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.

Should your academy have a uniform policy?

Over the last few years I’ve observed more and more academies enacting a uniform policy for their members.

It’s nothing new in martial arts.

In traditional martial arts, they’ve had it for years.

The world’s largest Jiu Jitsu association, Gracie Barra, has always enforced a strict gi policy. Simply put, if you train at a Gracie Barra academy then you have to wear a Gracie Barra gi.

There’s different forms of uniform policy that I’m going to introduce today.

But I also want to touch on a few ways to make the transition easier for you and your students since a lot of academies seem to drop the ball at that step.

First, let’s look at some of the pros of a uniform policy.

1 Revenue source

The best reason to have a uniform is that it can serve as another source of revenue for your academy.

Gi’s, t-shirts, belts, hoodies, etc don’t seem like they will add to much to your academies coffers. But imagine students purchasing multiple items or a new student not having to shop around since you have everything they need.

2 More professional

No question here. When all of you students wear the same uniform it looks more professional and shows any visitors and new students that your academy is a well run business and not just a hobby or hodge podge.

3 Social media

This plays off my last point but in this age of social media it’s important how you present your business to the outside world. Matching uniforms look great in photos and videos.

Cons

Depending on how you set up your uniform and the time table you implement. It’s possible that some of your members will push back against this change.

In my old academy in Atlanta, we had a very similar situation occur. I won’t lie a few members complained and I knew of a a couple that decided to leave because of this change in policy.

As an instructor, a business owner, and a person you simply cannot please everyone.

If you make a decision you have to stick by it.

Implementing

I’ve observed two ways of implementing a uniform dress policy.

The easiest one to set into motion is to pick a color scheme for your academy. This means that you decide which color uniforms are allowed and which ones are not allowed.

Examples of this include the Art of Jiu Jitsu academy white gi policy, all black no gi, and Cobrinha’s white and blue gi policy.

With this policy, your students will be able to wear their favorite uniform. It will just have to conform.

The next step is a little bit harder so expect some push back from a few members. But could possibly generate even more revenue for your martial business if done properly.

At many of the top academies, there is a strict uniform policy where you have to wear the official academy uniform. Often this will be sourced in house. Meaning that the academy itself produces its own uniform or it goes through a third party gi manufacturer. These could be well known companies that many of you know and live, or some random startup out of Pakistan lol.

The uniform will usually contains patches with the academies logo on the pants and top as well as the manufactures logo.

Maybe I will go more into detail about gi production in a later post but for now I just wanted to introduce the topic of uniforms in Jiu Jitsu academies.

Ultimately, it is up to the owner/instructors on whether or not to set a uniform.

Of course, it looks great when an academy has a uniform. It’s no different than a sports team wearing the same uniform and looks great on social media. But implementing it can be tough. Old Members and students can become too accustomed to the way things have always been done that enacting change will ruffle some feathers.

My advice if you want to implement a uniform policy in your academy is to start slow. Offer your own academy branded apparel, gi, shorts, and rashguard. Don’t make it mandatory at first but just another option that your members can select.

Start slow, offer your gear to your beginning students and newer members and then on to the old members.

If you can, try to not go through any third parties manufacturers because that will cut into your profit and will often affect the pricing.

Maybe adding a uniform policy could be the right step to take your martial arts business to the next level.

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.