10 Things to Think about from a White Belt in Jiu-Jitsu

Currently, I have been training in Jiu-Jitsu for a little over 10 months, and so far I have done nothing but fall in love with the sport. I train at Jiu Jitsu Methods in Las Vegas, Nevada, under the instruction of Rene Lopez. I have nothing but high praise and admiration for everything he and his gym have taught me, as well as for the ways in which I have been taught. Jiu Jitsu Methods is a warm and welcoming environment which seeks to make others better without trying to tear them down. Thus, it has been easy to start opening my eyes to the full breadth of what Jiu-Jitsu is.

Jiu-Jitsu is a great outlet for all walks of life, all shapes and sizes, and all ages. But do not be fooled; Jiu-Jitsu is just as much a way to work your mind as it is a way to work your body. Whether your goal is to get in better shape, learn more about your own body mechanics, or increase your chances of survival with self-defense, Jiu-Jitsu has something for you. However, there are a few things to highlight before diving into the items that I feel are the most important for a beginner. Let’s assume that the following will always take precedence over anything that may conflict with them.

First, always respect and follow the rules that your instructors have set forth for their gym, as well as the instructors themselves. Second, if you visit another gym, respect and follow the rules there even more vehemently than you would at your own gym; and make sure that you treat everyone around you kindly and with the utmost respect. Third, always wash your gi, and yourself, after training. And if you can shower before you train, do that as well. Fourth, always concern yourself with the well-being of your training partners, even if they do not concern themselves with yours. And finally, enjoy yourself and the time you are spending training. Assuming these five maxims hold true before anything else, here are 10 things to think about from a white belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

#1: Do things the exact way you are instructed to

Every takedown, every sweep, every guard, every submission, every move, and every sequence of moves requires correct positioning of your entire body – from your head to your toes – relative to your opponent and the floor. Misplaced feet, hands, foot pressure, or grips can turn a good sweep for you into a beautiful submission for your opponent. When your instructor tells you to do a move or sequence in a specific order, with specific hand and foot placement, do it the way you are told.

Your instructor’s goal is not to increase the difficulty of Jiu-Jitsu for you so that they can say that you “put in the time” or “built some character” before you learn anything useful. If anything, your instructor’s goal is to make things as easy as possible so that you can do each move you are taught, either while drilling or live, consistently, correctly, and without thought or injury. Moreover, these moves will chain into more advanced moves later on, and incorrect positioning will make adding new moves much more difficult and frustrating.

So, always follow your instructor’s directions to a “T”. They are giving you specific instructions for a reason, even if it does not seem like it now. Eventually you will get to a place where you find out why you’ve been doing things the way you’ve been told to do them.

#2: Always ask questions

Sometimes it can be difficult to constantly perform a task when you don’t understand why it’s being done. If you find yourself feeling this way, or just generally don’t understand something, speak up and ask your questions! Doing this serves both you and your instructors, along with your fellow gym members who have the same questions.

For you, you’ll get an explanation which adds context or nuanced details that you might have missed. You might also see how a particular move that you’ve been struggling with can be connected to other moves, or at least to similar hand and foot positions and movements. You might also be asking questions that other beginners might be too afraid to ask. Asking questions helps those folks out, too, and might help you start building friendships with them, hopefully leading to better training partners.

Additionally, asking questions also helps your instructor. Jiu-Jitsu is a very complicated sport, with a near-infinite amount of combinations and situations that arise from just two people moving around each other. Weaving through these extensive possibilities and instructing others on what to do is even more complicated, and that’s why your questions help. If your instructor gets the same questions consistently, perhaps that is a sign they might not be detailed enough, or have missed explaining some details altogether. These are things your instructor needs to know. Getting new questions can help expand your instructor’s perspectives, causing them to see new and better ways to teach a certain skill or move. Asking questions helps keep everyone’s learning path dynamic and full of growth, both for the student and the instructor, and will lead to better Jiu-Jitsu.

#3: Pick one takedown, one sweep, one guard, and one submission, and master each one

As a beginner, your options are going to be fairly limited. There won’t be much that you can do for your first few months of training. However, you can still master what little you do know. The other stuff will come soon enough.

It’s highly likely that you’ll learn just a couple of takedowns (most likely Double-Leg and Single-Leg). Pick one that you like best, and try to perfect it. Do the same with sweeps. You’ll likely learn just a few (Scissor Sweep, Balloon Sweep, and Hip-bump Sweep). Pick one that you like best, and try to perfect it. Do the same for whichever guards you learn– which will likely be Closed Guard and Half Guard. And again, do the same for submissions. You’ll likely learn a few submissions (Arm-bar, Kimura, Rear-naked Choke, and Triangle). Pick one that you like best, and try to perfect it.

This is not to say that you aren’t trying hard to attempt to do anything else that you are taught. Moreso, mastering your favorite moves means paying the utmost attention to every detail of yourself and your opponent when trying to perform them. Ideally you would do this with everything you do, but that’s a little far-fetched (especially for a beginner). If you try to shove everything into your head with equal importance, you might find it difficult to remember any of it. Rather than trying to do everything all the time, create a toolbox of just a few moves that you are working on perfecting so that eventually you can perform those moves without thinking. Let the other moves come to you in time.

Personally, the moves I am trying to perfect are:

Takedown: Hip-toss

Sweep: Hip-bump Sweep

Guard: Half-Guard

Submission: Loop Choke

Some of these moves I like because they feel natural to me. Others I like because they chain nicely with other moves. For instance, the Hip-bump Sweep follows very nicely from a failed Kimura attempt. I know that if I go for a Kimura and fail, I at least have a solid option of the Hip-Bump Sweep to try and turn the tide of a match. And yet, there are other moves that I like because I feel weakest with them. I feel that I’m weaker at Half-Guard than I am at Closed Guard, so I chose to work on Half Guard the most. I like working on something that I believe I’m not good at, even if I have a superior choice that I can use instead.

Now, the trick is to keep two separate goals in your head. Your first goal is to perfect your favorite moves while drilling. Your second, and much more difficult goal, is to perform those moves while rolling live, or during a match. You will often find that you can do moves perfectly while drilling (it’s always easy to hit a still target). Yet while going live, no matter how hard you try or how perfectly you set your opponent up, you just can’t hit your favorite moves. That is entirely okay and, frankly, to be expected. Keep trying over, and over, and over again. Eventually, you will start hitting the moves sporadically, and then you’ll start to hit them consistently.

#4: Pick one advanced guard and try to get to it

After you pick up the basics of framing and creating space between you and your opponent, as well as basic submissions, sweeps, and guards, you might get shown a few more advanced guards. They’ll probably be X-Guard, De La Riva Guard, Spider Guard, or something else. Try to pay close attention when these guards are introduced and taught because you’ll still likely spend most of your time working on the basics, and it can be difficult to remember positions when you seldom see them.

When you drill these guards, see which one feels most natural to you and then get obsessed with it. Get very comfortable with the guard’s basic hand and foot placement. Drill moving from your favorite basic guard to the new advanced guard as often as you can. And then finally, try to connect your favorite moves into this new guard. Find ways and ask questions about how to use De La Riva Guard to take the back, how to use Spider Guard to do an Omoplata, or any other combination of guards and moves that your imagination becomes curious about. This is where you can start to find your own style.

However, doing all of this doesn’t mean much if you can’t perform under pressure. Your true goal should be gaining the ability to get into your favorite advanced guard’s starting positioning during a match or a live roll. After that point, it doesn’t matter what happens. Whether you lose the position, actively retain the position, or maneuver yourself to get a submission, you’ve still accomplished the goal. Now, try to keep it, get it back, or do it again. You don’t need to get overly fancy or complicated at this point in your journey. You simply need to be able to get to your guard without getting smashed, passed, or submitted; and you need to be able to do that consistently. Building that foundation first will help you do everything else much more easily later on.

#5: Communicate and make friends

It’s important to remember that everyone at your gym, and even everyone who you train with in general for that matter, is a person, and that they are trying to get better. Don’t be afraid to speak with them before, during, or after rolling (but not during a match). Let the other person know what you’re looking for, and ask them what they want: a light roll, working from a particular position, defending passes, just a live round. Compliment each other when one of you hits a move that has been taught. This doesn’t mean that you roll without intensity or effort; it simply means that you give recognition and admiration where it is due.

Moreover, you should always thank your partner after you roll with them. Give them any genuine praise that comes to your mind. This will help make your training partners feel welcome in your presence and want to see you succeed. It will also make others want to help you by sharing any advice they have. The best way to get everyone to want to help each other is to be friends. Everyone wants to help a kind and genuine person, so be happy for your training partners when they hit a move on you or do something well. Even if it’s bad for you, communicating with your training partners that they did something good helps them get better, and then they’ll want to help you get better because of that.

Most importantly, you should always check with your partner if you feel that something is going too far, or you accidentally do something you shouldn’t. If you feel that a submission you are trying is hurting your partner, or maybe a body part of theirs is caught within your gi, stop and ask if they are okay. It’s better to restart a roll for sake of caution than to continue pressing forward and break joints for the sake of pride. If you think you might have choked your partner unconscious, check on them. Remember, it’s possible for someone to be in a position where they can neither verbally or physically tap. Don’t allow yourself to get to a point where you are worried about that fact. If you accidentally poke your partner in the face while trying to pull guard, or maybe kick or hit them in an attempt to break their grips, stop and ask if they are okay. If they are, keep going. If not, seek help from someone.

This also works in the other direction. If you are being hurt from a move, tap. If your limbs are stuck inside your partner’s gi, ask them to stop and fix the situation. If you get poked in the eye and need a little time to recover and make sure you can still see, say so. While you may find yourself wanting to tough out everything uncomfortable that happens to you, it is also okay to take a second to assess your well-being in the moment. You can always sit out a round or two. You can’t reverse permanent damage.

However, good communication and genuine care for a partner’s well-being won’t always work. There may be someone who regularly attends your gym, or a guest from another gym, who just has a chip on their shoulder and absolutely does not believe in being polite, kind, or respectful. They’ll speak poorly about your performance as you’re rolling. They’ll try to ignore the bumping of hands before a roll. They might try to hurt you rather than submit you. They may not even thank you at the end of the roll. Keep pursuing benevolence and good communication, especially with people you don’t like or who are disrespectful. Doing so reflects well upon you, your gym, and your instructors. Sinking to a lower level only accomplishes the opposite.

So, always communicate with and be friendly towards the people you roll with. If your partner acts the same, you’ll both get better. If they do not act the same, at the very least they will hate you for being friendly when they know you have every right to be mean to them (and if things get ugly, your instructor might even step in and hand out the craziest ass-whooping you’ll ever see in your life). At best you’ll mop the floor with them, smell like roses while doing so, and your instructor will be watching with a smile.

#6: Do not be a practice hero

It is often said at Methods, in both the kids’ and adults’ classes, “don’t break your toys.” For the kids, it’s an easy turn of phrase to get them to understand that hurting their training partners is like breaking their toys: it’s something bad. For the adults, it’s a way to easily convey a more convoluted truth: hurting your training partners hurts you just as much.

If someone you train with gets injured, they will either have to stop training completely in order to heal, or train at less than their best ability. In either case, you miss out on learning optimally from that person. This is significant because each person has a unique set of preferences, skills, body type, flexibility, strength, and agility. Training with as many different combinations of these attributes as possible will help you when you roll against new people. You’ll be able to make educated guesses about what your opponents may or may not do. So, each training partner that you lose, for whatever reason, is detrimental to you and everyone else. Don’t add to that pot by hurting people. That means do not be a practice hero.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t roll hard or lower the amount of intensity you put into your efforts. Rather, it means that you don’t train with the intent of trying to best everybody by any means necessary, nor do you do so to the point that what you’re doing becomes dangerous. You train with the intent to learn and get better. You will even have to slow down your rolling, and roll with more strategic positioning in mind, in order to do so. Throwing your training partner in a million directions with all your might, deliberately crushing weak body parts, slamming your partner, or suddenly yanking submissions without giving your partner an appropriate amount of time to tap does not help you learn. It might help you win one whole round; but it will lead to you or your partner getting seriously injured.

Yes, everyone wants to win. However, the goal of training is not to win. The goal of training is to learn. You do not need to crank submissions to learn. You do not need to crush ribs to learn. Take care of your toys and get better, but please do not break them by being a practice hero.

#7: You’ll get stripes and promotions when you earn them

Stripes and promotions are a funny subject for some, and a touchy one for others. Some gyms have very strict guidelines about time spent training in order to earn a stripe or promotion. Others are more performance based, looking at how well you do during training and tournaments to help determine when stripes and promotions are earned. In either case, the important thing to remember is that you earn them.

At times, you might find yourself frustrated with your progress. Maybe you feel that you’ve earned a stripe or promotion even though you haven’t received one. You’ve put in time and competed well enough to feel that you deserve one by now. Or, you might find that you don’t really care about stripes or promotions at all; you’re just there to learn as much as possible and aren’t beholden to the idea that a ranking system makes someone better or worse at something.

Wherever you find yourself, it is your instructor’s decision to present you with a stripe or promotion. This means that when you are given a stripe or promotion, you have proven to your instructor that you have progressed far enough that you deserve to be commended with a milestone. Keep in mind that there are only 16 stripes and 3 belts between a white belt and a black belt. Earning one is not done easily and will take time. Be patient if you find yourself in want of another one. If you find that you don’t care about stripes and promotions, still be perceptive that these things are moments of recognition from your instructor, and should be treated as such. Either way, you receive stripes and promotions when you’ve earned them and not a moment sooner.

#8: Use your instructors’ experiences

Your instructors don’t spring out of the ground with high levels of knowledge and skill without any experience. They had to claw their way through years of training and dedication. You do not get to a higher level by trying to duplicate things you’ve seen in highlight reels once a week. You have to train consistently and with direction, for years, to become high-level. This experience produces a vast well of knowledge about all sorts of situations you may find yourself in. Ask about them.

Most, if not all instructors, have experience competing in Jiu-Jitsu. Ask your instructors about how some of their matches went – both early in their careers and later on. Ask which guard each of your instructors prefers, and why. Ask them about some of the tricks they’ve learned to do with their favorite guard, and how they discovered them. Ask them about times when they felt their progress was static or stagnant.

Asking these kinds of questions will do a lot of things for all involved. For you, it will help connect dots and fill holes in understanding as they come up. It will also help you feel more connected to your instructors as you hear stories about their lives. For your instructors, it will give them a chance to be more candid and personable with their students. It will also give them a chance to reflect on things they might not have thought about in a long time, and could lead to realizations about better ways they can teach their students. And for all those listening, asking these questions can give new perspectives and levels of understanding, which will hopefully lead into more questions.

#9: Try to lose

Everyone wants to win. There is no doubt about that. But, author Stephen McCranie put it best when saying, “the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” It is practically guaranteed that your instructors have lost more rounds than you have ever attempted in your life. It is that sheer amount of experience that has made them as good as they are. If you want to get there, you’re going to have to roll against others; and if you roll against others, you will eventually lose.

This is not to dampen the mood. If anything, it’s a good thing. The cold, hard truth is that you get better in the discipline of Jiu-Jitsu when you get your ass kicked. Nothing makes you sit back and focus on what you’re doing wrong and how you’re doing it wrong like getting tapped by the same Arm-bar for the 10th time in a row. Losing shows you that there is a deficiency in your game, be it experience, knowledge, strength, application, or anything else. Winning could mean that your game is balanced and effective, but this likely won’t be true until you’ve progressed much farther along. At the beginner level, winning just masks your deficiencies with the illusions of pride and success. Therefore, in order to progress quickly and effectively, you need to consistently place yourself in situations where you are very likely to lose. The easiest way to do that is to roll with people who are much better than you.

In other words, roll with the higher belts. It will help you because you won’t be able to rely on any natural attributes like strength or flexibility. You’ll be forced to use good technique and positioning in order to stand a chance at surviving, and that will reveal exactly where your deficiencies are. As you roll, wherever you fail to complete or defend an attack is precisely where your technique and positioning are faulty. The only way to get better is to learn about what you don’t know, and the only way to discover what you don’t know is to lose. So go ahead and try to lose! At worst, you’ll get better.

#10: Laugh and have fun

Finally, the most important thing to keep in mind as you continue your journey through Jiu-Jitsu is to laugh and have fun. It’s easiest to learn when you enjoy what you’re doing, and laughter is one of the best expressions of enjoyment. That’s it. No big secret or detailed breakdown.

Find joy in what you’re doing, and communicate that with others. You don’t have to walk around with a manic smile, laughing like a psychopath, but you shouldn’t try to hide any feelings of happiness or joy. Things will happen that you or your partner, or both, will find fun and humorous. Laugh about those things, and appreciate the joy that is being experienced. It’ll be easier to come back tomorrow and train – when you’re tired, sore, and frustrated. And returning for more training is the only way to get better!

So that’s it. Truly, there is an ever-growing list of things that Jiu-Jitsu will make you consider and care about. At times, everything about Jiu-Jitsu can feel overwhelming – perhaps to the point of wanting to stop training altogether. But, if you focus on the most basic principles, both on and off the mats, everything else will fall into place; you’ll just need a little more time and training before that happens.