What does it take to become a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt?

When starting out as a white belt, it is not uncommon to be hyper-focused, driven by excitement, and set on achieving the aforementioned highly coveted rank. As if initiation onto the mat automatically enrolls the practitioner into a rat race toward the finish line.

But is there a finish line? Is there really a timeframe? What if you take extended time off from training, can you return? How do you remember ALL the techniques? Do you need to compete? In the beginning, it can be confusing, even frustrating.

Ten years, one decade of dedication. This is the standard perception of how long it takes to translate your learning, technical know-how, competition experience, and sparring ability into securing your Gi with a black belt. Unfortunately, fortunately in life, standard norms don’t apply to all.

So what truly transpires between your first highly addicting hand slap, knuckle bump session, and that moment when your professor calls you forward to promote you?

Recently, I caught up with Austin Massei and Benjamin Miner, Diego Bispo Academy’s two newly advanced Black Belts to seek out their wisdom. Here’s what they had to share:

How long have you been training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu?

Ben: I started training BJJ around 2009, but I took a year off; so about 9 years

Austin: 11 years

What got you started in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu?

Ben: I was getting a job with the US Census in Honolulu, Hawaii. During the onboard training process, I made a friend that was a field manager and we started talking about wrestling. He told me he trained in a sport called Jiu-Jitsu that was similar to wrestling and offered to have me come in and train one day. That weekend, I wandered into Gracie Barra Honolulu for an afternoon class. The GB academy offered two weeks free, but I signed up after my first lesson.

Austin: I started Jiu Jitsu with some friends who were training in the gym, while I was in Coast Guard A-school in Elizabeth City, NC. I was instantly hooked.

Have you taken any breaks from training or had any extended time away since you initially started? If so, what motivated you to return?

Ben: Yes, I have had two periods in my life that I was unable to train as dedicated as I normally do (three to five days a week).

Right after receiving my blue belt, I was called up for mobilization with the US Navy Reserve for a joint mission in support of the Iraq drawdown. While out on a mission I met a brown belt whom I trained with when we could, but since it was only two or three times a month, I substituted grappling with cardio and strength training. I was out of Jiu-Jitsu for about 13 months, but my cardio and strength training helped me quickly get back in the academy.

The second period happened right after I received my purple belt. I had just moved from Hawaii to Texas, didn’t have a job, and had just started school at Texas A&M. I focused on getting back into school and finding a job that could help me sustain a roof over my head and getting back into BJJ.

I did not need the motivation to return to the sport. At each turn, I focused on either supplementing training and finding a way back into the gym.

I understand people that quit training for an array of reasons, but since day one I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life (as long as my body cooperates). So I have tried to train with the long game in mind and focus on a form of Jiu-Jitsu that compliments my body style and capabilities.

Austin: The only break I’ve taken was roughly three months due to knee surgery, but it was also one of the busiest times of my life. We were trying to build out the gym in the location DBA is in now.

In your journey, what have been some of your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?

Ben: Training to keep the long game in mind. When I roll and I lose, or I make a mistake, I put on a good face. But sometimes I really beat myself up. I know I need to be better and smarter than whatever mistake I made. This can affect my training mood and throw off me remembering to keep a consistent focus on trying to be better than yesterday, on being humble, and on remembering that the journey is full of peaks and valleys.

To overcome this, in my car I usually meditate a little while after training. I turn off the radio, the phone, and any other distraction and just think about what just took place. How could I have been different or better? Where am I lacking? Am I being complacent?

I really believe that most of us have the answers to these questions deep inside and sometimes it just takes a quiet familiar place where you can reflect.

I further ascribe, that we all probably face doubt, insecurity, or are troubled with a particular aspect of our game. As some of the best professors I’ve had, have taught me, I urge others training to also reflect and take care of their mental health. Because this game is as much mental as it is physical.

Austin: I think one of my biggest challenges is just managing my time. I try to be the best I can be in all parts of my life and when I focus on one thing too much there is always a sacrifice with something else. So being a father, husband, Active Duty military, and business owner, while also trying to keep up with my training definitely creates a big challenge.

What one or two things do you currently do in your training that you’ve found to be the most useful over time?

Ben: Even if you don’t want to train, go train! Nobody ever got better by skipping out of either exercise or training. Try to train at least three to five days a week. Everyone hits a rut. In the times when I’m really worn down or just not feeling the live rolls, I try to focus on my defense. Let people take side control or mount or back and then try to find your way out. This tactic has helped me immensely when I am rolling hard and end up in a less than ideal position.

Austin: The past year I put a little more focus on strength training and it has definitely helped. I also watch matches and study videos outside of training.  Coming to class and training with a purpose is huge. As a white and blue belt I would just show up to class, but now I really try to focus on what I’m trying to improve during my sessions.

Every belt level comes with a new set of expectations, experiences, and perspectives, can you share any advice on what you think is most important to “know” and also to “focus on” at each belt?

Ben: A really good question.

  1. White belt: Survive and focus on the basics. So many white belts want to know a flying armbar or berimbolo without knowing how to control De La Riva or how to keep a closed guard. Focus on not dying (i.e. don’t be afraid to tap) and on learning the most fundamental aspects of the game. To compete, you’ll learn the rules and feel of a tournament and it is usually a really good time even if you only go as a spectator.
  2. Blue belt: Don’t stop rolling. More people quit at blue and purple than anywhere else. This is where it starts to get really fun! Blue belt is where you’ll start to discover what kind of game you like to play and how to play it. Blue and purple belt are long journeys though, so be prepared for the long haul. Go compete and don’t be afraid to fail.
  3. Purple belt: I feel like this is where you start to refine the game you discovered at blue belt. The upper belts force you to rethink the parts that you thought you knew and the lower belts are there to allow you to try those techniques on. Again, don’t give up. Purple belt is a really long journey, but it was probably the most fun belt for me so far.
  4. Brown belt: This is where I started to learn how to bait people into the game that I like to play. Start to look back at how you roll now. You are senior enough now you should ask yourself where you are lacking. For me, I needed Professor Diego and a few others to help point out where I had grown complacent. I strongly encourage teaching a class or two or at least assistant coaching. Teaching the techniques and having people ask questions really starts to make you revisit what you thought you knew.
  5. Black belt: For me, I have started over on this list. I have really started to look hard at what fundamentals I know and where I need to improve them. As I watch those I look up to in Jiu-Jitsu, they roll smart, they turn their grip a certain way, their posture is shifted slightly, etc. This is where I plan to go over the next few years, learn to really understand and be able to apply the fundamentals.

Austin: I don’t really think there is a specific thing to focus on at each belt. However, I definitely think the fundamentals are very important when just starting out. I see it a lot now with so much information on the internet, people just starting out at white and blue belts can do fancy techniques, but once they get stuck in side control or mount its over.

How do you determine what skills to concentrate on and add to your game?

Ben: For me, I do two things, (1) I reflect on my rolls in a quasi-meditation for a little while after rolling (be it a tournament, open mat, or whatever). I ask myself where I was lacking and where I know I need to improve. (2) I ask. A “professor” title in Jiu-Jitsu is to me, very accurate. Most instructors I meet are really good at pointing out where I’m lacking or need improvement. I look up resources online or during training and then consciously try to employ a tactic to improve.

Austin: Mostly what is happening in my training sessions, if I feel like my guard is getting passed or isn’t strong, I will work on that more. If I’m getting stuck in a certain guard constantly I will study and try to figure out how to pass it. It goes back to training with a purpose. I don’t train in the gym to win or beat my teammates. I only want to get better for outside the gym.

How much of your training have you retained?

Ben: Tough question. If I put a percentage on it, I would say 60%. It is a constant struggle to remember a technique and the set up to get there. Moreover, when it fails, it makes it difficult to keep up the dedication to keep trying it. It is so easy to revert back to the game you know is successful. An excellent instructor I once had, encouraged us to keep a book of the knowledge we’d gained. Just writing a few sentences helps to reinforce memory. I also watch videos and try to look for the details that set up the choke, sweep, or whatever technique.

Austin: Everyone is different, so over the years I’ve taken what works for me specifically and left out what doesn’t work for me. All body types are different. I feel like I know how to do a lot of techniques, but I don’t use a lot.

How do you personally recover and keep your joints healthy after years of training?

Ben: I try to do other exercises or sports that help keep me moving. My son and I do pushups every night before bed, I stretch every day, and my family and I are always finding new trails and parks to hike. If I am still really sore, when I go to training, I’ll work on my defense just to keep my body moving.

Austin: I stretch, and do yoga. Not as much as I should. I like to strength train, but not to become a strongman or bodybuilder. Everything I do is based on Jiu Jitsu. Recently I’ve been going to a physical therapist, they offer cupping, acupuncture, thera-gun massage, and have also been showing me exercises to realign my spine and body. Mostly, I try to listen to my body. If something is injured I will try to protect it when training. Losing your EGO is most important when training – it’s ok to tap.

Do you take any supplements or utilize any therapies that you’d recommend?

Ben: I take multi-vitamins usually every day, but am not a fan of supplements. I am really lucky in that my wife usually cooks a lot of soups and other healthier options. While I definitely see the value in supplements in some people’s training, I plan on doing this for the rest of my life and I feel that supplements might take away from my body’s natural ability to produce what I need.

After impacting my neck pretty hard on a double leg once a few years back, I went into sports therapy to realign my back and neck. It was absolutely worth it, but it didn’t take away from my own need to stretch every day.

Austin: Creatine, BCAAs, and CBD are my most used supplements at the moment.

What does it mean to you, to reach this point in your journey?

Ben: During the promotion ceremony, I was without words. It means so much, but it is also a reminder that this is another step in my development in the art and it is up to me to seek out and find the next step. I feel that I was trusted with, what is to me, a sacred trust to continue to be better and to help mentor others where I can. I plan to fulfill that trust.

Austin: For me, the black belt is just a sign that I never quit. I told myself when I started Jiu Jitsu that no matter what I wasn’t going to quit. Jiu-Jitsu has helped every part of my life and has truly made me a better person. I think God brought me to Jiu-Jitsu to give me a kick in the butt and straighten me out. I was a young punk kid.

What’s next, where do you go from here?

Ben: I’m going to start competing more often. I stopped competing for a while and I think that was a mistake. I’d like to either help out at the tournaments or compete, or both. This will help me to be a better practitioner of the art and allow me to offer encouragement to those starting their journey that may have reservations about competition.

Austin: I just keep going. This year will be a lot different for me now that I separated from the Coast Guard. I’m really excited and also I’m looking forward to competing at Black Belt!

Anything you’d recommend to others during their journey?

Ben: Don’t quit. I recently told my son that if your goal in life is to earn a black belt, then you should just go out and buy one on Amazon. It is about the journey. If you can remember that, you won’t be disappointed if you don’t get that stripe or that next belt, you can focus on improvement and not “the next level.”

Austin: Just keep going, life will get tough. There will always be a reason not to train. If you can only train once per week, then train once per week. Just don’t quit. It will be worth it.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Ben: Without training partners, there is no Jiu Jitsu. Take care of them as you do yourself. To me, BJJ is a lifestyle choice and it is one where the people on the mat are my extended family. I am still friends with the person that first introduced me to BJJ. And now I literally have friends around the entire world because of this sport. So train hard, learn, and don’t forget to have a good time doing it.