Punchy title that is slightly misleading, CHECK!

Note: Please consider your feelings validated. Regardless of what you’ve experienced or not experienced thus far in jiu jitsu, your FEELINGS are valid and important. What I want to discuss right now is that the source of those feelings may or may not be due to external reasons, and that’s OKAY!

What got me thinking about this were two things. First, a thoughtful comment by Jon from JonJitsu (his comment is really good – go read the whole comment!)

some of the issues that have been brought up in this guest post, some of your writings, and the writings of a few others, have had me scratching my head. Issues of inclusion, intimidation, all of that, I just simply never clued in on. [. . .]The fact that, in the words of your guest writer, I had training partners “on the outside looking in” never registered.

And secondly, an article that Val Worthington wrote, called “5 Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Started Training BJJ

5. Sometimes it’s not about gender.

Turns out sometimes when the guys didn’t want to roll with me when I was first starting out, it wasn’t because I was a woman, which I wondered. Rather, it was because I was pretty lousy at BJJ. And as I’ve come to discover as my skill has increased somewhat over the years, sometimes I decide I don’t want to train with a certain lower belt dude, not because he’s a dude, but because he’s signaling with his behavior and his words that he’s gearing up for a game of Whose Is Bigger? and I don’t feel like playing. (And rest assured that women can play that game too. It’s an equal opportunity pastime.) The point is, sometimes upper belts make decisions about whom to roll with that may look gender-based but in fact have to do with self-preservation or making the most of limited training time.

I think that nearly all white belts struggle to feel like they fit in. That is NOT a gendered concept. It’s all about the white belt, baby! I’ve been at my BJJ gym for nearly 3 years, so when NewWhiteBelt joins and sees me palling around with my established friends and feels like he’s not part of the group, it’s because he’s not one of us. He’s new. He’s an unknown white belt who might injure me or may have no clue what he’s doing. Would I rather roll with a friend I know I enjoy rolling with or this new person? Ding Ding!

Now imagine NewWhiteBelt is very fat. Is it likely they’ll feel the reason you don’t want to roll with them is because of their weight? Sure! If NWB is super small, will they probably guess it’s due to size? Absolutely! If NWB is a woman, will she believe it’s due to gender? Probably! If NWB is missing a limb, will they believe it’s due to that? Of course!

And you know, sometimes they’ll be right. But very often it’ll be because they are a new white belt. Most white belts have access to the same mental playlist.

Yes, these are real songs

Yes, these are real songs

Regardless of their source, your emotions are absolutely valid and important. Jiu jitsu is HARD, and not just because it’s a difficult skill to learn, but because it can bring up a lot of internal crap that’s brewing inside you. It can bring up feelings of insecurity, inadequacies, ego, fears, etc. Some of these are simply due to being new at something.

[Adult second language learners often experience “anomie,”] the feelings of social uncertainty or dissatisfaction which characterize not only the socially unattached person but also, it appears, the bilingual or even the serious student of a second language and culture. [. . .] The process of learning a new language temporarily takes away people’s ability to talk, and the resultant sense of inadequacy leads them to experience shame. –Trosset, quoted inTeaching English as a Second or Foreign Language

This loss of personal identity, loss of status, loss of competency is not relegated only to verbal second languages, but physical ones like jiu jitsu as well. I experienced that as well –  “So in my classes I do feel DUMB. I feel like that stereotypical dumb jock who is trying to take Latin. Except now I’m the nerd girl doing a sport. Brain=smart. Body=dumb.” No one LIKES feeling dumb, and adults who are used to a certain level of respect and comfort may experience this to a deeper degree.

Okay, so we’ve established that adults who start learning jiu jitsu are often emotionally vulnerable simply because they’re learning this brand new language for their body. Add their personal insecurities or their observations of the things around them, and BAM.

For me, it was more about my weight than my gender at the beginning, and it came to a head at the first and only competition I attended.

I felt ashamed and humiliated […] at the time I felt like I won a gold medal for being a fat chick.

The thing was – I didn’t get a gold medal for being a fat chick. I got a gold medal because I was a solo entry in my bracket. The humiliation existed in my head – not a single member of my team, nor anyone around me, knew that I felt that way. It came from me. But did that mean my emotions were invalid? ABSOLUTELY NOT. That was some complicated shit I had to work through, and I came through it and benefited from having dealt with it.

Why bring this up? Not to invalidate anything people have gone through or to give ammunition to people who think that gender issues don’t exist in our sport. They absolutely do exist. Women sometimes benefit from those issues and they sometimes don’t, and everything in between. But I bring it up to say that it’s possible that your teammates are totally unaware of what’s going on, and that those feelings of isolation are POSSIBLY not due to reasons you think. The White Belt Struggles are not relegated to one single minority group – they are shared by all. Some groups absolutely have extra struggles to deal with – struggles which may come externally, internally, or both.

When I talk to women who are thinking of trying out jiu jitsu, I usually tell them that in their first class they may feel incredibly uncomfortable, but that the source of the discomfort may be from themselves rather than the guys at the gym. Wrapping your legs around an unknown man is NOT something that most women do on a daily basis, and it absolutely may make them feel uncomfortable. BUT, if they do, they should still give it a second time to see if it was external or internal. The feelings are still valid, but it is often helpful (and scary) knowing that you might be the source of them.

Jiu jitsu is hard, but worth it. Talking about how it’s hard is helpful. You don’t feel so alone – you understand someone dealt with the same internal struggle you did – you feel validated. I repeat my offer to host the story of YOUR personal struggle on the mats. Hopefully it will help someone else deal with their own issues and help them persevere.