Starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training can be both a grueling and intimidating process for most new students who have no previous martial arts or grappling experience. Being the new guy in a BJJ class is a lot like being the new kid in middle school where you don’t know your way around the school and don’t have any friends to sit with at lunch. In BJJ, students feel awkward, self-conscious and unsure of themselves as they go through a series or warm ups and drills that are foreign and difficult to them. On top of that, their cardio might not be where it needs to be when they first start training.
It is the coach’s job to help encourage, guide and develop new white belts during the first 6 months of training in order to help put their new students in a position to feel safe, progress, and build their confidence while on the mats. The schools and coaches have an economic incentive to do so, since it is four times more costly to attain a new student then it is to retain one. Also, no coach or gym owner wants a revolving door culture at their schools. The goal is to continually build the school by having a growing base of students who continue to advance in their training, improve their lives, and evangelize the school to their friends and peers to help it grow.
Here are a few suggestions to coaches and gym owners to help and retain white belts during their first 6 months of training.
Partner new students with experienced upper belts: At Ricardo Almeida’s academy in New Jersey, he and his coaches will line up the students after warm ups and pair the most experienced students with the least experienced students. Thus the most experienced black belt will be matched with the freshest white belt for drilling. This helps to instill a sense of responsibility of teaching and supporting new students upon the upper belts. In several schools I have visited, I have seen upper belts and their friends pair off, leaving the new white belts feeling left out with not choice but to partner up with each other. Then during drilling, novice training partners are lost and unable to effectively drill the techniques taught. By partnering upper belts with new white belts, the new white belts will be able to learn, drill, and receive feedback from their training partner to help build confidence, knowledge and a sense of progression rather than feel lost and alone.
Support communication and asking questions: All coaches should encourage students to ask questions. Coaches need to be empathetic and remember that they were also once new white belts learning techniques for the first time. New students will get lost and have numerous questions concerning basic fundamentals and movements. A coach that rolls his eyes and has negative body language when a student asks basic questions, will likely discourage students from feeling comfortable enough to ask questions in the future. Coaches need to be both positive and responsive when responding to students questions and let students know there is an open line of communication between coaches and students.
Don’t throw new students to the lions: There are many stories of new white belts getting smashed by more upper belts when they first start rolling. While some believe that this is the best or only way to break in new white belts, there are other options. Light or flow training with trusted upper belts who want to help ease new students into rolling. Supervised rolling with other white belts where the pace is set at 50% to 70% effort with the coach instructing both students on technique and telling the students to dial it back if it gets too intense.
Don’t break students: Training for new students, especially if they aren’t used to rigorous warm ups, drilling, and training, can be rough on them. If a student needs a break or is injured, don’t pressure the students to do something they aren’t able to do at that time. There is a delicate balancing act between pushing students past their comfort zone in order to make them stronger vs. being a militant drill sergeant. Positive encouragement and motivation will work better for most students than old school pushing and prodding.
Checking up on new students when they don’t show up for class for a week: Checking up on students when they have missed several classes will let students know you genuinely care about them and motivate them to come back. At times, students will get too busy with school, family, work, and life to make classes. Other times, the student will be nursing an injury. Having a coach that cares about the students’ well-being will go a long way in keeping them engaged in BJJ.