You’re Not The Only One Who Gets Impostor Syndrome When You Get Promoted

Nothing gives jiu-jitsu practitioners impostor syndrome quite like a belt promotion. Even though most of us hope to be black belts one day, actually taking a big step toward that goal can feel intimidating.

By the time most of us reach a new belt level, whether it’s blue, purple, or beyond, we’ve probably gotten our butts handed to us by people of that belt level before. If you cross-train, you’ve also probably gotten your butt handed to you by athletes who are at your rank or even a rank below you. So it’s no surprise that so many people get promoted and then immediately confess to their teammates that they don’t feel like they deserve the promotion.

To be honest, I thought I was done with feeling like that. Over the years, I’ve reminded my friends and teammates of what I’d been told when I got my purple belt a few years ago: “Do you really think that you are a better judge of where you stand in the BJJ rankings than your black belt coach does?” I thought that logic alone would carry me through the next time I got promoted.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

I got my brown belt a few days ago (Yes, that’s a humblebrag. I worked hard for that thing.), and even as my coach was tying it around my waist, I was shaking my head a little. Part of it was disbelief, but the other part was something inside me saying, “No, this feels wrong. I’m a purple belt. I’m nowhere near a brown belt.”

Rather than acknowledging all the things I’d done to make my coaches decide that I’d earned my next belt, I focused on all the reasons I didn’t deserve it: my takedowns are hot garbage, I don’t win every time I compete (heck, I don’t even compete that often), I still get submitted by plenty of purple belts and even some blue belts, I don’t train in the gi enough, I still look like a dying fish when I try to berimbolo anyone. The fact that my coaches — who are always very honest about where I need improvement — had decided that I’d earned that new belt suddenly wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t what I believed a brown belt should be, so in my mind, I didn’t deserve it.

What makes jiu-jitsu so frustrating and so special is that there are so many avenues to define success or failure. You can be a top-level coach without competing, and you can be a world champion without ever deciding to teach a class. You can be a working parent with an encyclopedic knowledge of techniques, or you can be a freakishly athletic teenager who relies entirely on concepts to make crazy techniques work somehow. Maybe one day you’ll open up your own academy — maybe you want to keep business and passion permanently separated.

I realized that I’d fallen into the same thought-trap that I’d tried to talk my friends out of for so many years: believing that I had to be great at everything in jiu-jitsu in order to be worthy of being promoted.

While the idea of having a set, sport-wide curriculum for ranking students is appealing to some (and there are certainly plenty of academies who follow such a plan when grading students), the fact that there are so many academies who grade on a case-by-case basis is proof that jiu-jitsu means more to many people than a list of techniques. Given that many of us have chosen our academy and coaches based on how their teaching style and “jiu-jitsu philosophy” align with our own, why would we suddenly question their judgment when it came time for them to acknowledge our progress?

As I looked at the photos taken at the academy grading, it hit me that I valued each of my teammates for the different things they brought to the mats. They all had different strengths and weaknesses, different rolling styles, different motivations for showing up to train. There were a few whose promotions felt like they were a long time coming and a few whose promotions felt like they came right on time, but I didn’t believe that any of them had been promoted too early. I certainly didn’t feel like any of them didn’t deserve their promotions. So why did I insist on being so much harder on myself?

As jiu-jitsu practitioners, we should look at ourselves through the same eyes with which we view the people we admire. We can look at our own shortcomings critically so we can fill the gaps in our training, but it’s reductive to do so if we don’t also look at what we’re doing well. Focusing on our strengths is crucial to growth, especially as we grow into role models for those around us. After all, how can we hope to pass on our own knowledge if we think we suck at everything?

Our belts are recognition for what we’ve accomplished so far, sure, but they also set a standard for us to meet. Our coaches promote us because they believe we’re ready for the next step in our journeys, and we have to take their word for it. But if we’re insecure about being fresh meat in a new part of the ocean, it’s on us to grow into our new belts. We can train harder and smarter, working to become the practitioners we wanted to be at this level, while acknowledging we earned the right to be at this level.

At first, I felt like calling my feelings “impostor syndrome” was a humblebrag in itself — it implied that I was mistaken in my belief that I hadn’t earned what I’d been given. But what I (and all the other jiu-jitsu students who feels they don’t deserve their new promotion) have to acknowledge is that we either earned our promotion, or we didn’t earn it and still somehow convinced actual jiu-jitsu experts that we’re good enough at BJJ to deserve that promotion alongside all the other students who did earn their new rank fair and square.

Since my time on the mats has proven to me that I’m not good enough to deceive my coaches yet, I guess I’ll just have to take their word for it.


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