Dear White Belt: Slow Down

Starting jiu-jitsu feels like jumping straight into a room full of chaos. When rolling with a more experienced teammate (or, heaven forbid, your black belt coach) as a brand-new student, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and even scared. There’s a lot going on during a roll, and when you know nothing and someone else is trying to choke you, of course your natural reaction is going to be to try to get to a position quicker to avoid danger while hopefully getting lucky and landing a submission.

As you’ve probably learned, what usually happens is that you rush into a bad position and get submitted anyway.

“Be faster and stronger than your opponent” often feels like the only pathway for new BJJ students who are well aware they aren’t going to submit their teammates through pure technique. It makes it all the more frustrating when you feel like you’re going as fast as you can and still get swept, taken down, and submitted… all while having to apologize to your rolling partners for accidental knees to the head.

That’s why the number-one piece of advice I give to new jiu-jitsu students is to slow down.

When one of my upper-belt teammates told me this when I was a white belt, I was frustrated and slightly annoyed. I felt like my speed (which, uh, wasn’t actually as fast as I thought) was my only valid tool against my training partners. In reality, all I was doing was getting into worse positions faster while making my teammates fear for their safety. I didn’t have the bodily or technical awareness I needed to move quickly and smoothly and intelligently. My “speed” didn’t make be better at jiu-jitsu; it just made me more accident-prone.

In pretty much any scenario, technique has to come before speed. Babies have to crawl and walk before they can run, and if you’ve desperately gripped a saddle while horseback riding on vacation, you’re probably aware that you’d have a short and dramatic career as a jockey. Jiu-jitsu is no different. By focusing on technique rather than speed — even if you aren’t sure what you’re doing — your grappling will be safer for both you and your training partners. As you get used to the movements in jiu-jitsu and build upon your knowledge, the skills you learn will make more sense.

This isn’t to say that you’re destined to become a slow jiu-jitsu practitioner who has to perfectly follow every single step in a technique in order to be good at BJJ. On the contrary, the more you focus on technique, the faster you’ll become. Like any other skill, jiu-jitsu becomes easier the more you practice. Not only will you be able to speed up as your technique improves, but you’ll be more effective as well. As the old saying goes, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” A combination of muscle memory and a more developed thought process will help you achieve your mission in a roll without the clumsy, chaotic struggle of tripping over your own feet and diving on limbs.

If speed is your number-one tool right now as a BJJ beginner, put it back in the toolbox at least for a while. Actively focus on literally slowing your roll, making each movement deliberate. At this stage in your jiu-jitsu journey, you’re going to get submitted a lot regardless of what you do, so you may as well do your best to refine the few techniques you know in the process.

Knowing nothing in a room full of people who seem to know everything (and are trying to submit you with the “everything” they know) is intimidating at best and terrifying at worst. Even though you may feel like you’ll never be that good, trust me, you will be as long as you keep showing up. Right now, your mission is to accept that you’re going to get tapped out a lot regardless of what you do or how fast you move. The journey to black belt isn’t a race, and as you’re learning, you may as well slow down and smell the roses.


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