In September 2017, I tested for my 1st stripe on my white belt. In some ways, the real test was stepping on to the mat and saying I was ready.
On January 11th, 2020, I tested for my 4th stripe. For those that don’t know, it’s the final stripe for white belt which makes me eligible for blue belt promotion. And while I drilled probably hundreds of hours with my training partner, John, and ramped up my rolling, the hardest part was simply telling myself it was time to say yes.
You see, 4th stripe has a couple of extra layers. To start Jay and company asks 5 review questions from any material from previous stripes. By 4th stripe of white belt, that’s about 150 movements or techniques. And that’s your review. You’ve still got the roughly 50 new items to cover for the 15 or so test questions.
Then there’s the shark tank. That amazing, exhausting, inspiring, terrifying thing I watched the very first time I saw the Academy’s testing process. I’ve seen a lot of shark tanks since that first one. They never began to look easier. If anything, I began to appreciate the complexity and the utter level of suck that you must fight through. Not simply survive, but fight. Don’t pull faces, don’t make noises, don’t pull attitude, keep attacking. It’s a daunting task, especially when you’re someone who’s never been in a physical altercation in your life.
Battle of wits a time or two.
War of words on occasion.
But a brawl? Nope. Never. None.
Two weeks before the test, I asked on Thursday if we could run a practice shark tank at the end of Church (Sunday open mat). I’d trained Friday and Saturday, deliberately picking hard rolls. On Sunday, I rolled every round and continued to pick challenging partners. I had set myself up intentionally to be exhausted. When the time came, Jay started off giving a little lecture to the crew assembled about how they couldn’t take it easy on me. As a woman and also a “goofy fuck” (not how I would have phrased it, but yes), there was a tendency for people to go to easy on me. He emphasized to them that it did me no favors. The guy breaking into my house or assaulting me wouldn’t take it easy on me.
The practice shark tank was just as miserable as I expected. I was well prepared for the misery. But I wasn’t prepared to miss two major marks – don’t make noises, don’t pull faces. I had focused on those things in my rolling for test prep. During a lighthearted roll, I make might a noise or a face or even laugh (see “goofy fuck” comment above). But when I had been rolling with my shark tank in mind, I’d been careful to button it up. Having those signs of frustration and weakness leak out was a surprise and a disappointment.
Immediately after the practice tank and twice more before the test, I got infamous “Jay talks.” Anyone who’s been there knows exactly what I’m talking about. Jay has a knack for seeing right through any bullshit or see into the heart of the problem in a way you didn’t consider. He also has a habit of being overwhelming (to me at least) with the length and ferocity of these chats. It is an exhausting thing to experience and typically comes after training, when you might already be a little fried. I had 60, 45, and 30 minute lectures in the space of a week. John even got a miniature one on my behalf during our last training session before the test. Jay won’t waste his time if he doesn’t think you’re taking things seriously, so I appreciated the effort he made. But it was still overwhelming.
The general theme across all of these was that I had not rolled enough. Not that I hadn’t rolled enough recently. I hadn’t rolled enough for the number of years I’d been training. I knew that rolling tended to be the first thing to go when I was tired or stressed out by life, but I hadn’t thought my time was “too low” until he had those chats with me. At this point, all I could do was try my best to put in some hours before the test.
Once the training prep was over and the test day approached, I tried my best to get my head in the game. I gave myself a few symbolic psych ups with my signature wise ass humor. The night before, I painted my nails a color named “Black & Blue.” The morning of, a t-shirt that said “I Will” across the back joined my “Pretty Bad Ass” shorts (AKA sassy pants, which have been worn to every test so far). I listened to Halestorm good and loud on the way into the gym and even brought in my MP3 player so I could continue the psych up inside. I collected a fist bump or two as I walked to the changing cubby to pull on my gi. Then out on the mat to warm up and bullshit with John and Adam until it was test time.
Technique was up first. To my surprise, my nerves felt the same or less than previous tests while we waited for the white belts testing for stripes 1-3. When our turn came, John and I both repeated a few things where we bobbled a detail the first time but caught ourselves and corrected it with the second rep.
Previous to the test, Adam had joked about “ladies first” when it came time for our tanks. I would have been fine with getting it out of the way but after we finished up testing on technique, Jay didn’t ask us to choose. He just announced it: John, Julia, Adam.
I couldn’t tell you much about John’s shark tank even though I was in it and cheering him on until the end. I couldn’t tell you much about Adam’s either. Hell, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about mine except that I’ve relived it several times since.
It’s important that you know I’m not complaining about what comes next – this kind of stress and challenge is the point of the exercise. But describing it accurately requires describing things that may sound unreasonable to someone who isn’t part of the sport.
Here is what I can remember without looking at a video:
– One of the first unstriped white belts came at me like a freight train and I tapped because it felt like he was ready to break my jaw when he couldn’t get under it for a choke.
– When one of the last blue belts jumped off, the next landed straight to knee on belly (more surprise factor than any discomfort).
– Pockets, our current MMA fighter and my temporary roomy a while back, laid me out hard and stared down at me. My first thought: “This is the guy breaking into my house.”
If you were to watch the video, the end looks brutal. I’m clearly exhausted and people are shoving me around like a rag doll. I hit the mats so hard you can practically see the cartoon “SPLAT” graphic pop up. When the timer (finally) went off, I was on the ground with my arms wrapped desperately around Pockets’ ankle, trying to figure out how I could muster up the energy to drive to standing. And as soon as the timer went off, Jay reminded me to stand up – because the moments after the timer are part of the test too.
So what was the end result? My technique portion of the test was fine. During the tank, I managed to keep my face and my noises in check. I didn’t give up… but… when he gave his evaluation, Jay described me as being “resigned to my fate” by the end. I was given credit for having the guts to say I was ready, taking that step on the mat. And credit for showing heart. But I wasn’t where I needed to be. I had failed. I will have to repeat my shark tank.
There’s a reason this blog post is coming months after the test. One of the things I love about Jiu Jitsu is that it can make you examine yourself. It’s also part of what makes Jiu Jitsu really fucking hard.
The rest of the day I mostly kept it together. Before I left the gym, I got a hug and some quick encouragement from Phil & Cole. I grabbed food with a group of teammates. We spent a couple of hours trading some signature Academy banter and laughing a lot. When I got home and settled down, I watched the video for the first time. My heart sank as I watched and some tears leaked out but I quickly put it aside and got ready to go out dancing. I’d planned to attend my favorite cover band as a celebration, but instead I would be “dancing it out” to relieve some of the stress.
Sunday was rough. Everything started to hit me when I got home from dancing in the wee hours of the morning. Failing the test was upsetting, but it was the difficulty and overwhelming enormity of the work ahead of me that crushed me. Work I thought I had finished – at least for the moment – was now immediately ahead of me. In the quiet dark hours of Sunday, I had no one to comfort me. Loneliness put an exclamation point on the pain.
The emotions continued to come in waves until it was time for Church that afternoon. I’d already decided before I left the test Saturday that I would be attending. I needed to prove to myself that I could walk back in and start doing the work, even if or especially while the wound was still raw. I wanted to be certain my teammates saw it as well.
When I arrived at Church, it was clear that my teammates were ready to push me to do the work required. But sometimes my crew shoves when they mean to push. Like a bad middle school dance, Matt or Ashley called out “Who’s got Julia?” I tried to take a rest round and Cole got after me. After rolling with Ashley, she commented “You’re gonna crack if you keep going at that intensity.” to which I replied “I know.” My emotions started to creep up and spill over. When Cole looked over mid-roll and saw me off the mats, he yelled “Julia!” Without hesitation I vehemently yelled “FUCK YOU!” and stuck out a middle finger that was anything but the playful gesture we call the Academy Salute. Realizing I was over my limit, he called out “Sorry, love you!”
I didn’t allow myself to leave Church early (in my head, that was “fleeing”). But I spent the remaining rounds sitting quietly next to Novia (AKA “Vee”), Matt’s sweet little pit/Boston mix. Vee cuddled up against me and I patted her gently, frosting myself with white fur. When Church wrapped up, I spoke briefly to Robin and got a big squeezing hug that was badly needed at that moment.
Since that Sunday, I’ve been doing my best to tackle the challenges in front of me. It isn’t just about conditioning or hours, though both of those matter. I’ve got to get the right kind of rolls with the right kind of mindset. I need to have teammates push me and they continue to be quite happy to oblige.
There has already been one more Jay talk that stirred up a strong emotional response. I had to step off the mat to regain my composure. I went back, rolled with Eli, on the verge of sobbing but forcing myself to keep control. Then another round off to reel myself in. Then a final roll with Phil, who gave me exactly what I needed at that moment. Jay watched and even coached a bit, telling me when I made the right choices. Afterwards Phil complimented my intensity and told me to keep it up. I wondered if I could. Since I needed to keep in control of my emotions, I opted to leave the gym for the night.
I put in a few more good weeks of rolling before the world went “COVID crazy” as I’m calling it. Sometimes I rolled before class with a more experienced crowd. Sometimes I rolled after with a more mix group. And sometimes I split the difference. In either case, I was putting in time, trying to build/keep intensity, and getting some feedback that I was headed in the right direction. I don’t know exactly how long it’ll be until I can go back to training, but when I do, I know I’ll need to dive right in. The sharks are waiting.