As the popularity of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) continues to grow at an astronomical rate, I wanted to share a few things to help make your initial experience on the mat more comfortable and fun. This is intended primarily for someone contemplating starting BJJ or who is within their first few months, but it can also be a nice reminder for more seasoned practitioners – not only for their own knowledge, but so that they can help provide the best environment possible to new people who are just starting out (while these may be no-brainers for you, this will all be foreign to someone just starting).
1) You will feel lost at first, and that is OK
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the most complex martial arts out there, and it is quite common to feel lost or confused at first. Not only will you be asked to move your body in new and challenging ways, but many of the techniques and positions actually go against your natural instincts, which only adds to the complexity and confusion. I would venture to say that it takes 6-12 months for people to start to “get it” and start to have those “ah ha” moments. So, when you are just starting out be patient and try to avoid being too hard on yourself; allow yourself some time to get your bearings.
2) Understand the concept of “positional hierarchy”
This is one of the most important concepts of BJJ (or any grappling / ground fighting). It essentially means that not all ground positions are created equally – some positions are approximately 50/50 (there is no significant advantage for either person), while others offer massive advantages for one person and reciprocally are unfavorable to the other person. There are a handful of positions that are considered to be the “top of the food chain” on the positional hierarchy, and during a sparring session or a match your primary goal is to work towards achieving one of those positions. The techniques your instructor shows you will be primarily focused on helping you advance along this positional hierarchy; however without understanding this concept then many of those techniques will not make much sense, because you will lack context as to why you are doing them. It is only once you understand the hierarchy and can conceptualize how the various positions are linked that you will begin to grasp what each technique is meant to achieve.
3) You will be sore in all sorts of new places, but that will pass after a few weeks
When you first start BJJ you will be doing a lot of things that are probably totally new to you. Most people spend little-to-no time in their usual day exercising in bare feet, moving on the ground, practicing rolls and getting up & down from the ground, and so on. Especially if you are starting as an adult, expect to be noticeably sore in your rib area / core muscles, and other regions that get used a lot on the mats such as your toes & feet, fingers & hands, and maybe your neck muscles. The good news is that just like any muscles you have not worked out in a long time they will be sore at first, but that will only last a few weeks, and then it will hardly be noticeable after that.
4) Be attentive to your hygiene
When you practice BJJ you will be in close quarters with your training partner(s), and it is important to take a few easy steps to make sure that you are not creating a negative experience for them. Here are a few simple tips that are not just for beginners, but should be adhered to by all experience levels:
- Keep your finger nails and toe nails trimmed – nobody wants to get scratched
- Remove all jewelry before training, both for the safety of your training partners and for yourself
- Avoid wearing things that could scratch your training partners or the mats – examples include zippers, buttons, and abrasive Velcro
- Soap, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste are inexpensive and readily available – please be a good training partner and make sure to utilize these products 🙂
- Make sure your clothing is clean and not smelly. Wash your training gear each time you wear it. Once you start training you will probably invest in a gi (sometimes called a “kimono”), make sure to wash it after each session. Most people have at least a few gis so that they can rotate them throughout the week.
- Be respectful of each gym’s policies about footwear. Just about 100% of gyms will ask you to train in bare feet, and some (including ours) have specific policies regarding which parts of the building they want you to wear shoes, and which parts are OK for bare feet. For example, at Industrial Strength we ask you to please wear shoes all throughout the building and then slip them off right by the side of the mats, because it helps avoid tracking germs from the other parts of the floor onto the training mats.
- Related to this, NEVER go into the restroom with bare feet. Nobody wants you tracking all that junk from your feet back onto the training floor. Please put on your shoes, or use loaner sandals that some gyms provide, and do not cross-contaminate the floor next to the toilet with the BJJ mats.
5) The other people in class are your training partners, not your enemies
When you come to train, your goal should be not only for YOU to get better, but for EVERYBODY in the room to get better too, which means that training needs to be mutually beneficial. When you are new, the more experienced people will almost always help you out and give you pointers to help you advance. Also, whether you realize it or not, the more experienced people will be taking steps to ensure your safety during training. Eventually, you will become experienced enough that you will be in the role of helping and protecting the newer people – so make sure to pay it forward when the time comes. Here are a few tips to help along the way to make sure you and your training partners have a good experience:
- You should NEVER be trying to hurt your training partners – EVER. Even when we apply submission holds we should do it with ample control, and give our training partner plenty of opportunity to tap out. You will impress absolutely NOBODY by cranking a submission hold and hurting your partner; in fact if you do that, most people will think you are a reckless jerk and will not want to train with you. Take the safety of your training partners as seriously as you do your own, and make sure to give them time to tap out.
- Closely related to the above, when you get caught in a submission hold, make sure to tap out and not risk injury. One of the most important sayings is “tap early, tap often.” It is always so much better to tap out early and ensure it does not go too far. For some people, this does mean they have check their ego a bit … but it is always worth it to stay healthy and live to fight another day. One helpful thing I was told when I was new to BJJ is that the black belt teaching the class has often been tapped out more times than everyone else in the class COMBINED. That really resonated with me, and I repeat that to my students. Remember: tap early, tap often.
- Watch your space in class. One of the most common “accidents” we see on the mats is two pairs of people rolling into each other because none of the four people realized how close they were to the others. Situational awareness is important, so you should develop the ability to not only pay attention to what is happening with you and your partner, but also with the other groups of people around you.
- Be respectful of size differences. In BJJ we spend a lot of our time “partnered up” with someone around our same size, but we also try to mix things up and train with people of all sizes. Many people will occasionally train with someone who is 20+ pounds smaller than them, and we have even had situations where there is a 100+ pound size difference. Circling back to the start of this paragraph I mentioned that training needs to be mutually beneficial – so when you find yourself in a situation where you are much bigger than your partner, be sure to scale your efforts and “allow Jiu Jitsu to happen” so that both people can benefit. It will not help either person if someone with a 50lb size advantage does nothing but smash the other person the entire time.
I hope these tips are helpful for you if you are new to BJJ or even if you are just contemplating starting out. If you are in the Portland, Oregon area you can take your first BJJ class with us at no cost. Just go to the link below to sign up for a free class, and we’ll reach out to you with next steps.