It’s a workout. It’s movement art. It’s a community. It’s respect.
Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is all of the above and so much more. In my years of practicing this martial art, I’ve had the joy of witnessing scores of people come to jiu-jitsu with as many different motivations. I have been through that steep learning curve and watched others deal with similar issues: starting from nothing, slowly improving my skills, loving the sport and finally, reaching this point here where I believe sharing my struggles can help you get past yours.
Perhaps the most common question I get from beginners is, “How do I advance out of the beginner’s white belt faster?”
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, I’ve compiled 10 of my best tips for BJJ beginners so you can improve faster than when I first started. Also the following information can help you if you aren’t getting better at BJJ as a beginner:
(10) Good Coaching
Nothing replaces an experienced, knowledgeable teacher. A good teacher should have no reservations discussing their jiu-jitsu lineage, credentials and belt level. There should be positive word-of-mouth reviews. Classes should be conducted in a professional manner. Students should emerge from classes having learned something.
Most importantly, a good teacher communicates and demonstrates concepts appropriately. As a beginner, you will not benefit from learning the most advanced chokes and pins; rather, you’ll need to put in the time for drills and practice. A good teacher will identify level-appropriate exercises and allow the space and opportunity for practice until you’ve mastered them. Your teacher should be able to see where you’re struggling with the techniques and provide cues to work past your blind spots and weak points.
If you’re struggling with many of the concepts in your class, you may consider booking a one-on-one session with your coach. It may be worth the extra dollars to get your coach’s undivided attention for individual corrections and small adjustments. A good coach will have a discerning eye to how to help you improve.
(9) Mindset Matters
No matter your background, walk into every jiu-jitsu class with respect and humility. I find that the slowest learners are those who believe their background in another martial art gives them the right to skip steps and learn techniques beyond their ability. Approach BJJ with an open mind; let go of what you think is a “correct” move, even if it appears very similar to what you’ve learned elsewhere.
Allow your teacher to show you the specifics of the technique and learn it! You will progress through the techniques faster if you commit yourself to learning the stylistics of BJJ.
I find that the best jiu-jitsu practitioners approach every session with the same humility they came in with as a beginner. There is a lesson to be learned with every sparring match, every class, every drill. Stay open to learning, and you’ll continually improve no matter the color of your belt.
(8) Skill over Strength
As a beginner, we often muscle our way into a move–for instance, when locked in Arm Bar position, many beginners will attempt a bicep curl to escape. And for those of us who are strong enough, we may even succeed. However, not only is this method energy inefficient but it is also completely ineffective against a more highly skilled practitioner.
The beauty of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is that with the correct identification of momentum and centre of gravity in your opponent, and your correct application of technique, you can escape without using brute force. After all, BJJ is nicknamed “the gentle art.” Strive to decrease the use of force.
Start looking for where your opponent is placing his weight and where his momentum is going. The practice of using your opponent’s momentum against him takes skill and repetition, both of which I personally am still working on, but it is the best and most sustainable way to practice this martial art.
Try developing your own coordination and body awareness. These skills are essential in knowing where your opponent’s energy is going and where you may decide to place yours. Observing more experienced practitioners, you may also notice they are not mindlessly executing skill after skill. Instead, they are strategically choosing which skills will help them gain the upper hand over their opponent–it’s a puzzle, and the more experience you have, the better equipped you’ll be to solve the puzzle.
(7) Take a Day Off
You may have heard of the importance of recovery–and it cannot be stressed enough! Too many beginners start improving their skills quickly and get addicted to training nearly every day. This, however, is a recipe for injury and burnout.
Without appropriate time for sleep, rest and good quality food, the body’s ability to recover from the previous day’s training will decline. Most beginners do very well with 3 days a week of training, with rest days between.
Besides the physical effects, the mind needs time to integrate the information acquired in the sessions before its ready to take on new skills. Beware of treating this martial art like collecting trophies, accumulating one skill after another in a semblance of advancement.
Truly advanced practitioners need to have complete mastery over the basics as well as experience using all their techniques with different opponents in varying scenarios. You may be able to get away with learning many skills quickly, but without adequate time for practice, recovery and truly understanding, you won’t be able to appropriately use them.
For a few genetically gifted individuals, daily training or even multiple sessions in one day still build towards incredible gains. However, these cases are the exception not the rule. Listen to your body for signs of overtraining: fatigue, decreased performance in the gym, low mood, increased number of colds, and many more. Give yourself a guilt-free day of rest regularly through the months. You will advance far more quickly if you don’t burn out right at the beginning!
(6) Stay Consistent
While overtraining is a serious concern (especially for those particularly passionate practitioners), so is undertraining. Like any skill, beginners need to incorporate regular episodes of training and practice into their routines.
For instance, consider a baby learning to walk: how far would the baby go if he gave up the first 3 times he fell down? Or if he only tried to walk only once every 2 weeks? Instead, it’s the consistent and patient effort that brings success. Schedule and prepare for your jiu-jitsu sessions as you would anything else important to you. The only way of advancing past that white belt is showing up for class consistently.
(5) Befriend Your Weakness
As a beginner, you’ll naturally gravitate towards the moves you’re good at and away from the techniques you find difficult. Often, I see beginners sparring with only their favorite techniques, even in situations where a different technique would serve them better.
Let go of your attachment to your favorite moves and learn your weakness. If you find yourself repeatedly locked a triangle choke, learn the counter move and practice it, regardless if it gives you the win or not. In the bigger picture, you’ll only advance in BJJ when you have a solid foundation in both your strengths and your weaknesses.
(4) Just Relax
As I’ve mentioned before, BJJ is dubbed “the gentle art” for its ability to use the force of the opponent against him. Beginners often use too much strength and assume they are winded because of a lack of cardiovascular health. Of course, this may be the case for some, but it isn’t the whole story.
As you roll with your classmates, you’ll see that conserving energy and relaxing into the movement will allow you to keep moving for longer. I often see students gripping their opponent’s lapels with all their strength, burning their energy out needlessly. Identify where you may be tense and minimize spending that excess energy. Relax.
When it comes to submissions, relaxing into the technique is incredibly important as to not only preserve your energy, but to keep your training partners safe. If your technique is sound, you should not need to exert all your strength in a submission in order to get the tap out.
(3) Practice on your Own
In a number of studies, researchers have found improvements in physical skill performance after a visualization exercise. For example, sports psychologist Judd Biasiotto wanted to improve the free-throw accuracy of basketball players. Participants were split into 3 groups: one that practiced for an hour every day, one that visualized making free throws and one that did none of these. As expected, by the end of the study, the group that did nothing gained no improvements. However, the group that practiced and the group that visualized practicing both improved to nearly the same 24%.
Now, it’s plausible that we could apply those same principles to the practice of jiu-jitsu. We know that the physical practice will confer improvements, so I highly recommend BJJ drilling.
Drills like Shrimping and Bridging are at the core of fluidity in sparring. Quickly mastering core drills like these will allow you to learn various BJJ techniques even faster since most are extensions of these simple drills.
In the case that you do not have the space to practice these drills, Biasiotto’s study has shown that there may be benefit in simply running through the drills in your mind. So set the stage for yourself. Close your eyes and as vividly as you can, picture yourself moving through the drill, how it feels, what it looks like, where you progress next.
Practice the drills in your mind as though you would practice them in your body. Who knows! You may see some improvement in your next training session.
If you thought BJJ drilling is not that important to improve your BJJ skills, you need to read Why Am I Not Getting Better at BJJ? – Drilling Is the Key. You will learn that your lack of BJJ drilling might be the reason why you aren’t getting better at BJJ.
(2) Spar with Who’s Better than You
We all crave the comfort zone, the techniques we prefer, the corner of the gym where the conditions are just right, the partners we like. However, the comfort zone is just that–comfort, not challenge. To improve in this sport, surround yourself with practitioners who are more experienced. Spar with bodies of different strengths, sizes and skill sets.
When you’re pitted up against an unfamiliar opponent, you’ll be challenged to use different techniques to combat their strengths and physical differences. You’ll begin to train the resilience and flexibility of expert practitioners.
Of course, when you stray outside of your rank, you will encounter opponents whose skills far outweigh yours. Here’s where it’s helpful to understand what you can control and what you cannot. You are only responsible for approaching the match with courage, a positive attitude, and a strong effort. Learn as much as you can from the match–even ask your opponent after the match for pointers!–and leave the rest.
The outcome of an unequal match is not within your control. Let yourself lose the match without feeling like a failure, because with every failure you’ll gain another piece of knowledge that may prevent a future failure. Every match is a lesson, if you are willing to learn it!
(1) Repeat Until You Have Learned
It doesn’t get simpler than this: repetition. Your body needs to do the movements in order to know the movements. Don’t be afraid to tell your teacher that you need more practice in one technique before you’re ready for the next. Don’t be afraid to revisit the basics when you haven’t done them in a while. Repeat the exercises until it almost feels as though your body could do it in your sleep. For this, there is absolutely no shortcut.
For many beginners, repetition will feel endless and brain-numbingly boring. Let go of that boredom and cultivate the drive and discipline for practice. It doesn’t become muscle memory until you drill it into muscle memory. Build the mental strength to push past your blockages, and repeat!
At the end of the day, advancing out of that beginner’s white belt may feel impossible but it is attainable to those who want it. I’ve seen many beginners grow impatient and quit before they could even improve. Others only come to the sport because of its growing popularity in mass media, and drop out when they face their first challenge. In this, there’s no magic pill. There is no short cut. The rewards of hard work, however, are worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears. Take it from me, the struggle is long, but the results are gold.