Dear Upper Belt: It’s OK To Focus On Your Own Goals, Too

Jiu-jitsu is a give-and-take sport. When you first start training, all you can do is take — Your more experienced teammates give you advice, they give you manageable rolls, they give you answers to your questions (yes, even the ones you believe are “stupid”). Many lower belts feel indebted to their more advanced teammates, regretful that they can’t give back the same amount of help that they’ve received.

By the time you hit blue belt, though, this dynamic begins to shift. You’re a more challenging roll for your teammates, and now, at last, you can be the one helping newer students navigate the challenges that come with knowing next to nothing in a room full of choking machines. In a healthy gym environment, knowledge and patience are passed down to the people who need it, with the understanding that they will one day extend that same understanding and generosity to others.

At a certain point in your jiu-jitsu journey, you may find that this pendulum has begun to swing dramatically in the other direction. As an “upper belt” — generally a brown or black belt, though purple belts are often grouped into this category as well — you’ve likely found that helping others through teaching or coaching comprises almost as much of your jiu-jitsu experience as actually learning jiu-jitsu.

These experiences are, in many ways, a gift in their own right. What a privilege it is to be able to remember where you started, itching to be able to know so much about jiu-jitsu that you could teach it to others, and then find yourself standing here now doing just that. For those who work as coaches or even own their own gyms, this gift feels even more magnified. You are truly living the dream.

Still, it’s ok to step back from that dream and just be selfish in your jiu-jitsu pursuits, not just sometimes, but often. You aren’t a bad teammate for turning down rolls with clumsy, aggressive white belts. You aren’t a bad coach for setting aside a special training time specifically for yourself and other upper belts to push and learn from each other. Your reputation as one of the gym’s “helpers” won’t go away just because you decide you want to spend some time focusing on your own goals instead of someone else’s.

This isn’t to say that you should take a completely selfish approach to BJJ, but simply that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Keeping your skills sharp in jiu-jitsu requires you to test them against people who are as good as and better than you. Beyond that, though, you deserve to enjoy your time on the mats as well. Challenging rolls are fun and crucial to improving your own jiu-jitsu. Sometimes, you’ll need to sacrifice your time as a “giver” in order to be a “taker” again, and there’s no reason to be guilty when you take advantage of those opportunities.

Establishing these boundaries for yourself is an important lesson to pass on to newer jiu-jitsu students as well. You are setting an example, reminding beginners that even when they are in a position to help, they still have the right to turn down rolls and pursue their own goals. The objective as you progress in jiu-jitsu isn’t to completely switch from being a taker to a giver, but to give as much as you take.

The jiu-jitsu journey is a continuous educational process, and there is always something new to learn. By all means, upper belt, embrace your opportunity to spread the love of the sport. Be the coach, gym owner, or teammate you’ve always hoped you’d be. But remember to stand in your own corner as well, and take what you need from the martial art to which you’ve given so much.


  1. Very interesting article. As a higher belt, I lost motivation to train and this is actually when I started to give back, sitting out rolls and just gave a lot more help to the lower belts. I have seen people improve and really like the feedback. After this, I really found my love back to Jiu Jitsu and enjoyed training again.

    Great write-up.


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