techniques that I think I’ll be good at, instead branching out and deliberately stepping (or rolling) out of my comfort zone. I trust my coaches more, which has led to me being more relaxed and focused at competitions.
My coaches have set high expectations for me, but in order for me to meet them, they’ve understood that the question isn’t, “Why aren’t you where I expect you to be?”, but “What do you need to do to get there, and how can I help?” Their efforts to make me — and everyone else — comfortable with ‘not knowing’ have inched me closer to the eternally unattainable goal of “perfection” than my own perfectionism ever could. And everyone, regardless of where they are on their jiu-jitsu path, should search for the same in their own coach.
Featured Photo by Trinity SP Photography