What Does “Relax” Mean For A White Belt?

One of the first huge breakthroughs I see White Belts undergo is when they understand what it means when the upper belts tell them to relax. This bland word “relax” means a very specific thing to the upper belt, but typically the White belt hearing it mostly ignores it as unimportant.

In Jiu Jitsu the experienced practitioner is constantly adjusting the level of intensity appropriate to the scenario.  Beginner grapplers usually miss out on the importance of adjusting the dynamics of relaxation while rolling.

Don’t know what I mean?

Relax, I’ll explain…

Relax Princess Bride I don't think that means what you think it means in BJJ

What do White Belts think “relax” means before they “get it”?

Years of trying to figure out the best way to teach the concept of relaxation has taught me there are some common ways white belts interpret the phrase.  They are accidentally dismissive of the gravity of focusing on monitoring tension levels.

White Belt Dictionary:

(v) Relax:
  1. “To put less pressure on oneself to achieve results.  I am supposed to lose.”
    1. This one actually has some merit!  Less mental pressure can unlock the potential for more relaxation.
  2. “To stop scrunching up ones face funny while rolling.”
    1. No one really cares what weird faces anyone else makes while rolling, but your face can be an indicator of overall body tension.
  3. “Cease being too strong for an opponent to deal with. The upper belt is just on the mats to have fun and doesn’t want to go that hard.”
    1. Beware, there is a good chance you are delusional and the upper belt is playing a completely different game than you and scaling their use of force to the minimum requirements.  How does your roll with them go 2 or 3 rounds from now after sustaining 100% effort?
  4. “When one is out of shape and stops moving moments before collapsing into a response-less heap.”
    1. Uh oh, you waited too long to relax.  The more out of shape, the more important to relax when possible.
  5. “When none of those moves a white belt is trying are even real Jiu Jitsu, and maybe they should be.
    1. Using Jiu Jitsu movements is less exhausting than using exercise movements.  Execute techniques!

Futurama Fry BJJ Coach Saying Breathe Is A Joke Or Im Doing It Wrong

What do upper belts ACTUALLY mean?

When telling new white belts to “relax” what I am referring to is following the best practices of energy conservation.  When performing movements we perceive difficult we tend to hold our breath.  Think about clinching down your body before lifting a heavy weight (official name: “Valsalva Maneuver”).

Jiu Jitsu is difficult because of the numerous overlaid concepts that must be understood.  However, it shouldn’t require maximal physical output at all times.  Energy conservation or “Sustainable Jiu Jitsu” should be the neutral state.  There will be times where explosive movements are required, but energy must be saved for the right time like precious fuel.

Upper Belt Dictionary

(v) Relax:
  1. “No one is trying to kill you white belt.  We are all friends trying to make each other better.  Calm your mind and body to understand the position you are in and then begin working your way out. Sometimes that means to tap.  No problem.  Focus on maintaining the minimal muscle tension needed to achieve goals and constant unlabored breathing.”
  2. “Moving with an average amount of intensity that could be maintained for over 10 rounds of sparring”

Energy is the key currency in Jiu Jitsu.  Running out of this resource is the great equalizer.

The grappling exchanges in class typically are at least 5 minute Jiu Jitsu rounds.  Many white belts will hold their breath, and move their entire body with 100% maximal effort being applied.  At this rate most new grapplers are completely exhausted within the first few minutes.  Once the complete exhaustion kicks in, any of the children from the kids class could tap them out.

Fatigue Makes Cowards Of Us All.” –  Vince Lombardi

A Quick Demonstration To Understand The Basic Idea

  1. Use your right hand to grab your left wrist however you like.
  2. Squeeze your right grip hard to hold your left wrist, holding your breath and applying 100% effort.
  3.  Try to pull your left wrist away (you should fail).  Take a mental note of how hard it was to pull the left hand away.  If you didn’t notice it, try it again.Unleashing That White Belt Strength Simpsons Willie
  4. Release
  5. Grab your left wrist with your right hand but this time much more relaxed than before.  The goal now is to keep the breaking constant and steady (not changed by “hunkering down” into a grip).  Before, we applied 100% effort, this time only apply about 30% effort.  A little harder than you would grip a glass of water to keep from dropping it.
  6. Work on pulling your left wrist away now.  If it starts to pull out easily, walk your grip up 5% – 10% at a time.  You should find that somewhere less than 50% effort, you control your left wrist just as well at 100% depending on your grip strength.  Take a mental note of how hard it was to pull the left hand away.
  7. Compare the effort expended in the 100% exertion and the less than 50% exertion models.
So What?

The amount of effort we put in doesn’t directly correlate to the amount of results we achieve.

White Belts Think They Are Winning When Upper Belts Aren't Trying
“Am I Winning?”

Just because we were exerted 100% force to control our own wrist, didn’t actually make our grip any stronger.  We could have been “lazier” with our effort and conserved energy that could be needed later.  The result would have been identical.

Using only 50% effort would have controlled the wrist as well and been sustainable for about TWICE AS LONG.  Just by moderating effort we can actually instantly increase our muscular cardio (in this case nearly doubling it).

Almost always, new white belts are gripping at nearly 100% effort nearly 100% of the time.  They are afraid to relax their death grip on their security blanket of excessive effort.

A grip they make on their opponent’s lapel has every muscle in their arm flexed and straining.  Merely keeping their hand tight enough to maintain the grip, while relaxing the rest of their arm would greatly reduce the expended effort and still have an identical outcome.

The benefits to remaining relaxed while training Jiu Jitsu are enormous!  I’ve written before before about how relaxation leads to muscular sensitivity and helps unlock potential Jiu Jitsu speed.

Interestingly enough, the better a grappler becomes at selective relaxation, the more intense they can roll.  Also, building up a large reservoir of cardio only increases the advantages of relaxation.

Dude, Take A Chill Pill

Once a white belt has been introduced to the concept of what “relax” means for Jiu Jitsu, the struggle to change ingrained habits begins.  Staying relaxed is fine, but what about when my opponent gets a deep gross collar grip and my system gets amped up to defend the choke?  There definitely is a time for intensity on the mats!

How quickly once I’m safe, can I remember to bring my body back down to a neutral state as opposed to keep it hyped up?  Master this, and I’ve mastered one of the core concepts of Jiu Jitsu.  Instead of freaking out in a bad spot, I can stay calm and progressively work my way out.

From a position of monitoring and controlling responses, I can make effective decisions to improve my situation.