White Belt Mindset

My friend Sam has written a lot about the beginner mindset.

If you have the time I definitely recommend reading up on this topic.

I bring this up because in a lot of my post I talk about the white belt mindset.

In fact they are one and the same.

Having this mindset has helped me so much during my travels.

Especially during my current stay in Japan. Not only am I a beginner in wrestling. But I’m also a beginner in Japanese.

It’s a very humbling experience.

Sometimes it gets hard. Like when I say the wrong thing or I don’t quite get the technique down right away.

I might embarrassing myself.

But through it all, I never give up.

Doing Jiu Jitsu has taught me how to persevere.

How to break complex moves and ideas down, and make them smaller and easier to understand.

And of course patience.

Patience is key.

As an instructor I have taught many students at the beginner level.

So much so that I’ve noticed a lot of trends between the students that stick with their training and go on to higher levels. Versus those students that plateau and eventually give up.

It all comes down to mindset.

That and a few actions that we can all develop to make ourselves better students and better teachers.

Why do white belts learn so quickly?

White belts learn so quickly for a number of reasons.

Everything is new to them so when they are first exposed to techniques they look at it with no judgements, no preconceived notions or any past reference of what they are being taught.

Much like a toddler learning to walk. White belts are so focused on the task at hand that they don’t over think. They just try their best.

By putting in their best effort and focusing all of their energy into learning something new. White belts are able to reach a clearer state of mind.

They are not thinking about their lousy day work.

Or the girl that turned them down for a date.

They just focus on the techniques.

Very zen like.

Because they have no past reference of what they are learning. They are more likely to listen.

They listen to their fellow white belts.

They listen to the higher ranked students.

They listen to their instructors.

We have two ears for a reason.

This is one skill that has personally helped me throughout my years training.

Being able to listen to instruction or being coachable is an asset that many people lack. Even more important if you have plans towards competing.

And once white belts are done listening. They always have a question.

Some instructors frown upon students asking questions.

This is more common in traditional academies. Where the instructor shows a technique and then expects the students to perform just like robots. Drilling the move to completion.

But most of the top schools encourage asking questions.

Not only does it help open dialogue between teacher and student. But it is also a learning tool.

By allowing students to ask questions they deepen their understanding of Jiu Jitsu and they are more engaged. More involved.

But the most instructive experience comes from white belts lack of experience.

They fail and they fail often.

It doesn’t matter how good the instructor is or the level of the academy.

Starting out we all fail.

But how we handle failure and all the other set backs to come. Shapes us.

I think this is the essence of what it means to have a white belt mindset. It’s a pure focusing of energy for a singular task. Ever moving forward.


Pitfalls of the white belt mindset

The white belt mindset is not without its downsides. I believe that the major pitfall of the white belt mindset is the rush to improve.

Improvement is good.

I think it’s what really hooks beginners when they first start training martial arts.

Every day they go to the academy they are learning something new.

A new technique.

A new exercise.

A new form of movement.

It’s actually quite addictive! Getting better at something everyday. I think it’s very similar to a lot of video games where with enough time at the start, you can level up a lot in a short period.

This is all fine and good. But when beginning students begin to rush improvement or when more advanced students want to force success that’s when they lose sight of the power of the white belt mindset.

In fact many students begin to lose their white belt mindset at the awareness of new belts and higher ranks. Especially in the U.S., where we have a history of misusing martial arts belts.

The sparkle of the new belt and the responsibility that comes with it weighs heavily on less experienced students.

There are a number of Internet memes showcasing a student after graduating to a higher rank sporting a target on their back.

It’s pretty funny right?

I admit to promoting this idea too, but it only adds unneeded stress if you really look at it. Our time would be better spent developing the white belt mindset. Not being in such a hurry to pass it by.

Improvement is good. No one can stay a white belt in skill forever (hopefully).

But again it’s all about having the right mindset.


How to redevelop the white belt mindset

In my post Rushing Success I talked a little bit about my own battle with wanting immediate success. My own impatience actually causing me to underperform in the academy and in competitions.

I think many competitors get caught in this trap.

The harder you try to force a technique the less effective that technique becomes.

And it’s the same with the white belt mindset.

As a black belt, I rely on the white belt mindset. More now than I did when I was a white belt.

I wish someone would have told me that a long time ago. But if I look back I think that’s why in Jiu Jitsu we always talk about flowing.

Flowing describes a way of moving. Being technical and smooth.

Flowing also describes a mindset too. One I bet is deeply related to the white belt mindset.

However, it’s easy to let our ego get in the way. To keep you from further developing yourself.

I’ve seen guys that trained for years.

Competing in every tournament.

Make no improvement whatsoever in their Jiu Jitsu game.

This isn’t just regulated to Jiu Jitsu and martial arts.

You can see this in every walk of life. People who seem stuck in time. Just going through the motions.

But like any skill. The white belt mindset can be developed and honed for any imaginable task.

If you wish to develop or to redevelop your white belt mindset then I think you will need to focus on four major tasks.

Do your best in whatever it is you choose to focus on.

Listen intently to mentors and those with more qualified experience than you.

Ask Questions if you are unsure of any details or need a simplified explanation.

Fail often because this is the quickest route to gaining more experience.

It’s that simple.


Confidence on your feet

This post was originally about the similarities between Jiu Jitsu and wrestling.

Not just the surface level similarities like the techniques or the cauliflower ears.

There is a lot built in to wrestling naturally that I think benefits Jiu Jitsu.

That wrestling mindset to never give up.

The level of grit.


These are all things that I think of when I think of wrestlers.

But then I started writing more from a beginners mind.

Someone with no knowledge of Jiu Jitsu or wrestling.

How would they be able to relate?

Many of the first lessons that a beginning student attends involves teaching them about balance (base) and proper body mechanics.

We spend a large percentage of our lives on our feet. But with technology becoming ever more present and life in general going from the physical to more automated. More and more people are becoming disconnected from their bodies.

My friend Sam has an excellent post on this topic titles “On Exercise and Building Character” on his website Musttriumph.

We have disembodied ourselves from our bodies. We no longer use exercise to build ourselves up, we are looking for ways to use exercise to only build up our bodies. We have reduced and isolated: machines, molecules, cells, and even ourselves. Reducing our being to only the mind. The mind has become the thing of value, just a hard drive. Our bodies the vehicle — its sole purpose is to get our minds to work and back.

Here Sam delves more into a philosophical examination of the body and the mind.

As an instructor I would often receive students with little or no athletic experience.

This made teaching them the basic of Jiu Jitsu harder compared to those students with backgrounds in other martial arts and activities.

Not only were these students physically unconditioned. Having done nothing physically tasking in their lives they had little to no awareness of their bodies.

In fact, the first lesson that I teach to complete beginners is all about how they carry themselves on their feet.

Standing in base, feet hip width or shoulder width a apart. Back straight with a slight bend in their knees.

I will emphasize these details over and over.

Physically adjusting the students into the desired body position if I have to.

Before they learn a single technique. This is the first class that all of my students go through.

Self Defense

Self defense from classical Jiu Jitsu is all about staying on your feet.

No matter the situation. Stay on your feet.

Close the distance, clinch, takedown, submit.

If you happen to slip and fall. Safely return to your feet and do the above.

It’s really quite simple.

I don’t expect most people will go through an altercation in their life. But the beauty behind teaching self defense to a beginner is that they gain a tremendous amount of confidence from the fact that they have some idea of how to handle themselves.

They know that when push comes to shove that they will be okay.

Sport Jiu jitsu

Having confidence on your feet in sport Jiu Jitsu has similar benefits.

Being able to hold your own.

Not fearing the takedown and being able to take others down.

The feeling of having a strong base. Knowing if anyone wants to take you down they will have to work for it.

There are a lot of academies that give their students a strong foundation of standing techniques such as takedowns, sprawls, and proper movement.

But as sports Jiu Jitsu continues to grow. Many schools have changed their curriculums to fit the rules of the tournaments.

Often this might mean less emphasis on certain techniques.

For example, ADCC rules stir it’s competitors away from pulling guard. Therefore takedowns become more prominent.

However this is an outlier in terms of tournaments.

The majority of tournaments don’t emphasize takedowns. Almost as if it is an afterthought.

So we see things such as double guard pulling and more battles for advantages.

I’m not saying one is better than the other. But if we get to the point where Jiu Jitsu black belts no longer have the skill to utilize their standing techniques nor the confidence to at least try them. Then we do a disservice to ourselves and future Jiu Jitsu artist.

Having confidence on your feet is the basis of all martial arts, most sporting activities and even Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

It’s in this area that wrestling, judo, and sambo are great tools for developing confidence.

Everything from self-defense to sport Jiu Jitsu starts standing.

By developing students to have confidence on their feet. We empower them to achieve great things both on and off the mats.

Think about the traits of a confident person.

Their posture.

How the hold themselves.

The way they walk.

You can tell alot about a person by the way they carry themselves.

That’s the power that we have as Jiu Jitsu instructors.

Physical exertion was and still is the first form of character building

-Sam Yang

And I think it’s something that we as Jiu Jitsu instructors and practitioners should place a greater emphasis on.

When we take the focus off of the feet. Off of having confidence on our feet. We really limit ourselves.

We limit ourselves in not being able to cross train with the other combat sports.

We limit ourselves in further developing our coordination and natural body movement

And most importantly of all we limit ourselves to all the positive benefits that having confidence on our feet instills.

Part of the reason that I wanted to go to Japan and train with the Nichidai wrestling team was to get better at takedowns and wrestling.

It’s easy to keep doing what you’ve always done. But when you step out of your comfort zone that when the real learning begins.

Step out of your comfort zone. Maybe try a wrestling or judo class.

If that’s not possible, you can always drill a few takedowns after class or even review some standing self defense techniques.

I’m not saying that you need to become the next Jordan Burroughs.

But in its complete form. Jiu Jitsu is just as much about standing technique as it is the ground technique.