When you first start training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), you may feel overwhelmed with the amount that you are expected to know. Additionally, it’s not just technique that you must learn; there is a steep learning curve to the gym culture, class structure, and social dynamics.
Not everything is explained, and sometimes you cross a line you didn’t even know existed. Those trial-by-fire lessons can be painful, but hopefully this list will enlighten you and save you the burn of learning the hard way.
#1 - Train 2-3 times per week (or get creative) Ultimately, you should train however much you can fit into your schedule. If you can only train once a week, and your schedule allows zero wiggle room--then do that. However, it will be difficult to make steady progress unless you are getting at least two or three weekly training sessions in. Still, there are other ways to get in more training: stay after class to get in extra rolls, work on solo drills at home, attend open mats, or coordinate with teammates to roll even when the gym isn’t open. #2 - Cut your toenails and fingernails short If you have long nails, you run the risk of cutting your training partners while drilling or sparring. You may think that this is a gross exaggeration, but you might be surprised at how much damage you can do with just a fingernail or toenail. There are many people who have the scars to prove it. Additionally, there is a lot of bacteria under the fingernails, so these cuts can get infected. Trim your nails before class to avoid slicing open your friends. It takes very little time and is a good habit to get into. #3 - Always wear a clean uniform (Gi or No Gi) This cannot be stressed enough: always wear a clean Gi or No Gi uniform. Even if you don’t sweat during class, you should still wash your gym clothes. The human body is covered in bacteria, and so too is the mat. Your uniform will pick up that bacteria as you roll around on it, even if you aren’t sweaty. If you don’t wash your uniform, your uniform will probably smell horrible--and even if you don’t, you greatly increase the risk of infecting yourself and your teammates with mat funk. #4 - Take drilling as seriously as sparring If you feel that drilling is just not as fun as sparring, you’re not alone. Especially when you first start training, you might find the endless drilling to be tedious, boring, and repetitive. By contrast, sparring is often fast and exciting, and you may find yourself wishing you could spend more time sparring and less time drilling. Even though you may feel this way, understand that drilling is essential to your long-term success as a Jiu Jitsu practitioner. Don’t just drill the move-of-the-day and forget about it; see if you can hit it during sparring. You may ultimately decide that this move isn’t for you, but make sure you can execute it during sparring before making that decision. #5 - Ask questions, but don’t overthink it It’s okay to ask questions, and critical thinking will probably be encouraged at most BJJ gyms. Still, don’t let an overabundance of questions get in the way of drilling and learning the technique. At some point, you need to stop talking about it and just drill it. Focus on getting in and may repetitions as you can, while still executing the technique correctly. Don’t let yourself get sucked down a rabbit hole of what-if scenarios until you have mastered the basics. That being said, make sure you ask questions about specific problems as they come up while you rep the technique. #6 - Accept that you won’t understand everything When learning a new technique, it will probably be taught to you in an isolated environment without the context of how you got there (or what you should do with it). It is important for you to know that in these situations, you can’t understand everything, and there simply isn’t enough time to have it all explained to you during class. As you progress, you will undoubtedly pick up the myriad of situational and contextual details that accompany each technique. Until then, focus on learning as many new techniques as you can and refine the techniques you know. #7 - Spar after class (if you’re healthy) Especially when you’re new and still figuring things out, you need to put in time on the mats. Any time you can, drill your technique and get in rolls. If you have the energy and you’re healthy enough to do so, stick around after class and get in some extra rolls. Even if it’s a couple extra five minute rolls, that extra time on the mat can start to add up for your game. If you can stick around for an extra hour, that could be the equivalent as getting in an extra class. #8 - Tap early, before you feel pain Hopefully, this is something that each gym is clearly explaining to each newcomer, but make sure you don’t wait too long before you tap to a submission. Don’t wait until you hear a pop. Don’t wait until you feel pain. Tap when a submission is applied. As you progress in Jiu Jitsu, you will learn ways to stay safe and escape submissions. However, when you are first starting out, it is not necessary to fight every submission attempt to the bitter end. The goal is to learn. Leave your ego at the door, tap early, and train often. #9 - Don’t flail or spaz out during sparring You may not be savvy to this yet, but spazzy white belts are a bit of a meme within BJJ culture. If this is news to you, well I have news for you: you are the spazzy white belt. It’s understandable; you simply don’t have that level of control over your body yet. Don’t worry, you will develop it in time, and your more experienced training partners will (sometimes begrudgingly) take elbows and knees to the face while you get up to speed. In the meantime, do your best to not freak out like a wacky, waving, inflatable, arm-flailing tube-man. #10 - Experiment new technique on lower belts As a new BJJ practitioner, you may not get an opportunity to roll with a less-experienced grappler for a long time. But at some point, you will realize that your one stripe actually does mean something when compared to someone fresh off the street. When the time comes, don’t simply demolish those that are less skilled than you. Sure, you will enjoy crushing newbies from time-to-time, but don’t let that be the only way you roll with newer folks. Use this opportunity as a way to build up weaker parts of your game or try out new technique. #11 - Sharpen good techniques on upper belts Remember how on #10, I suggested you try not to simply crush lower belts? Well with upper belts, do the opposite. This is the time to try to crush your opponent. Bust out your A+ game and go to town. The more experienced the grappler, the better they should be at keeping you both safe, mitigating your attacks, and executing their own attacks. This is the perfect opportunity to sharpen your game by learning what works and what doesn’t. #12 - Take a shower after class (as soon as you can) It sucks to end up with a ringworm infection, athlete’s foot, or some other type of infection. Do your part to battle the spread of infectious mat funk by keeping yourself (and your uniform) clean. Not every gym will have on-site showers, and not everyone will have the opportunity to use the shower even if there is one. Just make sure you take a shower sometime after class, whether it’s at the gym or at home. #13 - Take notes during or after class If you’re anything like me, you forget things all the time. As it turns out, you need to remember techniques to utilize them. This can make learning new techniques difficult. One strategy that can help immensely is to take notes. I tend to take notes a couple days after class, but the sooner the better. Another strategy that can help you retain new information is talking about what you learned, even if it’s just to yourself. On your drive home after class, pretend that you’re explaining everything you just learned to a friend who doesn’t train Jiu Jitsu. It will force you to break the information down into simple steps. Additionally, see if you can visualize the technique as you’re discussing it out loud. Just remember to still pay attention to the road on your drive home. #14 - Be patient with your progress You may feel that even after months of training, you haven’t made any progress. Don’t worry, you are indeed making progress, even if you can’t see it yet. Depending on how often you train, it can take years to become even barely competent in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, so don’t be dissuaded by the journey--embrace it. A promotion is not the destination, it’s another starting point. In fact, there is no destination; BJJ is a lifelong endeavor. If you want to keep getting better, the most important thing you can do is to keep showing up. Train as often as you can, leave your ego at the door, and enjoy the process. #15 - It’s not about who is best, but who is left Even the best grapplers will become old, their bodies will wear out, and they will eventually die. Knowing this, realize that getting tapped out doesn’t invalidate what you know. Likewise, tapping someone out won’t validate what you do know. Staying healthy, continuing to learn, and having an open mind will make you better. Obviously, you should train hard, try to tap out your opponents, and continue to improve. But don’t risk injury for the sake of proving a point. If you don’t tap to an armlock from a lower belt, does it prove that you’re better than them? Maybe. But if you have to take six months off from training to recover, did you truly win?