Friday, February 11, 2011


Art by AC
Matt Kirtley is a brown belt in BJJ and is well known for his groundbreaking website, a journal he started in 2006 as a blue belt which chronicles a countless number of BJJ techniques in great detail.  He was truly ahead of his time in his endeavor.  Matt is not as active on the internet as he's been in years past, but he graciously offered us a sweet white belt primer he recently wrote.  We thank him for his contribution.

I'm a brown belt and an instructor and today I felt like writing a train of thought piece for people starting BJJ and surviving the first year. I'm going to assume you don't train yet. Let's get started.

You probably like watching MMA and have the idea that training BJJ could be cool. Google BJJ gyms in your area and ask on forums online for good schools to try out.

Stop making excuses like "I want to get in shape first." Nothing gets you ready for BJJ except doing BJJ. (Watching Youtube clips and trying them on your annoyed girlfriend doesn't count.)

Should you do gi or no-gi? This is irrelevant at this point. Find the best gym in your area and do whatever they offer. Eventually you should train whichever one you like more (or the best option: doing both) but don't act like you can't train under a gi-only instructor when your dream is to be a "em em ay" fighter.

Time to take your first class. Wear shorts with no pockets that tie off with a good draw string and a t-shirt you don't mind getting ruined. You may be given a loaner gi to wear.

Show up a little early to meet the instructor, sign a waiver and check out the space.

When class starts, pay attention, follow instructions and just try to do whatever everyone else is doing.

The class will likely go like this:

  1. warm-ups,
  2. learn and drill 2-3 techniques (you may get your own special first lesson at this point),
  3. live drilling
  4. and maybe sparring (not all gyms let people spar day one.)

If you get paired up with someone for drilling, don't worry about "wasting their time" because you're a white belt. Everyone has to help everyone and if you're eager to practice and drill, no matter how awful you are, then you aren't wasting their time.

Sparring time. Watching MMA might make you feel like you've got half a clue but there is an ocean of difference between watching and doing.

If you ever saw someone tap to a "lucky" choke or armbar in MMA and thought "Why did he tap!? I wouldn't have tapped!", now is your time to find out why yes, he really did need to tap to that.

If you "almost get" a move on a colored belt, they let you and they are just being nice to the new white belt.

How to not make enemies on your first day:

  • Don't pick anyone up and slam them.
  • Don't try any leglocks you saw on Youtube.
  • Don't just crank on necks.
  • Try not to spaz too hard.
  • Don't brag about anything.

You are allowed to spaz a little because you are a white belt and no one expects any better out of you. But you should work to replace spazzing with real technique as you train more.

This class will be a blur and you will likely forget everything you learned. That's normal. It takes learning and drilling techniques many times over many years to really get them.

You are likely now aware of muscles in your body that you never knew existed before as they scream at you as you roll out of bed the following morning. That means you did it right.

The best way to deal with anxiety, feeling stupid, being out of shape: realize that everyone (except genetic freaks) went through this too and stop worrying about it. You don't know this stuff yet and that's why you are here to learn.

Claustrophobic? Prepare to take confront your fears head on. This phobia will go away as you get exposed to it and learn what to do.

If you smoke, quit now. It's bad for you, it's bad for your BJJ and you smell awful to your training partners who can't avoid breathing in your musk.

Finishing your first month. Most people don't even take a second class, so you're doing better than most people. But most people also don't finish 6 months to a year, so you're not better than them by much.

Time to get into a rhythm. Keep coming to classes, be eager to learn and drill and don't be afraid of asking questions.

How many times a week should you train? Work up to at least 3 times per week as soon as your body can handle it. Here's a rough guide to classes per week:

1: You will be a white belt forever and barely learn anything.
2: This will barely maintain your skill level and progress slowly.
3: You will make headway and still have recovery days.
4: Now you're getting serious. You are becoming a fixture in the gym.
5: You will see big improvements but get more injuries.
6: You probably don't have a job.
7+: You probably don't have a job or girlfriend. But your BJJ is going great!

Finishing the first 6 months. Your body is probably getting into much better shape than when you started. You should take a look at your diet and sleep habits and try to improve them. This is good for you, good for your BJJ and will even help prevent injuries.

Ready for your first tournament? Of course not. But do one anyway. Everyone should try it at least once. You will probably be very nervous. That is normal. The only way to overcome this anxiety is to compete so much you get over it. Unfortunately that's not a possible solution for your first competition.

Competing as a white belt is good too because the pressure to perform and "prove your belt" is much worse once your belt has a color. No one expects anything impressive out of a white belt so you are free suck and no one will hold it against you (except Youtube comments on your tournament video.)

I would tell you to not worry too much about getting your blue belt and you will likely say you don't really care about your belt. But I also know you're probably secretly coveting it anyway.

What you should be working on as a white belt:

  • Regular attendance. This is the most important skill you can have because I could leave the rest of this list empty and you'd still get better by going to the gym.
  • Getting in shape. You need to be able to handle a whole class from start to finish and never quit sparring because you're tired.
  • Remembering techniques. Drill a lot and maybe keep a written journal.
  • Defense and escapes. As a beginner you will spend most of your time in bad spots so naturally this is the main area to improve your technical performance.

Keep that up and you'll get better and eventually earn your blue belt.

One last piece of advice: Don't teach anyone anything as a white belt. Don't try to coach other white belts.

This is harsh and it will make you sad when you are sure you really know the technique, but as an instructor I have seen too many white belts eagerly teach the wrong thing without knowing it. Just ask the instructor to come and check things out. It is not a problem. That is our job.


  1. Good stuff thank you for the great article!

    If you guys get a chance could you guys write an article on your philosophy of how our mind set ought to change with experience? For instance, how do I mentally change the way I roll as a blue belt to move myself towards purple? How do I abandon acting instinctively and begin to approach my opponent with a gameplan? Is this just something that naturally happens in your opinion or is it a change I can cultivate by rolling a certain way?

  2. Hey Tony, check out the book university of jiujitsu by Saulo RIBEIRO (or xande) it touches in great details on the difference between belts and how to transform your game accordingly.


  3. Thanks brother, I will definitely check it out.

  4. Awesome! As someone who has just two weeks of BJJ under his belt, it's overwhelming to realize how much there is to learn. Nice to know that it's normal to suck wind and feel like I've been beaten by a baseball bat! ( it's a good hurt). Thanks to Aesopian for some perspective for the newbie.

  5. Matt, Francisco-- thanks for your timely contribution to the body of knowledge out there... lately I have wished for a post like this to point out to people. I love it.

  6. This saddens me. I suffered a broken rib in my second lesson. The lessons were no problem for me physically as I work out constantly, but while learning "knee-on-belly" one of my lower ribs cracked. I went ahead and went to the next one and pushed through it, but now I realize I must let it heal. This is especially unfortunate because I now have to quit what had quickly become my favorite thing.

  7. I found this artice right after the googling bjj gyms in your area and i'm so thankful this describes my thought process to a T right down to the annoyed gf part, tyvm.

  8. I'd LOVE an article like this for each belt level. I've read Ribeiro's book, but I'd love to hear your perspective through each as well!

  9. The great part about this article is how true it is. I can tell Aesopian is speaking from experience...and my experience was exactly the same. Everyone goes through it!

    Anonymous, whoever you are, you don't have to quit because of an injury. I had my lower ribs cracked by a gorilla grappler and it put me out for two months, but you can still learn while you're off the mat.

  10. White Belt question: Would you say the # of times to train per week portion of this article applies to multiple times per day? I train twice on mondays and wednesdays and again on fridays and every other saturday.


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