A white belt’s journey

I recently graded to my first stripe in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). I’m now at the beginning of my journey in this incredible martial art and sport.

Here’s what to expect from your first months in BJJ, and some tips I used to improve my experience. You might find them useful if you’re considering starting.

Be prepared for injuries

I’m not trying to scare you, but you will get injured in BJJ. For me this ranged from bruises and cuts to joint and muscle injuries.

As with most sports-related wounds, they settled down after applying ice and being mindful of them when training. With time they healed.

Many of my injuries could’ve been avoided by falling correctly and tapping out early. After a few months of ‘rolling’ (sparring in BJJ jargon), I learned my limits and the frequency of injuries decreased.

I also downloaded Steve Maxwell’s joint mobility videos and started doing these each day. Steve was one of the first American BJJ black belts. He’s now in his sixties and still rolling, and these mobility regimes are part of the reason why.

Know the basic positions

BJJ is more complex than I thought.

For each basic position there are dozens of ways to get to other positions. Then there are dozens of submissions.

Some positions are better than others, but this is hard to grasp when you start.

The best resource I found for this was Stephan Kesting’s book ‘A Roadmap For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’.

Stephan does an excellent job of explaining each position. He also puts them into a hierarchy according to their advantages to you.

This cleared up a lot of the confusion I had when starting.

Stephan offers the PDF for free, and a mobile app version with videos on each position.

Note pads

Record everything you learn

You’ll learn dozens of techniques in your first months of BJJ.

Some of them come naturally, while others require time and repetition to understand.

The problem is, because you’re learning so many new techniques, you can forget these difficult ones.

I avoided this by writing down each technique after class.

For each technique I wrote down the basic steps. Then I searched YouTube for a video of it and saved the link too. If I couldn’t find a video, I would get my girlfriend to act as my partner and record it.

This helped me retain what I learned and gave me more options when rolling.

BJJ notes

Immerse yourself in books and videos

After a few weeks, you’ll be having loads of fun.

You’ll be regularly rolling, but if you’re like me, tapping out a lot.

You’ll have even more fun once you start pulling off sweeps (techniques which reverse positions, giving you the advantage) and making others tap out.

What helped me most during this period was reading a ‘The 21 immutable principles of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ by Paulo Guillobel.

This short book explains the hacks that advanced players use without thinking.

Paulo explains each of the 21 principles through analogies so you understand it right away.

It raised my understanding of the art and cut off some bad habits I had picked up at the root.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Participate in extra classes and workshops

During my first grading I was worried I’d forget the drills I had to know. To help us, our instructors ran an extra grading workshop.

In this workshop I was able to learn the reasoning behind each drill. I went into my grading full of confidence. Because fewer people showed up for these, I was able to get more attention on my technique. Now I use these drills all the time when I roll.

After grading, my instructor brought Carlos Machado over for a seminar. Carlos is a cousin of the Gracies (the pioneers of BJJ), and taught us simple but effective sweeps, submissions and tweaks to our positions.

Meeting and learning from a BJJ great was an important boost to my training and mindset.

Both workshops were great ways to learn more and sharpen my technique.

Be prepared for obsession

BJJ is like a mixture of human chess and twister. It stimulates you both mentally and physically.

It’s odd, but I find it relaxing in its intensity.

When I’m rolling I’m only aware of myself and my opponent. Everything else ceases to matter.

You’ll become obsessed with the mountain of techniques and make great friendships. You’ll feel like you can talk about it for hours. Your YouTube history will be full of past championship competitions and technique videos. If you’re like me you’ll love every second of it.

So far BJJ has been the most rewarding physical and mental activity I’ve pursued. You owe it to yourself to give it a go.

Bonus tips:

Be prepared to decrease your weights routine frequency

When I started I underestimated the intensity of each class. I went from 4 – 5 days per week of weights training to 2 to fit in my classes and get enough rest.

Wear a mouth guard from day one

In the first few weeks of training I chipped a tooth and accidentally chipped my friend’s tooth.

Wear a mouth guard whenever you roll.

Listen to a podcast from someone who loves BJJ

I listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast and it amps me up for training.

Joe is a comedian, the UFC’s colour commentator and a black belt in BJJ. He often has big BJJ names as guests on his show and you’ll learn some great tips.

Pick a great school

I did a lot of research before picking a school.

My instructors and the attitude of the people I train with is one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy it so much.

Start with a friend

I joined with two friends who were keen to learn. It sparked some competition and keeps us going regularly.

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