Be Wary of These White Belt Mistakes
The first few months of training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be overwhelming. Starting to train BJJ is similar to learning to drive. If you think back to the first time you were ever behind the wheel, there seemed to literally be hundreds of different things to pay attention to and early on, it always seemed like you were missing something.
Similarly, building your knowledge of BJJ is so much more than just performing the steps of a technique in a specific order. There are so many things that we need to pay attention to in the beginning, until they become like automatic, like letting off the gas when we're going downhill or the constant glance we make into our various mirrors to ensure our safety within the flow of traffic. These are things we no longer have to think about because over time these actions or skills become embedded and become automatic.
It's almost impossible to think back on what it was like to be a first time driver and re-experience that feeling. As you progress in BJJ, developing muscle memory and repeating reactions over and over, like driving, your ability to flow with the various scenarios and move from position to position without even thinking about it will develop.
Let's look at some common mistakes that beginner's typically make as they start out on the journey to black belt. These should be addressed over time so that by the time you begin to progress to your blue belt and beyond, you have overcome all of them. If you are a higher belt and still find yourself struggling in some of these areas, get with your instructor or coaches and get their thoughts on how you might be able to improve.
Mistake 1: Not Breathing
There is an interesting phenomenon that sometimes happens when we are doing something that requires intense concentration. While we are focusing hard on a particular task, sometimes we will unconsciously hold our breath because of the effort to keep ourselves 100% immersed in the task at hand. For a lot of activities, this might not be an issue, but for BJJ it can be very problematic.
As a new practitioner, we are trying to juggle all sorts of tasks that we have to do, while also worrying about all of the things are opponent or training partner might want to do. With this many plates spinning at the same time, sometimes the normally automatic act of breathing takes a back seat and we try to power through a technique without breathing at all.
It does not take long to figure out what will happen if you are holding your breath sporadically as you do jiu jitsu. You are literally slowing choking yourself. Your muscles will fatigue, your energy will wane and your mind will not be thinking as clearly as you could if you were breathing in a steady, relaxed way.
Remembering to breath is as important as any grip you can get on your opponent. As you move through techniques, be aware of when you might be holding your breath and work to keep a continuous and relaxed breathing throughout your roll or competition.
It's common to watch new students rolling with more experienced students and even when the new student has achieved a dominant or advantageous position, like mount or side control and the student in the dominant position is gasping for breath or red-faced and holding their breath. The ability to calmly breathe throughout a roll will go a long way to making sure your gas tank doesn't deplete too quickly from lack of proper breathing.
Mistake 2: Not Trying Anything
Another common white belt mistake is maintaining a completely defensive approach. While it's very important to be able to defend submissions and techniques, it is equally important to develop the ability to move offensively during a training roll or competitive match.
The new student who is maintaining a purely defensive approach is trying to hedge their bets. If they take no risks by doing anything offensive, they will more than likely not find themselves put in bad spots or positions. While there may be a small grain of truth to this, this approach will limit the growth and development of that student. For one, the student will be forced to passively wait for their opponent to attack and if they take a purely defensive stance, nothing will happen.
In addition, a big part of getting better at BJJ is to be able to link and chain techniques and positions and to look for the possible counters and escapes to the moves that your opponent is presenting to you. By hunkering down like a virtual turtle in their shell, you will limit the problems you are exposed to and impede the development of your overall skill level.
Mistake 3: Staying Stiff
Being stiff as a board can make you light as a feather as we learned in the 1990's cult classic "The Craft". In jiu jitsu, tensing up is another one of those things that intuitively makes me feel stronger, but in actuality, stiff muscles and limbs actually can make someone lighter and easier to move. The simple act of tensing our muscles and making our joints and limbs rigid can create small pockets of space that the opponent can exploit by moving or adjusting their body creating leverage that can be used against us.
Interestingly enough, becoming rigid and stiff, can also be accompanied by holding our breath. World renowned BJJ coral belt and first non-Gracie to receive his black belt from Helio Gracie, Pedro Sauer often talks about the act of "parking your car" on your opponent.
Let's take side control for example. If I assume a classic side control position with one knee at the opponent's hip, the other knee under their armpit, cross face control on the near side and an under hook on the far side, I have a classicly powerful position. If I am too stiff or tense in this position, my overall connection to the opponent's body lessens. This decrease in connection can manifest itself as increased space that can be exploited for escapes or reversals.
Instead by relaxing the body (and even adding an exhalation) we increase the overall connection to the opponent's body and your opponent or training partner will give you immediate feedback by groaning or exhaling because of the increased pressure. This approach will go a long way to increasing the overall intensity of your pressure in a number of positions.
The same goes for passing the guard. If I'm passing on my knees and I remain stiff and upright, I am much more prone to be swept, reversed, or have my guard pass stopped. But if I am able to keep my body loose and my limbs from stiffening up, I will envelope and control the opponent's body better increasing the likelihood of my pass.
Mistake 4: Getting Greedy
As new students, it's easy to sometimes find ourselves getting greedy and taking the mount before we have secured their hips or sitting back for the arm bar before we've locked them down with our legs. We know where we want to be and we're eager to get there, but by getting ahead of ourselves, we create opportunities for our opponents to capitalize on and end up with problems we hadn't bargained for.
A good metaphor that can be applied to any technique is to think of a particular technique or sequence like climbing a ladder. To make it up the ladder safely, we must climb rung by rung and if we get ahead of ourselves, we can put ourselves in danger and find ourselves down at the bottom of the ladder, or even worse completely without a ladder to climb, stuck in a horrible position.
Mistake 5: Admiring Your Work
The first time you actually pull off a technique that you've learned can be a truly magical moment, but this could also be the absolute worse time to sit back and admire what you've accomplished. Save that for after class, when you're safely sitting on the bench or writing in your diary that evening.
If you take the time to admire your work after you've secured a position or technique, you could be risking a minor hiccup in concentration that could possibly impact the effectiveness of the technique. Or it might even give your opponent that one moment when they can counter and catch you in something that you certainly won't be admiring any time soon.
Stay focused on the task at hand, which is to work to dominate and control your opponent and ultimately submit them. If you get starry eyed at one of your transitions, you may lose concentration and find yourself going from the top of the mountain to the valley of submission in no time.
The study of jiu jitsu is an almost endless process of refining and eliminating mistakes. The mistakes discussed are not necessarily limited to white belts and can rear their ugly heads at any time along the road to black belt. It is simply more common for the newer students and lower belts to potentially suffer from more of them. Like any skill, dealing with these common mistakes can become easier and hopefully soon, you won't be plagued by any of them.
Now that you've taken a look at some common beginner mistakes, continue your development with Travis Stevens' latest instructional "Fundamentals and Concepts" with 4 volumes chock full of all of the underlying principles that this Olympic Silver Medalist in Judo and BJJ black belt feel we need to know to be more successful on the mats. It is available here from BJJ Fanatics!