Dear White Belt: Your Time Will Come To Return The Favor

You’ll likely hear throughout your time in jiu-jitsu that BJJ is a sport of give and take. When you first start training, that concept may seem strange. As a new white belt, nothing makes sense, and upper belts seem like they have superpowers that you will never be able to obtain.

As a result, many white belts feel like they’re doing nothing but take, take, take — you’re taking an upper belt’s valuable time that could be spent with someone who gives them more of a challenge, you’re taking so much knowledge without being able to give any in return, you’re taking your teammates’ energy as they have to repeatedly correct your mistakes.

If you’re looking for someone to deny that you’re taking a lot without giving anything in return, you’re reading the wrong article. White belts do take a lot of time, effort, energy, and knowledge, and the newer they are, the less they have to give to others.

That, however, isn’t a bad thing — it’s just the way things are whenever someone is new. A kindergartener won’t be able to teach a college student anything mind-blowing about math, and an infant probably can’t help an adult run errands. And just as none of the more experienced people in these scenarios expect anything from their less experienced counterparts, the upper belts you may feel like you’re burdening don’t expect anything from you beyond showing up and trying your best.

Still, I encounter many new students in jiu-jitsu who feel like they’re a burden to their teammates. They express guilt when I choose to roll with them, saying they feel bad for not being able to “challenge” me when our other teammates are having tough rolls all over the mats.

There are a few points of contention I take with this, and the most glaring one is that not every roll needs to be challenging to be valuable. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that, personally, I enjoy rolling with newer students. It’s fun to be able to test myself with newly learned techniques that I can’t yet hit on more advanced students. Plus, I enjoy being a part of the foundation of someone’s jiu-jitsu journey. It helps me to develop as a coach and a teammate, learning how to roll in a way that helps newer students learn and practice what they’ve been taught.

But of course, it hasn’t always been that way for me (or any other upper belt you’ll encounter on the mats). I don’t like to shrug off the guilt that a lot of white belts feel, because I’ve felt it, too. I still feel it when I’m rolling with people who are much better than me or large and strong enough to overcome our similar level of experience. The best advice I can offer is to remember that, if you keep training, you will be able to pass on the kindness you’ve received early on in your BJJ journey.

You’ll start to find these opportunities once you’ve received a few stripes on your white belt. Maybe you’ll pair up with a day-one student and make them feel welcome the same way you felt welcomed. Or maybe, as a blue belt, you’ll feel comfortable enough with the techniques you’ve learned that you’ll be able to come to the rescue when you see two white belts looking completely lost while drilling a technique. Maybe you’ll be a purple belt who steps into an assistant coaching role and influences a whole class’ worth of students. These milestones may seem like they’re ages away, but they come faster than you may think, especially if you actively search for ways to help others.

Remember, too, that when an upper belt helps you progress, it benefits them as well. They’re hoping that you’ll one day be an upper belt, too, and it helps them if, a few years down the road, you know all their best moves and force them to improve. Plus, if that upper belt does want to have a class full of challenging rolls, you’ll be able to step in and help the newer students so they don’t have to. The time spent with you isn’t an inconvenience — it’s an investment.

It’s perfectly fine to feel whatever way you feel about being a seed in a room full of trees. But try to balance any negativity with hope and inspiration. Remember that, as long as you keep training, you will be able to return the kindness you’ve been shown, both to your current training partners and the ones that have yet to step into a BJJ gym. Until then, don’t feel the need to apologize or let guilt ruin your experience on the mats. Remind yourself that the teammates you look up to now were once exactly where you are, and use that to motivate you to keep trying your best.


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