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.

Remembering Techniques

I recently had a blue belt training partner approach me after class one day. He asked me how was I able to remember all of the moves that the instructor taught.

That day in class we covered one major position. But many different complex options that we could utilize depending on our opponent’s reactions.

I offered him a few suggestions that help me personally.

But I didn’t think much of it. Looking back a lot of the students (from blue belt all the way up to black belt) seemed to struggle stringing together the techniques.

As much as I like to think that I have a great memory and am a Jiu Jitsu wiz. There are times when I’m slow to pick up a move or the technique doesn’t seem to “click” at first.   

Starting Out

When you first begin training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu everything is new to you.

Even if you have a background in other sports or martial arts. Jiu Jitsu is unlike anything else out there.

Take for instance the simple act of shrimping. The concept of moving on the ground sounds easy enough. Actual doing it is hard.

I remember being a white belt and seeing my instructor show a technique (multiple times and with lots of details) and by the time it took to walk back to my partner and practice the move. I would completely blank out.

When you start doing Jiu Jitsu, it’s very much like learning to swim all over again.

You’re uncoordinated. Swore all over from using muscles that you didn’t even know you had, and a lot of it doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t help that most people’s interaction with the ground is limited to rolling around on their bed or getting off of the ground when they happen to slip and fall.

Even if you do understand the concepts behind the moves. That doesn’t mean that your body is physically prepared to turn your understanding into action.

You will see this a lot when someone takes time off of training. They will know exactly what moves to perform but their timing will be way off. Their body literally cannot keep up with their mind.

Experience

A lot of remembering techniques comes from experience.

Experience seeing the movements being done over and over.

The experience of trying the move and having it not work. Then having to troubleshoot the move.

Find Your Learning Style(s)

For new and more seasoned students, I think it’s important for you to understand how you learn best.

Jiu Jitsu is an introspective art form. I know many people use Jiu Jitsu as a cathartic release. A way of relieving strong emotions and stress. But if you really want to improve you will need to put a lot of thought into your practice. There’s no other way.

“The best advice that John Danaher gave me is to continually have intentionality in jiu-jitsu; in the immediate term, intentionality of movement, every grip, every set up must have a clear purpose. In the longer term to always have focused goals for your skill.”

-Ottavia Bourdain

The 7 Jiu Jitsu Learning Styles


Visual (spatial):

  • You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Visual learners learn by watching the technique being performed.
  • They are also great at visualizing moves and outcomes in their mind.

Aural (auditory-musical):

  • You prefer using sound and music.
  • Aural learners learn best when there is sound and music.
  • You will often find that they hum or sing songs while training.

Verbal (linguistic):

  • You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Verbal learners work best when being told detailed instructions on how to perform a technique or action.
  • The more details the better. Often seen carrying around a Jiu Jitsu journal to write down new moves.

Physical (kinesthetic):

  • You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Physical learners think while moving their bodies.
  • They might have trouble picking up a move just from watching it. But will get it down once they get a chance to perform the technique.

Logical (mathematical):

  • You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Logical learners work best when taught through the use of concepts and systems. They are the go to when it comes to solving problems and figuring out different positions.
  • Logical learners love examples and connecting techniques to other movements.

Social (interpersonal):

  • You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Social learns work best by bouncing thoughts off of their training partners and listening to their feedback. The more group energy the better.
  • Social learners enjoy open mats and taking private lessons.

Solitary (intrapersonal):

  • You prefer to work alone and use self-study.
  • Solitary learners will often learn through self study of videos and online training programs.
  • Solitary learners enjoy working independently and figuring out different positions and techniques on their own.

Great Instructors

The best instructors are able to teach to multiple styles of learning all at once. They are able to find a way for every student to understand the techniques that they show.

Student of Jiu Jitsu

As a student of Jiu Jitsu it is your job to understand the way you learn best.

In the ideal world your instructor would be able to cater to your learning style but due to class size and time limits this isn’t always possible.

Regardless, as you progress in your study of Jiu Jitsu. You instructor will go from holding your hand and walking you through techniques to becoming more of mentor.

Conclusion

A lot of the confusion in learning techniques (and remembering them) is that you don’t utilize your dominant style(s) of learning.

There are lots of exercises and tools that you can use:

  • Visualizing yourself performing the techniques.
  • Filming moves
  • Keeping a Jiu Jitsu journal
  • Watching the technique being done multiple times
  • Having your instructor physically place you in the right position

There are no shortages of tools that you can use to help yourself retain techniques and moves. But I think the most important step is the first step. You have to make a conscious decision to improve and a conscious effort to take the action.