As many readers know, my health has been deteriorating for some time. While I had a second neck surgery last December to stem the tide of nerve and muscular degeneration, I am still having some problems with my right hand. Needless to say, these can be trying times. I teach and write for a living (plus I am right handed). Feeling like I have a fire inside my dominant arm and/or feeling like my fingers are numb and heavy doesn't make me a happy person. It also makes it hard for me to train as I would prefer. Indeed, other than some occasional leg locks/footsies (which keeps my neck and my opponent's neck out of play), I am very limited when it comes to what I can do on the mats.
So, where does that leave my progression? I started this more than a decade ago and because I have moved around a lot, my own journey has been a slow one (there's nothing quite like constantly being the "new guy" to slow your promotions to a trickle). Despite trying my best to be an encyclopedia of grappling knowledge, pouring my energy into being the best teacher I can be, running a blog, watching as much instructional and competition video as my professional life allows, regularly showing up to class, etc., I am nevertheless a busted up and broken 43 year old who can no longer roll without placing myself in unnecessary danger. So, how do I move forward?
This is obviously precisely the sort of question one ought to be asking one's coaches and instructors--which is what I am starting to do. With several black belts just at our gym alone, it will take a while for me to make the rounds. But some of the first advice I got yesterday was helpful and thought provoking--so, I thought I would share it with the readers of the blog. In short, I was told to look at progression as a series of buckets. Each bucket represents another skill or way of making valuable contributions to the gym. There is a competition bucket. There is a bucket that is focused on making progress relative to other teammates. There is a bucket for collecting one's knowledge and yet another for keeping up with how well you transmit that knowledge to others. There is a bucket for how well you represent the gym--e.g., are you a good ambassador? There is yet another bucket for how you treat other people in the gym--especially lower belts.
On this bucket list approach, each practitioner is going to have a different bucket composition. In my case, while I have competed in the past, that is not part of my future. The same goes for measuring my skills against the other members of the gym. I am too busted up and rolling is potentially too dangerous. So, I am relegated to filling these other buckets as a way of making up the difference.
My question is: Are these other buckets as respected and as noticed as the first two? In my experience, based on time spent at multiple gyms around the country, the answer is "no." Knowledge, technical proficiency, teaching skills, ambassadorship, and these others facets of growth tend to be undervalued while ability during live rolls is the gold standard for progress. I am not in a position to say whether this set of evaluative preferences is the right one. What I will say is that it can seem unfair at times. After all, one's knowledge base and one's ability to teach seem every bit as important as one's ability to roll--especially when one can't roll through no fault of one's own. But so long as rolling is the gold standard, someone in my position will be on the proverbial slow track when it comes to promotions even if those being promoted may know less, teach less, help less, etc. So, while I really like the bucket approach to thinking about progress in jiu jitsu, I, for one, think all buckets should be created equally--except for perhaps the competition bucket (which really is the highest proving ground).
But here again, my thoughts are neither here nor there. If you find yourself in my unenviable position, all you can do is keep your head down and work on filling the buckets you have the capacity to fill. If you can't compete or train, then teach. If you're not yet ready to teach, be the best ambassador for the gym you can be. Be nice to lower belts--help them improve rather than using them merely to shore up your own game. Come to class regularly, pay attention, and work hard. Most importantly, try hard not to pay attention to how and when others are progressing. As I have learned, this is a fool's errand, more likely to frustrate than to be illuminating. Instead, have a open and frank discussion with your instructors about what they value and how they evaluate--especially in atypical cases. No one owes you anything in life in some deeper sense. But that doesn't mean that the people who you select as mentors don't owe you an explanation--especially when you are doing the best you can to progress in the only ways you can. So, don't give up just because your path is different, slower, or more frustrating. Keep your eye on the final goal and not other people's journeys. That will do nothing but complicate and problematize your own journey. Indeed, it may even set you back a few steps or stop your journey in its tracks altogether.