One of the things I remember most vividly about being a white belt is that feeling of going to class, practicing a move, and then forgetting it completely. I couldn’t remember anything the next day. Most of the time I couldn’t remember anything long enough to try it out in a roll after class. Heck, sometimes, I would forget the move in the time between when my instructor showed it and when I was supposed to do it on my partner! I’ve since heard many, many fellow BJJ practitioners say the same thing.
My learning has gotten more effective the longer I’ve trained, but as a white belt, it was very discouraging at times. While I have only been training BJJ for three years, I do have a Psychology Ph.D. and over 10 years experience teaching at the college level. Drawing on that experience, as well as experiences visiting BJJ schools all over the world, I have some thoughts on how instructors can help white belts (especially in the first six months) get grounded so that they can get the most out of their mat time.
In part 1 of this 2-part post, I will talk about why many white belts have such terrible memories for new moves. In part 2, I will describe some teaching strategies that I have observed in BJJ schools around the world, and explain how those strategies give white belts the best possible chance of learning.
Why do many white belts have such terrible memories?
Reason 1: They Have No Context
Cognitive psychology tells us that we have a harder time learning things that are new because they have no context in our brains. When it comes to jiu-jitsu, then, the more we know about a particular position, the easier it gets for us to learn new things in that position.
Instructors often take for granted that students know these things, and gloss over them, but for white belts, that can make learning very confusing. When a student is hung up on basic questions (“but why is their arm there in the first place?”), they can’t dedicate as much mental energy to the move itself. Here are some specific examples of basics that white belts need to be exposed to repeatedly, and explicitly, for optimal learning:
- The basics of the position — what it looks like. If a student is struggling to even set up bottom half-guard because they don’t know what it looks like, they’re going to have a hard time drilling a move from there.
- What we’re trying to accomplish while in that position, generally. For example, in guard, the top guy wants to pass the guard and keep from getting broken down, and the bottom guy wants to break the person down and submit or sweep. New students can infer this by rolling, eventually, but telling them explicitly can be very helpful.
- What types of moves someone is likely to attempt on you while there. Moves often require that the uke provide a certain setup, but new BJJ practitioners may not understand that setup. For example, the gift wrap from mount assumes that the person has their elbows in and hands to their face, trying to protect their neck. If the student doesn’t understand that in mount, a person may be trying to set up armlocks, they don’t understand why they would place their arms in this way.
You may have noticed that people with prior wrestling experience have a much easier time starting out than those who do not. This is, in part, because wrestlers have experience with some of the key positions of BJJ, such as side control. They have a scaffolding upon which to build, and as a result, they can learn like blue belts while true newbies have to build that scaffolding from scratch.
Reason 2: They Lack Hands-On Experience
For whatever reason, many white belts don’t roll. Many academies have a policy of no rolling for brand new students — for good reason, as the majority of injuries in academies happen among white belts. Furthermore, rolling can be daunting for someone who only knows a select few techniques, and academies don’t want people to have a bad experience. A bigger problem is that many white belts choose not to roll, even if they are allowed by their academy, and even if there are suitable partners available. They may be afraid of hurting others or getting hurt, afraid of looking stupid, afraid of gassing out, afraid of wasting their partner’s time, or all of the above. Whatever the reason, some white belts do not roll much or at all.
However, without hands-on experience with techniques, it’s very difficult for techniques to make it into muscle memory. Matters become even worse when white belts only roll with each other, as they may be doing techniques incorrectly and only “getting away” with them because their partner doesn’t know any better. If I had a nickel for every time I rolled with a white belt who swears by something silly because “it works against other white belts.” Sigh.
Of course, the answer isn’t “just let them roll.” Injuries are bad. Getting discouraged is bad. But there are some teaching methods that allow new students to get hands-on experience with minimal negative consequences.
In Part 2, I will describe some teaching methods I have observed at schools around the world that address some of the challenges faced by new white belts. Stay tuned!