I’ve never written about jiu jitsu before.
Mainly, this is because I didn’t want to be the brand new guy running his mouth about stuff. Some white belt pontificating about jiu jitsu is about as valuable as a guy who can’t put up two plates telling you how to bench.
I didn’t know when I started that in order to “put in the time,” to earn my blue belt and feel like I could finally write an article about some of my experiences with grappling would take me the better part of three years, but that’s how it goes.
Ironically, I started training because of an injury, in November of 2015, thinking that jiu jitsu would be a little easier on my body than lifting weights, which is hilarious to think about now. There are people who tell you that jiu jitsu is good for you- I think these people are looking for memberships, because every high level guy I’ve trained with has had the same grim message for me: jiu jitsu, if you’re training hard, will break your body down and especially over 30, you pretty much feel injured or hurt all the time.
To be fair, I had done a little it of grappling years before, in a D.I.Y. gym myself and some friends had, where my brother Matthias and my good friend Chad walked us through some of the basics of Gracie Jiu Jitsu from online courses and VHS tapes they had. I didn’t progress much then, and couldn’t have told you a Darce from an Anaconda, but one important thing did happen: I used jiu jitsu in a street fight.
Making a somewhat long story short, a fight broke out at a party I was at, that might have been started when someone interrupted the Danzig I was listening to on the stereo with some inferior music, and an argument turned into a brawl. It didn’t take much to get me swinging back then.
The guy I was fighting was a good bit bigger than me, I think I only weighed around 145 at the time, and things got dicey when I realized he was a pretty good scrapper- I wound up on the bottom, with him in full mount, raining down punches from a solid and stable top position.
My training came to me- I put my knee in his back and shoved up, hard. He went forward, up toward my head, momentarily destabilized. I wrapped one arm around his back, grabbed his tricep in a strong grip, trapped his foot on that same side with mine, and bridged my hips up, rolling him neatly over, passing his non-existent “guard,” and dropped short elbows and strikes on him until I was satisfied he’d had a bad night.
I had been in a good number of fights in my life, but I finally experienced first-hand the value of jiu jitsu in one. No matter what the detractors say, jiu jitsu is a game of positional and limb control, and has been incredibly valuable in many of the situations I’ve found myself in since. Multiple attackers, armed opponents, whatever. I’ve either experienced or seen allies utilize this art to great effect, and am more than convinced of its “street” application.
Our DIY dojo training didn’t last long, maybe 6 months or so, but it planted the seeds that I’d come back to years later.
I returned to jiu jitsu, as mentioned, due to an injury keeping me out of the weight room, but my decision really happened a few weeks before that, standing around a fire. All the guys I was hanging out with lifted pretty seriously, and some good natured shit-talking turned into some relatively good natured grappling.
Not many of them knew what they were doing, and the matches were sort of wrestling chaos with no real ending, since no one really knew how to throw any submissions. One guy who was there had done some training, maybe a year of BJJ, and just dismantled everybody, all these big lifters, in a few minutes each. All their muscle didn’t count for anything.
I knew this all along, but the situation reminded me how unimportant muscle is, by itself, out in the world. It’s great to be strong, and being strong makes you better at pretty much everything, but if it exists in a vacuum, not informing anything else, you’re just the guy people ask to move heavy stuff. Unless you compete and do well at it, you’re a standard gym rat, who can impress your 3 loyal Instagram followers with your mediocre lifting numbers.
Don’t get me wrong. I am one of those guys, and love lifting weights, but that night I kind of shook my head and thought, “that’s it. I’m getting back on the mats.” It’s not enough to be strong by itself- I want to be able to use that strength, combine it with a technique and use the two to make me more dangerous where and when it matters.
I feel the same about guys who train with firearms or something, but refuse to lift weights or do conditioning. You’ve seen them- hundreds of dollars in “tacticool” gear, thousands in gun mods and all that, but have a hard time getting in and out of their car. They can stop ISIS, but not if the conflict happens at the top of a long set of stairs.
It’s not enough to be decent at the one thing- we should strive to be more well-rounded. Besides, not being able to fight or hold your own in one makes you a liability and a burden to your friends or honor group.
When I got back on the mats, nothing of that brief 6 months of training had stuck with me except knowing a basic idea of each position, and maybe a choke or two. I was the classic “strong” white belt- way too aggressive, probably irritating the hell out of the blue belts, relying purely on strength until I gassed out early and got choked. As I started to settle down and actually learn, these are some of the things that came to me through the 2+ years I spent as a white belt (I say 2 years, because I spent a consecutive 8 months off from training before coming back to it a few months ago.)
Some are things I wish I’d done more of, or things I wish I hadn’t done, and others are just little realizations that I had on the way, or stuff I wish someone had told me during that time. I hope they help or entertain some of you who may be on your own journey through the savage world of grappling.
Don’t Rush. This is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. You are going to spend a lot of time training, so don’t feel like you have to retain everything and “get to the finish line.” Relax, pay attention, and show up.
Compete More- this is something I definitely regret with my time as a white belt, and plan to fix in the blue belt stage. “Life” was always happening, weekends too busy, or I was hurt, or it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, or some other reason. There’s a thousand reasons not to compete, but everyone I have talked to has said that when they are competing, their jiu jitsu improves at a greatly increased rate. More is at stake.
Calm Down! You’ll hear this one a lot during white belt. A lot. Take it to heart, because you really won’t start to improve much as a white belt until you can relax, breathe, and notice what’s happening. I started chewing gum every practice, and I chew it when I roll, because it keeps me conscious of my breathing, and keeps my mouth closed a lot, so I have to breathe more slowly and stay relaxed to not choke on it. Straining too hard, always muscling everything, and going all-out every roll is a dumb and obnoxious way to train. Focus on moving more fluidly and keeping your muscles loose until you need them. This is the hardest part of the first 6 months or so.
Make A List. Have a goal with your training, and achieve it by making a list of things you need to be working on or drilling more. At first, just make a list of all the techniques your school expects out of you during the white belt to blue belt process. These should be your priority- not that you can’t be open to learning all kinds of other things, too, but the moves on this list should be the ones you are looking to really get a feel for during this time. It will give you some focus and make you feel less like drowning in a vast ocean of information, which for me was important at the beginning.
Move of the Week. Allow yourself some fun with a “move of the week” from YouTube or wherever. Try to hit it during all your rolls, if possible, and if you haven’t quite gotten it down, make it a move of the month. This keeps things enjoyable and gives you sort of a game to play as you improve.
Tap Early- it’s one thing to try to survive a little longer because you are drilling an escape and want to make it work. It’s another to stubbornly hang on to your pride while getting arm barred or key locked and get hurt. Everyone taps, a lot. Don’t be that guy. Just tap.
Dont Brag. One of the worst guys in the gym is the low belt level who is always bragging about who he tapped. Did he consider that the higher belt level was more than likely “playing” with him, giving up positions, putting himself in bad situations in order to work, and if he had wanted to, could’ve just smashed him? There is no way to look like more of an asshole on the mats than this, except maybe…
Dont Coach. There’s coaches there for a reason, and if you’re a white belt, they know more than you. Don’t coach other people, or try to show them how to do stuff while you’re at class. You will probably show them the wrong way anyhow, and you should be at class to learn and keep your mouth shut- there’s no issue helping another white belt you’re working with through the drill, but don’t take roll time to show your ass by attempting to instruct.
Do Gi and No Gi- before my first competition, I had spent 6 months doing only training in the gi. After losing 4 matches by a few points each, with no danger of having been submitted in any of them, I realized that playing a slow game in the gi had made me a bit ineffective and less aggressive than I needed to be in competitions. I started training no-gi the following week and made a lot of improvements in my movement, speed, scrambles and so on, and now I train no-gi and gi every week.
The Best Number of Days a Week is How Many You’ll Do. Don’t agonize over how many days a week you think you should train. Start with what you know you can do, and go from there. If you can make it for sure 2 days a week, start with that and add one in once you’ve proven you can maintain two. My sweet spot to still lift and not feel totally train wrecked is 3 or 4 classes a week and maybe one extra roll, but everyone’s different. Some guys go more or less.
Shut Up And Train- Don’t Ask too Many Questions. Chances are, you probably don’t even know what question you’re trying to ask, and if you just keep training, all will be revealed. It’s fine to ask for clarification on a technique you’re drilling, but I have so often heard white belts ask questions in class, seemingly just to ask a damn question. Nothing is more frustrating when you’re trying to get your reps in than some guy in class who wants to hear his own voice slowing down training by asking questions he’d know the answer to if he just kept working.
Worry More About Establishing and Maintaining Position Than Submission. Everyone wants the tap, but at low level, I found it was better to worry about establishing and holding dominant position calmly, then work for the sub, than to get carried way looking for a sub and getting swept, rolled or passed.
Make it a Priority. I fucked around a lot at various times during white belt, or things got more important. When I was in Oregon, it was a 2 hour drive to the nearest studio, and other things had taken priority at the time. I think about it now, and if I had made the sacrifice for two days a week during my time there, I would be 8 months better at jiu jitsu. It’s too early in the game to call it, but I don’t ever want to take that long off again. If you decide to start training, take it seriously, train hard, and endure through the hard parts- and it’s all the hard part.
Realize that a Blue Belt is nothing. Lastly, its important to remember that the drop-out rate in jiu jitsu is really high, especially at blue belt belt, because so many people get so worked up about earning their blue belt that once they get it, they feel like they got what they came for. It’s a black belt you’re after, not a blue one! In the grand scheme, a blue belt is such a small accomplishment- be proud of it once you earn it, but realize that it represents such a small part of the sacrifice and journey to something much bigger. Don’t get a big head, or feel like you’ve “made it.” It’s a recognition simply that you’re not flailing around aimlessly on the mats (as much) anymore. Act accordingly.
Take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt- I’m just a blue belt. I’m pleased to have made it this far, but I know it’s just the end of the very beginning- and I have a feeling things keep feeling that way.
Good luck, and stay on the mats.