Reflections of a zebra belt
Coloured belts commonly serve as visual markers of stages on our jiu jitsu journies. It is also possible to break down our progress into further stages. One stage that is interesting to look at is the so-called “zebra belt”. This is the four stripe white belt who is near the end of his or her journey as a white belt, but who hasn’t quite started the blue belt path yet. This happens to be the stage of belt I am at, or close to, right now. Below are five interesting things I have noticed about being at this stage of my jiu jitsu journey.
1. Breakthroughs are a thing
In jiu jitsu sometimes there are hard days. You may feel you put a big effort in class on a particular day you not feel like you got better at jiu jitsu. In general, the more you train jiu jitsu the less bad days you will have because the more likely your progress will resemble a steady upward curve. Still, even for consistent practitioners there will be times when you feel your progress has slowed or stalled.
One thing I have learned as a zebra belt is that sometimes unexpeced breakthroughs happen. Three things I have noticed about my jiu jitsu journey at this stage, which I consider breakthroughs are: 1) my training has gotten more consistent, 2) the way I think about and train jiu jitsu has evolved, and 3) even though I train more often, I have more fun in each class and get hurt less often.
2) Injuries are a thing
Everyone is different and has a different proneness and susceptibility to injury, as well as a different rehabilitation and healing timeframe. For myself, even as a zebra belt, I have gone through various different kinds of injuries even prior to getting to blue belt level. Some injuries have been insignificant and caused no delay in my training. Other injuries have resulted in me being sidelined for months. As an older practitioner, my body heals slower than it used to, so there are enduring aches and pains that follow me off the mat sometimes, and that is something I have had to adapt to.
Even though injuries seem entirely negative, the reality is that they also have their positive side. Being able to cope with, endure, and heal from pain has thought me toughness. Getting injured also taught me one or more things I was doing wrong, such as going to hard in training. Finally, even when an ache or pain pops up once in while, it also reminds of all the joy and fun I have almost every time I practice jiu jitsu, so overall the good sides of jiu jitsu far outweigh the bad.
3) Consistency counts
Over the past month or two I have started training nearly every day, sometimes even taking more than one class in one day. What I have found is that going to class more frequently has really helped improve my overall jiu jitsu. I say overall jiu jitsu instead of just strength and technique because I feel there is much more to improve in jiu jitsu than those two things. I also mean things like how I feel in class, how easily I feel I am able to learn and retain new techniques or concepts, how much fun I am having, and also how I think and feel about jiu jitsu.
It’s hard for me to pin point exactly what served as a catalyst for me to increase my training frequency. It could have had something to do with the forced closure of the gym during covid which motivated me to train more when it reopened. It is also possible that because I feel myself getting close to the end of my white belt days I feel the need to do a “push” in order to improve and really get to the blue belt level. Part of me thinks this is just a natural evolution of something I have realized will help me get better. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, I am enjoying the increased training and hope to keep it up.
4) Your mindset will evolve
Mindset is a hard thing to get a good grasp of, but it can be defined as “the established set of attitudes held by someone”. What makes mindset hard to grasp is that we are often unaware of what our established attitudes are, and sometimes we can even be mistaken about the attitudes we hold. The other thing is that although mindset consists of established attitudes, to some degrees our attitudes are constantly changing over time. As a result, it takes a lot of reflection and sometimes time and perspective to bring our mindsets to light.
As a seasoned zebra white belt it is finally possible for me for the first time to look back at where I have been on my still brief jiu jitsu journey. Now I can ask myself questions such as what was my mindset when I started jiu jiu jitsu, what is my mindset now, and how has it changed? I believe that when I started jiu jitsu, as someone who had already been involved in other martial arts before, I had a much more competitive mindset at first where I felt the need to prove myself and where I expected faster progress. This was definitely not the best mindset to have. It took me a lot of time and jiu jitsu to evolve to a different mindset.
As I have spent more time on my jiu jitsu journey my mindset has changed. I learned that for me it is more important to focus on consistently attending class, to try to stay free of injuries, and to have positive thoughts and feelings about jiu jitsu. In summary I would say that right now I am more focused on my development as a jiu jitsu practitioner over time than I am with my performance in any particular class. Being a zebra white belt for me means thinking “bigger picture”.
5) Belts are and are not a big deal
Part of me is still looking forward to receiving my blue belt one day. On the other hand there is a part of me that doesn’t care too much. I dont think my desire is the same as when I first started jiu jitsu. Now it’s more a “it will be nice when it happens” feeling then a “burning desire” feeling. What is more important to me than the belt is progress. It’s interesting for me that my conception of what it means to progress in jiu jitsu has broadened and now includes much more than acquiring skill and conditioning.
My professor recently stated that if you are trained to be a samurai then you shouldn’t care about the belt. On the other hand he also said that the blue belt is an important one. At first these two statements seem contradictory, but I think it’s possible to reconcile them. Jiu jitsu is a complete training system which seeks to develop not only your physical attributes but also your mind and spirit. If your feelings are hurt that you havent been promoted to blue belt yet you’re probably not displaying the virtues of patience, humility, and toughness that jiu jitsu should be teaching you.
On the other hand the blue belt is the first ranked belt that you will receive. Your professor wants to be sure you deserve it and for you to be sure you deserve it when you get it. A blue belt is also awarded from a specific school, and you will be representing the school in the capacity as a blue belt from then on. White belts will look up to you. This will be the first time you will be an example not only to students in your classes, but also a representative of your academy as a blue belt in outside competitions and to other dojos. Your actions and mistakes will carry heavier weight as your belt rank goes up. With increased status comes increased responsibility to properly represent your school and lineage.
At first glance thejiu jitsu journey seems marked by belts, but there are many interesting stages along the way to reflect on. Really any stage is worthy orf reflection and analysis. The “zebra belt” or “twilight white belt” is an interesting stage. You are still early on in your jiu jitsu journey, but you have enough perspective that you can ask yourself new questions. There will have been periods of both growth and what felt like stagnation. You will understand breakthroughs are possible despite challenging days. It is also possible your mindset regarding jiu jitsu may have evolved and become more transparent to you. Finally, you may have overcome significant injuries and changed your training routine and habits.
Standing at the edge of a new path, the blue belt path, it is exciting to think about what is ahead. You can also be confident in the training that is behind you and the lessons you have learned. Being a zebra white belt is, in a way, a bit confusing. You want and dont the blue belt. It’s a bit black and white, and a little bit grey… Being a zebra belt means knowing there are things you don’t understand yet, but having faith they will make sense one day if you keep working hard.
The most important thing is to enjoy and appreciate each stage of your jiu jitsu journey for the opportunity it offers to teach and transform you.
Jiu jitsu is not easy, but it is always worth the effort you put in.