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.

Developing your guard to the next level

Playing guard for a beginning student isn’t easy.

In fact, starting a new activity or study comes with a lot of trial and error. In Jiu Jitsu, that means a lot of tapping.

From Giving feedback:

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

I think that’s why it’s important to study instructors and competitors at high levels of mastery.

Study how it seems like they know all the possible outcomes that can occur from their guard(s).

All of the defenses.

All of the attacks.

Developing a good guard yourself is a challenging task.
Throughout your entire life, whether that included other sporting activities or just sitting at a desk studying. The movements of Jiu Jitsu on the ground are strange and foreign.

Getting down the basic movements like shrimping, rolling, and bridging will keep you preoccupied for a few months (or years).

In the beginning, you will get passed a lot. There’s just no other way. You don’t have the coordination or the experience yet.

So many beginners and intermediate students become afraid of playing on bottom.

They become afraid of having their guard passed and being crushed or being put into an even worse position.

Guard Development

Guard development usually begins in earnest at the blue belt level but I’m starting to witness more and more people putting off developing their guards until higher belt levels. Much to their own disservice. And it’s this observation that I want to focus on in this post.

I’ve been there before as well.

When I was a blue belt I didn’t have a guard. I was okay on top. Tough and athletic.

But if I was on bottom. It was only a matter of time before a decent passer would slide through my guard like a hot knife through butter.

My solution at the time?

I couldn’t get my guard passed if I turtled.

And this strategy worked for a while. At least until I went up against someone with really good back control or someone bigger that could stop me from rolling to turtle.

So I didn’t really solve my problem of not having a guard. I just kept putting it off.

Listen.

No matter how good you are on top. If you don’t have a comparatively good bottom guard. You will never be able to tap into your true potential.

It’s not a coincidence that the best guard passers in the world also have great guards.

Leandro Lo

Rafa Mendes

Lucas Lepri

Having confidence in your guard makes your passing that much better. You can commit 100% of your focus on passing and if your opponent manages to sweep you. It’s okay.

But if you don’t have that duality.

Being good on top and bottom. Then the fear of being swept or just the fear of playing on bottom will always be in that back of your head and it will cause you to hesitate. Especially when you go up against a tough guard player.

There is no right or wrong here, but I believe that if you want to be good at Jiu Jitsu. Whether or not that includes competing. You will need to develop a workable guard and the earlier you start to build that foundation up, the better off you will be in the long run.

It’s better to put in the ground work now (at lower belts) than to have to address your guard game at a higher belt. Because at that point you will be far behind your peers.

Body type

Your body type will play a major role in your guard development.

Your body type won’t limit the guard(s) you will play but it will determine which guards you will be able to do easily.

Much like an IQ test.

Your body type represents your potential to play certain guards and not your actual success in playing those guards.

EX. Short guys that play spider guards or tall guys that play butterfly.

A useful guide is to find a competitor, higher belt, or an instructor with the same or similar body type as you and study their game. Then try to add elements of their style to your own game.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an often overlooked factor in the development of a guard. A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to play guard.

While this is not the case. Being flexible does make playing guard easier.

With flexibility, you will be able to get into the right positions faster and have more strength in those positions.

Even if you’re not naturally flexible you can work on it and after a few sessions it will payoff.

Constant Study

This is more for advanced guard players.

Jiu Jitsu is constantly evolving so you will need to keep updating your toolset/guard game.

If you get to the point where the majority of your training partners cannot pass your guard. Then that is a sign that you need to start developing the other aspects of your guard.

If you have a great half guard. Maybe try working on closed guard or an open guard.

But if you find that everyone you roll with gives you a hard time when you play on bottom or everyone passes your guard. Then you will need to invest more time and effort in studying the bottom game.

Studying can mean watching competition footage of really good guard players.

Studying could be taking a private lesson.

Studying could be meeting a few times a week with a partner to positional spar.

Whatever the case, Jiu Jitsu is very democratic. You get back what you put into it.

Mindful Practice

If you want to develop an effective guard you’re going to have to put in the work.

Even if you have the best instructors and training partners in the world, and access to private lessons and online tools.

That can only take you so far.

Eventually, there will come a time when your instructor will no longer have to hold your hands through techniques and instead become more of a motivator and mentor.

When that time comes, it will be up to you to take charge of your training.

You will have to take the initiative in learning new positions.

You will have to decide what techniques you will need to improve upon.

You will have to push yourself in creating a game unique to yourself.

Very much like a role playing game (rpg), the more time and energy that you invest in your Jiu Jitsu the quicker you will be able to level up and learn other skills.

Developing your own guard game

The ultimate expression of Jiu Jitsu is the creation of your own style.

Only you will be able to master your unique body type.

From my own personal experience. I was only able start developing my own guard game when I acknowledge that my guard was a weakness of mine. Then I had to make the conscious decision to actively work on it.

Even if it meant starting on bottom or pulling guard.

Of course, I got my guard passed a lot.

But I was able to work my side mount escapes and my guard recomposing. Eventually being able to hold better guard positions and advance from there.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

During my last post I covered in detail the 7 different learning styles and how you can improve your retention of techniques by focusing more on your dominant learning style(s).

It seems a natural progression to move on from the topic of learning styles to feedback (giving and receiving it) and the role that it plays in your Jiu Jitsu game.

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

I was teaching a three day seminar earlier this year and for some reason over the course of those few days I kept bringing up the importance of giving feedback. I didn’t think of it before hand, but you never know when insight will strike. Sometimes you just have to run with it.

But back on topic.

Giving feedback is a way of letting your partner know if their technique is good or if they are missing some key details and vice versa.

Positive and Negative Feedback

There is no bad feedback. It’s only how receptive you are to the feedback and your reaction to it. Whether you will take it to heart and use it to improve your game or let it fall on deaf ears is up to you.

Positive Feedback – Affirming comments about past behavior. Pointing out strengths and praising them for it.

Negative Feedback – Corrective comments about past behavior. Pointing out where improvement is needed and suggesting things that they can do to change their performance.

Examples of feedback

Everyone in Jiu Jitsu has received feedback over the course of their training. Like when you are trying to master a cross choke but you haven’t quite gotten the move down so you change your grip and try the choke again.  But your partner doesn’t tap right away so you have to adjust your grip again and repeat until it works effectively.

Or when your partner is working a toreando pass but it’s missing some details so you have them do it on you until they are able to address the different ways that you were able to stave off their pass.

These are both forms of giving feedback and when I think about it this might be the best way to learn and to improve in Jiu Jitsu.

Feedback: information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.

Giving feedback and being able to receive feedback is how you grow in Jiu Jitsu and I’m sure this holds true for other parts of your life as well.

Every time you step into your academy you are receiving feedback in some form or another.

Feedback from your instructor

When you are learning techniques you receive feedback from your instructor in the form of them leaving you alone if you are correctly performing the technique well or them giving you even more detailed instruction if you’ve mastered the move set. The flip side of this is when you are not performing the technique well. The instructor will spend more time going over the move again and will keep a closer eye on you throughout the class.

Feedback from your training partners

Jiu Jitsu is built on receiving feedback from your training partner and using that information to improve your technique.

If your move or attack is ineffective, your training partner is the first to let you know.

Then you are able to calibrate your technique for a better response. If not, you keep trying and reworking the key details of the move until it works.

If your move or technique is effective, your training partner will be the first person to let you know.

And you are able to move on to the next move, and when that move gives you trouble or is just a little bit off. You begin the process of calibrating all over again.

As much as we like to think of Jiu Jitsu as a solo art form. At its core it is a collective activity. Without the feedback from your training partners and them allowing you to practice your skills on their bodies there would be no Jiu Jitsu.

Feedback from tournaments

Tournaments are important because they are the fairest test of your techniques and abilities. You are given as equal footing as realistically possible. You are matched against same sized, similarly aged, similarly skilled opponents and set to compete.

Now if only all parts of life were that fair!

During a competition you receive so much feedback, all in real time. You try a move and if it is successful you are positively rewarded with a better position, points, a submission, or medal. If unsuccessful, you risk losing position, your opponent being rewarded points, getting submitted, or not receiving a medal.

Regardless of how you do. The experience from one tournament alone could be worth weeks or even months of regular training in your academy and there lies the value of understanding and effectively utilizing feedback. It’s literally a way of hacking your Jiu Jitsu so that you are able to progress even faster.

Open Communication

Before I started training full-time, I worked part-time as an educator for a well known athletic apparel brand. That means I got to help ladies pick out the perfect pair of stretchy pants while wearing my favorite Jiu Jitsu t-shirts and athletic apparel. Not a bad job really.

But one thing that was always emphasized was this idea of open communication. I’m sure my readers that are in the corporate world have heard of this term before while being exposed to team building exercises. But for those that aren’t as familiar with this term. Open communication is the free flow of information regardless of ability, seniority, or position.

Because we spent so much focus on open communication we became accustomed to giving and receiving feedback so that everyone on our staff was on the same page at all times.

In the academy this would mean instructors being able to openly communicate with students and students being able to communicate openly to the instructor and other students.

Open Communication

Training partners are encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns, both good and bad, without worry of retaliation from other students and/or instructors when feedback is negative.

What usually happens

What happens a lot with beginners and lower belts is that they often won’t give detailed feedback as they might not have the knowledge to identify when a move is not being applied correctly.

This also happens when you have a higher belt paired up with a lower belt, but the higher belt doesn’t do the technique properly.

Again, most lower belts won’t speak up out of respect for the hierarchy of rank. Allowing the higher belt to continue practicing the move improperly.

When you have an academy built on open communication it is much easier for students to give feedback without worry of unsettling their training partners or more senior students. This feedback will only make your training partners, students, and your academy better.

But this change has to come from the top from instructors and the heads of the academy.

Giving Feedback

Everyone can give feedback. In fact every time a training partner performs a technique on you is an opportunity for you to give them feedback.

Yes! That move worked well.

No! Try repositioning your body to your side.

When giving feedback there are a few tips that will help you NOT come off as an asshole or a know-it-all.

  • Timing of Feedback
  • Balanced Feedback
  • Be Specific

Timing of feedback – It’s best to give feedback in real time or during a period when it’s relevant (like immediately after class) versus waiting a full day or longer when it’s less helpful.

Example. Coaching during a match.

Balanced Feedback – Balance both positive and negative feedback. I like to lead with something that the person does well before moving on to areas where they can improve upon.

Specificity – Be specific about the move or detail they should focus on that way they will know exactly what they should be working on.

Being Receptive

Jiu Jitsu is one of the most effective martial arts in the world due to the level of feedback that we absorb throughout our training. Between our training partners, instructors, rolling and getting tapped or doing the tapping. We receive so much information.

Being receptive to feedback is an important part of Jiu Jitsu because it is the only way that you will be able to improve.

Receiving Feedback

  • Actively listen. Respond and remember what is being said.
  • Say thanks. Regardless of whether the feedback is useful or not.
  • Evaluate feedback. Think about how you can effectively apply the feedback to grow your Jiu Jitsu game.

It’s telling that many of best competitors and instructors are also some of the most receptive to feedback. There is only so much time in which you can train. Why not utilize the knowledge and insight gained from your training partners to better yourself?

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.”

-Socrates

Seeking Feedback

As you get to a higher level of training, I think you will be more proactive in seeking feedback.

Every roll will be a chance for you to collect more data. You try a technique and if it works then good. If not, you use that feedback to improve your technique or your timing or whatever until it does work.

There is no secret to success on the mats but the first step to improving, and this is what separates those who click with Jiu Jitsu on a higher level from those who have a lot of trouble picking up techniques, is all in actively (as opposed to passively) seeking feedback.

The best way to receive feedback is to ask for it.

Ask open ended questions such as:

“I’m having trouble in this specific position. What can I do to improve my chances of getting past it?”

“How can I get this sweep to work if my opponent does this to counter?”

By asking open ended questions you allow the responder to give you a useful, detailed response that you will be able to put into action.

Conclusion

You will always be receiving and giving feedback whether you are aware of it or not.

When you first start training the majority of the feedback that you will receive will come from your training partners and your instructor(s).

But you have to be open to it no matter the source.

Be it your rivals.

Lower belts.

Higher belts.

You want to find balance when giving feedback. Balance both the positive and negative. Of course troubleshoot what needs to be worked on but make sure not overlook the good stuff as well.

At the end of the day the feedback will be there in your training and in your interactions with your training partners and instructors. Though it’s up to you in how receptive you are to it and how you are able to frame it and use it to improve.