The “blue belt blues” are a well-known affliction. New jiu-jiteiros can fall into the trap of pushing hard to sprint the distance between white and blue. By the time they tie the new color around their waists, they’ve burned through their cache of enthusiasm. They start to lose interest, and soon quit.
So the usual advice is to pace yourself, to think less about the belt you wear, and to set goals that are more intrinsic than extrinsic. This is all good advice, but equating the blue belt blues to burnout over-simplifies that drop off that we see at this rank. Talking about it in those terms doesn’t seem to have helped people stick with the sport any longer than they did in the past.
The challenge of continuing training after blue belt is multifaceted, and we’ll start with the most straightforward dimension: the relationship between goals and progress.
Advancement from white belt to blue belt is worthy of applause, but in terms of technical mastery having a blue belt means that you have enough proficiency to protect yourself against complete noobs—barring any extreme difference in strength or weight—and you no longer make extreme mistakes in strategy or tactics. You know not to turn your back. You know to protect your neck. You know not to stick your arm in the triangle machine.
Blue belt means you don’t suck. You’re not extraordinary in the grand scheme of things, but you’ve made admirable progress. And here’s where the blue belt blues can hit hardest: learning not to suck is a vastly different proposition from learning to get good.
Concrete to Abstract
The path to blue belt is clear and concrete. Go to the beginner’s class. Learn your fundamental positions and transitions. Understand the basic goals of jiu-jitsu and put simple principles into place. When you’re on bottom, retain your guard and use it to sweep or submit. When you’re on top, pass. Don’t put your hands here. Don’t grab here. Go this direction and not this direction. And here’s what you do when someone makes those mistakes rolling with you.
After blue belt, the journey gets weird
You go from filling gaping holes in your game to having a basic understanding of most of the major parts of jiu-jitsu. From there, you have to think more deeply about the art. You have to take your simple understanding of “basic” techniques like an armbar and refine them. Not only do you have to zero-in on the mechanics that make the technique effective, but you also have to start drawing connections between that movement and other movements.
In terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy—a hierarchy of learning commonly used in the education field—remembering or regurgitating facts is the lowest end of cognitive learning. Repeating the steps of the armbar exactly as your instructor taught you is the jiu-jitsu equivalent to filling in the blanks on the test. It’s a necessary part of learning, but to continue to advance your skills means learning to understand the mechanics at play, applying those mechanics in more difficult situations, analyzing new and old techniques, evaluating the technical choices available in each position, and synthesizing all of these pieces into a self-powering jiu-jitsu mindset.