Written by Ryan Kellar, BJJ black belt instructor at Team Ronin Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu .
I’ll begin by stating that not all schools of Jiu-Jitsu will agree with my ideas, and that’s fine.
Dawn of the white belt
So you’ve taken the first step and tied (or attempted to tie….don’t worry, we’ll help you learn) a white belt around your waist. The white belt phase of your journey is difficult to describe in any particular fashion, as it manifests in different ways. At this point it may be safe to assume that you know why you have chosen to start your Jiu-Jitsu education. Be it self defense, a fun activity, or to increase your overall athleticism, Jiu-Jitsu will provide.
For many, the introduction to Jiu-Jitsu is somewhat awkward. We are so used to keeping to ourselves and not physically engaging with our peers. Many of us are weaned from physical touch early in life, often when we’re on the school ground attempting to roughhouse. Decades later and study after study demonstrates the benefits of allowing children to play rough. It’s time you reclaim your birthright.
The first encounters on the mat (usually with experienced grapplers) may have you standing there wondering what it is that you are supposed to do. There is only one way to learn and that is to grab, push and pull.
Outside the box
Jiu-Jitsu promotes many movements that are extremely unorthodox. Like Yoga, we stretch, contract, twist, turn, extend, pivot, invert, all while attempting to maintain a sense of calm, not only with our breathing but with our focus. Couple that with trying to control or submit someone who is providing an extreme amount of pressure and resistance. Unlike the daily grind, where we simply go through a mix of standing, sitting or laying, without much demand for any sort of dynamic movements, Jiu-Jitsu classes often spend considerable time on drills and movements that enhance what your body is capable of. These drills are paramount and deserve every effort you can give them.
Your time in class
I know that the mood in classes is sometimes relaxed and casual and we enjoy a joke and laugh here and there, but that does not mean it is kosher to flake and goof around at the expense of the lesson and/or your peers. The instructor is there to lead a lesson. The objective being the transfer and execution of knowledge. Respect your instructors; respect your peers; respect the mats/dojo/club; and respect yourself. The easy way to do the latter is to be punctual, in a clean uniform and ready to listen, watch and learn. Learn to trim your nails and check your skin regularly for anything irregular. Asking questions is always welcomed.
Your personal focus
While you wear a white belt, there are a few ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Please take note. This is not simply about etiquette, but also about making smart choices.
-Do not attempt to teach. I know that you likely wish to be helpful, and/or wish to show some of the wonderful things you’ve learned. However, please know that this is not your role at this time. If someone is asking about a technique, or you feel they should learn a detail, please ensure that a coloured belt (more senior the better) is the one to answer technical questions. Despite your intentions, you may lead others astray.
-Use the curriculum, if there is one. This is the time to give your main focus to learning the techniques and drills outlined in your school’s curriculum. To make it simple, the curriculum is often divided up into 4 sections, one for every stripe. Focusing on one section at a time, drilling and learning each technique, inside and out, is the key to navigating through your white belt phase. Please note, this is not the time to be focusing on random moves seen on Youtube or other instructionals. Once you achieve your Blue belt, you can do that all you like.
-Roll. Roll as much as possible. Part of the reason why Jiu-Jitsu is as addictive as it is, is because we’ve formed it into a game with objectives, points and ways to win. When we roll, we are playing the game. Joy is often found here. As your abilities grow and advance, you’ll be ready for #4.
-Compete. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Competition is at the very core of our martial art culture. It is how we know that what we do works… or not. It is the true measuring stick and provides us with an avenue to test what we’ve learned. You will grow more from competing than from anything else. That being said, it’s important not to see Jiu-Jitsu solely in a competitive lens. For this reason, I don’t believe that competing is mandatory. It is supplemental to your training and an element in the learning process. Too often competition is placed front and center, drowning out the focus on self defense, philosophy and the martial art itself.
Be ready to assist. Being a drilling partner, a teacher’s assistant (aka Uke) is an excellent way to learn, as you will understand better than anyone, the grips, timing, pressure as well as focus on connection and balance as your teacher demonstrates on you.
And finally…..Tap. Tap often. Submitting to your training partners and teacher will be a reality from here on out. However, as you progress, that will happen less and less.
Light at the end of the tunnel
For many this is the hardest and most challenging time in Jiu-Jitsu, period. You’re going to get smashed, flattened and smeared into the mats. Whether it be by chests, shoulders, or knees, the pressure will often feel unbearable and you’ll be gasping for breath. But fear not, this is a right of passage in itself and something you should, nay, must endure. Once you have learned to find your calm in the storm, you will learn how to deploy techniques that will save you and set you on the path of your choosing. There is a common saying that Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone. I prefer to say that Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone…..to try. One of the hallmarks of our martial art is that it demands that we learn how to endure, that we become more than we are. But in the end, it’s not for everyone. Jiu-Jitsu is truly a lifestyle that is waiting to be embraced and will only provide a lifetime of rewards to those who are open to it.
Congratulations on your first promotion (to white belt). I hope you stick with it.
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