Great! Jiu-jitsu schools love getting new students, and we understand that it may have been a hard decision to walk in the door. Even if it was an easy decision, nobody is really prepared for what it’s like to be a new jiu-jitsu student.
The good news is that everyone who trains was new to jiu-jitsu at some point, and nobody is good at jiu-jitsu when they start. Even seasoned wrestlers who are used to grappling have to make adjustments to get good at jiu-jitsu. If you train consistently and follow the guidelines here, you’ll be able to train and enjoy jiu-jitsu for as long as you want, including for the rest of your life!
There are no requirements before you start jiu-jitsu. Age, weight, size, or anything else that you might think you don’t have the right level of is irrelevant. Anybody can train and learn jiu-jitsu.
The “Gentle Art”
Jiu-jitsu may be known as the “gentle art”, but it’s a trick statement. If you do jiu-jitsu correctly, it is indeed gentle compared to the alternatives and unlikely to cause harm to you or your training partners, even when done at 100%. However, correct jiu-jitsu is not natural; it is a learned skill that takes time to master. It can easily take ten years or longer to become a black belt, and despite the investment, most black belts will tell you that they still have far to go in mastering jiu-jitsu. As a beginner, you need to fight your natural instincts because they lead to jiu-jitsu being rough, less likely to produce learning, and anything but gentle.
There are two places where we learn how to use technique to conquer all aggressions against us. The first is cooperative classroom instruction, and the other is live sparring in open mat. In both places our goal is to learn and help our partners to learn.
The first part of the learning environment is the regular jiu-jitsu classes. The instructor is an experienced black belt or an upper level belt with plenty of teaching experience. Each technique you learn during class is meant to be trained cooperatively at first, then under guidance of the instructor, with more resistance.
When you are performing the technique, your goal is to do the move as accurately as possible. Start slow and methodical. Good jiu-jitsu requires very little strength or explosiveness. It is efficient and has no extra motion. Take the time to think about what you are doing, and ask lots of questions. Your instructors love questions!
In order to learn safely, the most important thing you need to know is the “tap”. You may have seen MMA or grappling competitions where a person is applying a submission with the intent of breaking a joint or choking a person unconscious. The person who is in danger uses their hand or foot to tap several times on the attacker’s body or the ground to indicate that they give up. It can also be accompanied by saying “TAP!” In essence, a tap is asking for mercy to avoid going unconscious or getting broken.
It is absolutely critical that you understand your rights and responsibilities when it comes to the tap. You can tap and halt training at any time for any reason. You shouldn’t wait until you’re in excruciating pain or about to lose consciousness. Being tough in jiu-jitsu may feel like you are accomplishing something, but it’s mostly just leading you towards getting hurt or hurting others. Being tough is not good training.
In the classroom, a submission is taught in a way that emphasizes control above all else. Ideally, the worst thing that can happen is a person is immobilized with no escape, and pressure increases slowly from slight to severe discomfort. If you are on the receiving end of a submission, the goal is to tap when the discomfort is headed in the direction of severe discomfort, but not close to it. We don’t want to give our partners a false sense of success, but we also don’t want to fight back to the level that we are getting overuse style injuries due to repeated overstressing of our joints.
If you are applying a submission, don’t get distracted by what is going on around you. You have to be looking out for your partner’s safety. Do the submission as instructed and be ready to instantly release all pressure and control if they tap, even if you don’t feel like anything is going on. Jiu-jitsu is a martial art based on leverage, and if you do things precisely, very little effort is needed to turn that leverage into severe consequences for your partner. Speed, strength, and inattentiveness are all enemies of learning good technique safely.
For any technique, and not just submissions, each person in a training pair has an active role in helping the drilling person learn. The person who is doing the technique as instructed needs to feel the basic mechanics without resistance, or with as little resistance as required to make the move functional. The goal is to cooperatively reproduce what the instructor demonstrated. You and your partner take turns building up to this cooperative demonstration level. Once the person doing the technique is comfortable with the cooperative execution of the technique and you both agree that the details are being reproduced, you can ask your partner to add a little more resistance in defense. This may mean keeping balance better, being stronger in resistance, attempting to counter the motion, or allowing a little more stress to happen without endangering anyone’s safety.
When drilling a move, do at least 5-7 repetitions of the move, then switch attacker and defender roles. As long as both people are trying to improve the skill of the person who is performing the instructed technique, you’ll both learn a lot about the technique for both offense and defensive purposes. Stay focused on the person who is actively learning and help them in any way they ask. Completely avoid extra techniques you might know unless your instructor has given you explicit permission to go off script. You can rep something a thousand times over the years and still have something to learn about the technique. Stay focused.
By the end of class, you should develop a basic understanding of new moves, or a better understanding of ones you’ve done before. Always look for new details. Even black belts are constantly looking for small details of moves they’ve been doing successfully for years. If they are still trying to improve, it’s guaranteed you have something to improve in your own technique.
After being dismissed from class, it’s typical to have open mat where sparring or drilling is open to what the student wants to work on.
Open Mat / Sparring
Now things are getting real, and it might be a good idea to just watch open mat until you feel ready to join in. Instead of mutual cooperation for the explicit benefit of one student learning technique, both people who are sparring are uncooperative for the benefit of both students. This means both sparring partners are trying to implement their own game while trying to stop the other person from doing the same. The end result should be an exchange of technique where each person is learning what they are capable of despite their opponent’s best efforts.
Again, the tap must always be respected. It doesn’t matter who wants to stop a sparring round, even if it’s the person who appears to be in control. While you should avoid tapping to nothing, any reason is a good reason, especially if you are new to jiu-jitsu. You are under no obligation to train in a way that either makes you feel either physically or mentally unsafe. It’s great to test your limits and expand your capability, but your physical and mental safety are more important than any sparring round.
Free sparring is inherently stressful, and this is especially where our natural reactions to physical and mental stress can betray us and our sparring partners. Often, the most dangerous person in the room is the newbie, not the black belt. An instructor has control of both their own and others bodies, along with an understanding of what will and won’t work safely. Someone who is new does not have the experience to recognize situations that are dangerous to themselves and others. Even experienced grapplers can come in and injure themselves and others if they encounter situations they aren’t familiar with, and jiu-jitsu is absolutely filled with unfamiliar situations until you’ve been training for many years.
The desired result of any sparring round is to learn about jiu-jitsu against an uncooperative opponent. This can take many forms. It could be getting a submission. It could be just surviving a little longer than you did last week. No matter what happens in any sparring round, don’t use it to compare yourself to others. Unless there is an explicit agreement to be in competition mode and assumption of all the serious risks associated with that, your only goal should be to improve yourself first, then everyone you train with. “Winning” is not the goal.
Take some time to just absorb what is happening when you spar. A goal as small as defending yourself or maybe getting control of someone else will lead to progress as a beginner. If you are working with someone who is smaller or weaker than you, let them dictate the aggression levels. Don’t try to overwhelm anybody. If you are athletic and you rely on that raw capability, you might have a feeling of success, but it won’t help you or your sparring partner get better. If you are too aggressive with someone who is more skilled than you, you are going to have a bad day. If you are too aggressive or unfair with someone who is your level as a beginner but they are less physically gifted, be prepared for a lecture from an instructor or a physical demonstration of why what you are doing is harmful to the room. It is better to start conservative no matter what your raw physical ability is. Over the course of a few months, ease into more aggressive rolls with more experienced people and ask for their feedback.
Remember, when you start jiu-jitsu, you are fighting against your natural reactions. It is natural to respond to aggression with more aggression, strength with more strength. It’s also unfortunately natural to shut down in an unconscious effort to preserve your safety. Both sets of reactions can result in injury to yourself or others. Jiu-jitsu technique is a process of gradually building intelligent trained reactions to higher and higher levels of physical and mental stress imposed on you by someone else. Proper technique will help keep you and your sparring partners safe.
After Class or Sparring
Get plenty of water and rest. As a physical activity, jiu-jitsu is exhausting to start, and you’ll find muscles aching that you didn’t know you had, as well as strange bruises you have no idea how you got them. You can be in great shape walking into jiu-jitsu, but being in good jiu-jitsu shape is a different beast. It’ll take time to adapt to the full body workout you’re getting. It can also take time to start to feel like you are learning anything. Until you’ve been doing jiu-jitsu consistently for six months, you won’t really be qualified to say what your progress is both mentally and physically. Trust that you are getting better, and hydrate often during class and open mat, then try to get more sleep than you normally would. Listen to what your body is telling you and get feedback from your coaches if you are experiencing anything physically or mentally that might discourage you from training.
More resources for beginners:
- From the Ground Up: The Jiu-Jitsu Survival Guide for Beginning Students by Keith Owen: This book covers many useful topics that every new student of jiu-jitsu should read. If you have Kindle Unlimited, it may be available to read for free.
- Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro: This is available as a physical or e-book. If you’re ever looking for a useful technique to drill, or you have some time on your hands to flip pages and explore jiu-jitsu techniques, this is a good jiu-jitsu book to start with.
- Frequent communication with instructors: Questions get answered. They also help an instructor get a peek into how a student is thinking about their jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu is both a physical and mental progression, so questions serve multiple good purposes. Do it often.
- Instructor’s website: If your instructor has a website, utilize it, including if it’s a resource you have to pay for. If they took the time to create it, it’s likely to help you get better faster when you train with them.
Things to avoid:
- YouTube. Seriously. It’s good for entertainment, and it can be good for research as you get better at jiu-jitsu, but it should not be your source of instruction. Feel free to watch and be entertained, but always check with your instructor before trying any new technique. It’s astonishingly easy to find detailed explanations of bad or dangerous techniques on Youtube.
- Instagram/TikTok: It’s like YouTube, but worse. It’s often the equivalent of flashy martial arts Kata for getting attention and being impressive. Never confuse entertainment with learning.
- Being an instructor when you aren’t an instructor: It’s great that you want to help people with their technique, but jiu-jitsu is filled with details that if you mix them up a little bit, you can end up helping someone learn techniques wrong, which makes it far harder for them to learn it right. When in doubt, always ask an instructor.
- “Winning”: Just because you got a submission does not mean you won. If you want to really win, go compete with referees, points, and medals. Otherwise, you have no idea what the goals of your sparring partner are, and you should be training to learn, not to win. Focus on what lessons you learn from a round and ask for feedback from your partners to help you learn. If they ask for feedback, do your best to help their jiu-jitsu.