Dear White Belt: Your Only Mission Is To Survive

Image Source: Issys Calderon Photography

If you’re a white belt who’s good at jiu-jitsu, you shouldn’t be a white belt. And yet, there are so many BJJ white belts out there who hold themselves to ridiculously high standards. They’re frustrated because they keep getting caught by upper belts, or they can’t understand why that technique they thought they were decent at just isn’t working in live rolling. Many of them refuse to compete until they feel like they’re “good enough,” completely forgetting that they’re likely to compete against other practitioners who know next to nothing about jiu-jitsu.

While it’s great to have both short-term and long-term goals in jiu-jitsu, you’re never going to achieve them if you can only see your failures during a stage in your journey where you’re supposed to fail all the time. Anyone who knows anything about jiu-jitsu will expect you to be clumsy at this level. They know that you’ll frequently grab a limb and attempt something that only vaguely resembles a submission you learned a few weeks ago. They’ll see you dying beneath someone’s side control and say, “Yep, that sucks, but it makes sense.”

You see, you’re supposed to suck right now. You are in your infancy of your jiu-jitsu life, and just like a newborn baby deer, your only goal is to stumble forward. It doesn’t matter that you’re not yet a graceful creature leaping majestically in front of people’s cars — you just need to search for the things that will keep you alive and stay away from the things that will kill you (such as, you know, not tapping).

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As you move up the ranks, jiu-jitsu will start to make sense to you. You’ll learn how to properly manipulate space instead of just moving other people’s body parts around and hoping for the best. Eventually, your defense will improve, then your offense will improve, and then you’ll be able to put it all together just like your more advanced teammates seem to do with such ease. But for now, just focus on surviving.

Focus on staying healthy. Tap early and often, get used to doing a buttload of laundry, and start examining your lifestyle and ask if your dietary habits are properly fueling your jiu-jitsu habit.

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Focus on showing up. Right now, that’s all anyone will ask of you. Come to class even when you’re tired or just not in the mood to train. Even if you don’t understand the techniques being taught, drill them as well as you can — you’ll see them again in the future, and I promise they’ll make more sense the second and third time around.

Focus on being a good teammate. Don’t try to hurt your training partners for the sake of a submission. Like you, they want to be able to come to class as often as possible. When you can, stay afterward to help mop up the mats. Even if you’re not competing, show up to tournaments to support your team. The struggle for survival is way easier when you’re part of a great community, and if this is something you want to pursue, you should be doing the work to help be a vital part of that community.

If you happen to be part of the ridiculously small percentage of white belts who just “clicks” with jiu-jitsu from their very first class, congratulations. If you’re like the majority of the newbie jiu-jitsu population, though, just relax. Your main priority right now is just finding your feet.

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