Progress envy

Very early in my Jiu Jitsu journey I ran a half marathon with no preparation.
They say you can’t teach heart.
I wonder if you can teach smart?

At the time I was regularly running 10km each week for fitness (read: fatness. I ran for fear of fatness. Or, more specifically, trying to out run it…it’s a big race; one that has no real winners and no participation ribbons and apparently only a vague and elusive finish line. So I figured it reasonable to bang out 2x and a bit of my usual run for a nice big event. It would be hard but it would be possible. Definitely doable even if somewhat uncomfortable.

They say you can’t teach heart.

After talking it up for months (yet inexplicably actioning no actual sports specific training or planning) I still somehow ended up at a pub with friends the evening before the event. About as disciplined as I got back then, I was determined that I could and would leave at 9pm. I drank all ‘responsible’ like, alternating between pots of beer and pots of water.
At midnight the pots were closer to pints and the overall effect was even less will power, especially unhelpful once the chorus of “don’t leave now, staayyyyy”, “fuck the race tomorrow, just stay and have another drink” sang out from my friends.

**Pro tip: never ever announce you’re leaving if you want to avoid this trap. Do my (not-even-slightly-patented) Tip Toe Text ™️

Step one: Leave the building
Step two: Text your friends to say you’ve left
Step three: Get home safe
Step four: Text your friends to tell them you got home safe

The texting bit is super important if you want to TTT™️. Following each step carefully will ensure people won’t think that bad shit has happened to you and/or call the cops or anything weird.

Anyhoo. 1am rolls in and I was no longer responsibly alternating the waters in at all. But, on a positive note, I was pretty damn good at dancing all of a sudden. Watch me…ooooh. Watch me…
At some stage I found my way home.
Cue 6am and a wake up that arrived with a jolt: gasping for air and sitting bolt upright ‘fresh’ into my morning. Awake at home full of adrenaline, guilt and thirst. Likely a max 4 hours spent in bed. Gross.
Still groggy I was up and convinced I couldn’t actually deal with the guilt of missing the 1/2 marathon,  so I rode my bike across town at 6:10am to find the race start line…

A lot usually happens in a half marathon that was probably not what was happening for me.

A lot usually happens in a half marathon that was probably not what was happening for me. In my dream like (no doubt semi still drunk) state, once the pain had passed and I was on through to the classic runners high… a lot of realisations came to me.
Okay cool, it was no spiritual journey into the dessert on peyote to find my soul but it was an altered state in the streets of Melbourne, so that counts right?

It is enlightening.

During the run under the harbour and into the tunnel a weird thing happens. All sound is sucked out of that space, probably due to the thousands of tonnes of water and cement surrounding you. With the absence of any vehicles all you can hear is your breath, the breath of others immediately around you and the fall of feet on concrete. It is quite meditative. Time slows down. A rhythm is created by the sounds of the feet.
(Did I mention that I had totally not charged my iPod so I got to slog this hell run in silence as well as pain? No? Ah well yes. It was…an… experience that’s for sure)

So in this moment, where I’m literally running as fast as I can to keep up with the group and match their pace (and we’re really moving at a decent pace), one that is for sure attainable but very definitely testing me, one that is achievable but maybe not 100% maintainable for all that much longer, one that is okay for now while all things are good and I have no injuries… right in that moment I get the weird but extreme sense of not moving at all. Of complete vertigo/inertia. And it is enlightening.

You know that feeling when you’re on a stationary train and the train next to you moves and you’re moving too for a moment but of course then you realised you are not & your little world shifts back to reality and suddenly it was all an illusion?
Yeah. Well that. But no trains. And the opposite of that. So I was moving, we were ALL moving but relative to each other: all movement had stopped.
It was very matrixy.

Okay cool, fair’s fair, I was probably in a state of dehydration that maaaay have required some medical intervention BUT in that moment, when we were all running as fast as we could, and everyone was keeping a steady pace it truly felt like NO ONE was moving forward and for certain it felt like I wasn’t. At. All.
The guy in front of me was the same guy that had been there for ages. To my right, the same. To my left, the same. Ad infinitum (well, not really, more like ad x10 000).

Occasionally someone would dart past but it was rare and quite impressive. Beyond my league but impressive none the less. Occasionally someone would be passed by the pack but this was always met with positive encouragement and praise from the group. Supportive cheers and ‘you can do it”s.

In that moment I understood progress in Jiu Jitsu clearer than any other concept that I had struggled with before. It was like my ears popped as my mind equalised and understood it comprehensively and without doubt. It was sudden and loud and resolved so much angst I had been harbouring about my own development and the progress of others.
It was am instant freedom.

For me it clarified a deep understanding of plateaus, of comparison envy, frustrations and misplaced jealousy. This realisation reassured me entirely. It was a massive weight lifted off my shoulders.

Don’t die.

When you first start Jiu Jitsu your goal is pretty simple. Survive. Survive as in, don’t die. As in, if you can remember a basic human function you’re doing great. Breathe. Try to use your hands occasionally? Grips? Maybe. Try to even remember the name of basic anatomy (“move your left leg. no your left leg. No, the other left leg”). Maybe even listen to instruction during a roll? But don’t forget to breathe. It helps with the not dying thing. And it used to be easy but now it is very very hard. Did I mention to breathe?
Once you nail that whole remembering to breathe thing (that one that you thought you’d never have to actually TRY to do consciously in your life) you’re ready to try some lofty goals like stopping people from getting things to work on you. Forget trying to DO anything to another human, nope, no thanks, that only ends back in trying not to die again loop. So denial is your first tool in a relatively empty looking toolbox.

Your next phase is trying and actually landing some techniques on real living, unwilling humans. Once you land a technique, you’re one of us. Probably for life. Now you’re hooked.
And now the race for progress begins.

You place yourself behind a lot of people. Your goal is to catch up with them (I’m not a firm believer in ‘targets on backs’ but I do believe that looking to others as they set the standard is healthy and inspiring). You make this goal without even understanding how deep the pool is. But you’re hopeful, and, as we established, you’re hooked. And you’re dedicated.
So you see their pace and you push hard to catch up and join/match the group’s gait.
If you’re lucky and stay focused, you’ll match that pace. If you’re talented, or good at learning this thing, or already athletic, or show some aptitude … you may even start to pass some people (figuratively for the depth of my metaphorical journey here – literally for the technique probably used to do so).  But you’re focused and dedicated and you’re finally getting it. Its your thing. You love it. You’re coasting on your ‘runners high’.
There’s some people that started out on the path long before you that surprise you and you have no idea how the hell they move that fast or what it is they are doing different to make that magic happen. To make it look so eeeeasy when they do. They are a distant goal but you are aware of them and want to know what they know.
Surprisingly, there’s a few people that started around the same time as you, and their pace is faster than yours (even though you’re putting in the same/more effort) and it’s hard not to compare because you know where they started. You feel like you should be justified to compare.
It is hard not to get frustrated and deflated by them because comparison is distracting and very often the thief of joy.

And so it is with progress in BJJ.

And so it is with progress in BJJ.
It is hard not to compare yourself to others even though you are reassured you shouldn’t. The tricky thing with this is we are ranked by belts. Belts have a rough general standard internationally and comparing to the people within the belts, rather than the higher belts themselves, is an understandable fall back method – even if flawed. Comparing ourselves to our competitors is also a default filled with false data and subjectivity… but that is an article for another time…

Another flawed feedback loop that no one clarified to the contrary for me was my dafault when it came to use my training partners/competitors as a point of comparison to rate my own progress in sport. It is impossible to shake the feeling of not getting any better (as they get tougher) even though you are working your ass off.
This can be super demotivating and frustrating in Jiu Jitsu.

Here’s the red hot TLDR tip: their progress does not equate to your lack of progress.

You feel you’re working hard & probably already almost to your capacity. You’re getting to as many classes as possible. You’re working on technique. You’re focused. Dedicated. You’re literally doing your best and yet, that guy in front of you is just still impossible to catch.
And that guy that you used to be able to handle has started to catch you occasionally…

Ima gonna let the running (& hallucinating) in the tunnel metaphor settle in right there for you for a little while.

….

….

….

You see, it’s easy to forget everyone around you is moving forward at a very similar pace but that you are also. And to put expectations on yourself to not only match and keep the pace of, but push beyond the pace of, the pack is a lot of pressure to put on yourself. To expect results that essentially mean you must always be progressing not the same as the others but MORE so…to be disappointed or even worse frustrated that you’re ‘falling short’ …well,…you sure are asking a lot of yourself. You would need to be the hardest working person in the room + 10% on the top. Always. To even begin to get that feeling of being ‘ahead’.
And thats a lot. Especially if you want to continue to enjoy your training.

The beginning of the race everyone starts at the same line with the same potential. But very quickly we jostle for, and find, the right pack to hang with with a suitable pace.
We all strive for the best but our pace is simply our pace. The pack around you is matching it also. To compare yourself to them for your only feedback of success and then to alsoexpect the pack to explain to you why you can’t outrun them, well, that would be a weird conversation to have. They are struggling forward alongside you. They aren’t coasting. Why do I know this? Because if they were coasting…why wouldn’t they pull ahead? Why would they stay at your pace if it wasn’t already difficult as hell?
Sprinting ahead is hard. It takes a lot of gas and determination and you have to weigh up if it is possible for you to do. And if that is maintainable, attainable or even realistic. If it is wise. If it is aligned with your goals and your life and your needs.
In the half marathon, letting your ego dictate your pace may very well cost you dearly later on in energy and exhaustion or even injury. In BJJ, does pushing really hard to get better faster mean some other part of your life pays the price for that goal? Less time with family? Less energy for work? Does the toll taken stop you from laughing on the mats and introduce random crying instead?
Is it worth it to you? Will you value it if it is?
If it is, no worries – but it is worth careful consideration rather than just doing it for egos sakes.
Everyone wants to get better. Everyone. But would outrunning the pack fundamentally change your experience of jiu jitsu for the better? Knowing that you will improve regardless of the rate of which you do, do you really need to be annoyed with yourself/your progress like you have been?

The goal of that the race is to make it as enjoyable and efficient as possible. The race will be as long as your journey is. There is not even a finish line on your goal list yet. I’m not sure there even needs to be to make the journey worthwhile. Trust me on that.

As a black belt now I look back to when I was a white belt. It never occurred to me then that the brown and black belts were working just as hard as me to move forward with their progress in Jiu Jitsu. My assumption was that they HAD Jiu Jitsu. That they did Jiu Jitsu. Not so much that they were acquiring Jiu Jitsu every day. I know for myself I am studying MORE now at black belt than I ever did at white. I am analysing more, adding more, repping more. Literally learning more now. And I doubt that trend will stop before I retire.  What I didn’t recognise back at white belt was that EVERYONE is doing the same. The hard part about not realising this was comparing myself to others and, inevitably, coming up short. Then, adding insult to injury, beating myself up about it too.

It was a stressful time.

Like everyone, when I was a white belt trying to prove that I deserved a blue belt, I did so by emulating their skill & technique. Or, for the powerful metaphor tie in: matching their pace.
In my estimation this meant I had to ‘beat’ them or pass them or sub them which was so difficult and frustrating. Often times I didn’t believe in myself or my Jiu Jitsu. Often times I failed. Often times I was pretty pissed off.
At blue belt the pace of the race got harder and more complex. Having to try to outpace the blues around me and try to match the pace of purple was exhausting (pace here referring to progress, not movement). So exhausting that I cried a lot. I was very judgemental of myself and, worse, extremely judgemental of others. It was a stressful time.
Purple belt was more fun. I relaxed and set my own pace. And others joined me in a pack. We had heaps of fun. We moved forward as a group. It was collaborative and independent. We started encouraging/teaching each other and testing process for our own learning. New ways to drill, sessions outside of class etc. I compared less and played more and the brown belt just arrived in my life as a result (it was the firs time I just worked without focus on progress). I’d sort of forgotten it was even there waiting for me. I was very proud to receive my brown but it wasn’t the goal of my purple, which was different and fun.
At Brown I seemed to have broken away from the pack. They were just behind me and setting a strong pace from behind but there was no one running with me for that stint of the journey. This was hard because then I had to make my own pace and be disciplined about it. And I found the rhythm tricky. The black belts were waaaaay to far ahead in the distance and I couldn’t really see how to catch up. They also seemed to be doing a hill climb with ease and it intimidated the shit out of me but I knew I had it in me if I could just. catch. up. It took a lot of work. But that phase changed my gait. My strides became longer, I found a more efficient way to move forward.
Now, it takes conversations not reps to introduce new movements to my game. Reps are for refining not learning. I’ve found my own pace and, even if others match it, I keep the breakaway distance by continuing to focus on my training in a disciplined and healthy way.
I know if I try to blast ahead in one area, it will be borrowed from another and I have to be wise about my choices. Other people aren’t my competition (figuratively no, literally on comp day they are for sure) they are my focus. I try to stay ahead of the pack so that I have enough skills to offer them so they can try to gain speed and join me. With any luck, if I’m a good enough coach, they will indeed finally pass me. And I will celebrate that moment more than any personal progress I have made.
(**sing cats in the cradle here for effect**)

My message for you reading this is one of a deeper understanding about your progress and the false data read that happens when you compare yourself to others and expect insight based on how well or poorly you match up against them.
Try to remember they are moving forward also. They are progressing also. You’re all moving forward together. It is in this way that you truly are a team.
Sometimes, when the pace is set by someone that is a little out of your reach, instead of cursing them (or yourself) try to remember it is because of them that you even try to match it. And will. They are gifting you motivation and the realisation that you could be there soon too.

Heres the true take away though, the one that will free you from your comparison envy:
When you feel like you’ve plateaued maybe, juuuuust maybe you’ve finally met the pace of the group and you’re doing so well you can’t see it amongst the pack. Maybe you all are collectively.
And here’s the thing, if they’re good and you’ve decided they are your standard, well, all of you are actually hauling ass – even if you can’t see it from your angle.

…Or…. maybe you’re dehydrated into madness, 20km into the longest run you’ve ever done in your life and serious need of either water or a nap….

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