Guiding the First Timers in BJJ

People try jiu-jitsu for all kinds of reasons. People also quit jiu-jitsu for all kinds of reasons. For those of us that are already committed, our job is to help the first timers see why they shouldn’t quit.

As we gain experience in jiu-jitsu, we see that the things that we worried about at first don’t really matter. “What if I’m not in good enough shape?” “How can I possibly deal with these people so much bigger and stronger than me?” “Nothing makes any sense.” “I’ve done the move ten times. It’s still no good.” The list goes on and on. It’s easy to see those same reactions in the new people and discount what they are feeling. After all, you had to go through the same things. That doesn’t mean what they are feeling is invalid. It’s just inexperienced. Unfortunately, if they are left with those inexperienced reactions, they may want to quit. Nobody likes feeling unsure of themselves or like a failure. jiu-jitsu hits you with those feelings at the beginning of the warmups. You literally can’t get warmed up without finding out you can’t even do that right.

“Adopt a white belt.” is a good motto, but that comes in stages. It’s hard to adopt someone that leaves after their trial class. Just as an academy needs mat enforcers to tamp down the unruly, an academy needs a welcome party to deal with the specific needs of first timers. Arguably, the head instructor can fulfill this role, just as they can fulfill the mat enforcer role, but it is useful to have people who are less intimidating and closer to the new person in skill level. Anybody ought to be able to do it, but someone with experience, empathy, and good memories of their first days is ideal.

When you are working with a first timer, make sure you get and remember their name. Find out why they wanted to try jiu-jitsu. It could be self-defense, sport, fun, health, whatever. The answer might not be what keeps them there, but if they don’t see a path to get what they are looking for when they walk in the door, then it’s a tough sell to get them to see all the other things they can get from jiu-jitsu. Based on their answer, tell them how jiu-jitsu can fulfill that goal. If there’s someone in the room that has obtained that specific benefit, have them be an ambassador for that benefit. Then let them know some of the other benefits they can expect to see over time.

It’s important to let them know that people from all walks of life and physical ability train jiu-jitsu. Doctors, tradespeople, students, CEOs, athletes, ex-couch potatoes. . . none of it matters. Everyone can train jiu-jitsu successfully. Whatever they bring to the table will work.

For the warmups, get your instructor’s permission to shadow the first timer and focus solely on helping them. For you purple belts out there, it’ll be a good excuse to skip warmups. If one of my upper belts don’t do this on their own, I’ll either ask one of them to do it, or I’ll specifically work with the first timer for a handful of the warmups without ignoring everyone else. Basically, the first timers should feel like they are being treated special.

When drilling with them, always focus on the positive elements of what they are doing. Pick something they are doing correctly, point it out, and let them know you see their improvement. If you are going to make corrections to their technique, pick one thing at a time and give them time to be successful in that correction before giving another correction. If that means you only give them one correction and then praise their success, that’s plenty. Answer any questions they have, but avoid detailed answers. Keep it simple.

After class, take some time to find out how they liked class. If you have sparring immediately after class, make sure the first timer knows they have no obligation to spar. People do all kinds of things on the assumption that it’s just how it works, but that doesn’t mean they are mentally prepared for it. It’s important to avoid throwing people in the deep end unless they want to be in the deep end. If first timers are allowed to spar and they want to, they should only be placed in well experienced hands for everyone’s safety. Otherwise, offer to continue to drill what was taught in class for a little while.

Once all the physical activity is done, it’s time to acknowledge that jiu-jitsu is indeed hard, and it’s going to be a very challenging but always achievable path ahead. Stress that a long-term commitment to training is rewarding and describe how you specifically have benefited from jiu-jitsu training. Pick something like health, social aspects, confidence, or anything other than “hey, now I’m a purple belt!” They need to know that jiu-jitsu is something they can enjoy for the rest of their lives, and there are plenty of people who have trained more than 50 years and are still enjoying their training each week.

Once all this is done, let them know how happy you are that they decided to give jiu-jitsu a try, and take them over to the front desk to talk to someone about a membership. Personally, I’ve never wanted to do this step, but it’s important to give people the opportunity to really think about committing to training. It should be made clear that you want to see them come back. Tell them what days you normally train and that you hope they come in again when you are training.

From the time the person walks in the door to the time they leave, there should be a guide for every step of the way. It can be one person or multiple people. It can be someone with just a few months of experience or the head coach. What matters is that we don’t treat the person walking in the door as if they are just another one and done person, ignoring them until they prove themselves. We need to treat every person as if they are going to one day be a black belt that is a highly valued member of the academy.

After the person leaves, a member of the staff should contact the first timer within a day or two and make sure their concerns and questions about training have been answered. The instructor and/or guide should also be available to answer any questions that crop up.

As a group, we are used to massive attrition in the lower ranks. We shouldn’t accept that. Just as we need instructors, staff, mat enforcers, and a safe training environment, we need to build a culture of giving new people a personal guide to their first day. There should be a seamless hand-off from the front desk, to instructor, to guide, and back to the front desk. Treat people as the valuable resource that they are and respect the unique needs of the first timers. Make the first timers feel like they are number one.

Postscript: If they are interested, I highly recommend pointing them to the following e-book by Kieth Owen:
From the Ground Up: The Jiu-Jitsu Survival Guide for Beginning Students
This book is a good read regardless of your skill level.

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