Starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be a little intimidating. If you are even considering it, it’s probably because someone told you how much they enjoy it and all the benefits they get from training. Perhaps you even watched them or someone else train.
The good news is everybody remembers their first day and how hard it was. Nobody is expecting you to be able to do much of anything. There’s no place to go but up.
Preparing for the first class
Make sure you ask the front desk personnel, or the instructor for the class, what you need to wear. Most schools will let you come in for a day or even a week of training for free if you are a prospective student. Typically, you will be asked to come in shorts or sweatpants, and a t-shirt. Ideally the shorts or sweatpants shouldn’t have any pockets or anything hard that might scratch or catch on somebody. The t-shirt can be tight or loose fitting, but you’ll have an easier time with a snug t-shirt. Again, we are trying to avoid your clothing from getting in your or our way. It’s also a good idea to bring flip-flops. More on that below.
Ditch any cologne/perfume, or hair products that might come off. You are going to sweat all of that stuff off anyway, and nobody wants that on the mats or each other.
It’s best to bring your own water, although BJJ academies will often have water fountains or bottled water for sale. Plan on at least a liter per hour. When I first started, I needed 3 liters for an hour of class and an hour of open mat. Try not to eat anything heavy beforehand. You don’t need to feel sluggish when you are getting ready to exert yourself. I also recommend a protein bar for immediately after your first class. Your body is going to need that protein.
Walking in the door
There are a surprising number of different rules and common courtesy items that range from anything goes to very strict rules about when to bow and seniority issues. The good news is nobody is going to toss you out the door if you screw up. We aren’t cretins. We just value showing respect, even if there are no other official rules. Everybody works very hard for their achievements, and it’s nice for that to be recognized. None of us started as experts, so you get cut a lot of slack as a beginner as long as you look like you are trying to pay attention.
When in doubt, just ask. You can pick up a lot of the house etiquette just by watching what everyone else does and following along. One rule that never changes is never, ever wear street shoes on the mat. We get our faces ground into that mat sometimes, and we really don’t want whatever you tracked in on your shoes to get on our gi or our skin. Some schools require sandals or flip-flops on your way from the locker room to the mat. Again, we are just trying to keep the mats clean. It’s pretty common, so it’s best to have some kind of slip on footwear with you.
After you change into your training clothes, take your water and look for an obvious place to put it or ask someone where to put it. There’s a common Judo practice of bowing towards the mat before stepping on it (barefoot!). It’s force of habit for some people, even if it’s not required by the school. Feel free to go ahead and do the quick bow even if you don’t see anyone else doing it. It’s roughly the equivalent of thanking someone even if they aren’t expecting it.
When it’s time for class to start, assume you are at the end of the line. Usually the students will be lined up on a wall, by seniority, left to right from the instructors position at the center of the mat. There are some small variations but that should get you in roughly the right place anywhere. There may or may not be a bow before the warmup begins. Just follow along and pay attention to the instructor and the guys at the head of the line that look like they know what they are doing.
The warmup is going to feel absolutely exhausting and confusing. Someone is going to yell “Shrimp!”, and there won’t be a crustacean in sight. If you don’t have someone assigned to help you, just do your best to follow along and imitate the drills that everyone else is doing. When I have a new student in my class, I usually stay with them and demonstrate each warmup exercise. Sometimes the instructor will have a higher level guy help you out. Again, just assume that the warmup is going to make you question the wisdom of going to the first class. It will get a lot better, I promise. Sometimes at the end of warmup there will be a brief stretch before the technique portion of the class starts.
Once everybody is warmed up, it’s time for everyone to gather around the instructor and watch him demonstrate the first technique. He will pick a student, usually a higher level one, and demonstrate a technique. Most instructors don’t mind if you get up and move around to see details, but just to be courteous, do what everyone else does. Your training partner will likely be able to help you with the technique if needed. You may be paired up with someone, or everyone may end up choosing their own training partners. It really doesn’t matter much who you get paired up with. You may feel like the last kid picked for teams, but honestly, it doesn’t matter.
You and your partner will do repetitions of the technique, with the person being practiced on providing minimal resistance so that you can execute the technique without worrying about a defending and struggling opponent. The purpose of beginners drilling the technique during class is to make sure you have the basic motions, not necessarily to make you perfect at it, especially the first time you are exposed to a move. Usually each person will drill the technique a few times, then you will trade places and continue drilling. If there’s anything you don’t understand, ask questions. The instructor will walk around correcting technique as needed. I love answering my students questions, so don’t hesitate to ask any question, no matter how small.
Most classes will cover more than one technique. When it’s time for the next technique, everyone will gather around the instructor again and the process starts again.
End of Class
It’s common to have another lineup at the end of class. This will usually replicate the beginning of the class, but there may also be a walkthrough of the line shaking hands, a simple bow and dismissal, or any of a number of variations. Again, just follow along. You aren’t expected to be perfect – just attentive.
It’s common, but not universal, to have some sparring at the end of class. Some schools will have assigned partners for at least a portion of the time, some will turn everybody loose to spar as they see fit. If you aren’t given any direction, then it’s up to you to find a sparring partner. One rule of thumb that works well is the lower level students don’t ask the higher level students to spar. In the cases where this is a house rule, it’s up to the upper level students or instructors to decide if they want to spar with less skilled partners. Considering it’s your first day, it’s not a bad idea to ask the instructor who you can spar with. They will very likely choose an experienced person who isn’t going to tear your apart and will help you understand what sparring is all about. If the instructor is unavailable, then ask your training partner to spar.
Sparring often starts with both partners on their knees. This conserves mat space since everyone standing up would use up a lot of space and risk injuries from errant takedowns. Once both partners are ready, the common way to signal you are ready is a slap of the hands sideways, then a fist bump. Some places will do just the slapping of hands. Regardless, once the sparring has begin, all you need to do is try to control the person and maybe apply the technique you learned that day. Try not to overdo it; brand new guys are often the most dangerous sparring partners because they don’t realize they are doing something that can hurt someone. We all know it, and chances are good you are going to be repeatedly controlled and submitted.
Your first day of sparring will be spectacularly unsuccessful. Everything you do will be used against you. You will be exhausted after five minutes while the rest of the people look like they are going full tilt for an hour (they aren’t). Believe it or not, this is all a good thing. Just get through your first day, and remember how it all feels because in a few months, it’s going to be a completely different story, and you will still be a beginner.
Plan on getting extra sleep the night after your first class. Your body just got done using more muscles than you’ve used for any other activity. You will be sore. If there’s any serious soreness, use ice. You will want ibuprofen, but avoid the temptation. It’s a short term fix that makes recovery take longer. Rehydrate and get around 15-30 grams of protein in you right after you leave the academy and take the rest of the night off.
Your first day on the mat is going to be hard. It’s going to be confusing. But you showed up and got the job done. You are infinitely ahead of the guys who sit on the couch wearing Tapout t-shirts and telling themselves they can take out UFC fighters. Keep up the good work, and watch your body and mind be transformed by this wonderful art.