The White Belt Struggle: How to Push Through It

The White Belt Struggle: How to Push Through It

Are you struggling as a white belt? The good news is you’re not alone and you’re not unique in your challenges. In this article, I’m going to lay out many of the struggles white belts experience, including ones that get less mention, like social anxieties, and how to overcome them.

Some relief can come from simply knowing that you’re not alone in your experiences, what you’re feeling is not even unusual, and that many people -- including the black belts you now look up to -- went through many of the same problems.

Common Issues for New Students:

  • Knots in your stomach and anxiety before class. To be honest, for my first six months as a white belt, as it got later in the day and closer to class time, I would get very anxious and lose my appetite. The feeling would grow and grow right up to the start of class, but then once I got into it, the feeling would pass (or I’d be too busy training to notice it), and there would be a big relief afterward.

  • Finding excuses to not go to class because of that anxiety. As the anxiety builds, you may find it easier and easier to come up with reasons to skip class. “I’m too tired, I just want to watch Netflix tonight, I didn’t eat a good enough lunch, I’m still a little sore from last time…” Of course, taking care of yourself is important to avoid over-training, but more often than not, I’d say the right thing to do is push through your excuses and just go train. You can always go light or sit out some rounds of sparring, but getting on the mat and carrying the momentum of one class to the next is important as you try to make your earlier gains as a white belt.
  • Social anxiety about joining an already established group of strangers. Some of that anxiety is often fueled by the social aspects of training: going into a group of strangers, having to interact with new people, not knowing the social etiquette or norms yet, worrying about offending higher ranked students, and so on. And on top of that, you have to be sweated on and squashed by these people.
  • Feeling like you’re the stupidest person in the room. When you are the newest student in class, you may assume everyone else knows everything you don’t and all eyes are on you when you don’t know what to do or struggle with practicing the move. Truthfully, no one but your training partner and your instructor are paying any attention to you, and if they are at all friendly, they will understand you are new and be patient with you.

  • Worrying you’re wasting your partners’ and instructors’ time. Very green white belts often fear everyone who has to help them will be resentful, but this is very rarely true (and if it is, that’s more a problem with the resentful person, not the white belt). Your training partners have all been in your spot before, so they know what it’s like to be new. Your instructor’s job is to understand what it’s like to be a white belt like you and help you through it, so don’t stress yourself out on their behalf.

  • Forgetting everything you were taught, especially under the pressure of sparring. The process of learning BJJ takes years and years. You will need to learn countless moves and all of their little details. The odds of remembering a move the first time you learn it, especially as a beginner, are very low. This is a very common problem, and keeping a training journal is usually the best way to solve it.

  • Fear of getting injured or injuring someone else by accident. Injuries are an unfortunate reality of BJJ, as it is with any contact sport, but sometimes you can become overly fearful to the point of being paralyzed. Not wanting to harm your training partners is good, but we’ve all signed up for a bit of roughhousing. Just focus on using the techniques you’re learning and don’t do anything too explosive or crazy and you should be OK.

  • Gassing out quickly and tapping out to exhaustion. This is normal for a white belt to do, since you’re going to be spending a lot of energy and struggling against everyone who is more experienced than you. Slow down, think of the right techniques for the situation (if you have learned them yet) instead of just flailing and grabbing whatever, and pace your breathing so you’re not holding it or breathing too fast.

  • Being so sore you can’t train again for a while. BJJ will make you do all kinds of things with your body you’ve likely never done before, and on top of that, other people are twisting you up and smooshing you in all kinds of weird ways. This soreness is just part of the game, but the extreme “I can’t lift my arms and it hurts to breath” soreness goes away as your conditioning improves and you learn to relax more.

  • Feeling undeserving of your first stripe promotion. Not to deflate you too much, but the first stripe is often more about “Congratulations on figuring out how to drive to the gym to be on time for class for a few months” than any recognition of skill. That first stripe means you’re on the right path, but you’ve got a very long way to go, so don’t worry about “living up to it” if you’re still struggling. That’s just what it’s like being a white belt.

What I want you to take away from this is that countless people have come before you, and they have struggled with all of the same problems, and many of them went on to earn belts and win tournaments. BJJ is very challenging, and it takes many years of commitment to progress to its higher levels. What will get you through your early days and carry you on throughout the rest of your BJJ journey is developing your work ethic, your commitment to showing up and getting on the mats, and a belief that whatever problems you are facing can be solved by getting on the mats with a determined and positive mindset.