Treat The New White Belt Like They’ll Be A Black Belt Someday

When I first started jiu-jitsu, most of my new teammates didn’t take me seriously. I showed up to gi class in a tank top and sweat pants (the only “athletic wear” I owned) with zero martial arts experience. I felt and probably acted like I’d stumbled into the class by mistake and now had to go through the motions to get to the end of the class. Then I did it over and over again for eight years, albeit with some legitimate jiu-jitsu gear.

I was not the jiu-jitsu student many instructors actively hope will walk into their gym. I wasn’t a former state champion wrestler or some freakishly talented teenager or even in half-decent shape. I am very sure that many, many people in that class didn’t think I’d keep up with it, and it was really thanks to the few people (including my coach at the time) who did treat me like my presence was valued that I continued training.

I hear a lot of people say that they can’t be bothered to learn the new white belts’ names or that they’ll “take them seriously” when they keep up their training for six months. In some cases, I get it — many coaches and students at large gyms (especially the ones that are “BJJ tourism” hot spots) have a constant stream of new students coming in, and it would be impossible to keep up with all of them. But if you can take a new student under your wing, even for just one class, why wouldn’t you?

If we are going to claim that “jiu-jitsu is for everyone,” then that can’t just be a blanket statement we throw out on social media. We need to make sure that the decent people who walk into our gyms feel like jiu-jitsu is for them. Even if they’re scared of getting hurt, even if they’re out of shape, even if they’re shy, even (and especially) if they don’t look like what we’d expect of someone who wants to sign up for a combat sport.

It doesn’t matter if that person quits as soon as they get their blue belt or never wants to compete or only comes once a week. For all you know, they might become a black belt ADCC champion one day. You have no way of knowing how this new student’s journey will turn out, but they’ll never get even that far if they feel unwanted or unsupported within the first week.

Of course, there are many students who don’t need that support and just want to grind through the motions of learning jiu-jitsu. Someone who already has solid work ethic and athleticism will likely progress faster and receive more encouragement from teammates and coaches as they expand their goals to competition. And that’s great! But they shouldn’t be the only ones receiving that attention.

It’s a bit sad and ironic that the people who do need that support are the ones who are less likely to receive it. The shy kid who looks too scared to ask anyone to roll may be disregarded as someone who “won’t last long” on the mats and therefore isn’t worth the time and attention from upper belts, but perhaps all he needs to motivate him to keep showing up is a bit of reassurance from someone who’s been in his position and is now finding success in BJJ. Yes, he may leave one day and never come back, but he may also make his way to black belt if he gets the chance to experience the confidence and discipline we swear jiu-jitsu provides.

It’s not ours to decide where a new teammate’s road will lead — we just need to do our best to convince them to come back for one more day, one more roll. Everyone benefits, really: We get a new teammate, and they get the boost they need to believe that jiu-jitsu is for them. And down the road, they may pass that same lesson on to someone else who’s just like they were on day one.


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