The Beginner's Guide to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
"That's gross and I'm never doing that." That was my thought the first time I saw people training Brazilian jiu jitsu. The idea of rolling around with sweaty people, especially without a gi, seemed particularly unappealing. Little did I know in that moment how alluring a sport it was and how hooked I was about to get.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Basics
Getting started in Brazilian jiu jitsu can be daunting. Training martial arts is one of the most beneficial things I've ever done, mentally and physically, but getting over the beginner's hump was where a chunk of those benefits came from. Thankfully the Internet now allows us to learn more easily from those who came before us.
In Beginning BJJ: Solutions for First Year Problems, coach Sally Arsenault addressed the basics all new practitioners need to know: what is a gi, how to buy a gi, and how to tie the darn belt (which turns out to be surprisingly challenging). As Sally explained:
I like using a flat, tidy knot for my gi belt. My suggestion is to use the super lock variation of the Hollywood variation demonstrated by Rener Gracie in his belt-tying instructional:
For the female BJJ players out there, dealing with your hair will also be a constant dilemma. Coach Sally has done the hard work of testing numerous styles:
For my first few months of training, I opted for the ponytail at the back of my head. I play off of my back a lot, though, so I found the ponytail uncomfortable. I decide to try braids on each side, but since my hair was layered, the braids wouldn’t stay braided. My solution was to tie my hair into pigtails and braid the pigtails. It was such a huge improvement that I’ve been wearing it that way ever since. Well, other than that one time I cut my hair short, which I immediately regretted. In BJJ, your hair either has to be short enough to not get in the way or long enough to tie back.
Sally also interviewed veteran female athletes to find out what they did with their hair. For more detailed explanations of how to restrain your unruly locks, check out Sally's article How to Care for Your Hair While Training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
How to Be a Good Training Partner
Once you got your gear (and your hair) handled, then it's time to learn how to be a good teammate. The biggest part of being a good teammate is being a useful training partner.
In 4 Ways to Be a Good Training Partner: Getting Started in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, BJJ black belt Valerie Worthington suggests keeping the following four things in mind:
- Keep it light.
- Assume the best of everyone.
- Assume you know less than everyone.
- Don't lose your goal.
In addition to your mindset as a training partner, your physical presentation of yourself also plays a part. I mean, you are rolling around on the ground and in very close contact with each other, after all! In addition to removing any and all jewelry from your body and washing off your make-up, it's imporant to wear appropriate - and freshly washed - clothing. As Valerie explained:
One of the jokes in the grappling world is about "Stinky-Gi Guy." Every academy seems to have one. Stinky-Gi Guy is the student who sweats for hours in his gi, wads it up, leaves it in the trunk of his car for 2 days in 85-degree weather, and then shakes it out and puts it back on again, unwashed, the next time he trains. He smells like a barn full of zombies, and he is likely a walking, talking infection. Don’t be Stinky-Gi Guy. Nobody wants to train with that. Show up to class wearing clean, well-fitting, nice-smelling clothes.
For more tips on what Valerie refers to as "threads, bling, gunk, and hygiene," read her article How to Be a Good Training Partner, Part 2: What to Wear to Grapple.
How to Survive
So now you're good to go - you've got the gear and you know how to train in a way that won't get you smashed by your higher ranking teammates. Now comes the hard part - surviving for first few months and coming out the other end still loving jiu jitsu, and yourself. These can be the hardest months of BJJ and many people won't make it past this time period.
Valerie wrote a series of articles addressing all aspects of this period of time:
- 5 Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Started Training BJJ
- A Hotter Mess Than I Thought: 5 More Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Started Training BJJ
- Surviving (Socially) the Beginner Phase of BJJ
If you make it through these first few months, it's likely that BJJ will become a massive part of your life and all of your friends will think you've become an obsessed crazy person. That's okay. You'll be surrounded by equally obsessed people at your academy. But it's not okay when it messes up your other priorities in life. You know, friends, family, and careers - that "real life" stuff. Valerie weighed in on this as well:
Integrity is (or should be, in my opinion) a central part of any martial art. And owning our actions and their consequences is a central part of integrity. It is very easy to get sucked into the vortex that is Brazilian jiu jitsu, but we have to understand and assume responsibility for the effects this may have on the rest of our lives.
Inspiration to Keep Training
And for those days when you get frustrated and think there's no moving forward, whether you're three months into your BJJ journey or three years, Sally Arsenault did us the favor of interviewing some high level athletes and finding out what it was like for them early on. To read the advice of Emily Kwok, Seymour Yang, Braulio Estima, the Miyao Brothers, Mackenzie Dern, and Alan Belcher, read Sally's article Advice for BJJ Beginners: From MMA and BJJ Pros.
To send you on your way to a successful start and long lifetime of BJJ, here's some sage wisdom from Seymour Yang:
It's easy to say with hindsight and a few years worth of experience and skill level, but my early years of sparring were quite frustrating. I am a very small and light chap, so when I rolled I was never going to be able to use strength as a way out. Unfortunately, as a white belt, I had nothing else to use so I tried real hard to fight strength with strength.
I would also forget the whole period where I became an obsessed nerdy technique hunter - I think everyone hits that period where they search for new techniques to satisfy their hunger for the next cool thing. I was doing this, obtaining hundreds of hours of instructionals, but I was neglecting the basics.
These days, I avoid pretty much all instructionals. I just don't have time for them. I also long ago stopped writing a training log. It was pointless and, when I read them back after a while, meaningless most of the time.
Having said that, I'm not one to look back and regret anything. BJJ has brought so many positives in my life ... and continues to do so. The bond I have with a person all the way across the world who trains the same as I do, man, that's an amazing experience.
Photos courtesy of David Brown Photography.