I am a BJJ blue belt, and have been training for five and a half years. I am an assistant coach, and a national masters gold medalist.
Preparing for Your First Class
So, you've decided you want to start Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Maybe you already know a lot about it because you like watching the UFC or you have seen some of the Metamoris shows. Maybe a friend who already trains has talked you into coming to a class, or maybe you just want to get fit and have heard that martial arts are fun. Whatever your reason, something has piqued your interest, and now you're eager to get on the mats. Congratulations! You're about to start an amazing sport.
The first thing that you should do is call the gym that you're looking to train at (most BJJ instructors call the place you would train at a "gym," but some do say "dojo), and ask them which classes are the best suited for beginners. You should get a warm welcome to any class, but many gyms have a class that is called "Beginner's BJJ" or "BJJ Fundamentals" which is aimed at newcomers.
Once you've got a day and a time, pack your gym bag. Usually, you don't need to wear a uniform (called a 'gi') to your first class. The gym owner may have one you can borrow, or you can train in loose-fitting clothing. Wear sweatpants and a clean, but old, t-shirt. Something that you wouldn't mind someone grabbing or pulling on. Pack a pair of flip-flops if you have them, and bring a bottle of water as well. The flip-flops are for you to wear while you're walking around the gym. There is one rule that is universal across all BJJ gyms, and that is "No shoes on the mats!" You should remove your shoes when you get changed, and wear flip flops to walk up to the matted area, then step on the mats barefoot. This is done for hygiene reasons since people will be rolling around on the mats, so it's important to keep them clean.
Your packing list should include the following:
- A towel (to mop yourself down with, you will get sweaty!)
- A bottle of water
- A t-shirt or a compression top
- Flip flops
- A gumshield (optional, but some people like to wear them)
Have a shower before you go, tie your hair back with a soft hair tie (if you have long hair), and make sure that your finger and toenails are short.
At the Gym
Try to arrive at the gym about 15 minutes before the class starts. This will give you time to meet the instructor, borrow a gi, get changed, and learn any important gym rules. Some gyms are quite formal and expect students to bow before they get onto the mats. Some are more relaxed and don't follow those customs.
If you are new to the sport and want to get an idea of whether the gym you are training at is legitimate, then there are a few questions you can ask. The most common questions are "What affiliation are you a part of," "Who gave the head instructor his black belt" and "Do your students compete much?"
The affiliation might be obvious from the name. For example, Origin BJJ Newcastle is affiliated with Mauricio Gomes Origin BJJ, and SBG Manchester is affiliated with SBG, but it isn't always obvious. The Dungeon, for example, is a Checkmat affiliate—and Checkmat is a very well known brand in the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but their name doesn't make the association obvious.
Any legitimate instructor should be able to give the name of the person who gave them their black belt, and will not take offence at being asked. They should also be able to tell you who gave their instructor his black belt. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, lineage is important, and because the sport is quite young, most instructors are only a handful or steps away from a big name (usually a Gracie, a Machado, or Mauricio Gomes).
Don't worry if your instructor is not a black belt. There are many good instructors who are still brown or even purple belts. If you live in a rural area, or a country where BJJ is not popular yet, you might even be taught by a blue belt. The important question then is whether or not the instructor is still learning from someone himself, and if so, who that instructor is and what their credentials are.
Competition is an important part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and your instructor should be willing to answer questions about how often students compete. It's not a bad sign if a gym only competes at local competitions, or if only a handful of students compete. Some gyms are very competition focused, while others have a mixture of casual and competitive students. Consider it a red flag, however, if the instructor actively discourages competition.
A BJJ lesson is usually divided up into three parts:
- Free sparring
At some gyms, the warmup will consist of skill-specific moves, at some it will be a mixture of jogging, stretching and bodyweight exercises. Most gyms will have you 'shrimping' and performing other strange animal-like movements. Just try to copy what other people are doing. The moves may seem strange now, but you will eventually see why they are used so often. The moves you do in the warmup are the basic movements that you will use in class.
If the warmup includes 'breakfalls' then you should pay close attention to these. A breakfall is a technique for falling over safely if you are taken down or thrown. That is a really valuable skill that could be useful in your day to day life even if you don't keep up with Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The warmup may be quite tiring. Push yourself to do as much as you can, but don't be embarrassed if you need to stop and sit out. Many people struggle with the warmup the first few weeks they come to class.
In the drilling section, the instructor will show you a few techniques, and then you will practice those techniques with a partner. For your first class, the instructor might pair with you or they might put you with an experienced student. Try your best to replicate what the instructor showed you. If you don't quite get it, then ask your partner for help. Don't say "but what if I did this" and try to counter the move, and don't try to show off knowledge from other arts, if you have trained. Sometimes, the instructor may be showing a move that is a response to another person making a mistake, or the next move he shows could be a counter to the current move. During the drilling portion of the class, it's important to drill the move as it was shown. If you have questions, ask them at the end of the session.
In the final section of the class you will get the opportunity to do some sparring. This is where you try to put into action what you have learned, while the other person is resisting. In sparring, the objective is to get your opponent to submit by tapping you, or by saying the word "tap". When someone taps, you should stop what you are doing and get up and reset the position.
After your first lesson (or your first few month's worth of lessons) you won't know enough to submit anyone, especially not anyone with experience. You should still try to take part in the sparring though, and see what you can do. Your instructor should put you with a person who is moderately experienced so that they can guide the sparring and keep you safe. Try to stay calm, and to not use a huge amount of strength. Try to implement what you learned in the class. If you are exhausted at the end and your partner is still looking relaxed and fresh, then you were too tense! Don't worry though, that's normal. Keep coming back and you will learn to relax.
After the Class
After the class, you might do a light cool down; you might not. Some gyms do a few minute's of stretching to end the class; some do not. If you have a few minutes to stretch or just do a little light movement to cool down, take advantage of it.
Most gyms offer a free trial period, find out how long that is, and then decide if you want to sign up. If you like the sport, ask about buying a gi to wear to future classes. Some gyms have policies regarding the color or style of gi that you should wear. Others will let you wear anything as long as it is clean.
Once you have your own gi, wash it, and your belt, after every class and then air dry it. Do not tumble dry your uniform, because this can cause it to shrink and can make the collar warp. Gis are expensive, so follow the care instructions properly!
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a great sport, and you can progress at your own pace. It's up to you how often you train. Most people start training once or twice a week and build up from there. Be consistent, be patient, and have fun!
Have You Trained a Martial Art Before?
Questions & Answers
Question: Why did you say it’s a red flag if an instructor discourages competition in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
Answer: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that values 'aliveness' and practicing against a fully resisting opponent. If an instructor discourages students from competing then they are preventing their students from exposure to practitioners from other gyms, which means it is difficult for the student to really be sure where they stand skills-wise, and whether what they are being taught actually works.
Question: Is it normal to still be a blue belt after 5.5 years Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
Answer: Promotions in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are a personal thing and promotion rules and standards can differ from club to club. Average times for white to blue can be anything from one year to three years. At the club I train at, people tend to spend the longest time period at blue belt (usually four years), and promotions from purple to brown, and then brown to black come more quickly.
Each club has their own standards and expectations for each belt so it is best to ask your instructor what you should be working on at each belt level.
Question: At what age can children take part in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Classes?
Answer: Individual clubs set their own policies regarding the ages that children can take part in classes. Most clubs will have classes suitable for children aged four and older. Some clubs may accept younger children as long as they know left from the right because this is necessary for understanding the instructions in the class.
© 2017 Leslie Ann