No, You’re Not The Only One Who Struggles With BJJ Impostor Syndrome

Photo Source: Giulliana Fonseca Photography

I’ll never forget the first gold medal I won as a blue belt, mostly because I was the last person I thought would win it. I distinctly remember looking around at all the potential competitors I might face and thinking, “Man, I do not belong here.” The other competitors looked like athletes, and scary athletes at that. They had their game faces on, earbuds in, and everything about the way they were built suggested they were designed at birth to open cans of whoopass.

Then there was, uh, me.

I was so unathletic that I was bullied out of track and field in high school for being so bad at it. I didn’t know any of the big names or tournaments in jiu-jitsu (and didn’t really care to). I wasn’t necessarily chubby, but it was clear to anyone who looked at me that I hadn’t sacrificed pizza for my athletic endeavors. Basically, I had the chorus from Radiohead’s “Creep” stuck in my head while I stretched in the warmup area.

Even after I won my division, I thought it was a fluke. Everything about my success in jiu-jitsu was a fluke, for that matter. My gi was tied together with a blue belt of lies, decorated with stripes I didn’t deserve. My teammates probably let me submit them out of pity, because there was no way I could actually be half-decent at any sport, let alone this sport.

I’d love to say that I got over that feeling, but the truth is that I only feel slightly more legit now that I have a purple belt [of lies] holding my gi closed. But at least now, after a few more years of meeting more people and hearing more stories, I know that I’m not the only one who feels like this.

Despite how it may look to outsiders, jiu-jitsu is, at its core, a perfectionist’s sport. It’s why we drill armbars until we forget how not to do them, study heel hooks to learn the perfect way to cripple someone for six months, and beat ourselves up at night when we get caught in a submission we thought we were too good to get trapped in. It’s why for every white belt who tells me they can’t wait to get their blue belt, I hear three more saying they’re not ready, they need more time, they don’t know enough yet.

Interestingly, though, it always seems to be the overconfident white belts who drop out the quickest once they realize that being a new blue belt is kind of a soul-crushing experience. They learn the hard way that a new belt doesn’t make you “level up” in skill, and that you’re basically the same athlete that you were yesterday, but with a flashier fashion accessory and a much more challenging division filled with people who may have been training three years longer than you.

It’s the ones with BJJ impostor syndrome that stick with it. They have it in their heads that they didn’t deserve to get that next belt and that they have to force themselves to grow into it. They’re a bit discouraged when they’re getting their butts whooped at every tournament they enter, but their drive to finally deserve their place in the jiu-jitsu hierarchy keeps them coming back.

I wish I had a cure or a magical phrase that I could use to make this “syndrome” go away for all my friends and teammates that have struggled with it, because goodness knows I would’ve used it on myself a long time ago. But I suppose what I can tell you is what I have to repeat in my head every time I step onto the mats with someone who looks like an athlete or earned those medals and owns that belt: You belong here.

Not only are you better than you think you are, but you’ve also put forth the work required to get where you are today. Whether that’s getting a simple compliment from your coach after your first month of training or competing at an elite-level tournament, you should try to focus not on how much you don’t deserve to be standing where you are today, but how much work it’ll take to get to the next step. Jiu-jitsu is hard enough, and while you should of course be pushing forward to achieve your goals, you should also be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you didn’t get to where you are today by accident.


Featured photo by Giulliana Fonseca Photography


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