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Mentorship: A Dangerous Mentee

One of the greatest pleasures of advancement into Jiu-Jitsu is being able to guide and mentor others. Some of these relationships are brief while others span the time of a few years or even longer. It’s incredibly rewarding and something that genuinely has to happen at some point, I believe that it’s a form of paying it forward for the mentor.

As a White and early Blue Belt my mentor was a Purple Belt by the name of Will Baldwin. We trained out of a smaller gym, one that required the advanced students to take other students under their wing if they wanted to have quality training partners. While it was a necessity, it’s also time consuming and requires a bit of patience. Will was and is an incredibly patient training partner that taught me so much. After some time together, I started finally keeping rolls between us far more honest. While I would usually lose the round, I would start to have my moments. Eventually, I would get a sweep here, a positional win there, until I was finally legitimate threat of sorts.

The thing about the mentor and mentee relationship is that there’s such a level of familiarity that’s gained from constantly rolling with one another that there are few “tricks” to play. Much like in relationship, you know each other on a deeper level. You know when the other is off, when they’re gassed but faking it, and when they’re setting you up.

Fast forward a few years and I’m now a Black Belt with a couple of my own mentees under my wing, one of which is a talented Purple Belt by the name of Marco. Marco works the front desk and practically lives at the gym. It’s a benefit that he’s taken advantage with great success. There was a time when he was a White Belt who was technically deficient in a bunch of areas but was extremely energetic and driven. The rounds were much easier back then and the holes in his game easier to walk through and exploit.

Unfortunately those days are dead and gone.

He’s reached a point in his development where nothing is easy. Every position is a fight and every round I have with him can go his way If I make even the smallest of errors. As an advanced belt, it’s easy to get down on yourself about it, but what’s the point? At the end of the day it doesn’t diminish what I’m doing. If anything it’s more of a compliment to a certain degree, in that I’ve helped him in my own way.

I remember one time when Marco and I had a tough round, one in which he was able to strangle me. I was impressed, not surprised, I could see his skill building long before he did. We shook hands and went at it again. Later that evening or the day after, I sent him a text telling him how happy I was for his growth and ended it with, “Also, f**k you for strangling me.” The following interaction consisted of him humbly accepting my compliment and said that it was “bitter sweet” and even apologized at one point.

The bitter sweet emotional response is natural. There’s a level of gratitude that mentee will feel for their mentor, they don’t want to come off as disrespectful to the mentor or make them doubt themselves. On the flip side, the mentor can feel both proud that their pupil has grown to the level of being a legitimate threat, while potentially feeling like their own growth has stagnated in some way.

In the end, I want those that come after me to ultimately do better. I’ve reached a point where I never leave the gym feeling down about myself. For example, recently I had the top control in Turtle on Marco and was submitted when I placed my arm in too deep. I view that tap as a lesson to learned, opposed to something being wrong with me as a practitioner.

I’m not so tightly tethered to the identity of a Black Belt or even that of a mentor, that I get offended by the idea of being submitted by a lower belt, much less someone who I’ve had a hand in helping. At the end of the day, the best mentor and mentee relationships are built on both parties being able to teach and learn from each other. I am by no means an expert in all fields when it comes to Jiu-Jitsu. The mentee may have developed an expertise in something that I as the mentor don’t posses and can learn from. That’s the beautiful aspect of these relationships.

Marco for example has example has a very troublesome Turtle. You never quite feel secure holding the position, because he has an incredible ability to attack the controlling arm.

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