The Diary of a White Belt
By Aaron Grimes
“Just keep coming”. This was the advice Vitor Oliveira gave me during my first week and still the best piece of advice I’ve received since I started Jiu Jitsu in February of 2017. Those words haven’t left me as I’ve progressed through my journey over the last 22 months. I could pontificate about all the ways in which Jiu Jitsu echoes life and has helped improve my life since starting but there’s plenty of articles, memes, and inspirational quotes out there on that topic. Instead I’d like to offer some thoughts and advice for my white belt peers. These are all things I’ve applied or thought about during my journey. Some of this you may have heard before, but that just reinforces its importance.
“Just keep coming”. This is number 1 to me, because it’s the one piece of advice that stands alone at the top. You can ignore everything else on my list if you choose, but don’t ignore this one. You should take this piece of advice literally, but you should also take deeper meaning away from it. You’ve probably heard the term “mat time” by now. The more mat time you put in, the more you will progress. Even if you just show up to class, go through the process and don’t think about it when you leave. That’s not to say you won’t benefit by adding more to your training regimen. However, keep coming and I promise you will get better, even if you don’t see it right away. This leads into my next piece of advice.
Have patience, trust, and enjoy the process. You’ve heard this one before too, right? It’s true. Be patient, trust the program, trust your professors, trust yourself, and above all enjoy the process of building the basics of your Jiu Jitsu game as a white belt. As an older student with zero grappling experience when starting, this was even more prominent to me. Improvements come in two ways, small steps often and big leaps less often. Looking for that one big win is not the way to think. Looking for micro improvements will serve you much better. For example, I had another white belt tell me that they get their guard passed in seconds every time and they aren’t sure how they will figure it out. Break it down and make improvements in small sections! Are you controlling with 3-4 points of contact in guard? If not, then focus there first. Actively think about it every time you roll! Are your hips out of position as your guard gets broken down? Work on squaring back up, focus intently on it. Are you preemptively framing when your guard breaks down? Work on that next. This is all part of the process. You aren’t going to walk into the gym one day and have the magic pill for guard retention. You must make incremental improvements and celebrate them. You properly shrimped, made space and recovered your guard for even a brief second? Good, be happy about that. Put that up on the refrigerator for mom to see. Those small improvements keep building like Legos. Eventually you’ll be a fortress, but you must build it a block at a time. If you are waiting on the one big moment to feel accomplished, you’re going to have a lot of rough days.
Some things just happen organically. This shouldn’t negate my previous point of making focused efforts towards improving individual aspects, but some things happen subconsciously and there isn’t a lot you can do to speed them up. Rickson Gracie talks about “Invisible Jiu Jitsu”. These are all the things that you can’t outwardly observe. Balance, pressure, timing. These things will happen on their own as you keep training and most of it will occur subconsciously. Train knowing that they’ll come with time and that your mind-body connection will form these patterns and traits for you.
Expect the Peaks and Valleys. Be Ok with your ego getting damaged or disturbed. This is healthy. You hear a lot of B.S. about removing the ego completely, but that’s just not human. You will feel frustrated, tired, weak, like you’re going backwards, etc. This is all normal. I’ve been frustrated too many times to count already. Be prepared to feel that way and think ahead of time about how to deal with it. Then, don’t dwell on it. Move on and train again. Come on days where you don’t feel like training, those are the days you need it the most. You will have moments where you feel like Superman one day and a squashed ant another day. This will never go away in your Jiu Jitsu journey. Ask any higher belt. Learn to ride the waves. Besides, if you’re best guy in the room, then you’re in the wrong room!
Enjoy getting smashed. It’s a right of passage. It never ends, but it does get easier to deal with. Without this initial suffering, you will never reach your potential. Train with everyone you feel comfortable with. In other words, don’t pick just easy partners and don’t always roll with the toughest. Don’t hide from the challenges or the person who has your number. Keep trying, you’re helping each other get better. When you roll with someone smaller or less strong, turn down your strength. Then you’ll really see how good or bad your technique is! You’ll find holes in it to fix.
Relax and breath. Two critical things in which the sooner you apply them, the better. Don’t hold your breath and don’t tense your entire body when you’re in a bad position. You’re just draining your tank at a faster rate. Learn to relax in bad positions and play defense. When your tense, your opponent can also feel when you’re about to move, making your escapes more difficult.
Position before submission, defense before offense. Example; over the last few months, I realized I was in too much of a hurry after passing guard and was losing control over my opponent. Since then, I’ve been working on improving my patience in top side control. Weight distribution, balance, pressure and timing of my movements. Forget submitting someone if you can’t control them first. As I’ve focused on this without looking for submissions, my side control has improved drastically in a short period of time. This control will open submissions, but you can’t put the cart before the horse. Likewise, learning how to defend should be viewed as a top priority for any new white belt. It’s not flashy and it isn’t as fun, but it pays off in the long run. When you can defend submissions and escape bad positions more easily, your future game will thank you for it.
Listen to everyone. Most people want you to get better. The team needs tough training partners. Be humble and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I can’t possibly name all the teammates at the gym who’ve helped me over the past two years. Without this I’d be far behind the place I’m at now. Open mat is great for this. Show up, train hard, show dedication, and people will want to help you.
Make mental or written notes of focus areas and study outside of class. First, get this book. The University of Jiu Jitsu by Saulo Ribeiro. Study the first two chapters every night for a few minutes before you go to bed. Can’t figure out why a side control escape isn’t working, go home and review it after class. Study matches on YouTube, watch how the best operate, their positions, control, etc. However, be careful of the content you consume, stick with the basics from legit professors. When you do study, try to understand the underlying concepts. Concepts are transferrable and help form the basis for a beginner.
There is no real pinnacle. Improvement in Jiu Jitsu is not supposed to have an end point. This line of thinking helped re-frame my goals. Instead of chasing the blue belt, focus on enjoying the positives that training Jiu Jitsu has on your life. Do this and the rest will come when it’s time.
“Just keep coming.”