10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

So much of training BJJ is trial and error. Still, there are some things I really wish I knew beforehand before I started as a white belt. So as I enter my sixth year on the BJJ mats here’s a somewhat comprehensive if not final list:

Only Compete with Yourself – While it’s all too easy to compare ourselves to others in so many areas of life, it’s also pretty useless, especially on the mats. Focus on your own progress not whether or not someone else can beat you at the moment. Some improve faster than others. Some hit plateaus earlier, some later. Keenan Cornelius is famous for stating that he only saw the proverbial BJJ light once he hit purple belt. Otherwise, according to him, he was constantly getting owned by most everyone. Considering he’s one of the best out there that should be some definite food for thought for all of us.

It’s Not Always Going to be Fun – Yes, you should enjoy BJJ. However, like most good things, BJJ can often be an arduous sometimes taxing endeavor on mind, body and soul. There are going to be many days when the sole source of joy is just getting through a day of training. That’s okay. Climbing a mountain isn’t always fun either, but there is an enrichment and meaning found in embracing the proverbial grind.

Be Consistent – Far and away, consistently showing up is the proven recipe for success on the BJJ mats. Not any supplemental studying, not supplemental training. Those are definitely beneficial but are not the keys to mat success. Consistency is also the best way to calm the anxious jitters that hound us and keep us from training.

Your BJJ Coach is Not a Guru or a Sage – Some version of Stockholm Syndrome exists in many BJJ gyms all across the world. I’m still dumbfounded by the terrible life advice a few of my coaches would dole out often unbidden or, worse, their endless political ramblings that cut into training time. More amazing is that many of my training buddies would eat it all up as some gospel truth. Of course, the inevitable backlash occurred, a mass exodus took place and all that dogmatic praise toward a certain coach turned into rancor and resentment. That should be a fair warning to both students and coaches alike. BJJ skill or rank does not magically lead to wisdom or virtue.

For F**k’s Sake, Just Tap Already!  – My neck would be in far better shape had I not tried to fight off innumerable guillotines and rear-naked chokes as a white belt. While ego played a definite role, naivety played a part as well. My first gym prided itself on being ‘old school’ and ‘tough’. My coach encouraged us to fight out of submissions. It wasn’t completely without merit in some instances. However, looking back, I wish I would have just tapped early and dealt with the inevitable browbeating than the sore neck or arm I’d have to nurse later.

Stretch and Foam Roll – Stretching and foam rolling are such easy aspects of training to dismiss in the beginning. Flexibility plays an important role in injury prevention not just fancy guard play. For example, tight hips lead to lower back pain and knee issues, tight pectorals lead to upper-cross syndrome and so on and so forth. I now commit to a 20-30 minute stretching and foam rolling routine every night at least 4 days out of the week. I wish though that I’d done this from the outset of my training.

Wear A F**king Mouthguard – I’ve had quite a few buddies chip or lose a tooth over the years because they couldn’t be bothered with a mouthguard. Two are missing front teeth. One doesn’t care, the other has a partial. Never mind aspects of vanity getting your teeth fixed is damn expensive. If I don’t have my mouthguard I won’t roll. That might be a bit extreme for some, but I’ve taken way too many errant elbows, knees and headbutts over the years to roll without it. Mouthguards like SISU also don’t affect one’s breathing at all. I can talk, drink and tap out just fine in mine.

Strength Train – While I’ve lifted weights since high school with varying degrees of commitment, I now do so as a proactive measure against injuries not just in pursuit of my hopeless vanity. Building muscle is kind of like building armor for the BJJ mats. Not only does the added strength benefit one’s game, it also protects against injuries. Compound movements alongside bodyweight training have been a boon to my overall fitness on and off the mats.

Practice Proper Hygiene – Although most of us are generally clean, a bit of sprucing up before training can be of great service to your gym. Reapplying deodorant alongside a swig of mouthwash may be not mandatory, but it’s a nice courtesy to extend to your training partners. Gone are the days of reveling in one’s stink or lack of hygiene as some testament of toughness – something I never quite understood. These days I even spray on some light cologne – nothing overbearing, just something fresh and citrusy. Of course, if you’re new to BJJ and reading this, cut your f**king nails and wash your f**king gi! Phew. Sorry. It had to be said. Again. For the bazillionth time.

Wash Your Gi – Letting my gis fester in the laundry basket for days on end was a terrible idea. Even after multiple judicious washings, a funk settled into my first few gis that only fire seemed to remedy. These days if I can’t immediately wash my gi after training, at the very least, I hang it out in the open to lessen the chances of conjuring the plague once again. Here are some more detailed tips on washing your gi as well: https://gablegripes.com/off-the-mats/how-to-clean-a-smelly-gi/

Don’t Always Roll to Win, Roll to Improve – This is a tough one for the ego. And certainly sometimes a dogfight is not only necessary it can be damn fun. Still, improvement only occurs when risks are taken such as trying to implement a new pass or forcing yourself to play guard as a top player. It can even be as simple as starting from a bad position such as side control or mount against a less experienced partner. Lately, for me it’s been playing guard a lot more frequently. I may exponentially increase the risk of getting tapped or owned, but I know that I’m building something that demands experimentation (even if I’m a little butthurt that a white belt tapped me).

Don’t Binge Train – That is, don’t try to do doubles for two weeks straight, inevitably collapse and then take the next month off. Too often, I see white belts commit to an exhausting month of constant (rather than consistent) training morning, noon and night only to burnout and wither away. Slow and steady wins the race. As storied BJJ Black Belt Chris Haueter says, “It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left.”

Slow Down – While spazzing is the favored weapon of newbs the world over, spazzing through a roll or technique is usually a fruitless endeavor fueled more by anxiety and ego than determination or skill. One can be intense while not flailing about like a crazy person. Seriously, slow down. Your game will actually improve at a faster rate.

I just realized this turned out to be 13 tips rather than 10. Regardless, I hope it helps. Feel free to add your own.

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