The First Month of Learning BJJ

There is no beginners course at my gym, it’s straight in at the deep end. Sink or swim.

I turned up for my first session without a clue what to expect.  I had done a bit of googling but really my entire knowledge of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu could be summed up as: “no punching or kicking, you win my getting your opponent to submit from choking or putting them into a position where you can break a bone”.

That is a pretty terrifying level of knowledge.

The class was busy and started with a warm-up. Sort of controlled rolling around with some modified gymnastics. I tried my best to copy what everyone else is doing. At the time I thought I was doing quite well, but thinking back I reckon I looked more akin to a recently caught fish flopping around than a gymnast. But that’s OK – I was enjoying it – no-one had tried to break my arm yet…

Then the warm-up started to step up. Everyone got down in the press-up position. The coach shouted out numbers:


At each number, we all had to do a press-up. He gets to 10 and stops. I started to relax but immediately the person next to him started:

“ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR.. ” He screamed out.

Are they kidding? This continued, to the next person, then the next, then the next. I was around number ten in the circle. I was thinking “they can’t possibly do this round the whole circle?”. Around 30 press-ups in I put my knees on the ground and continued with some more pansy push-ups. Finally, it was my turn:

“One..” I croaked out

“Do proper press-ups!!!” The coach screams out.

“Twwwoo, Thhrreee, foouurrr..”

I managed to make it through my ten and collapsed. Damn, I was shattered, I could barely feel my arms. Meanwhile, the round continued with the machines I had taken for fellow students cruising through the remaining press-ups. Then the class start.

The class starts with a fairly straightforward technical drill. The black belt, Jude Samuels, demonstrates it and then we paired up and replicated it. I had no idea what this technique was for, how it fit into the BJJ universe, but it’s clearly everyone else did so I kept quiet and practised it. Now I know we were doing scissor sweeps from the guard – but back then I didn’t even know what a guard or a sweep was. My partner told me:

“You’re new?! Be careful, I don’t want you to injure me.” Ok great, I think, I don’t want to injure you either I think.

After this process we were lined up against the wall, a few of the top students are placed in the middle and the coach said “GO”.

“You start sitting on the floor between their legs. You need to try and get past their legs while they just need to submit you or flip you onto your back. Winner stays on”. Someone whispers in my ear.

close guard

I threw my weight around, but couldn’t open my opponents legs (the guy is in what I later discover to be called close guard), a few seconds in and he unlocked them, wiggled about a bit and suddenly I was on my back. That’s it, I lost, straight to the back of the queue. Rinse and repeat. I was already dripping with sweat, knackered from the ‘warm-up’, boiling in my robe and losing energy fast from throwing my weight against what feels like immovable objects.

After the drill, I could barely move, but the hardest part was still to come. “OK pair up”, Jude says. We’re into the sparring phase. Six minutes on with one minute off of free sparring.

I threw my weight around, locked my grips as hard as possible and tried to not get submitted. It didn’t help, in that first six-minute period I was submitted about ten times.  I sat out the next phase, panting the whole time like a dog and sucking in as much water as possible from the water fountain.

The second period was no better. I was up against a white belt, the lowest rank and someone who is considered ‘new’.  It doesn’t matter and I am submitted perhaps more times – in my state of exhaustion and adrenaline dump I can’t actually remember. I staggered off to the changing rooms and threw up.  I had managed about an hour and ten minutes of the two-hour session, what on earth had I signed myself up to?

That was over a month ago. Last Wednesday marked my 31-day anniversary since starting the challenge. It has been quite a month and I’ve learnt an awful lot. It has been tough, I’ve spent most of the time getting battered and submitted. But it has also been a lot of fun and I am starting to see some tentative improvement.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much exciting to tell you about the first month. I spent most of it trying to survive in awful positions or watching YouTube videos to try and learn what on earth is going on. As such this post is mainly going to be my ramblings musings about the developing philosophy of my training over the month.

I Spent Most of My Time Surviving:

“The theme of the white belt is survival. Nothing more and nothing less” – Saulo Ribeiro, Jiu-Jitsu University

Just trying to survive is not much fun but it has helped me a lot. I am a lot better at controlling the panic and claustrophobia from having someone weighing double my amount trying to crush the air from my chest. It has been a slow process and I have spent most of my sparring sessions in awful positions just defending submissions and trying to breathe.

In my first video upload from one week in I get completely destroyed by a blue belt.

Slowly over the month I started to learn how to alleviate pressure and to conserve energy while maintaining a defensive position. Don’t get me wrong, I am still being tapped out loads, but I am getting better at relaxing and learning from it. As I started to relax and gain confidence, I was able to shift my focus from just surviving to developing escapes from bad positions.

That’s where I am now, almost everyone I come up against is much better than me so I don’t generally have a choice but to defend. As time goes on I hope that I’ll naturally start overtaking people and be able to focus on a more offensive style of play.

YouTube Helped Me Learn The Vocabulary of BJJ

After the first few sessions, it became clear I needed start doing some homework and spend a bit of time outside of lessons to learn the ‘theory’. When doing these ‘mixed-level’ sessions, not knowing what a guard, or a sweep, or a triangle makes it all pretty difficult. I knew I was going to be focusing on survival at the beginning, but I didn’t really have a clue what I was surviving from. I’m sure with enough time I would have learnt it all ‘naturally’ and through osmosis, but I was too impatient for that.

To help me along I signed up to a month at the Gracie University, bought  Jiu-Jitsu University  by Saulo Ribeiro, purchased Roy Dean’s Blue Belt Bible app and started devouring as many ‘beginner’ YouTube videos as possible. It really helped, it gave me something to work on and taught me the real basics. No longer was I asking ‘stupid’ questions like “what do you mean by shrimp?”. I learnt the language which allowed me to focus better during class.

The constant one-to-one coaching I had in table tennis meant I never went through this ‘own learning’ phase. I knew this challenge would be different, and was prepared for it. But I was still in for a few shocks on just how different it would be…

Everyone Practices, A Lot:

When I started doing the table tennis challenge people would say stuff like: “If you’re talented you might be able to do it, if you’re not then you will never be able to get to that level in a million years”. In fact one of the main reasons Ben put the challenge together was to prove that adults are able to learn how to play.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of very knowledgeable table tennis players who believe that if you don’t start when you’re a kid or early teenager, you’ll never be able to learn correct technique. Why do they believe that? Because the examples of adult starters are few and far between.

The attitude couldn’t be more different in BJJ. The belief that practice is worth more than any natural ability can be seen everywhere, there’s even a poster in our training area with the quote:

“A black belt is just a white belt who never gave up”

They really believe that anyone can become a black belt, and anyone who puts in enough time will eventually become one. They have no problem with adults getting really good, why? Because most people start BJJ as adults.

The other big attitude shift was to see just how seriously the beginners take BJJ. Maybe it’s just the gym I’ve signed up to, but almost everyone is training three or more times a week and there are plenty who are putting in almost as many hours as I am. There’s nothing particularly special about my challenge!

There also doesn’t seem to be the recreational level players that are so prolific in table tennis. Perhaps because BJJ isn’t much fun when you’re rubbish, constantly getting battered and submitted, or maybe it’s because the gym membership is so expensive you only sign up if you’re serious about training..

It’s pretty awesome to be training with the same people each day. It’s like the best of both worlds, I get the diversity of styles that I was lacking when training table tennis with just Ben, but I also get the community and friendships from regular partners.

Rather ironically, where training everyday in table tennis is physically possible, that doesn’t seem to be the case in BJJ..

Training Everyday in BJJ is Pretty Much Impossible

I’ve managed and epic 32.8 hours of ‘mat time’ in the 31 days, but getting in that much was a lot harder than I thought it would be. It’s all well and good saying ‘I will train everyday’, but the reality proved to be much more difficult. It was hard enough with table tennis but has turned out to be even harder in BJJ. Out of the 31 possible training days I’ve missed a depressing seven.

After my first post, where I declared my ambition to train everyday, a few people warned me against it. Some wise words.

twitter bjj one month

The biggest problem seems to be is just how seriously physical it all is. Over-training and injuries are a real issue. Almost every single day I’ve woken up to pain somewhere in my body. For the first week it was my neck, then lower back, then biceps and back to my neck again.

These aches and pains, although not serious, make it hard to sleep and can really inhibit training. On top of that I also managed to break my finger after just one week. I obviously needed to check how I was training to make sure that I could get as much matt time as possible.

I’m still committed to getting in the seven hours of mat time a week but I am getting more careful about how I go about it. In particular I am fully embracing a rather controversial philosophy:

Train Light To Train Long

In running, where over-training and injuries are a big problem, they have this concept of 80/20 training. The theory goes that you should do 80% of your training at low intensity, focusing on technique and with very low chance of injuring yourself. The final 20% should be done at really high, competition level intensity.

I’ve heard similar ideas in BJJ, for instance the “keep it playful” and “Jiu-Jitsu for everyone” movements. But I’ve also heard some real hate towards it, such as the “pussification  of Jiu-Jitsu” rants.

Well whatever you think about that, I don’t think I really have a choice (although personally I think that if 80/20 is good enough for Mo Farah it’s good enough for me). If I train 100% intensity at every session:

  1. I’ll be in constant pain, which isn’t fun. If I’m not having fun I won’t get better.
  2. I’m much more likely to get injured. Which will lose me mat hours.
  3. I will learn learn technique slower. You learn quicker by going slow and taking your time.
  4. I’ll get less mat time during sessions as I don’t (and probably never will) have the gas do multiple back-to-back sparring at 100% intensity. I’d have to sit out.

But training light is easier said than done.

The gym I train at is very much a competitor’s gym with a high work ethic. Many of my training partners are preparing for competitions. They’re at the stage of their BJJ careers where a bit of extra fitness or strength will make the difference between coming first and second at a tournament. They’re also training three or four times a week, which leaves plenty of days for recovery.  Unsurprisingly then, a lot of people want to spar hard and at a high intensity.

Which is great. It means that I am constantly pitted against people who are at the top of their form and are training like they’re in a tournament. I will have no surprise when it comes for me myself to compete.

But it does mean that I need to accept that if I’m rolling techniquely and they’re rolling with strength, I’m going to get battered even by people who I am on par with or who I am slightly better than.

I’m slowly getting better at not judging my worth by how many times I get tapped or by how I’m training compared to others – but it’s an uphill battle. I have to take my ego boosts where they come.. Here’s a video from a couple of week in. I’m getting battered by most people, but managed to finally get a submission from a lovely Canadian lady who was older and much lighter than me… sorry!

A big thanks to Jude Samuels, Viking Wong and Ashleigh Grimshaw for the lessons and coaching.

If anyone has any advice on how to get as much training in as possible, I’d love to hear it! We’ll see how my opinion changes over the next few months 🙂

EDIT: Check out my month two update.

6 thoughts on “The First Month of Learning BJJ

  1. Ulrich

    You are doing great. It fun to follow your progress.

    The couple of tips that I can give you to get in a bit more training in and getting better faster are:
    – have a post workout drink straight after your training. The best thing is a chocolate milk drink.
    -eat as much as you can. You are burning loads of calories and you need the energy to gain muscle.
    – make sure you drink enough water and if you are sweating a lot then something like lucozade is good.
    – get enough sleep that is when your body recovers.
    – lower the intensity of some of the trainings that way you can work longer of technique.
    – in one of the videos you mentioned that you did not know what you when standing. Find one technique that you could do and work on that. Imagine doing that technique in your mind and do it on everyone.
    – most coaches want to give a wide base of techniques as they are working for the long term. If you want to become good within a short time spend time learning only a few techniques and become very good at them.

    Good luck

  2. Abdul

    I wish I had the same tutoring, to be able to train with guys at the very top would have been more beneficial, your foundations are stronger that way… Learning under Jude another one of the things I would be happy about

  3. Nancy

    Thanks for sharing. I have been doing bjj for 3 months. I don’t do much either. My sparring partners are males. So I work harder, but can handle it. There are 2 females who come about twice a week, but don’t have the same will as they each date brown belt and black belt man at the gym. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I don’t progress and had some thoughts on pursuing or quitting. I have been holding on pursuing and I do drills home. my gym is small and most students are blue belt. Have no one to really practice with. Might go somewhere else as an alternative. thanks again for sharing.

  4. James

    I always tell white belts to try and focus on your breathing and getting comfortable in tough positions. The best investment when you first start is learning how to get out of bad situations. You are going to be there a lot in the beginning so you should learn how to get out technically. Bjj is a marathon not a sprint! Great Job.

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