White belt is the make or break stage in your Martial Arts journey. BJJ has a very high drop off rate and the majority of people who begin training don’t make it past the three month mark. There are a variety of reasons for this but quite commonly students quit because they feel they are not making any progress.
There are several common problems that I see with most beginner students and in this article I will offer possible solutions that will help you improve and make progress in your martial arts journey
Some Beginners will never suffer from these problems, particularly so if they are athletic or have a background in other combat sports. They may not get exhausted or stuck in bad positions when rolling with other beginners, however, I think its actually beneficial for students to go through this frustrating process and to get used to it. This is something you will have to experience again and again throughout your training career. The sooner you can get comfortable with being uncomfortable the more benefits you will get in the long term.
The first problem for many beginners is lack of fitness leading to exhaustion during sparring. Don’t base your entire BJJ game around fitness and outworking your opponent at the expense of proper technique, however, it will always help to improve your fitness if you feel you are struggling during sparring rounds.
To achieve this I recommend simple solutions such as getting up half an hour earlier and going for a run, bike ride or swim twice a week. Yes there are more scientific and technical ways of maximizing your fitness but as a White Belt you aren’t trying to win the Olympics just attempting to build your gas tank so you can roll at a sensible pace without feeling completely exhausted and having to sit out rounds.
Another tip to avoid gassing out is to make sure you roll at a pace that is suitable for your fitness level. If you find you are breathing heavily and exhausted within 30 seconds you need to slow down and concentrate on what you are doing. Don’t waste energy relentlessly squeezing your opponents head when you should be figuring out how to move your hips and legs to escape.
Getting Stuck in Bad Positions…
This is one of the most common questions I get asked by beginners. They get stuck under side control or Mount for every round of sparring and never get a chance to use any of the techniques they have learnt.
My first piece of advice is to learn and drill the escapes from these positions then practice them in isolation sparring. This involves rounds of starting from side control and once you achieve an escape or reversal resetting and doing it again. This method will improve your escapes 100%.
Another useful idea is to occasionally just ask your training partners to reset once you’ve been stuck under side control or mount. Getting better at escaping especially against heavier and more skilled opponents is a time consuming process and you can’t expect results overnight. For this reason I would advise new students to just ask their training partners to reset in a different position and work from there rather than wasting valuable training time.
At a slightly higher level the biggest key to avoiding getting stuck in bad positions is to avoid ending up there in the first place. The key to this is Guard Recovery and Guard Pass Prevention. The better you get at preventing getting your guard passed the less time you will be spending in bad positions. As mentioned previously this is a long term process but the earlier in your grappling career you get started on it the better results you’ll get.
Can’t get any Submissions…
Another problem is that the typical BJJ student learns or is at least exposed to dozens of submissions in their first few months of training but when they try to apply these techniques in live sparring they never work. This is because all the other students have also been taught the same techniques during the same period and so they are aware of them and are ready to shut them down. This often leads to the less than ideal ‘Youtube Arms-Race’ scenario where ambitious White-belts will scour the internet for secret techniques to catch their training partners unawares rather than just focusing on learning how to do the fundamental techniques properly.
I advise beginners to follow the BJJ maxim – ‘Position before Submission’. Focus on building your game, at least in the early stages, of getting to solid control positions such as Side Control, Mount and Back Control and then the opportunities for submissions will begin to present themselves. I also encourage building your game around submissions where you will not lose position if it doesn’t get the tap. For example if you cant finish the Rear Naked Choke you are still in Back Control so you get to try it again and again until the end of the round.
Can’t remember their techniques when Sparring…
As previously mentioned during your first few months of training you will be exposed to what seems like an endless amount of techniques. It is usually too difficult to remember everything you learn and it will be almost impossible to recall and use it effectively when needed in live sparring.
The first stage in the solution to this problem is to try to retain as much information as possible. Make notes on everything you learn as soon as possible after learning it. Drill the technique as much as possible after your Instructor shows it then try to drill it again a few times later in the class e.g. before each sparring round or a few reps at the end of class. This will help keep it fresh in your memory. Its also a great idea if you get to class early to grab a partner and do a few reps of the techniques you learnt in the previous class.
The key to being able to use the techniques in sparring is to find a way to speed up the decision making process. You need to write out a game-plan of exactly what you will do in each position and in each scenario. For example, when on top in Side Control rather than attempting to remember and choosing between twenty different submissions you will have one designated attack to go for. If the opponent defends this you will then transition to your secondary attack. As you progress and get more experience you will gradually expand and adapt your game-plan but you need to start somewhere or you will waste years sparring ineffectively.
Not sure what they should be doing during Rolling….
When watching beginners rolling its clear that their only objective is to win the round by any means necessary and this is something which will usually be detrimental to their long term progress.
If your’re unsure about what you should be doing when rolling then try to spend some time watching the higher belts at your academy. Don’t look out for spectacular techniques or trick moves but rather how do they do the basic moves, how do they move and react when they are defending a guard pass or any other common situation that you are likely to find yourself in, what sort of pace and tempo they are working at?
If possible try to video yourself rolling so you can get a clearer view of what you are actually doing in sparring compared to what you think you’re doing.
Finally, try to have some objectives for each round of sparring or training session. For example, I want to use my Double Under Guard Pass or my Scissor Sweep. The afterwards go back and if possible analyse your video and see if you achieved your objectives and how you can improve upon your performance for next time.
My most important piece of advice for beginners who feel that they are not making progress is that they should not become too demoralized. All combat sports take a long time to get good at and you will go through periods where your progress plateaus and you don’t feel you are making improvement.
Over the last 20+ years of grappling training I’ve seen many people who looked very impressive after a few months of training but usually these same people were the ones who quit after a year or so because they stop improving at the same rate they initially did.
Its not about who is best after six months, but who’s best (and who’s left) after ten years.
Please comment below if you have any other White Belt Problems not covered here that you’d like me to discuss in a future article.