My White Belt Wonder Years

My White Belt Wonder Years

When you are a brand new student, any grappler with even a splash of experience—say 4 stripe white belt and above—can seem hopelessly beyond anything you can ever hope to achieve in terms of skill or ability. I see that frustration in my students all the time, and I am always trying to explain how awful I was (and am) at jiu-jitsu when I first began.

A move that my students can pick up in a class quite literally took me months of drilling to understand and execute. And this is no exaggeration. A simple spider guard transition—switching from hip to hip while keeping your spider hooks in—was so difficult for me that I started tracking the hours. Two sessions a day, an hour a piece, repeated five times a week for four weeks… 40 hours of mat time.

It took me a full month of training to pick up what many people consider a fundamental skill, and I thought for sure my instructor at the time, Renato “Charuto” Verissimo, was going to die from sadness for me. I must have been his worst student of all time.

Recognizing that I was lacking in natural talent and athleticism, I worked to make up for those shortcomings with obsessive study and drilling. I was the kid who kept a copy of Mastering the Rubber Guard in his gym bag, who would go into the corner by the heavy bags before class to practice inverting, and who would stay after class to drill, trying awkwardly to catch someone’s attention to ask them to be my uke.

I also accomplished amazing technical feats like kneeing myself in the nose (it bled) trying to recover guard, or popping my own knee when I was attacking someone else with a calf slicer, or not realizing my cup fell out of my bag only to discover it run over in the street the next morning (and that’s the story of why I stopped wearing a cup).

My life is a long string of embarrassing moments, and my white belt years were perhaps even worse because of my bumbling, uncoordinated foundation.

In truth, I am still just as bad at learning jiu-jitsu today. If I want to add a technique to my game, I have to set aside three months or more of drilling time before it will be effective, but few of my students believe me when I tell them that. What they see is someone who can, for the most part, out-technique them at every turn.

In math class, your teachers tell you to show your work. In jiu-jitsu, you hide it. The apparent effortlessness of a seasoned grappler is actually the product of immense effort, but you can’t tell.

That white belt feeling, for me and many jiu-jiteiros that I’ve met at least, does not go away. I’m still a white belt deep down, struggling to figure out a new transition or getting frustrated with the finish angle of that one ankle lock. If you are a white belt now, or even a blue belt for that matter, and you sometimes feel hopeless about your progress, I realize that telling you that you will always be a bit awkward and that some techniques will always be difficult is not very comforting.

But it is. The point is that all of us in the sport have those feelings, and no decent human being on the mat will ever look down on you for needing time and practice to figure something out. We’ve been there, and we’re still there, so it will be okay.