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.