As is the fashion when one receives a new belt, I felt I should offer a handy list of advice on what helped me get my purple.

The problem with pieces like this is how easy it is to blow off their truisms. I hope I can avoid this a bit by offering less common tips like…

Don’t feel stupid.

As a beginner, especially before you realize how understanding and supportive your school is, it’s easy to suffer from “feeling stupid”. So much is unfamiliar and unknown to you, and you’re being constantly required to do things before you know what to do.

Add to this that you’re having to deal with emotional issues like the discomfort of physical contact with strangers, the pressure of performing in front of others, wanting to fit into the group, not wanting to be embarrassed, trying to make your instructor proud, and so on.

Overcoming these concerns can be a lot to deal with at first, and I think it is psychological issues like these that cause most white belts to quit.

Realize that everyone else went through the same issues and understands what you’re going through. You’re not stupid if you don’t know something yet—that’s the whole reason you’re at class.

So relax and don’t sweat it.

Be optimistic.

Eduardo had a saying that has stuck with me ever since I was a white belt:

“Jiu-jitsu is for the optimist.”

An optimistic outlook will aide you greatly as you learn and improve at BJJ.

Let’s say you get caught in sparring with a move you didn’t expect at all. You could react to this a few ways.

You could beat yourself up for getting caught, start muscling the guy so he won’t get you again and get a “revenge tap” out of him.

Or, as I’d suggest, you could admire his success and ask him to show you what he did so you can learn it too.

Your mindset, negative or positive, can affect how quickly and smoothly you improve, as well as set the vibe at your gym.

Believe in the techniques.

Your optimism or pessimism can extend specifically to how you learn new techniques.

I’ve seen someone learning a new move and dismiss it, saying “I’ll never get that to work.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since they go on to half-heartedly drill it, and then never attempt it in sparring, so it “never works”.

Drill each technique like it’s you’re favorite move and look forward to using it. Try to get it in sparring the same day. Don’t get discouraged when you can’t get it to work at first. Just keep drilling it and going for it in sparring. It will come to you in the end.

Don’t be a douche bag.

This would be the spot normally reserved for the trite “Leave your ego at the door”, but I don’t really like that cliché. I think “douche bag” explains the problem better than “ego”, which is why I’ve gone with my saying.

Ego can be a good thing, since you should feel an appropriate sense of self-worth and be proud of your accomplishments. What people really don’t want is for you to be self-important and make others feel bad.

In case you still don’t get it, here’s a handy list to get you started:

Don’t

  • Don’t worry or gossip about who can tap who, who you can tap, who can tap you, and so on.
  • Don’t use needlessly rough moves and especially no illegal or injurious techniques.
  • Don’t get caught up in rank and hierarchy and running after the next belt.

Do

  • Do help less experienced training partners and answer their questions.
  • Do put up a good (and safe) fight when seriously sparring.
  • Do your best to be as technical as possible.

It’s just training and you’re all there to learn together.

Find good training partners.

Make friends at class and find someone else who shares your interest in improving. This is easier if you’ve got the last point down.

What should you look for in a training partner?

  • They’re happy to put in the time to do the extra drilling and sparring with you.
  • They’re someone you can exchange techniques with who will help with the R&D.
  • They’ll work on a move and give you details and tips they’ve figured out.
  • They’ll spot a mistake you’re making and help you fix it.

I feel I owe much of my biggest improvements to my great training partners who are willing to put in the time and energy to stay after class and come in on Sundays to get the extra training.

Visualize.

Use your otherwise idle time (driving, taking a shower, laying in bed, etc.) to do mental exercises like visualization.

Remember each step and detail of a technique. What did the instructor say about the move? What mistakes did you make? What adjustment did you have to make? What happens if you do a step wrong?

Try to vividly recall a round of sparring. What did you do? What did they do? Where was your weight? How was your balance? What should you have done differently? What did you do right?

Keep a training log.

I’ve kept a log for most of the time I’ve been training, and it is what I attribute to my being able to remember each technique in detail. It is the most involved form of visualization I use.

It’s not that I return to what I have written, since I rarely read my old notes, but the act of finding the words to describe the techniques makes me run through the move over and over again in my mind.

Drill drill drill.

Eduardo thought back on what he saw the top Gracie Barra black belts doing that set them apart. What were guys like Nino and Soca doing different? They tirelessly drilled their best moves.

The importance of drilling is one of Eddie Bravo’s messages. He told a story about how it was only once he could put in extra sessions of drilling that his game really took off. His slang was to find the “magic number”, the number of reps where the move suddenly sinks in and becomes automatic.

From personal experience, my best moves are the ones I drill the most. The reverse omoplata was a novelty until I drilled it to a point that I could do it with my eyes closed, and by then it had become my top submission.

Spar spar spar.

You can’t just “think” your way through BJJ. Analysis and gaining a conceptual understanding is important, and putting in reps on a move is valuable, but you need to balance it all against a healthy dose of sparring.

It’s through sparring that you’ll hammer out the techniques you drilled and put all of your thoughts into action. Sparring is also where you develop the attributes associated with experience and skill, like timing, sensitivity and awareness.

Keep training.

You will have ups and downs, peaks and slumps. You’ll have good days and bad weeks. You won’t always feel like getting on the mats. You’ll get bumps, bruises and serious injuries. You’ll be off your game or be caught by surprise and get tapped by lower belts.

Accept all of this as an inevitable part of our sport and the art. Then just keep training.

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