White Belt Mentality: A Hammer and Nail Story

Whether you’re thinking about trying BJJ for the first time or a decade or more into your career, there are frustrations in the growth process that we all face more than once. You are certainly not alone regardless of where you are in your progression. For the new practitioner, there are several common trends I have noticed that I will outline below. 

  1. The BJJ Addiction: A few weeks to months into training I see a lot of new practitioners attending every single class and getting ‘bit by the BJJ bug’.  They’re addicted and training like a madman or woman. However, this phase tends to wear off pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things and leads to the next phase.
  1. The Frustration: Rolling is A LOT of fun. After all, how many other places do you get to simulate a fight where one person has to admit defeat or have a limb broken or lose consciousness? Yet there is a reality that is sitting in the back of your mind that you cannot ignore any longer; after attending EVERY.SINGLE.CLASS for the last 8 weeks you’re still chasing that elusive tap. You don’t feel like you’ve gotten any better and everyone in the room looks like a hammer and you are the nail. You go home bruised, battered, and feeling an ever-growing frustration for this new skill you are trying to master. Your joints hurt, your muscles hurt, and in your mind, you are not showing the progression that you believe you should be by now. 

This is your first obstacle in your training and one that you will see over, and over, and over again through the entirety of your career. This is a very common exit point for many new practitioners and something I struggled with early on in my career. You are not alone with those feelings and I can assure you that you have improved. This is a really good time though to assess a few things. 

  • What are you looking to achieve through BJJ? 

Maybe the first thing that came to your mind was, “to get my_____ Belt one day.” Okay, but then what? That is an external problem and places the achievement on an object. Think back to when you decided to try BJJ. Were you looking to get a new belt then before stepping foot on the mats? Probably not. If the goal is focused on an external problem you will not have longevity in this sport because putting your body through a lifetime of BJJ for a belt, or even just a good workout, is simply not worth it. There has to be more. Personally, I was experiencing a loss of community and feeling a bit of an identity crisis after separating from the military that led me to BJJ. The people I have met and had the opportunity to train within BJJ community has been a huge mental outlet and resource for me. There is something comforting knowing that I can walk into any gym in the world, not speak any of the home counties language and be able to communicate through BJJ. It’s one of the many things that keeps me coming back.

  • Consistency: 

This is probably the thing that I struggled with the most as a new practitioner once the initial addiction phase was over. It wasn’t that I didn’t love training but there is just no way around the difficulty of being new and constantly feeling like you’re getting beat up. During my White Belt and early Blue Belt, there were times I would show up to the gym and sit in the parking lot in my car and not walk in to the gym to train. It felt like a mental block. What I justified as “just taking a day off” turned into a week off, which turned into 2 weeks off, into a month off, and then it had been 3 months since I had trained. Things really compounded when I wanted to return knowing that I was out of practice and I was really going to get my ass handed to me when I came back. All these new White Belts that had joined were all going to be better than me. This is where checking the ego and the expectations at the door becomes very important. I put the needs of my ego above the learning process. As it turns out, when I finally returned to the mats everyone was happy to see me and nobody was putting checks on the wall every time I tapped and the same will be for you. 

Overall, solving the above problems became a complex problem solving exercise for me. I had set unrealistic expectations of myself and how I wanted to perform and did not live up to them (ego). As a result I beat myself up some nights after training and it was a sign of a larger issue at hand that BJJ definitely helped me through; introspection, self-forgiveness, and realistic goal setting. Below are some quick tips for optimal growth during the beginning of your training that I believe will help you get through the obstacles of being a White Belt and provide a solid mentality for growth as you progress:

Find the “why” behind your training

Spend some time in thought about this and find the bigger picture issues that led you to start training. Or maybe it was Joe Rogan that got you here. Whatever your motivation for taking your first steps into BJJ, reflect on it and when it becomes tough to show up to the gym, repeat this motivation out loud. 

What are the obstacles that are preventing you from training?

Things like work schedule, school schedule, injuries, frustration etc. Write these down and think of strategies to solve these problems. For instance, maybe your work schedule is keeping you off the mats and by the time you get home from work you are completely wiped out. Finding a gym with a morning class that you can attend is a great way to start the day and get your training in for the week. For each problem think about a potential solution and execute it. Then go train. 

Set realistic goals and be consistent

Jiu Jitsu is a marathon and not a sprint. Attending with consistency 3-4 times per week is much better than going 5-6 times/week for a month and then dropping off for several weeks. Set a sustainable and realistic number of sessions to get in per week and achieve that goal. This is how to make Jiu Jitsu a lifestyle and long-lasting habit.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your frustrations with your training partners

We have all experienced phases in the growth process in which we feel stagnant. Sometimes it goes beyond feeling stagnant, if feels like we are getting worse while everyone around us is in exponential growth phases. Not only is this frustrating but it has the ability to take all the fun out of training and potentially lead us to quitting. This is a great thing to talk to your teammates about because they too have experienced this and may have some strategies to help you break through it. 

Train with upper belts

This is probably one of the more intimidating things to do as a White Belt but one of the most beneficial. First, it allows you see what a more polished BJJ practitioner looks, trains, and feels like on the mats. Secondly, upper belts will give you more chances to work your game and the class curriculum so you can start making sense of all the things you are learning. Just like a language where first you learn the alphabet, then a word, a sentence, multiple sentences, and then an eventual conversation that grows with complexity. BJJ is no different. In order to have more complex conversations, you need to have someone to have those conversations with who is more interested in the conversation itself than winning the debate. 


Injuries are the largest limiting factors to training BJJ or maintaining a consistent training regimen and the most frustrating. It is crucial to get your injuries looked at by someone who is trained in these injuries and within the context of Jiu Jitsu. In the end there is a lot of truth to the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With a proper rehab and injury prevention regimen, you will watch your injury rate decrease and consistency on the mats increase. Dr. Wesley Reed is BJJ Brown Belt and Doctor of Physical therapy. You no longer have to feel alone with injuries and not know who to turn to. Turn to Ternion Physiotherapy for performance physical therapy for the Jiu Jitsu athlete. 

Is Back Pain Killing Your Double Leg?

Grappling matches are often won and lost in the first few moments of the match. You can ask me how I know. While I don’t have specific winning percentages for whoever scores the first points, it stands to reason that being first on the scoreboard puts you in a better position to move on in the tournament or match. I recently gave a knee and ACL injury prevention seminar at Gustavo Dantas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu which had a slide referring to the critical nature of core and proximal stability for the purpose of transferring power, torque, and momentum from the lower and upper halves of the body. I related this to the ‘kinetic chain’ principals (successively arranged joints constituting a complex motor unit) and I wanted to revisit that topic and provide a little more insight into how dysfunction in the “core” of our bodies, and especially for those already suffering from lower back pain (LBP), can affect our quality of life and be of detriment to performance. 

The “core” of the body is comprised of the diaphragm as the top border, the abdominals and oblique muscles as the front and side borders, the paraspinals (the big muscles that run next to the spine) as the back border, and the pelvic girdle below that holds all the contents of the abdomen. This can be thought of as a corset for the spine. Within the core, beyond a ton of digestive, neurological, and vascular structures are 3 subsystems that are responsible for maintaining the spinal column and its overall structural integrity. First, we have the passive control subsystem such as vertebrae, intervertebral discs, ligaments, and connective tissue surrounding the vertebral joints themselves. These structures simply hang out with no active component to them, meaning we cannot voluntarily relax or contract them but they do provide feedback to how we move and the location of each joint. Secondly, the active control subsystem which is comprised by the muscles mentioned above (and several more) that provide dynamic stability to our spine and skeleton. This system (and the passive control system) also provides movement feedback into our last system: the neural control system.  The neural control subsystem is the control center for incoming and outgoing feedback that produce and maintain the stability in our core. All 3 of these systems work together and are required to maintain static and dynamic stability. Dysfunction in any one of these systems can result in decreased stability and/or pain resulting in a myriad of different presentations that can affect your daily life and overall performance. The good news is that these systems can be trained and improved. 

Before moving on, I think it’s important to provide a little more insight into the transfer of power and spinal stability. The muscles within our core can be classified as local stabilizers and global stabilizers. They do exactly what they sound like; stabilize locally at the spine and globally within the core and body with respect to whatever we require our bodies to do. Our local stabilizers are small deep muscles in our core that work locally right around the vertebral joints themselves whereas global stabilizers are big muscles we can generally see (think 6 pack abs here) and produce large amounts of torque and power for movement. Both of these categories are incredibly important and during the knee and ACL prevention class we talked extensively about how the core is incorporated into injury prevention programs with great success at preventing knee injuries. This concept can be seen in a study by Zazulak et al. who demonstrated that female athletes who sustained knee ligament injuries had deficiencies in core neuromuscular control when compared to uninjured athletes. Core stability may be associated with risks of knee injury particularly in the female population. This makes perfect sense thinking about our proximal stability for improved mobility down the kinetic chain concept and is also why each of our knee injury prevention protocols emphasize core strength and stability. 

Remember, the human body takes the path of least resistance…ALWAYS. The human body is incredibly efficient with its energy utilization and does not bother doing movements correctly especially once injury or pain is already being experienced. It wants to move from point A to point B efficiently regardless if it is the correct way to do a movement. Let’s say we take our 3 subsystems for core stability and introduce back pain (or some form of injury to the core) to the system. It has been well established that those experiencing LBP display changes in the recruitment of local stabilizer muscles and increased fatty “infiltrate”, or deposits, into those muscles. This effectively limits our ability to stabilize our spine locally and give correct and accurate feedback into our neural control subsystem. This one injury changed all 3 systems because each of these systems work together. The entire system is essentially in disarray now. Regardless of pain, life goes on and we still need to get things done throughout the day. In order to do so, other systems have to pick up the slack though they may not have the right tools for the job. This is like taking a payroll processing employee and sending him/her to the jobsite because someone called out sick for an undetermined amount of time. The payroll processing employee is not well-equipped for the job so everyone else is having to work harder, the phones and emails aren’t being answered in the office, and everyone in the company is angry because they aren’t getting paid this week. The anger represents lower back pain. On top of it all, the powerful leadership in the corporate hierarchy and the powerful employees out on the jobsite responsible for getting the job done have difficulty communicating with each other about problems they are facing in their areas of specialty. The lack of communication represents power generation from the upper and lower body that cannot be transmitted through the core. I must clarify though; this can be a complicated area in the grand scheme and is not the same for every person’s LBP. 

With all that said, dysfunction in the core can be of severe detriment to your activities of daily life. In the case of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, dysfunction in the core can prevent you from winning a match or tournament from the moment you shoot in for a double leg takedown. The purpose of sprawling is to move the persons center of mass forward and apply increasing loads through the spine and hips to render power generation ineffective. With any sort of pre-existing injury and/or LBP, this is going decrease the ability to maintain a rigid spine, maintain posture, and prevent force transmission up and down the kinetic chain. The long and short of this story is you didn’t finish the double leg and now your opponent is spinning to take your back. Interestingly enough, this dysfunction started even before you took your penetration step. There are muscles in the core whose role is to prepare a ridged spine for upcoming dynamic movements and in normal conditions they activate before a single step is taken. This does not happen when pain and dysfunction are on board. This doesn’t have to be during a double leg takedown either, simply walking or moving from sitting to standing is dynamic. Pain and dysfunction in the core and spine have been shown to alter appropriate recruitment patterns to maintain spinal stability. If you are shooing in on a double leg takedown and these recruitment patterns are already altered, the likelihood of being in the correct position, with adequate power generation, and with the ability to transmit forces up and down are already decreased and you are now playing your Jiu Jitsu game from a place of reactivity rather than proactivity. These concepts can easily be applied to most, if not all, positions in Jiu Jitsu. They apply to most other sports and even doing something that sounds as simple as reaching above your head to get something off of a shelf, walking, or moving from sitting to standing. 

As I already mentioned, this can all be improved. We can get our sick employee back to work, return the payroll processor back to the office to get paychecks processed, printed, and mailed and let the corporate higher ups know things are being handled in the office now. From a rehab standpoint, I view most things as having neurological influence and you will commonly hear the term “motor control”. It’s the ability to appropriately activate and control a specific movement with appropriate muscle sequencing and firing rates. For the case of LBP and core dysfunction, getting the local and global stabilizers to return to their jobsites and doing their job appropriately and with control is important. Once that happens, we can load whatever movement patterns we want and train into movements that previously caused us problems. We can transmit power, torque, and momentum top to bottom better. With all the office and jobsite dysfunction resolved, we can finish the double leg and put our opponents on their back, score 2 for the takedown, win our matches in a more dominant manner, and perform our best in our daily lives. 

Thanks for reading,

Wesley Reed, PT, DPT

Hodges, P. W., & Richardson, C. A. (1997). Contraction of the abdominal muscles associated with movement of the lower limb. Physical therapy, 77(2), 132-142.

Huxel Bliven, K. C., & Anderson, B. E. (2013). Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports health, 5(6), 514-522.

Panjabi MM. The stabilizing system of the spine. Part I. Function, dysfunction, adaptation, and enhancement. J Spinal Disord. 1992;5: 383-389.

Zazulak BT, Hewett TE, Reeves NP, Goldberg B, Cholewicki J. The effects of core proprioception on knee injury: a prospective biomechanicalepidemiological study. Am J Sports Med. 2007;35:368-373.

Zazulak BT, Hewett TE, Reeves NP, Goldberg B, Cholewicki J. Deficits in neuromuscular control of the trunk predict knee injury risk: a prospective biomechanical-epidemiologic study. Am J Sports Med. 2007;35:1123-1130