by guest author Mark Mullen
I’m currently in Rio de Janeiro doing a little training in BJJ. While here I have met a number of white belts at the Connection Rio BJJ hostel. Sitting around the pool or over acai after training, inevitably the topic of conversation turns to BJJ and the struggles of the white belts trying to find their way in the art suave.
Many say the same things:
- “There is SO much to learn it is overwhelming
- “I am always getting caught in (fill in the blank) and I don’t know what to do.”
- “How do I direct my training to improve the fastest? There is SO MUCH information out there on Youtube!”
So, where does a white belt start with their training in BJJ?
To answer this I explain my approach to white belts learning BJJ in terms of 4 Main Factors
1) The BJJ Positional Hierarchy
Most people starting jiu-jitsu can identify the basic positions: guard, side control, full mount.
I ask the white belt “What is the worst position that you can be in during a bjj match?” The guesses can vary widely. “Mount? Guard?”
The answer I give is “When your opponent is rear mounted on you with hooks and you are face down on the ground. All of your weapons and defence are pointed away from him, you can not see what he is doing and his weight is on you.”
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They nod in understanding.
My next question: “Now, what is the 2nd worst position that you can find yourself in during a match?”
Some head scratching and a guess at mount?
“No, it is rear mount with your OPPONENT’S back on the ground (aka rear mount – belly to the sky). Most of the same problems of the WORST position are there – all of your weapons and defence are pointed away from him, you can not see what he is doing…. BUT at least his weight is not on top of you and you have more freedom to move and possibly escape.”
The positional hierarchy is a top to bottom order of the best to worst positions in a jiu-jitsu match. The middle of this continuum would be neutral positions and then inversion for the worst. ex. BEST rear mount with hooks in, face down / WORST rear mounted with opponent on your back and face down
- Rear mount
- Knee on Belly
- Side control
- Half Mount
- Guard TopGuard Bottom
- Turtle Top / Turtle Bottom
- Half Guard Bottom
- Side control Bottom
- Knee on Belly Bottom
- Mount Bottom
- Rear mount Bottom
Now, the white belt has seen an example of the positional hierarchy where during the course of a match a combatant may not only identify where they are positionally at any point during a match – creating order out of a chaotic fight – but glimpsing the idea that one might improve ones position in the match by moving upwards to the next more favourable position in the hierarchy.
At any point during a match we should be able to freeze the action and you (the white belt) identify which position the combatants are currently in AND see where each must move in order to attain a more favourable position respectively.
Now, you have a strategy to not only survive but also to escape, advance your position and attempt to gain a dominant position over your opponent step by step.
(For a comprehensive list of the positional hierarchy please check out the FREE ‘Roadmap for BJJ’ book by clicking here)
2) The 4 Points of Each BJJ Position
Now that we have a concept of the basic positions within the hierarchy, what do we do when we find ourselves in a specific position during match?
“I always find myself in bottom of side mount and I don’t know to do? I always get submitted!”
To understand the basic positions you should ask yourself these 4 questions:
When your opponent has a dominant position you should ask:
- How do I safely position my limbs, posture and balance to avoid being submitted in this position?
- How do I escape this position and move to the next position higher on the hierarchy?
When you’re in a dominant position over opponent you should ask
- How do I maintain and control my opponent and prevent his escape in this position
- What are some high percentage, effective basic submissions from this position?
Many feel that Youtube has become a negative thing for beginners learning BJJ techniques. Instructors of varying degrees of experience share a dizzying array of techniques of sometimes dubious effectiveness.
How do you know which of the 100+ guard sweeps you should be devoting your efforts to?
Your instructor will prove invaluable in providing you with the specific techniques for each position.
Your instructor can point the way to the most effective technique for your level of experience and prevent you from wasting precious training time practising a lower percentage technique or one unsuitable for your personal level of experience.
3) Mechanics of the Basic Techniques
White belt is also a time of tremendous excitement where each class will reveal brand new techniques and solutions to their grappling challenges.
The mind is akin to a dry sponge soaking up all of the knowledge. Some of the techniques initially can be complex and appear to be baffling tangle of limbs and grips.
Some advice on how to learn a specific technique:
- Each part of your body will have a role in the execution of a technique. Start by asking yourself “What should my right hand be doing? The left? Each leg/ foot?“
- “Where is my weight being applied?” Your weight should be distributed in a more focused area when on top to both preserve your base / balance and to make the opponents escape movements more difficult.
- To simplify complex movement sequences break it down like a dance instructor might teach a dance step (ex. scissors sweep): One: make the grips; Two: move your hip to the side; Three scissor legs and pull opponent off balance; come ot top and stabilise mount
In the early part of the white belt’s study of jiu-jitsu, the majority of the training time will be spent acquiring new techniques, learning the technical details for each and then repeating them enough times to ingrain the movement patterns into your nervous system so that you may execute them with the most efficient use of your energy.
Tip: Always perform the technique assuming that your opponent will be bigger and stronger than you. This will encourage you to make the maximum use of your leverage, timing and develop the purest technique.
4) Basic Movements and Mat Fitness
Many of the body movements required (especially in the guard!) for Brazilian jiu-jitsu may not feel intuitive to the new student. Furthermore, the muscles and flexibility are unique to the art and even very fit athletes from other sports may have an uncomfortable adjustment period while their bodies adapt to the sports specific demands of bjj.
Fortunately, jiu-jitsu instructors have developed drills and warm up exercises designed to instill the fundamental movements in the students during warm ups.
Drills like hip escapes, shrimping the length of the mat, sit outs and bridging build the specific muscular strength and movement patterns that will later be practically employed in executing your techniques.
Ideally, the warm up at a bjj class should feature fewer pure calisthenics (pushups and jumping jacks) and more drills and fundamental movements. I often refer new students to the famous scene in the original Karate Kid movie where Mr. Miyagi gets Daniel to wax his car. “Wax on…wax off” he says while mimicking a circular hand movement. Daniel San only later comes to realize that he has been unconsciously “inculcating” (definition: To impress (something) upon the mind of another by frequent instruction or repetition; instill) the basic movements of a defensive block.
In this same way, the at first awkward shrimping movements have subtly equipped the white belt with the hip movement that is essential executing a scissor sweep or triangle choke. When the white belt encounters the technique instruction in class, he is already prepared to precisely execute the correct angle and body position by virtue of his hundreds of repetitions of shrimps and hip movements during the warm ups. A closer inspection of the at first nonsensical warm up drills, one will recognize parts of many ground techniques.
(For a comprehensive list of the warm up drills and exercises please see the Grappling Drills instructional.)
If you liked the ideas in this white belt article, please “Like,” “Tweet,” or “Plus 1″ this article and I will write a blue belt article.
Mark Mullen is a long time contributor to Grapplearts, a black belt in BJJ and a brown belt in Judo and has been teaching BJJ classes since 2000. Sign up for the Grapplearts email newsletter to be notified when more articles and videos are published.