Lessons from a BJJ White Belt

This article is targeted at new Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners as well as those thinking about getting into the sport. It sums up my experiences over the last three years – hope it is helpful!

I got into Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) about three years ago at the ripe old age of 48, after watching fights in the UFC for years. I found myself admiring the ground game and the beauty of submissions: arm locks, triangles, chokes, and so on. I had wrestled in high school oh so many years ago, and I needed a better, more interesting way to stay in shape. So why not?  


I visited a couple local academies, then I chose one that was fairly close to me: the Baltimore Martial Arts Academy. I found the owner, Gary Berger, to be a very friendly and intelligent guy. My first class as a white belt was a lesson in how much I didn’t know, but I liked it, and for the next year, I went about once a week on Saturdays.  I didn’t feel like I was making enough progress, so I moved up to about twice a week — much better. 

Last year, we moved across town, where I joined a Gracie-affiliated school – Team Maryland BJJ, under the black belt Stuart Ramos, also a really excellent teacher.  For the last year, I have been going three times a week; for someone who wants a vigorous full-body workout week, this is pretty perfect.

I’m now a 2nd degree blue belt, and I can say that over the past three years I’ve met a lot of great folks through BJJ.  It is true what they say: BJJ becomes a lifestyle – and a discipline, and a craft.  If you’re lucky, it will be a lifestyle with rock-hard abs, the discipline and joy of everlasting learning and betterment, and the craft and joy of choking out a dude who lets you get a move ahead. 

With that said, here are some lessons and observations from my beginning years of BJJ. I hope it helps you join the ranks of BJJ practitioners or eases your time as a white belt, especially the early days.  The title is tongue-in-cheek: one of the first things a white belt has to learn is that he or she understands very, very little about jiu-jitsu.

Funny, and… it’s true.

1. On Getting Started.  Drop in on a few local academies!  Look up the class schedules, show up, talk to the teacher, watch a training or practice session, or jump right in. Most of them are full of guys and gals just like you, looking for a way to stay in shape. With BJJ, there’s the added bonus of self defense.

The academies I have visited to train (about five) have all been very open, friendly, and welcoming. Most will give you a few weeks’ or even a month free trial membership. If they don’t, it’s a bad sign! Very quickly you will get a feel for the club, which will take much of its culture/personality from the resident top dog black belt/owner/master, for better or worse.  Then expect to sign a yearly contract, although some clubs will go month-to-month.

I could say tons about the all the really great people I have met through BJJ. They’re often like-minded, want-to-be-healthy folks just like you.  Many of them are fit already, and many of them are on their way. One of our blue belts started at 260 pounds and is now 150, an amazing transformation.  

More so you don’t look like a fool

2. Expect to grow personally as well as physically. It can be tough meeting a whole new set of folks. It will be tough learning a whole new sport that involves people choking you, crushing you, and generally trying to bend your limbs the wrong way. Overcome these challenges, and you will grow not only physically stronger but also mentally stronger. In my first six months, I had to face the claustrophobia of being smothered, one of my worst fears.  And because I pushed myself pretty hard, I had to deal with complete and utter physical exhaustion.  I was sore a lot.   

In time, it passes. You get better… You learn to “stay safe” and to protect yourself from basic submissions. You learn basic escapes and to better avoid triangles and armbars. You conserve your energy better, and you roll longer and easier. A black belt is a white belt who never quit

3. Be humble… and silent.  OK, you’ve showed up at class for a few months now. You feel comfortable with your new BJJ friends, and you fist bump/bro hug them at the beginning of practice. And while most of early BJJ life involves getting tapped like a frat keg, occasionally you’ll pull off an armbar or a triangle or even an exotic submission like the gogo-plata.  Maybe you watched four hours of Jason Scully’s 39 Armbars from the Guard last night on YouTube and feel like a real expert. 

Just remember that very few people – if any – like to hear a white belt talk too much. Humility is a virtue. Enjoy your improving skillset and the submissions that come with it, but remember… what you do not know and does could fill volumes. So… shhhhhh! Any questions? Good!

iceberg-poster See that little tip? That’s what you know as a BJJ white belt.

4. Stay safe. It’s entirely possible to study, endure, and excel at this martial art without getting seriously injured, regardless of your age. I started at 48, and now I’m 50. Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef and TV personality, started at age 58!  And every few weeks it seems there’s a news story about some 70+ year-old black belt or other. Grandmaster Helio Gracie  himself rolled well into his nineties. So it’s entirely possible.

Staying safe takes a little equipment, and whole lot more basic common sense:

  • Be careful of rolling with white belts. Yes, you and your fellow white belts are FAR more likely to injure someone than any higher belt. A white belt may “spazz out” to escape, or attempt Flash Gordon-speed submissions, knees and elbows a-flyin’. Remember it’s just a game: an advanced BJJ belt will move powerfully and deliberately, more like, um… a python. Here’s a link to an early belt knocking himself out with an advanced move, enjoy. 
  • Avoid rolling with the bigger folks. BJJ was invented by Helio Gracie, who was a little guy at only about 140 pounds, to give the smaller person advantage through technique. But there is no getting around the fact that weight and strength matters.  Not to mention you are most likely no Helio Gracie. But if you’re uncertain, my rule of thumb is to be careful rolling with folks 20% above your weight (e.g. you are 150 lb rolling with a 180 pounder).  Avoid rolling with folks more than 1/3 heavier than you (e.g. you 150, they’re more than 200 lbs).  The greater the weight disparity, the more likely your neck, back, ribs or arms will suffer. It’s just plain physics.    
  • Avoid rolling with aggressive folks. Most people are very cool. Most people recognize the beginning white belts and do not crush them, but… educate them. But let’s face it, there is always that guy – or gal, yes you ladies do it too – who go WAY too hard.  Accept that they have different goals than you, and decline invitations to roll unless they agree to “go easy.”  It is also perfectly legit to specify “no footlocks or knee-bars” before rolling: there’s PLENTY else to work on, and your knees are a precious resource.  In fact, kneebars, joint locks and such are often barred in competitions for blue and white belts. 
  • Tap early, tap often. You’ll hear this over and over. Don’t hang on until the last second when being armbarred, choked, cranked, or otherwise submitted. This is where a HUGE number of injuries happen. Just tap, and start again.   You will get tapped over and over at first. Your ego must be firmly in check, or the going will be rough. Persevere, and soon you will visit the wonderful world of tapping other folks. In time grasshopper, you will learn that the secret is not to let someone get your arm. You tap, you learn.
    See: The Newbies Guide to Tapping

    You can tap now.

  • Use a mouthguard and a cup. Accidents do happen. If you’re like me, you value certain fragile parts of your anatomy. Protect yourself with at minimum a quality mouthguard. It’s rare, but knees, elbows and hands can be misplaced. Wearing a mouthguard will feel strange for a while, but then you adjust and don’t notice it. If you’re a guy, I highly recommend a cup to protect the jewels — most of the guys I roll with use them. I personally use Shock Doctor equipment like this and this
  • More… you can find all kinds of resources on staying safe on the Internet. Use your common sense: get to practice early and warm up, ESPECIALLY as you get older. It makes a huge difference in avoiding injury: learn about your muscles.  I had far fewer issues and much less soreness when I increased rolling from once a week to three times a week. Stay limber instead of having a week between rolls.

5. Hygiene. There is no getting around the fact that you’re rolling with a bunch of other sweaty folks, most of whom share your cleanliness ethic.  The BJJ community is very aware of the importance of hygenic disciplines.  So it is very easy to avoid skin- and contact-borne issues like MRSA and ringworm.  

  • Most important! TAKE A SHOWER AFTER EVERY PRACTICE.  Use a good, well-recommended natural antibacterial soap with tea tree and coconut oil – natural antibacterial agents — like Dr. Bronner’s Tea Tree soap or Defense soap
  • Wash your gi after EVERY practice. Do not inflict “funky gi” on your partner without due cause. 
  • Clip your nails. And file them if necessary. Getting scratched while rolling is as unpleasant as it is unnecessary.
  • Hopefully you don’t have to be told to brush your damn teeth sometime before rolling. Please?

Have fun! Enjoy YouTube, there are a million instructionals on it for BJJ. Don’t miss watching Marcelo Garcia, one of the greatest in the world (there are many).