The longer I train, the more patterns I see repeat themselves. Just like a child goes through stages as they grow up, Jiu Jitsu practitioners pass through several levels. There were several horrible mistakes that I made early on at white belt, but one stands out as my biggest white belt mistake.
I see EVERY white belt make this same mistake. Until they figure this lesson out they will NOT progress and NO upper belt has ever gotten to where they are without learning this.
The Biggest White Belt Mistake
In my white belt journey, the first few steps happened on their own.
- Understand basic gym culture and etiquette (feel comfortable in the space)
- Trust training partners to help me learn
- Get my body to do the techniques taught in class
- Learn new vocabulary (“What does the instructor mean by ‘switch my hips’?”)
- Basic level of coordination
At this stage, I felt like I had Jiu Jitsu figured out since I had figured out how to learn the moves taught in class. I simply had to attend class for years and learn the moves demonstrated by the instructor and I would eventually become a monster on the mats. I know that I suck now, but that’s just because my opponents know things I don’t know yet. If I just learned more moves in class, I would finally be good.
However, when I rolled with my fellow classmates there seemed to be something wrong. Even though I could execute all the moves taught in class, when it came time to roll, I mostly just got squished. Months of techniques I had been taught didn’t seem to improve my rolling results AT ALL.
When my goals shifted from learning a move in class to getting better at rolling, the effect of the biggest white belt mistake became evident. There was a disconnect between learning something, and APPLYING my Jiu Jitsu live against a resisting opponent. I was struggling in my individual journey on the mats. Maybe Brazilian Jiu Jitsu just wasn’t for me? Was I not athletic enough, or smart enough to get it?
The Solution To My Biggest White Belt Mistake
The solution is stupid, and it is basic, and it is essential. Learning it on your own could take months. Having someone tell you just makes you say “Of course.” I have told countless white belts this advice and EVERY time their abilities improve.
Use your Jiu Jitsu
Daily, I roll with white belts who choose to invent some movement, on the spot, instead of using the Jiu Jitsu they have learned in class. This is the foundation of the biggest mistake at white belt.
They let their movement instincts take over. Their instincts will do whatever they have always done, and that is rarely “well executed Jiu Jitsu techniques.” Instead they try to just run fast in a circle around me, push at my legs, and tackle into me hoping for side control. Their instincts NEVER have them executing a detailed pass they learned mere moments before rolling.
Lose In Order To Win
Nearly every white belt goes through early stages where they don’t trust their Jiu Jitsu. This is normal. The best way to get better though, is to become OK with losing.
The “run and tackle” method of guard passing will probably actually have a higher percentage of success against other white belts than a move you just learned moments before. Especially because your opponent just learned it too and is on the lookout.
But short-term wins aren’t the goal. Long term wins ARE the goal. When an upper belt performs the “move of the day” against you, do you feel like you can stop it? Is it because he is stronger than you, or just because it is executed in a way that shuts down your options?
So here is the solution to the biggest mistake at white belt. Your mission is to use as much Jiu Jitsu as possible, and as little “non Jiu Jitsu” instinctive movement as you can. Initially you will have WORSE results.
You will probably completely fail to even get close your first 30 attempts at executing a Jiu Jitsu movement live. But each time you fail, you will realize small corrections to your technique. “Oh that’s right, the instructor said to keep pressure here.” Next time you will be more focused on that detail and shutting down that window of counter for your opponent. Over time you will have finally trained your instincts to do actual Jiu Jitsu instead of making up moves on the spot.
Now is when the magic happens. Your Jiu Jitsu will actually start to work. You will successfully hit the move of the day on someone. You will be training your instincts to pursue new more effective habits.
How To Start Applying This
If I try to do the “move of the day” every day then I am only getting a maximum of a few looks live during rolling of each move and I will never develop. The key to applying is to pick one or two “moves of the day” that you feel you have a chance of hitting live and focusing on them for weeks or months at a time, disregarding working a new ones until you find success.
I usually pick ONE offensive and ONE defensive movement, so I have an option whether winning or losing in the round. Pick moves that present themselves often (guard passes, and positional escapes are good places to start). I am exclusively focused on making these movements work for me live.
In order to start working these techniques live you will first have obtain a level of relaxation so that you are present and thoughtful in the moment. The live sparring can’t all be a blur of confusion. If you can’t play back a mental DVR of the last few movements of the roll, you won’t be able to adapt, improve, and evaluate what to work on.
Once you can remain cognizant it is time to start progressing by adding speed and fluidity to the right technique at the right time.
Each move will go through the stages of mastery.
- Identify the opportunity
- I should have gone for that move, but I missed my chance.
- Try to execute the opportunity
- I saw my opportunity, and tried to do the move but was clunky and not successful.
- Improve timing of execution by gaining experience attempting (and probably failing)
- I saw the opportunity, tried the move, felt smoother, but wasn’t successful. I learned what to adapt next time though.
- Identifying repeated roadblocks to success and asking for help
- I am identifying my opportunity and working the move, but there is a specific counter my opponent is doing that nullifies every attempt. Ask the instructor what is going wrong that is allowing your opponents to react that way. There is probably a small mistake you are making, or a tweak to your follow-up which will make all the difference. Bigger problems could be worth taking an entire private lesson.
How I try to help my students overcome the biggest white belt mistake
I currently teach 5 days a week. When I roll with students after teaching, I
INTENTIONALLY set them up in positions where they can apply the move of the day. If they work it and hit most of the right details, I grant them success. If they blow it, I shut them down, and remind them of the detail they missed.
Sometimes I will also work the “move of the day” on them repeatedly so they can feel it. This shows that even though your opponent knows a move is coming, when executed correctly, success can still be inevitable.
Bonus tip :
When you get to class early, drill your focus move with a partner instead of sitting around. Ask them to ramp up their defense as you feel better and better with the move.
You can even start live positional drills. (Working a side control escape. Start in side control, and go live trying to escape. You got out? Reset side control.)