I have a lot of love for brand new white belts. I can’t get enough of the way they walk into the gym with a mixture of curiosity and fear, respecting the cool things that the upper belts can do while getting excited about learning to do it all themselves one day. The “newbie” enthusiasm is probably one of my favorite things to see in jiu-jitsu, and it’s incredible to be able to be a part of the team that will nurture that excitement and turn it into skill and passion.
The problem is that not everyone sees white belts this way.
For many upper belts, and even more advanced white belts, newbies are viewed as fresh meat. These higher level jiu-jitsu practitioners treat the shiny new beginners like proverbial punching bags, tapping them once every five seconds in a single three-minute rolling period and chastising them when they show signs of exhaustion during their first week of classes.
And heaven forbid the new guy says something like, “This is hard” when he learns how to shrimp, because that provides the perfect excuse for those high-and-mighty upper belts to claim that “No, it’s not hard; it’s easy, duh!”
I’ve gotten a good bit of flack for suggesting that white belts are friends, not food, but I stand by my position that being an a-hole to a newbie only benefits one thing: your ego.
It’s not encouraging the new guy to keep coming in, and it’s certainly not staying in line with the mantra that “jiu-jitsu is for everyone.” It’s not building a reputation for your gym as a welcoming environment where anyone can come in and learn a cool new martial art. It’s certainly not benefiting the jiu-jitsu community as a whole if you’re giving a horrible first impression of your sport to someone who’s just starting out. But hey, if it makes you feel like more of a badass, more power to you, right?
The most common arguments I hear against this is that we shouldn’t “baby” brand new white belts, that they need to know what this sport is from the moment they sign up for it, that their egos need to be deconstructed from the moment they put on that gi for the first time.
These are all totally valid points, but breaking someone’s ego and breaking their spirit are two very different things, and there is a line to be walked if you want to recruit new training partners.
Yes, you do need to be tough to do this sport. It involves choking and joint locks and the occasional drop of sweat that falls into your open eyeball.
But despite what the egomaniacs in jiu-jitsu like to tell you, this isn’t the most hardcore martial art out there. Nobody’s hitting each other in the face (on purpose). We normally start on our knees, so there aren’t a lot of opportunities to be thrown. We tap out before we get injured. It’s nicknamed “the gentle art,” for goodness’ sake. Saying that we need to “weed out” the weaklings on their very first day is downright absurd when you consider how many people over the age of sixty actively train jiu-jitsu. No, it’s not for delicate flowers, but it’s also not exclusive to the one percent of the baddest dudes on the planet. That’s what makes it so awesome.
A lot of the people I see arguing in support of beating down the newest gym members as much as possible like to claim that this is the kind of treatment they received when they started jiu-jitsu. It’s reminiscent of the old “ten miles to school uphill both ways in five feet of snow” shtick that we tease our parents and grandparents about.
We get it: life was harder back then, and kids these days have it so easy. But just as we eventually realized that motor vehicles were far more useful for traveling long distances in inclement weather, we should also be acknowledging that there are better ways to get new people to fall in love with jiu-jitsu than just beating the snot out of them before they even know what closed guard is.
This isn’t to say that we should handle newbies with safety gloves. There’s a balance to be struck somewhere in between being a jerk and being a preschool teacher. You don’t have to baby the new guy, but at least show him a thing or two before you treat him like a practice dummy. Even a basic guard pass will give them something to work towards, which not only encourages them to stick around and learn more, but can also prevent you from getting hurt.
Instead of rolling your eyes when the newbie comments about how difficult something is, help her out or acknowledge that jiu-jitsu is hard, especially when you’re just starting out and training your body to do things it’s not accustomed to. We all remember what we felt like when we first started out and had no idea what to do. If you’re challenging yourself enough, you should still feel like that some days.
Above all, we should be encouraging our new teammates rather than making them feel like jiu-jitsu is an exclusive club that they could never hope to be a part of. If you’re one of the douchecanoes who uses your experience to humiliate the newbies instead of inspiring them, kindly tie your ego up outside so it stops peeing on the mats. You never know what future world champions you might have driven away because you pushed them down instead of helping to build them up.