Surviving the First Year of BJJ: A Crash Course for White Belts

Want to try BJJ but don’t know where to start? New at a BJJ school and struggling to survive the first 6 months? I’m going to lay out a quick and dirty, no frills survival guide for you.

Let’s start by assuming you’re not training yet. You probably like watching MMA and have the idea that training BJJ could be cool. Google BJJ gyms in your area and ask on BJJ forums online for good schools to try out. Fill out whatever “take a free trial class” form the school has on their website or call them to schedule a time to go in.

Stop making excuses like "I want to get in shape first." Nothing gets you ready for BJJ except doing BJJ. (Watching Youtube videos and trying them on your annoyed girlfriend doesn't count.)

Should you do gi or no-gi? This is irrelevant at this point. Find the best gym in your area and do whatever they offer. Eventually you should train whichever one you like more (or the best option: doing both) but don't act like you can't train under a gi-only instructor when your dream is to be a "em em ay" fighter.

Time to take your first class. Wear athletic shorts with a strong drawstring (and no pockets) and a t-shirt you don't mind getting stretched out and ruined. You may be given a loaner gi to wear.

You should also bring a change of clothes and a gym towel unless you want to drive home all sweaty. Bring a bottle of water too.

Bring flipflops to wear into the bathroom. Don’t walk barefoot to the toilet. And don’t wear shoes on the mats.

Show up a little early to meet the instructor, sign a waiver, and check out the space.

When class starts, pay attention, follow instructions and just try to do whatever everyone else is doing. You will likely be barely able to follow along and this is normal.

The class will probably go like this:

  • Warm-ups like running laps and basic BJJ movements
  • Learn and drill 2-3 techniques (you may get your own special first lesson at this point)
  • Maybe “live” drilling and sparring (not all gyms let people spar on day one)

If you get paired up with a student you don’t know, don't worry about "wasting their time" because you're a clueless white belt. Everyone has to help everyone, and if you're eager to practice and learn, no matter how awful you are, then you aren't wasting their time.

Sparring time. Watching MMA might make you feel like you've got half a clue but there is an ocean of difference between watching and doing. If you ever saw someone tap to a "lucky" choke or armbar in MMA and thought "Why did he tap!? I wouldn't have tapped!", now is your time to find out why yes, he really did need to tap to that.

If you "almost get" a colored belt with a move, they let you and they are just being nice to the new white belt.

How to not make enemies on your first day:

  • Don't pick anyone up and slam them down.
  • Don't try to break anyone’s legs or feet.
  • Don't just squeeze heads and crank on necks.
  • Try not to spaz too hard.
  • Don't brag about anything.

You are allowed to spaz a little because you are a white belt and no one expects any better out of you. But you should work to replace spazzing with real technique as you train more.

This class will be a blur and you will likely forget everything you learned. That's normal. It takes seeing and practicing techniques many times over many years to really get them.

As you roll out of bed the following morning you will likely be aware of muscles that you never knew existed before as they scream at you. That means you did it right.

Repeat this “first class” process for all the good gyms in your area then sign up at your favorite place.

The best way to deal with issues like anxiety, feeling stupid, being out of shape, etc. is to realize that everyone (except genetic freaks) went through this too, so you’re not unique and alone in this, so stop worrying about it. You don't know this stuff yet and that's why you are here to learn.

Claustrophobic? Prepare to take confront your fears head on. This phobia will go away as you get exposed to it and learn what to do.

If you smoke, quit now. It's bad for you, it's bad for your BJJ, and you smell awful to your training partners who can't avoid breathing in your musk.

Getting nasty mat burn on your feet? You can try a product called Nu Skin to help out, it's like a clear nail polish for abrasions, but be warned it stings like a red hot poker. Ultimately, your best answer will be calluses (same goes for playing guitar.) 

Finishing your first month. Most people don't even take a second class, so you're doing better than most people. But most people also don't finish 6 months or a year, so you're not better than them by much.

Time to get into a steady rhythm. Keep coming to classes. Be eager to learn and drill and don't be afraid to ask questions.

How many times a week should you train? Work up to at least 3 times per week as soon as your body can handle it. Here's a rough guide to classes per week:

1 class: You will be a white belt forever and barely learn anything.
2 classes: This will barely maintain your skill level and progress slowly.
3 classes: You will make headway and still have recovery days.
4 classes: Now you're getting serious. You are becoming a fixture in the gym.
5 classes: You will see big improvements but get more injuries.
6 classes: You probably don't have a job.
7+  classes: You are probably single and don't have a job. But your BJJ is doing great!

Finishing the first 6 months. Your body is probably getting into much better shape than when you started. You should take a look at your diet and sleep habits and try to improve them. This is good for your health and your BJJ and will even help prevent overtraining injuries.

Ready for your first tournament? Of course not. But do one anyway. Everyone should try it at least once. You will probably be very nervous. That is normal. The only way to overcome this anxiety is to compete so much you get over it. Unfortunately that's not a possible solution for your first competition.

Competing as a white belt is good too because the pressure to perform and "prove your belt" is much worse once your belt has a color. No one expects anything impressive out of a white belt so you are free suck and no one will hold it against you (except Youtube comments on your tournament video.)

I would tell you to not focus too much about getting your blue belt and you will likely say you don't really care about your belt. But I also know you're probably secretly coveting it anyway.

What you should be working on as a white belt:

  • Regular attendance. This is the most important skill you can have because I could leave the rest of this list empty and you'd still get better by going to the gym.
  • Getting in shape. You need to be able to handle a whole class from start to finish and never quit sparring because you're tired.
  • Remembering techniques. Drill a lot and maybe keep a written journal.
  • Defense and escapes. As a beginner you will spend most of your time in bad spots so naturally this is the main area to improve your technical performance.

Keep that up and you'll get better and eventually earn your blue belt.

One last piece of advice: Don't teach anyone anything as a white belt. Don't try to coach other white belts.

This is harsh and it will make you sad when you are sure you really know the technique, but as an instructor I have seen too many white belts eagerly teach the wrong thing without knowing it. Just ask the instructor to come and check things out. It is not a problem. That is our job.

Looking for more advice? Check out Advice for Newbie White Belts and Anxious Blue Belts. I've also written for blue to purple belts and browns belt on their way to black.