White Belt Mindset Revisited

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

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

This is the first resource that I direct many of my beginning students too. Especially, if they have a lot of questions and want to delve deeper into understanding Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a martial art and a lifestyle philosophy.

Maintaining the mindset of a white belt (or that of a beginner) has helped me so much during my training and my travels.

There have been many times when I was in a foreign country teaching Jiu Jitsu where I only knew a few words of the local language with no other way of communicating.

It’s a very humbling experience.

Sometimes it gets hard. Like when I say the wrong thing or I don’t quite convey the details behind a technique the right away.

I might embarrass myself.

In fact, I have embarrassed myself numerous times.

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 all levels.

But I’ve made it a point to focus on beginners for this post because they (or you) are the most easily influenced and seeking guidance.

I’ve taught Jiu Jitsu for over 10 years now and have come to notice a lot of trends concerning BJJ students among many topics.

Namely, the differences between those students that continue with their training and go on to higher levels. Compared to those students that plateau and eventually give up.

I believe it all comes down to mindset.

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

White belt mindset

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 the move. They just try their best.

A quality that many higher belts lose along the way.

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 at 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 academies encourage asking questions.

Not only does it help open dialogue between teacher and student. It’s also a great 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.

Common 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 rush competitive 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.

There’s a famous video of a purple belt that decides one day to promote himself to brown belt which is a whole other issue in itself. But during his speech (in which he or one of his students decided to post online) he talked about never having another belt placed on him by another.

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

I remember going from being a happy go lucky white belt. It didn’t matter if I got tapped out or if I loss in a tournament. It’s was okay. I was just a white belt so there was no pressure or expectation on me to do well. If I did well it was great. To a blue belt that represented my academy and my instructor. It didn’t help that I trained at a world class academy with other really great competitors. No one put that pressure on me directly, but I definitely felt driven to uphold the quality and the results that were expected from my academy.

As humans, I believe we instinctively want to compare ourselves with our training partners.

However, our time would be better spent developing the white belt mindset. Not being in such a hurry to pass it by.

Improvement is good and 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.

It’s funny, but I rely on the white belt mindset more now as a black belt than I did when I was a white belt.

I wish someone would have told me this a long time ago. It would have saved me countless hours that I wasted beating myself up over every little mistake or when I felt like I wasn’t living up to my potential.

Now I embrace failure or negative feedback as I like to understand it.

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.

Hours of training and thousands of dollars wasted.

However, 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 steps.

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 (and when) 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.

Impressionable students

I think as higher belts we seldom think about the influence that we have on the younger generation of students under us.

Last week after training, one of our instructors initiated a raw garlic eating contest. While garlic is known to be one of the healthiest foods in the world, eating a raw garlic clove right after an intense Jiu Jitsu class is a good way to make yourself gag (and we all know the smell will stick with you for a few hours).

Of course no one wanted to partake in this “challenge”, but eventually the instructor was able to “convince” a few brave souls to do it (I wasn’t one ;). At the same time one of the black belts was loudly exclaiming how “stupid” the whole affair was and how the other students didn’t need to do it.

But there were still a few students (mostly blue and purple belts) that listened to the instructor and ate the raw garlic anyway.

This really made me think about how impressionable students of BJJ can be, especially the younger, lower belts.

Positive Influence

Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students.

While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats.

When my instructor first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.

This isn’t to say that every academy’s goal is to produce tournament champions. But it will be your job as an instructor or academy owner to set the underlying mission for all of your students, thereby influencing them directly.

When I co-founded a martial arts academy, I helped teach the children’s class. I knew that my overall goal was to help them apply the lessons that we covered in class to their academic studies and ultimately, their everyday life. This meant that I had to embody the traits that I wanted my students to exhibit, namely being studious in my own academic studies, training diligently, and being balanced in both.

Being the current head instructor of a kids program, I am hyper aware of the impact that my influence will have on someone’s child, and I do not take this responsibility lightly. I make a concentrated effort to watch the words that I use and how I use them, especially because children are like sponges and pick up on every little detail of what we say and do, even when we are not aware of it.

For example, I make sure to use positive words rather than words with negative connotations such as ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong.’ I know it might seem simple, but this little action could greatly affect the way a child views themselves and his/her overall confidence in the class.

Oftentimes, an instructor is unaware or perhaps forgets how much of an influence he has over his students and potential students. I will never forget watching a fundamental class where two women came to try out the class. I know this was probably an uncomfortable moment for them given that there weren’t many women in the class at the time and instead of making these female students feel welcomed and using his influence to make the class an enjoyable experience for them, the instructor only focused on the things that they did poorly and went so far as to call them out in front of the whole class.

Can you guess if they decided to stay and sign up?

Negative Influence

This is a great illustration of how one’s influence can be missed used. In this case, the instructor did not use his ability as a teacher and a martial artist to help these two female students see the benefits of studying Jiu Jitsu for self defense, fitness, etc. They might have had such an unpleasurable experience that they completely write off taking any other martial arts classes.

Again, we can never fully understand the weight of what we say and do will have on students.

Of course, along with a positive influence an instructor can have over impressionable students, s/he could also have a negative influence.

The “rivalries” that occur in our sport and between different schools is another example of how an instructor’s influence is often misused. Being from a major competition team, it was and still is frowned upon if I go to certain non affiliated academies for an open mat, or a social activity. When there are situations where friends are not able to train with each other for no other reason than because they wear different patches on their backs, then something is going terribly wrong.

In a competitive sport such as Jiu Jitsu, performance enhancing drugs is a topic that comes up a lot and I would be interested in how many users got their start at the suggestion of an instructor or higher belt. Imagine being an up and coming competitor and your instructor expresses indirectly that an illegal drug would grant you a better chance of winning the next big tournament or becoming a world champion.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be for a very impressionable student to stand up to his professor and decline their offer.

If the instructor(s) are okay with its usage and even promote or partake in it, then students are more likely to find its use more acceptable, even those that would not normally get into it.

Of course, not all students will be totally influenced by their instructors. There are some that will be naturally less impressionable than others, but there might be even more students that don’t realize they are being influenced by their instructors into a certain habit or behavior.

As far as the instructor in my story above, he didn’t eat the raw garlic in this particular instance but has been known to do it often by the complaints of his wife. For what it’s worth, I do believe that it would have had a much larger impact if he did it along with the students as maybe more would have been inspired by him taking part.

In the world of bjj where instructors and senior students garner so much respect it is more than likely that a good percentage of their newer students will be highly impressionable. Therefore, instructors and upper-belts have an imperative or duty not to abuse their influence and more importantly, make sure they are not negatively influencing those lower ranked, younger students that look up to them.

Why do people tend to quit at blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

I’ve talked a little bit about this topic on Quora and even made a video on YouTube about the high attrition rate of blue belt students in their practice.

Video link:

But I think it’s worth examining again. Especially for a lot of my readers that are not familiar this fact. Most practitioners will not progress to blue belt and even less move on from blue belt.

Jiu Jitsu is not easy

Jiu Jitsu is not an easy art or sport. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and humility to progress in the ranks.

In the past, there was this running joke online and on many of the major grappling/mma chat rooms and forums that a Bjj blue belt was all that was needed in order to beat Mike Tyson in his prime.

I’m not sure where it originated but it shows just how much influence and notoriety that Jiu Jitsu gained in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

During that time period in the U.S. there was this hunger for Jiu Jitsu even though there were not enough instructors or higher belts to fill that demand.

Being a blue belt was rare.

They were looked upon as demi-gods among men.

Fast forward to today, and blue belts and all other belts have become significantly more common place.

Yet, I’m sure the trials and tribulations from white to blue are still the same.

Going from unconscious incompetence or wrong intuition to conscious incompetence or wrong analysis.

Blue belt is the stage where you realize that you really don’t know Jiu Jitsu.

You know some Jiu Jitsu techniques and even a few concepts but not how everything fits together and flows.

At white belt you’re ignorant of this fact. Every day you train. You learn something new and get better without trying. Just being able to recall a few moves is a big accomplishment when you first start out.

But starting at blue belt, you have to put more effort into your training and studying techniques. That feeling of leveling up after every session is quickly replaced with plateaus and working toward developing your own style of Jiu Jitsu.

As a blue belt you will need more awareness of your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Of course, your instructor will be there to guide you by showing you techniques and giving you advice. But as you progress, your instructor’s guidance will be less hands on so you will have to be more proactive in training.

That could mean taking private lessons, studying competition videos, competing, etc.

Expectations

As a white belt there’s no expectation on you to do well in training or competition. Just by showing up consistently most white belts will see exponential progress.

I’m happy when my beginner students can remember past techniques and have the fundamental techniques such as shrimping, rolling (backwards and forwards), and can tie their belt properly. I could care less how they roll in sparring or how many times they get tapped out.

So they actually end up doing better because there is no pressure on them to do well or to have the techniques down one hundred percent.

But at blue belt, you have more experience under your belt. You’re no longer an innocent white belt. Your instructor has higher expectations on you to learn and demonstrate your technique(s) as well as you being able to effectively transmit that technique to newer students.

Many times during my classes, I will pair a newer student with a blue belt (or more advanced belt) with the hope and expectation that they will be able to guide the student in our fundamental techniques or to help them along with more advanced movements.

You represent your academy

Newer guys coming in to your academy are going to look towards you as a representative of your school as well as a target so you will want to do well against them, and higher belts are going to use more advanced techniques and attributes on you like strength and timing as you become more proficient and a tougher training partner.

Or as I like to say. They’re going to take your lunch money but there’s nothing you can do about it but just learn.

The experiential belt

As a blue belt, you will have a few go to techniques but no overall developed game. That’s why many blue belt students spend most of their time experimenting.

Experimenting with different types of guards, passing styles, and submissions. It’s no surprise that many blue belts will go through a phase when they will only use a single technique or style of Jiu Jitsu like berimbolo or wormguard.

Slave to trends

The most experiential belt is also the one that most follows the trends in the sport of Jiu Jitsu.

I remember when I was a blue belt and Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard was popular at the time. Of course, like any fan boy I added it to my game and relied heavily upon it for the majority of my time as a blue belt.

There’s nothing wrong with following the trends in Jiu Jitsu. It’s very important to keep you skills and knowledge updated but many blue belts fall into the trap of building their entire game around that one technique that they saw online.

There will always be this cycle of new techniques or strategies that become popular but then they are replaced by an older move or a technique that was “forgotten” but then rediscovered.

I think a lot of people’s time and energy would be better used by continually developing their fundamental techniques in addition to experimenting with the new guards and passing styles.

You should aim to be well rounded in all the major areas of Jiu Jitsu including: self defense, sport techniques, takedowns, leg locks, escapes, attacks, etc.

You’ve achieved the desired skill level

One argument that I haven’t fully explored in my writing or videos is the fact that many practitioners are happy with the skill level that they’ve developed at blue belt and decide to pursue other goals.

Again, Jiu Jitsu takes a lot of time and study commitment in order to progress. I can see how an blue belt could feel like they’re good enough. If you train at a good academy, then the average blue belt should be able to handle themselves both in a self defense situation against most untrained individuals.

Blue belt blues

If I think about it, being a blue belt is very much like being the unpopular kid in high school. You just have to put in your time and work until your skill level rises and you begin to develop confidence in your game.

My advice to you is that if your practice of Jiu Jitsu is meaningful to you. Then keep at it.

But if you don’t feel that training has any value on your life. Find something that does bring meaning and value. Then pursue that wholeheartedly.

You have to decide.