Fitting In- Adjusting (Socially) To your New Brazilian Jiu Jitsu School

I can clearly remember my very first days on the mat at a grappling school. I didn't know anything, but perhaps more bothersome was that I didn't know anyone. I was OK with the former, because I had just started and could do a reasonable job of managing my expectations. But it was much harder that I didn't know anyone, because it's not a martial art that you can practice in solitary. I can remember plenty of my first days in class where I felt relatively isolated the whole time, and I came to realize that this was especially true when my training partners were upper belts. I seemed to get even less engagement then. Over time, it got better. especially once I had stuck around and been a consistent student for several months. People started to remember my name, engage with me, and I felt welcome. I had been welcomed onto the team.

Again?

I changed schools after my first year and actually found this process to repeat itself again. At this point I had a year of grappling under my belt, so I was not completely worthless on the mat. But still, I had to go through the same process. People were initially friendly but reluctant to engage, and I often sat on the edge of the mat and watched wistfully. I watched as people who were clearly BJJ pals had a grand old time. Once again, it took a few months, and the ice thawed, and I was welcomed. 

Why the freeze-out?

I've seen this phenomenon happen in person, and I've heard about it happening at essentially every school in the world. I think I actually had a pretty lightweight version of this process - I have heard of academies where upper belts refuse to learn white belts' names, for example. The reason behind this is very simple, and has been true in every academy, and will be true in every academy:

People quit. A lot. 

Brazilian jiu jitsu has a very steep learning curve. It is incredibly difficult in comparison to any of the other similar fitness activities you could join up with (yoga, crossfit, zumba, whatever). As a result it has a very high attrition rate. A small percentage - probably less than 25% - make it to blue belt. Of those, less than 10% make it to purple, and on, and on. It's a tough art and most people don't stick around.

At the same time it's a highly interpersonal art. It must be practiced with training partners, not alone. It is often full of question-and-answer, how do I do this? discussions, and philosophical debates on whether something is better than something else. People tend to spend a lot of time engaging with, and therefore investing energy into, their training partners. It is frustrating and sometimes a little depressing when someone you've spent a lot of time with disappears off the mats, never to be seen again. Many people tend to take it personally (even when it isn't). Over time, upper belts, people who have been training for several years, have learned not to engage too soon with people who are statistically likely to disappear. It's all about wait-and-see. As a new student you will likely have to wait it out and prove that you're going to stick around. I realize that this is unlikely to make you feel any better, but that's life.

But not me! I'm one of the good ones!

Maybe you are! Maybe not, who knows. Time will tell. Best advice is to prove it by being a good training partner from day one. Here are some simple tips to help the rest of the team adopt you as one of their own

1. In technique discussions or practice sessions, be seen and not heard. 

As a new student, a fresh white belt, there are few things as un-ingratiating as having a constant barrage of strong opinions about how thinks work, or even worse, how they should work. This is not unique to Brazilian jiu jitsu. It would be exactly the same on your first day of cooking school. Your opinion is invalid, because you don't have sufficient experience to be an expert, and only expert opinions are actually worth listening to. Moreover. it is unwelcome and rude even if you don't intend it that way. If your teammates have put thousands of hours into training, and you've been there 5 weeks, the idea that your opinion might even be correct is pretty arrogant on your part. Be there to absorb. Take it in, think your thoughts silently, and try to absorb what you can from those who have gone before you. Remember that if you knew what you were talking about, you wouldn't be the new white belt. 

2. Always be aware that you are not any good at BJJ yet

All your training, all your interactions, all your drilling, everything should come under the heading of "hey, I'm new, and I'm trying to figure this out". When you train, train to learn and not to win. No one cares that you tapped out another white belt (this is a subject for another, length article by itself), so train to learn i.e. more technically and probably slower.  Feel free to ask upper belts to train or drill with you, but don't be hurt if they decline. You are not yet a particularly enticing training partner. They may be very focused on working a particular position that you don't yet understand. They may need very tough rounds to prepare for a tournament, and you can't provide them. They may not have the energy to take a practice session and turn it into a private lesson, which is often what happens with brand new students. Brush it off and find someone else. 

3. Take your lumps

When you are new, everyone will beat you, most likely. Unless you came from a strong wrestling or judo background, or are a very large strong person, you are probably going to get your ass kicked most of the time, and that is exactly right and normal. In fact, if you aren't losing most of the time, you should get suspicious. New students get obsessed with winning simply because they can't. But the winning isn't where the learning is. Let's say you find a white belt you can beat. Maybe two. And you keep seeking them out as training partners because you can submit them. All you will ever learn in this scenario is how to continue to beat those two people. Dion't try to find a weak antelope in the herd and separate it off for an easy kill. As Josh Waitzkin, a Marcelo Garcia black belt and multiple time martial arts and chess world champion says, the people that have the best growth are those that take the hardest training partners. Keep asking to train with your betters and never say no when an upper belt picks you. Even if it means you get smeared across the mat like a pat of butter. Be polite and respectful, take your lumps, and you'll be on the team before you know it. 

4. Patience

You can't force it. Nothing but time on the mat, spent under the attitudes and conditions listed above, will solve this for you.  You can't buy the cool kimono, or the DVD set, or watch the Youtube video, or anything else. Show up consistently, be a good partner, and don't quit. It'll happen. Trying to force your way in is annoying and will not help. 

All this may sound a little harsh, especially compared to other athletic situations. To anyone who has played a physical team sport, it will look and feel very familiar. However, if you haven't done that, it'll likely feel rough. That is simply the way of it. It is a martial art, not yoga, not a dance class, and not a personal training session. What we do is dangerous, powerful, and has a long tradition. Give it the respect it deserves rather than get upset that it doesn't fit your expectations. The payoff, when you stick with it, is immense. For so many of us who have made it through the learning curve, it is the linchpin that holds the rest of our life together. It's the pivot point around which individual days rotate. These days become weeks and years spent in the happy pursuit of something truly meaningful. Something that cannot be bought and must be earned. Trust me, its worth it. 

 


 

 




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