How to survive as a white belt

If you’re a new white belt, congratulations, you just joined a very elite group of people that participate in one of the most challenging yet rewarding activities possible.

I won’t sugarcoat it: BJJ is hard, especially as a white belt. It gets much easier and more fun as you improve, but during the first 6 months to a year it can be particularly challenging. Grappling is a very complex art with a lot of moving parts, so it takes time to develop skill and the physical adaptation necessary to do it. Rickson Gracie said it best:

The mats are the ocean and most people don’t know how to swim.

At many Jiu Jitsu academies there is a revolving door of new students that try BJJ for a few months then quit. Why do people quit? BJJ can be overwhelming due to the intense physicality of it and the complexity of the techniques. Often it feels like you’re just surviving because all your energy goes into trying to prevent more skilled students from tapping you out, and usually with little success.

But if you can hang in there for at least six months to a year you will have developed enough skill from the major positions to begin actually playing the game. BJJ becomes very fun at that point. In fact, it continues to get more fun as you climb the ranks because you’re no longer surviving, you’re playing the game with skill and starting to taste the success that comes with that. You’re beginning to develop superpowers, and that can be intoxicating. But it takes time to get there. You have to pay your dues. That means tapping to more skilled students. And lots of repetitions of techniques.

The best advice I can offer is this: Stick with it for a year. Make a commitment to yourself to give it a fair chance. I promise you that if you can get through that first year, not only will you have accomplished something few other people have, which you’ll feel very proud of, you will actually have built a powerful skill-set that the average person doesn’t have, one that can keep you safe. You won’t be a great grappler yet, but compared to the average Joe on the street, you’ll seem superhuman.

The second piece of advice I can give is this: Relax. Make a conscious choice to not train at 100% intensity. Monitor yourself for tension and try to make your body soft and your movements smooth.

When you watch a skilled Jiu Jitsu artist you’ll notice that they seem so relaxed. So calm. Their movements are controlled and fluid. No wasted motion. In contrast, white belts tend to be extremely tense and their movements are jerky. Every muscle in their body is tight. Everything feels like a threat to a white belt so they are constantly tense. That tension will not only make you very tired very quickly, it will slow your development because you won’t be able to feel or observe what your opponent is doing.

We all want to taste success quickly. Often, white belts try to achieve success through more intensity. They think if they can just get into better shape so they can roll harder, faster and with more intensity then they’ll be more successful. To a point this actually works. For a while. But soon they’ll come to realize that you can’t be in good enough shape if your movements are not efficient and your skill is low.

The truth is, intensity is rarely the answer in Jiu Jitsu. Intensity just makes you more prone to injury or injuring one of your training partners. And it slows down your progress because you’re relying on your physical attributes instead of on technique. The key to getting good at BJJ is consistency, not intensity.

So make a conscious choice that you’ll keep your competitive juices in check and strive instead to be relaxed, even if it means conceding a position or tapping more often. You’ll progress much faster and be less likely to get injured. Trust me on this. I’ve trained with many white belts. The ones that progress the fastest are the ones that don’t treat every roll as a life and death encounter.

Those two things are in my estimation the most important: Commit to a year of consistent training and focus on technical development more than attribute training. If you can do that, the odds that you’ll turn BJJ into a lifelong pursuit increase dramatically.

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