So you’re going to your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class and you don’t know what to expect. That’s not uncommon, it’s new, it’s unfamiliar, it’s to be expected that you won’t know what to expect. We’re going to talk about a few things that, hopefully, will set your mind at ease.
Let’s talk a little about your motivations for going to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class in the first place. There are many reasons a person decides to take up BJJ. There are those of us who are looking for an unconventional (and highly effective) way to get or stay in shape. Maybe we live in a rough part of town and want to learn to defend ourselves. Perhaps you have the hopes and aspirations of being a cage fighter. There are many reasons and all are valid. There’s one underlying goal which ties them all together: Learning. We’re all there to learn. It should be our priority and if you ask anyone who’s practiced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for any length of time, they’ll tell you it’s inevitable. You WILL learn regardless of whether you’re in the right mind-set or not. But it’s important, to get the most out of your experience, to be in the right mind-set.
You’ve made your way to the gym, it’s your first day, you have your Gi on… or maybe you don’t, that’s okay. Someone has shown you how to tie your belt and class is about to start. (If the students have not already introduced themselves to you, introduce yourself to them. They don’t bite). You get through the warm-ups, you’re already starting to sweat; breathe heavily and are wondering if you’re going to be able to make it.
“How do these guys bend their bodies this way? Did that guy just do a somersault??? I’ve never moved my body this way in my life! Who knew my head was this heavy?!”
The instructor begins to teach the technique(s) for the day. The instructor, in most cases, is a professor of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; a black belt. In some cases the instructor may be a lower ranking belt designated by the Professor to teach for the day. In other cases a lower-than-black-belt instructor is all that’s available in the area. That’s okay, too. They will more than likely be able to teach you quite a bit. The instructor will demonstrate a few techniques and allow each of the students to practice them on each other in break-out sessions. They will bring the group back together occasionally adding details and perfecting the movements to complete the techniques. They will also be available to answer questions in-between instruction. Don’t be afraid to ask.
“What is an armbar? D’arce? Guillotine? Triangle Choke? Wait… Choke? No one said anything about chokes… I didn’t sign up for this!”
After the instructor… well… instructs, it’s time to put into practice what you know. (If this is your first class, then it is very little, if any. Which is okay). We call this “rolling”. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is unique in that we can practice our sport with 100% resistance from our opponent with a reasonable expectation of not getting hurt. Which is unlike boxing, or other striking arts where if you sparred with your partner at 100% someone is going to end up getting hurt. In a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools, beginners don’t take part in “rolling” on their first day. A lot of times, they don’t even roll until they’ve learned the basics: Guard, Mount, Half-Guard, Back-mount, Side-mount, Half-mount; basic grips, holds, movements; submission defenses, etc.. It is always up to you to decide when you’re ready to jump in during rolling time. Don’t be afraid jump in and get going but don’t hesitate to say: “I’m not quite ready” if you don’t feel quite up to it.
First and foremost: Your training partners are not trying to hurt you. They’re there to learn just as much as you’re there to learn. If you do feel like your partner is trying to hurt you, tell someone. It’s likely they’re newer to the sport as well, and don’t realize they’re being potentially harmful. Your safety is important and you have the right to request a different, more experienced partner to train with if you feel your safety is at risk. Conversely, you are not there to hurt your partner either. It’s important to remember, especially when training with a more experienced partner, that they’re going to match your speed/intensity/strength/etc.. That is to say: they’re going to go just as hard as you… or just as light. If they feel that you’re trying to hurt them, they’re going to do something to prevent that and it will more than likely not end in your favor… which leads me to my next point.
You are going to get submitted. You will tap. You will say “uncle”. This is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a good thing. You and your training partner are each working on different parts of your respective games. In this case your partner is working on their submissions and you are working on recognizing the submission and tapping early. Tapping early to inform your partner that the hold/lock/choke/etc. has been applied effectively and that you’re “submitting”. That’s right: Tapping. Early. Don’t try to see how long you can hold out before tapping. As soon as you recognize you may be in trouble, tap. Tap your hand, at least twice, on your partner’s body (anywhere). If you’re unable to move your hands, say: “tap” loud enough for your partner to hear. Sometimes we have to use our feet to tap, but those are rare cases. Tapping is something we should do a lot of and, as I said earlier, a good thing. Try to see every tap as an opportunity to learn. Learning happens on both ends: your partner learns what is and isn’t an effective way to apply that submission and you learn how to recognize the submission in order to avoid it next time. Whatever you take away from each tap is up to you. Whether it be “I’m not going to get submitted that way again”, or “What did I let happen in order for that submission to be applied?”. Take these questions to your instructor, ask that your partner repeat what just happened and break it down for you, then ask how you could have prevented it. What you take away from it will depend heavily on your mental attitude. “Man, I SUCK!”, “I can’t believe this LITTLE GUY is submitting me AGAIN”, or “I lift weights, I should be able to SMASH this guy!” will more than likely hinder your progress toward preventing it from happening again and learning Jiu Jitsu in general. That being said, if you are ever uncomfortable for any reason, tap. If you can’t breathe, tap. If you feel like you’re going to vomit, tap. If you’re panicking for any reason whatsoever, tap. Our training partners have been conditioned to stop whatever they’re doing and give us space to recover when they feel someone tap on them. There’s no wrong reason to tap.
Breathe! This cannot be emphasized enough. We need oxygen for our minds and muscles to work properly. If you’re not getting enough (because you’re holding your breath) then neither of the two will be working right. It’s easier said than done, we know. Try to be mindful of when you’re grunting and holding your breath when exerting yourself. It happens a lot when we try to push someone off of us or try an explosive move. We hold our breath and strain against whatever it is we’re trying to move (ourselves, someone else… or both!). Holding our breath while exerting ourselves can cause injury, let alone makes it significantly more difficult to accomplish the movement we’re attempting. Everyone who has never grappled, or doesn’t continue to grapple on a regular basis is out of shape for BJJ. There’s no two ways about it. You cannot be in shape for your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class before you get to your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class. Expect to wear yourself out and prepare for it. You will sweat a LOT, especially if you’re wearing a Gi. Bring water. Drink water all day leading up to class. Be hydrated beforehand so you don’t have to worry about it while you’re in class. Sip water if you need to, to maintain your hydration, but you should already be hydrated by the time you get there.
While all of this is happening, while you’re sweating and breathing heavy, while you’re tapping and getting smashed, tossed, rolled-up, flipped and flopped, learning and having fun is of paramount importance. I’ve heard a Grand Master say: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong”. Have fun and learn. All the while accomplishing the goal you set out to attain. Whatever it may be.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a very dynamic and effective martial art, with some potentially harmful locks and holds. When practiced in a controlled and constructive environment it is 100% safe and can be applied without injury. Now, that’s not to say that accidents don’t happen. You run the risk of stubbing your toe every time you get up in the middle of the night for a glass of water. Understanding these risks is key to preventing them. Application of the things mentioned in this post can minimize risk, but that’s not to say there aren’t more things we can do to ensure our safety and the safety of our training partners. Use your head for more than just keeping your ears apart.
So, let’s recap:
No one is trying to hurt you. Don’t try to hurt them.
You will get submitted. Tap. Early.
Most importantly: Learn!!!
Once you get past your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, these things will get easier. Just take it one class at a time.