What should a white belt in bjj focus on? The ultimate guide for surviving your first year as a white belt.

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Being a white belt in Jiu-Jitsu can be a humbling experience. No matter how big and strong you are, getting choked out by a tiny lightweight is not a pleasant feeling. The initial days of BJJ are going to shock you, not only is BJJ physically tiring but psychologically as well. But don’t be discouraged, every black belt that you see was once in the exact position that you are. The only way out is forward.

Have no doubt in your mind that it is going to take you a long, arduous path to get to where you want. It is a marathon, not a sprint. The road to black belt requires blood, sweat, and sacrifice but if you are willing to persevere, you will be rewarded with a skill set that few can claim and the rewards will be worth it. 

We have broken down this article into two main sections. The first is a general overview and mindsets that you need to adopt as a White Belt. These 11 tips will arm you with the right mental models and process to succeed. In the second half of the article we are going to be more technical and focus on what we believe are the right foundational positions, submissions and escapes you should be focussing on at first. 

By the end of this you will have a clear answer for “What should a white belt in bjj focus on?”

Part 1 – Foundations and Mindsets. 

1- Focus on building a strong foundation

A building is only as strong as its foundation. The same will be true of your jiu-jitsu. Your focus as a white belt should be on creating a solid foundation on which you can build on. Learning the foundational moves in BJJ should be your number one priority, no matter how sweet those flying armbars look. You need to feel comfortable with the basics by drilling them over and over again so you develop muscle memory. Patience is the key element that will help you in this part of your journey. In your first year, try to become the best white belt there is in the gym.

2- Learn to relax

Learning to relax is a skill. Let’s face it, the first time some giant man in a Gi tries to smash through your guard and crush you with the power of a thousand moons in side control, you are going to struggle to relax. 

When you panic, you breathe fast, get gassed and end up at the mercy of your training partner. 

Start learning to comfortable with the uncomfortable. Think about your breathing. If you gas out, that’s ok. Just keep going as best as you can. 

Mat time is going to be the key component of developing your ability to relax and feel comfortable under pressure. Staying calm will allow you to control your ego, your emotions, and your strength. 

Understand that nothing is expected of you at this stage so focus your energy on learning and gaining experience. 

3- Stay Curious

One of the best qualities in life is curiosity. That trait should define a white belt. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Question everything until you understand it. I know you are afraid you might be embarrassed, but your instructors will appreciate you asking questions. Most of your instructors are going to be more than happy to accommodate you. If the instructors are not available, try the higher-ranking belts, approach the seniors. Get them to clear your doubts. Repeat and practice.

4- Warm Up

Warming up should be a priority for every beginner. Make sure you take part in the pre-class warm-up. It does feel like a chore but you have to do it. Why? Because a cold body is constricted and tight, if you do not develop a habit of warming up before rolling, then the chances of a serious injury can go up two-fold. It does not take much time. Start with easy moves, like shrimping and bridging.

One of my favorite things to do is roll one round with a training partner at a light pace. Doing this will activate your muscles and get your blood flowing.

5- Don’t be ‘That Guy’ AKA Drop the Ego tough guy.

If you are athletically gifted and well built. Or if you have prior experiences in a contact sport like Rugby, Soccer, or Boxing. Do not go into the gym thinking you can dominate the athletes in there. You will likely be humbled on the mats. Better to go in easy and keep your ego outside the door. Do not try and overpower, smash or slam your training partners. You could hurt them, and in return, they will be inclined to return the favor. The best route to take is one of humility. Know that you’re a beginner and your partners are there to help you learn. This will keep the air friendly and the instructors and senior colored belts will appreciate that a hundred percent.

6- Keep Moving, Always

Never stay flat on your back. Staying still is death. Always try and change positions if you are under somebody or in a bad position. If you are complacent on the mats, that small habit will cost you a lot in the long run. Habits like these, stick, and if you plan on competing, the guy that moves and flows will be able to outsmart you in every move. Jiu-Jitsu is like chess, always keep planning your next move and execute it. Even if you think it is a bad move, make it. A bad move is better than being stationary because failures teach you lessons.

7- Position before Submission

This is what your coaches will teach you as well. It is a very important principle that you should inculcate in your mind. In any scenario, you must try and adapt to the proper position before you try to apply a submission. Learn the basics like a full guard, back mount, side control, mount, etc. Apply these techniques in a consistent and reliable manner. If you’re new and you don’t understand how to apply submissions, try and control the positions first and the rest will come itself.

8- Wash your Gi

Your Gi is your armor, your uniform. Make sure you buy a good quality Gi and wash it after every session. You want to knock your opponents out with your skills, not your stench. The least you can do is wash your Gi after two training sessions. Do not put a sweat-soaked Gi in your training bag after class. Air dry your Gi immediately after you take it off. If you neglect your Gi, it will have bacterial overgrowth that will spread inside your bag. That is nasty.

My advice is to wear a rash guard under your Gi. Wash your belt with your Gi and avoid fabric softeners as they can weaken the material of your Gi. If your Gi stinks really bad, soak your Gi in water and white vinegar overnight. Then wash the Gi in the morning and let the sun dry it out.

9- Breathe

The ability to breathe and relax is linked to the state of mind you are in. If your breathing is even and balanced then your body will follow. This is tantamount to any sport. Good breath control allows you to enter the ‘Flow State’ quickly. Make sure you breathe through your nose and inhale and exhale deeply. Train your body to adapt to high-intensity situations and simmer down to a slower pace when required. This will build up your oxygen tank and help you as you progress.

10- When in Doubt, Tap

Tapping out can save you from a dislocated elbow, a popped ankle, a torn knee, and a total blackout. If your opponent has you in a dominant position and is applying pressure, make sure you tap. Now you don’t always have to tap early, but understand when danger presents itself. It is important to learn defense and improve your escapes. But do not let your ego fool you, if that armbar feels like it’s about to break, tap. If you feel like you can’t escape the rear-naked choke, tap. On the mats, understand and analyze your limits and your pain threshold on every body part.

11- Never Give Up

“A black belt is a white belt who never gave up.”

The journey to a black belt can take you up to a decade. The road will be filled with injuries and moments of despair. But the road is also very rewarding. No other sport offers the satisfaction you get from BJJ. As you progress in ranking, you will progress in your mindset, in your self-esteem, in your prestige. Jiu-Jitsu not only promotes physical growth but mental growth as well. The ability to become exceptional at one thing will translate into other parts of your life as well. Not to mention the fulfilling relationships you will create with others on the same journey. It is truly a fulfilling experience.

Part 2: Technical Skills 

This section will be less on general ideas and down to the nitty gritty. These are what we believe to be the foundational skills that a white belty needs to develop in order to be seen as proficient enough to be graded to Blue Belt.

Dont think that knowing these positions will give you an automatic pass to your Blue. These need to be supplemented with mat time and the ability to hit these movements on a resisting opponent in a live sparring situation. 

Without Further Ado: 

Understanding of all dominant positions / pins and the position hierarchy

Back Control 

In this video Ryan Hall (yes, that deadpan killer from the UFC Ryan Hall) breaks down all his basics for controlling the back and maintaining the most dominant position you can have on another human.

Mount

The Mount is the next most dominant position in Jiu-Jitsu. You have your opponent flattened out on the floor with you pinning them down from atop. Watch this tutorial below to find out how to secure the mount and secure your position and your points (if you are in a BJJ competition).

Side Control

Side control is a position that you’ll find yourself in on a number of occasions. Generally when you’ve passed your opponent’s guard but not managed to secure the mount you will end up like you will likely end up in side control. Side control is great for setting up submissions and forcing your opponent to move by smothering them into your trap.

North South

The north south position is the next dominant position in the hierarchy of positions. You are still on top of your opponent, but your base is a little bit weaker than when you were in mount or even when you are in side control. But with the North Soke north south comes a variety of choking options and the ability to smother your opponent with your chest.

Knee Ride

Knee ride is the last in the hierarchy of dominant positions for Jiu-Jitsu. Knee ride is a great mobile position that allows you to be tactile and move around your opponent at will, you don’t have a lot of pressure outside of your knee to pin your opponent to the floor. One advantage for knee ride in a street fight scenario is that you can rain down punches willingly and still be very adaptable to movement.

Pin escapes 

With all of the dominant positions we just covered you need to be able to escape them.

Passes

Next on the list of good technical skills to have as a white belt, are your guard passes. Ideally you need to have at least two guard passes in your repertoire before you start looking at getting your blue belt out. Ideally, you want to know at least two guard passes from kneeling and from standing positions.

For kneeling: We suggest the over under pass and the double under pass.

From Standing: We suggest the Toriando pass and a leg drag. Both of these will open up multiple passing opportunities that can be combined with other passing options.

Submissions

Once you’ve secured your pass, you want to get onto your basic submissions, so submissions as a white belt will come in many shapes and sizes. Will break these down into arm attacks, choking attacks and leg attacks.

Arm Attacks:

Armbar From Guard / Mount / From Side Control

Kimura / Figure 4 / Americana

Chokes

The chokes that you’ll be exposed to as a white belt will generally be:

  • Rear Naked Choke
  • Cross Collar Choke
  • Head and Arm Choke
  • Baseball Bat Choke
  • Clock Choke
  • Triangle Choke

Leg Locks

While this wasn’t as prevalent even five years ago, leg locks are such a huge part of the Jiu-Jitsu game now that even a white belt needs to know how to attack and how to defend leg attacks. you need to know how to deploy and defend at least:

Straight Ankle locks and heel hooks

Takedowns

The next fundamental skill for a white belt to have is the ability to take the opponent to the ground. And to be able to do it in a way that you can commence attacking them for dominant positions and ultimately the submission. The takedowns that we suggest that you learn are:

  • The single leg takedown and its defence,
  • Double leg takedown and its defence, and
  • one or two throws like a drop sionagi and a hip toss.

Grip Fighting / Hand Fighting.

And lastly, on our breakdown of technical skills to master the last two elements, so there are around movements and grid fighting, so great fighting and hand fighting are really important. You need to know how to break your opponent’s grips and to prevent them from gripping up. And then in turn, how to get your grips without having your grips broken by your opponent.

Basic Jiu Jitsu movements

And the last movements that you will need to know are likely the movements that you will be doing in your warm-ups during your classes, which are your basic Jiu-Jitsu movements that form the basis of escapes and even just positional sparring.

  • Hip Escapes
  • Forward rolls
  • Backward rolls
  • Sideways Rolls
  • Breakfalls
  • Technical Standup  

Conclusion

Find an academy that can teach you not only the skill of grappling but the mindset behind the sport as well. Seek knowledge and always focus on improving. Never be afraid to ask questions and keep moving forward. Do not tax your body more than it needs to be. Stay consistent, stay relaxed and keep showing up. If you are able to follow the advice that is written here, I can guarantee you that there is a great journey ahead of you. May the grappling gods be with you.

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