Lately, I’ve been approaching my rolls with lower belts as a conversation in a language we are both learning. I’m not a native speaker, but I’m more fluent in the language than they are. And no matter the differences in our ability, it’s on me to make sure we both enjoy the conversation.

You’ve probably seen the old analogy regarding BJJ and language:

  • White belt is like learning the letters of the alphabet
  • Blue belt is like learning that the letters make words
  • Purple belt is learning how to construct sentences out of words
  • Brown belt is the ability to write cogent paragraphs
  • Black belt is the ability to write poetry

I like this analogy on one level, but on another level I think there’s something missing. This analogy is all about your personal relationship with a language, but BJJ is about interacting with others–it’s a conversation.

And it’s not like anyone begins BJJ with zero knowledge of how their body works and can move. It’s not like people don’t have arms and legs that bend before their first class. And they’re aware of other people’s anatomy as well, even though they may not understand how to manipulate it. They’ve probably even played other sports at some point.

In other words, people are already aware of the CONCEPTS of letters/words/sentences/paragraphs/poetry. They just don’t know how to construct those things in THIS LANGUAGE.

So I think a better analogy than the one above is that BJJ is like achieving fluency in a foreign language. When I think of it using this framework, it gives me a mindset I can actually take into training.

While I’m just a purple belt and can’t have a high level “intellectual conversation” with a black belt, I feel like I have a decent grip on the “language”–think someone whose native language is Spanish, but has lived in the U.S. for 10 years or so. There aren’t many situations where I’m completely lost, but I’m also keenly aware when people are talking over my head.

  • I incorrectly conjugate verbs every now and then (bad grips). Some verbs I do this with habitually.
  • I have a thick accent (leave out finer details in techniques).
  • I revert back to Spanglish sometimes when I get stuck expressing myself (muscle through stuff).

But I can roll with brown and black belts and they know what I’m trying to do/communicate. They are aware of all the stuff I’m doing wrong, and can choose to correct me (make me pay for the mistakes), or just keep the conversation going. But it’s really on them to decide how the conversation is going to go.

I’ve rolled a few rounds with brand new white belts recently, and I’ve tried to approach those rolls with this mindset–this is a person who has a limited knowledge of the language. They know a few key words and phrases, but our conversations are going to be limited.

It’s on me to carry the conversation.

Think about it this way–if you met someone who knew a few English words and phrases around food and sports, you wouldn’t try to have a conversation with them about politics or economics. And you definitely wouldn’t try to talk with them about how politics and economics are connected. You’d stick with topics they know–food and sports.

So in these rolls, we’re keeping the topic mostly limited to closed guard and mount. Their sweeps, passes, and attacks will be really basic, and probably a bit sloppy. But I understand what they are trying to do. Even if they get the nouns and adjectives out of order or leave out articles in their “sentence”, I get the idea they are trying to express.

And it’s on me to keep the conversation alive. That may mean doing things like giving up a sweep or slowing down the “conversation” so that they can see/feel the armbar opportunity, even though I’d never intentionally leave my arm in that spot with a fluent speaker. I can even use the “conversation” as a way to help them improve in the “language”.

Imagine someone says to you, “I enjoying food with spicies.” You may respond with, “Oh…you enjoy spicy foods! I enjoy spicy food also!” What you’ve done is correct them without being a jackass about it–you’ve shown them that you understand, and you have modeled the correct syntax for them. That gets registered in their brain and helps them later.

I had a situation like this with a new white belt last night. He had me mounted and was trying to cross collar choke me–all muscle and pulling on lapels. It wasn’t working at all, but I totally knew what he was trying to do. More importantly, I could identify his major mistakes. My response in this “conversation” was to roll into his guard, break it open, knee cut pass, mount him, and cross-collar choke him.

All stuff he’s seen.

He got it immediately. After the roll he asked why my choke worked and his didn’t. DINGDINGDING!!!! He’s trying to learn the correct way to express himself in this language.

Now, to be fair, a black belt would have watched this and chuckled at my simple, “I like spicy food” sentence construction. The next roll they’d Ezekiel choke me while I have them mounted. In affect, they are saying to me:

“While mild and sweet dishes are occasionally pleasing to me when my pallet is in a particularly sensitive state, I sometime throw caution to the wind and indulge in spicy foods in order to vicariously satisfy my unquenched thirst for adventure.”

Big words. Idioms. Complex sentence structure. Abstraction of concepts.

Stuff I can’t do yet. And I tap.