Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What it Means to be a Black Belt

Old School
I am honored to have received my black belt from Master Carlos Enrique "Caique" Elias.  When people use the term "old school" in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, they might as well include a picture of Caique.  Caique was not born with the last name "Gracie" and he didn't start BJJ until his teen years.  A childhood friend of Relson Gracie, Caique tells the story of how he and Relson were surfing buddies and after a few "scuffles" on the beaches of Brazil, Caique decided he wanted to learn whatever it was that Relson was doing.  Caique was known for being one of the toughest students under Helio Gracie.  Caique would go on to train under legendary Rickson Gracie and receive his black belt from Rickson and Helio Gracie.

When we go to tournaments with Caique I'm in awe of how many of the "big names"of BJJ come over and always give him respect and listen intently as he speaks or gives his views on anything related to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  In one of his first interviews when not many people outside of Brazil had heard of Saulo Ribeiro, Saulo was quoted as saying that he "molded his Jiu Jitsu after Caique."  To me, that speaks volumes of Caique and what it means to be a black belt... Having people really interested to hear what you have to teach, and take your advice and teaching to heart and make it a part of their lives.  As if he needed more validation, Caique recently received his red/black master belt from Rickson Gracie himself.  That my friends, is "old school."

It's Not Old, It's Not New... It's Just Jiu Jitsu
A few years ago Caique made some shirts with this saying on it.  This was around the time that all these new videos and instructionals came out claiming to be the newest. latest and greatest in Jiu Jitsu.  Caique and some of the older teachers took offense to this and Caique made shirts with the saying on them as a way to subtly stand up against what he felt was disrespect to the black belts of his generation.

Even though Caique is from the old way of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, his techniques, thinking, and teaching have not stayed in the past.  He is constantly adding to and changing the way he teaches even the most basic moves of his curriculum.  Above this, he always has an answer for whatever question we have about a new move that seems to hit the tournament scene.  Caique doesn't hide behind "basic" techniques and he has developed a strong team of competitors.

Being a Martial Artist
My respect and admiration for Caique deepened about a year ago when Caique was conducting a seminar at our school, Warrior Way.  Caique started the seminar in a different manner than usual, and gave a small speech.  Caique talked about how it's great to compete and that may or may not be for everyone.  However, Caique went on to explain that it doesn't matter what we learn or can do in the gym if we go out in the world and are unable to defend ourselves (god forbid) or loved ones on the street.  His tone became more serious as he looked at the line up of students and said that no matter what else, we are 'martial artists' and being a martial artist has it's responsibilities.  We have the duty to teach those around us that we care about how to live a healthier, stronger life and, if the need be, defend themselves.

For so long I felt that getting my black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was a selfish goal.  I had to become the best I could be, and that meant that I must be better than everyone I competed and trained against.  Obviously, I knew being a good teacher was part of that goal, but I never looked at the big picture of how much it really meant to "be a black belt."  After hearing Caique's talk before that particular seminar, I took a step back and made the decision to live my life like a black belt.  Winning tournaments, and being a better athlete is definitely a goal to strive for, but I feel the true measure of a black belt is how we effect those we come in contact with and how we can help them live a better life.

We get people of all walks of life at our gym.  Some might be a former athlete looking for a good workout.  Some have dreams of becoming a professional fighter and begin their journey by learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and/or Muay Thai.  Then there's another unique group.  This is the person who might have never played a competitive sport in their life, or maybe even worked out regularly.  They may happen into our gym by chance, or perhaps they are a friend-of-a-friend and come in just to observe.  Eventually however, they stick with it.  They may get tapped out more times than they tap anyone else out, but they just get up off the mat with a smile, shake their partner's hand and quietly go back to training.  It's nothing to take an athletic, muscular, former athlete and teach him some techniques and make him a force on the mats.  It's the meek and timid who need our guidance and attention, for they are the ones that our instruction and guidance will have the most positive effect on.

Our head instructor, Harvy Berman, gave a speech once where he said that BJJ is for everyone.  He explained that we are all "fighters" in life and have our own goals and obstacles.  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and martial arts should give people the confidence to face whatever battle they may face.

What Does it Mean to You?
Please take a moment and leave a comment below and share what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu means to you and what you hope to get out if.  I'd love to hear how our sport has made a difference in your life...
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  1. BJJ for me is primarily about enjoying myself, as it is a fairly unique combination of a physical and mental challenge with a vibrant, friendly and thoughtful community. I love the way that there are loads of BJJ bloggers to chat with now (hopefully we can all meet up some day: I've started a map to that end), which is an extension of the kind of conversations you have during training.

    BJJ is also an excellent way of pushing aside all the stress you might have in your life, as instead you can just focus on stopping that guy from getting the second hand in for the choke, or cinching up that Americana, or trying to break their posture just right for the sweep. Everything else fades away during rolling: there aren't many activities that can clear you mind like that.

    I hope to keep on getting lots of enjoyment out of BJJ, a sense of accomplishment as I slowly get better, and keep making great friends on the mats. The fitness helps too: pretty much every other reliable option (running, going to the gym, lifting weights) is way too boring to hold my interest. ;)

    Self defence has never been a reason for me to train, although it is fun to discuss it.

  2. BJJ has helped me realize the true meaning of "expertise" and that multiple solution sets exist for almost all problems.

    I have grown up being able to pass almost all exams, courses, job demands or life situations with a minimum of studying or preparation. School and life came easy. Furthermore, I am in training for a career (law) where "72 hour experts" are the essential way of being for most young people within the field. Being good at that meant I had a rather big shock once I first grappled with a black belt - enjoyable, but still surprising.

    Being a BJJ black belt generally means that the person has driven into muscle memory more knowledge than I could even acquire in my brain within a couple years. They're not god-like or know everything about BJJ, but they've put in the mat-hours, the physical dedication and the mental exertion to get really, really good at this activity. It's apparent when rolling with them and it's quite often apparent in their personal lives too.

    I had already run into experts before, but it's one thing to have a purely intellectual encounter and it's another to have the opponent be so vastly superior both mentally and the physically. It really drives home the point and made me respectful and contemplative.

    I want to develop that expertise. I now have a better awareness of how much time it'll take and what I need to put into it to achieve the goals of becoming a BJJ black belt and of developing an area of expertise in the legal profession as well.

    Furthermore, in BJJ, I see how small elements of technique or placement combine and lead to the probabilities of success or failure of a move or action. That transfers over very well to other areas of life. The little details matter - they matter very much. The option tree that opens up when those little details are performed correctly is an amazing thing to perceive and feel in BJJ and similarly so in life. Many paths will show the way to my goals. I just have to find them and correctly take them, figure out how to get around obstacles, back up and take other paths of less resistance and/or finish the tough journeys while retaining the lessons I took from them.

    It's also really fucking fun to roll and feel the mental and physical arms race of action/reaction. That fun keeps me coming back again and again.

  3. BJJ is something I do for many reasons. The longer I practice it, the more things it seems to mean to me.

    I discovered Martial Arts late in life. First I was attracted to Karate and I enjoyed that and a bit of MMA training. Through the MMA training, I discovered grappling. Inititally, it was the fact that BJJ involved lots of physical activity, ongoing challenges and endless sparring which attracted me.

    Over the two years I've been enjoying BJJ, I have discovered that I value it for other things as well. On top of that list is the ability to lose myself in it. I get totally absorbed and leave behind all thoughts of daily life and it's irritations. Especially when rolling, it's all about the NOW. But any time I step on the mat, I care for nothing else. It's my release.

    Through BJJ, I've learned to work through tough spots and not give up so easily. Both in the short term (don't give in to a sub unless I really can't defend/get out) and in the long term (don't give up on making that technique work, just because it won't work for me yet...). That translates into other areas of my life.

    BJJ is making me less reliant on my primary sense = vision. I'm learning to feel. I feel when a sweep is possible. Likewise, it's helped me develop better feel in my second passion: horse riding.

    BJJ has made me more aware of my physical limitations whilst pushing those boundaries and making me physically tougher and stronger. I really had no understanding at all of my body and it's capabilities before I started that journey. Now I have found out the true meaning of exhaustion, had injuries, and tapped hundreds and hundreds of times. I've cried in frustration. But I have learned that I'm capable of far more than I imagined, both mentally and physically. And I've had so much fun, so many moments with feelings of achievement. And unlike other activities I've enjoyed in the past, it's not a solo journey. We grow together with our training partners. In that sense, BJJ has made me more of a team player, too.

    BJJ means hard work and some pain on the way, but it mainly means self-discovery, achievement, competition, mutual support and respect and above all, a lot of damn good fun!

  4. Wow! Thanks guys... Awesome insight. Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts and experiences with Jiu Jitsu. Sounds like we have all learned to reach our potentials while pushing our limits.

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