The Measure of a Stripe 4

Last month, I was granted a much-needed scholarship from Girls in Gis, which will help me compete this year. This award has come at a time when I have found myself struggling with the so-called blue belt curse.

I got my blue belt in December 2015 and it was a great feeling. Even now, when I catch a glance of myself in a class full of white belts, or better yet, when I get to stand at the front of the line when we bow in or out, I still appreciate all the hard work it’s taken to get me this far.

That said, as a purple belt (kindly) told me recently, being a blue belt is still like being a white belt, part 2.  The folks that kicked your butt yesterday can maybe still kick it today. There’s nothing magical about a blue belt, except that you have the pride that you didn’t quit at white belt. Growth can seem slow and sometimes even backwards. This was certainly true for me. While I earned all four stripes and then my blue belt in a total of 17 months, it’s taken another eleven months to get my first (and at this stage, only) stripe on my Faixa Azul.

In any case, since last fall, I have been feeling like I was not making much progress, and I have been looking for some (any) affirmation that my Jiu Jitsu is “ok”. The situation didn’t improve this January, when I was injured and had to sit out most of the month. While I stayed away from the club, I could only imagine how my teammates were busy learning moves and (presumably) passing me by.

That’s why my heart sank a few weeks ago – on a night when I was taking a much-needed break from practice – when I learned that several of my classmates had gotten some more stripes. On the one hand, I was very happy for my teammates, who work very hard. Who knows, maybe I’d be getting my own stripe soon, too. On the other hand, I began to get mad at myself for caring so much about stripes in the first place. Why is this 2-cent piece of athletic tape so important, anyways?  Why is my self-worth as a person so tied up in my progress as a Jiu Jitsu athlete?

The truth is that doing Jiu Jitsu can legitimately increase your feelings of self-worth and your self-esteem. And as my Jiu Jitsu professor is so fond of reminding us, “don’t compare yourselves to others. Only ask, ‘can the YOU of today beat the YOU of last year?’ You should only compare YOU against an earlier version of yourself.”

However, that doesn’t seem enough. Not when we do a sport in which we test out each new concept by live drilling with our classmates. If we are not supposed to be comparing ourselves with others – even assuming that they are the same size, gender, and belt – why all the emphasis placed on live performance, especially in competition?

In thinking about what a promotion stripe represented to my ego, I took a moment and questioned what constituted my personal image of perfection at this stage in my Jiu Jitsu journey. It took a few minutes for me to begin to identify the vague unspoken criteria by which I was judging myself – the criteria that I would have to meet in order for my ‘inner judge’ to finally say, “Congratulations, you have made it.”

Would it be enough to eventually be awarded my second stripe on my blue belt? Would that solve my problems?  Would I need to get another medal in a tournament in order to feel that I had ‘made it’?

But wait, there was more. Black Belt Nick Gregoriades had once said that he not only wanted to do good Jiu Jitsu, but that he wanted to look good doing it, and that certainly appealed to me. I also wanted to keep up with the others at the club, and meet my goals for flexibility and hydration, and make every open mat…and…and…

I mean, it’s great to get stripes and medals. But you have to be honest with yourself. If you didn’t get them, would your world turn upside down? Are you striving for these in order to compensate for some other aspect of your life? Even if you meet all the self-imposed requirements on your wish list, if you still have that empty feeling inside, it doesn’t matter how many medals or accolades or stripes you are awarded. It’s never enough. Too soon, you will be looking for, and pushing yourself to achieve another affirmation in order to make yourself feel worthy.

But try it. Write down all the expectations you have for yourself in Jiu Jitsu. By the time you are finished writing, you will hopefully conclude that this inventory (even if you manage to achieve every item) has no reflection on yourself as a worthy human being. Being aware of this may result in you feeling better about yourself – apart from your ability or lack thereof in Jiu Jitsu – in which the arbitrary, critical voice in your head is no longer your judge but just a faint distant voice in the audience you can choose to ignore.


Natalie Whitson

Girls in Gis guest writer

Natalie Whitson is a blue belt with Northwest Martial Arts out of Eugene, Oregon.  A proud member of Team Megaton, under Professor Ryan Kelly and Professor Harold Utterback, Natalie has studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu since April of 2014.  When she is not busy supporting her club, Natalie raises money as a development officer for Northwest Youth Corps, and enjoys reading and being with her family and cats.

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4 thoughts on “The Measure of a Stripe

  • lori

    Natalie, your stroy resonated well with me. I am a 3 strip blue belt, and was out 1 yr with ACL reconstruction from BJJ – and yet i could not wait to return. I looked forward to the first day I could return to the mat. Now 6 months later i think my game is better – no idea why but i am seeing things i think i missed before. I am over 50 and my opponents and team mates are always alot younger, but i dont care. Sometimes I use age as a convenient excuse for not winning. At the end of the day I say to myself who fuckin cares that’s how i roll.
    I am a stronger person off the mat, and found I am more analytical /strategic cause BJJ helped develop that in me.

    I had the Blue belt blues, but now I only look forward to 6 pm class everyday as my sanctuary and gift to me.

    • Natalie

      glad to hear your story and that you are back on the mats again. I don’t want to use age as an excuse but sometimes it is a determining factor of who gets their hand raised. But we can both “win”, because it’s Jiu Jitsu! Take care!

  • Sally

    Great article, Natalie! I absolutely agree with your coach about comparing only to your former self. However, I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact after a disappointing roll on the mats!

  • Lester Almanza

    Nice piece of article, in my opinion people who train bjj should stop caring about the stripes and more about your own self awarness of your game. I am one who doesn’t care how many stripes I have earned on my belt I don’t train and compete for stripes I train and compete because I love the art and the feeling of knowing I can keep improving. Remember that there was no belt system initially in bjj until it got out of Brazil and became more popular, people should know that if you visualize yourself by a belt or a stripe you are going the wrong way. I spent two years with as white belt two stripes never got my four stripes because of the timing and other factors but I never felt less of my mates getting there four stripes and even blue belt before me, I was a two stripes white belt fighting I’m several countries and still dominating blue belts and winning against other four stripes white belts. So in short don’t think about it train for the love of the art not for a stripes. Oss