White Belt Forever

Presently, I’m a blue belt suffering from my own ego. Does that sound familiar?

During this hour of randori it’s my turn to pick a training partner. My ego isn’t interested in any silly ideas like a challenge or getting better. So, of course I don’t pick a higher belt. I pick a three-stripe white belt I’ve never rolled with before. And just prior to slapping hands, he tells me he’s been training for about five months and has no grappling background whatsoever.

Well lucky me, my ego gushed inside. This guy is fresh meat.

Emblazoned by pride, I charged into the match.

This chump is like a little lost puppy struggling to find his way in a pack of wolves. I’m the alpha here. I eat first. He doesn’t even have a real name. Poor helpless little mat drummer is going to suffocate in the quicksand of my superior technique.

Within seconds, however, it became apparent this bottom feeder (a.k.a. white belt) wasn’t as bad at jujitsu as he was supposed to be. He was completely throwing me off my game and I couldn’t figure out how to deal with him. Internally, my ego started going bananas.

What are these spazzy patterns? No one who actually knows what they’re doing moves like this!  Where does he get off even thinking about trying to fight back against me? I’m a superior blue belt! That’s it! I’ve had it! No more mister nice guy. I’m going to beat his ass like his daddy!

Not a single bone in my body dared yield an ounce of respect to this little dirty ass struggle sack. This was no time to remain calm. I launched into kill mode like a vengeful seizure.

He can lock up whatever he wants. I don’t care. I’ll hulk smash out of anything he can dish out!

…and then I tapped.

Ego offended.

This may come as a surprise but despite my bubbling volcanic exterior, beneath the surface I was in fact furious.

My immediate inclination was to go another round.

I want another shot at this peasant. I’m gonna fuck him up!

A murderous rage coursed through my veins and even though I hated him like he killed my first born (I have no children) the truth is I was afraid to roll with him again…

What if he beats me… again? That would mean I suck at jujitsu even more than I thought…

***

I could write this same story one hundred different times. At least. It’s a constant struggle for me just like is for many of us—the pretense of knowledge. Our egos would have us believe we know everything about everything already.  But therein lies the beauty of combat sports. They force feed humility. The mats don’t lie. If I underestimate my opponent—assuming I have nothing to learn—I’ve already lost the fight.

Every day I step on the mats, I genuinely try to do so with an open mind. I try to be humble, I try to be honest, and I try to be open to any lessons my training partners and coaches might teach me. “Any day on the mats is a good day,” I often tell myself in an attempt to cultivate gratitude. But the ego is like a tiny gremlin that never sleeps. Just when you think you’ve got it all under control, it creeps up on you like a motherfucker.

Our egos especially don’t like it when the lessons come from the unexpected—or unwanted—sources. I get my ass kicked by higher belts all the time. Sometimes I get tapped every twenty seconds for eight minutes straight. Its terrible. But it doesn’t bother me when they beat me up because I expect them to be me up. It’s easy to take a beating from a black belt. Because they’re a black belt.  When I picked a white belt to roll with, however, I expected to beat him up.  He was the lower belt. He is supposed to take the beating!

“Sometimes you’re the hammer and sometimes you’re the nail,” it’s a saying that gets thrown around a lot. And then it goes, “but most days you’re the nail. And you get better on days you’re the nail.” Our ego, however, hates to be the nail and avoids it at all costs. We’ve all made or heard the same excuses:

“Meh, I wasn’t going that hard. Only like 50%. I let ‘em have it. I’m just taking it easy today. Working on some new moves. It was more of a neck crank than a choke. My neck is kinda tweaked so I tapped early.” Whatever the story we want to tell ourselves—we absolutely hate to admit how much we want to win! As Vince Lombardi once said, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Ego is a universal problem as old as time from the top to the bottom. Nearly two-thousand years ago, Epictetus said,

“It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”

You can’t get better if you already think you’re the best. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You have to guard against your ego at all times. It only takes a fraction of a second for your pride to get the best of you.

Consider Georges St. Pierre, frequently cited as one of the greatest and most accomplished fighters in MMA history. In April of 2007, St. Pierre was set to defend for the first time his newly acquired welterweight title against Matt Serra as the main event of UFC 69. Prior to the fight, St. Pierre was hyped by many as the greatest martial artist to have ever lived. Going into the fight he was the 10-1 favorite.

Just before the three-minute mark of the first round, Serra throws a heavy right hand. Pierre tries to duck under—but Matt is shorter than most welterweights—and the punch slips around to the back of his head. It rattles him and throws him off balance. His legs stop working. He slips. In very un-GSP-like fashion, he starts flailing strikes while Matt Serra is landing bombs on his face at will. One of them knocks him off his feet and Serra takes the mount. He starts raining unanswered punches and then the referee stops the fight. Matt Serra shocked the entire world defeating Georges St. Pierre with a first round TKO, becoming the UFC Welterweight World Champion.

After the fight, St. Pierre talked about his personal problems leading up to his loss. His father was seriously ill, his teenage cousin he was close with died in a car accident and he had also gone into the fight with a knee injury…

Years later, however, St. Pierre wrote about his experience, “I should have focused on regaining my composure. But instead, I followed my emotional impulse and went for it.” No one thought Matt Serra stood a chance. Everyone expected Georges to win. Including himself. “I thought I was invincible,” St. Pierre writes. “I thought I was easily going to kick his butt.” By his own admission, Georges had started to believe what everyone was saying about him—that he was the best ever. He didn’t even think Matt Serra deserved to be in the octagon with him.

When St, Pierre got rocked by that surprise shot in the ring, he should have stayed calm and got a handle on the situation. Instead he couldn’t believe what was happening to him because he didn’t respect his opponent. He believed he was superior and Matt Serra wasn’t even worthy. He took his pride into the cage and although he didn’t know it at the time, he lost the championship belt before the fight ever started.  

***

Humility is the first rule of martial arts. You either learn humility or you quit. It’s difficult for many people. In my short time already I’ve lost count of the white belts that start live sparring and then leave because they can’t handle losing. Ego and pride dull our mind’s ability to learn and grow.

It’s tempting to let your ego creep up on you as you get better. It’s easy to think you’ve got it all figured out. But any black belt I’ve ever met will tell you, despite their rank, they still have everything to learn. Because the reality is the more we know, the more we can see how little we actually understand. John Wheeler—a physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb—said it well, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” The more I learn, the more I practice and progress—the more I can see the gap in my knowledge widening.

Knowledge comes from everywhere. That’s what a white belt mentality is all about. You can’t do anything right because you know nothing. You have everything to learn. The white belt mentality seeks continual growth—constantly filtering and soaking up everything like a sponge—expanding their knowledge. As a martial artist—this is particularly important. In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday observes,

If a fighter is not capable of learning and practicing every day, if he is not relentlessly looking for areas of improvement, examining his own shortcomings, and finding new techniques to borrow from peers and opponents, he will be broken down and destroyed.

“Broken down and destroyed” is a feeling I know all too well. I’ve hidden in the bathroom stalls pretending to take a dump, too embarrassed to let anyone see me cry. Other times I’ve suffered through hard sessions only to break down sobbing in the shower. It doesn’t feel good when our ego rears it’s ugly head. But despite all the pain and frustration, these are the times to be the most thankful for. They yield the greatest opportunity for growth.

It’s ironic I was upset about getting beaten by a white belt, when a white belt mentality is what we should all be striving for.

It’s not easy to accept defeat and be honest with yourself. It’s hard to admit when we recognize our ego getting in the way. But it’s the only way to grow. Because honesty is what leads to improvement. It helps to surround yourself with good people who will tell you the truth when you screw up. But keep in mind, however, if you don’t have enough self-respect to be honest with yourself, you’ll have trouble finding people who respect you enough to be honest with you.

The truth is, we all need people to help make us better. Without your opponents, there is no you. There is no way for you to improve. We should treat all our training partners with gratitude and respect. They are a gift. Because to disrespect your opponent, is to disrespect yourself. You’re rejecting an opportunity to get better, to be the best you can be.

After a loss, it’s okay to be upset or feel angry at first. But eventually you have to accept defeat so you can learn from the experience. Remember these are important days to have. They may be painful, but we should cherish them. The mind must be open to improvements at all times, from all sources.

The white belt mentality is never stagnant. It isn’t something that ends when you get promoted to the next belt or any belt thereafter. It is a discipline that requires constant attention, always evolving.  Pride and ego are internal forces constantly working against you.  In his book, On The Warrior’s Path, Daniele Boelli compares the discipline a martial artist must have to sweeping the floor:

“It is not something we can do once, achieve a result, and forget about. Every day dust comes back and soon will cover the floor again. Only regular practice can keep the dust away.”

Discipline will give you the fuel to be who you really want to be.

Either you’re learning every day or you are dying.

White belt forever.

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