Understanding the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu White Belt

One of the most common problems female grapplers have is dealing with the strength and aggression of large new white belts. This is not exclusive to male white belts, of course, and it’s usually not intentional.

We are sold the idea that Brazilian jiu jitsu allows a smaller, weaker fighter to defeat a bigger, stronger opponent and this is true, but only up to a point. BJJ is a system that helps us to neutralize our disadvantages against larger, stronger opponents if they do not have our level of skill.

Rener Gracie has described the size and age discrepancy issue very well in the video below. It’s called the Boyd Belt System, named after a black belt in his academy named John Boyd.

John was a 66-year-old athlete (now deceased) who was very disappointed and embarrassed when he wasn’t able to defeat blue belts who were sixty pounds larger and several decades younger. He thought that since he was a black belt, he should be able to defeat any blue belt. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. The Boyd Belt system estimates that for every twenty pounds and every ten years someone has on you, it is comparable to a belt level. I think if you add testosterone to the equation, the variance is even broader.

If you’re a small female white belt sparring with larger male white belts, you’re at a huge disadvantage right off the bat. That doesn’t mean you should quit. It means we have to try to even the playing field so everyone has an opportunity to learn and grow and that starts with understanding and adapting the situation.

Link: Quora – How Much Does Size Factor in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?


“Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” 
Orison Swett Marden 

THE BEGINNER EXPERIENCE

When we think of fighting, do we equate it with being gentle? Of course not. So when a new person starts training, doesn’t it make sense for them to use all of their physical strength? When they begin a roll, a white belt’s nervous system can switch into “fight mode”. Rather than remaining calm like more experienced practitioners, they may not be as mentally present as we’d like because of the adrenaline rush.

When this happens with a little person, it’s not a big deal because it’s like being bitten by a puppy; no one is getting hurt. When it happens with a large person, this is where the trouble can start. They don’t necessarily want to use their size and strength advantage to dominate, they just don’t get it. This is why kind communication is so important.

White belts are the future of jiu jitsu and without new students, academies would not be able to survive. We need them! But that doesn’t mean that we have to put ourselves in danger to help them.

WHAT MAKES THEM DANGEROUS?

There are a number of issues that make white belts dangerous:

  • Panic: When someone feels they are in trouble, they will react unpredictably. Rolling with white belts for position only, not submission, will decrease the probability that they will feel threatened and use unexpected movements or burst of power that could cause injury to both partners. This is why it is a good idea for instructors to teach students how to flow roll at the white belt level and emphasize transitional rolling.
  • Clumsiness: Jerky, explosive, cranking movements. New students don’t have good control over their bodies, especially as it relates to the bodies of others, when they begin jiu jitsu.
  • Brawler mindset: Lack of technical knowledge and the instinct to force positions or submissions with strength.
  • Desire to impress. Everyone wants to show people how well they are doing. People who are new to the sport don’t understand real success in jiu jitsu. They believe that control and submission is the goal no matter how they achieve it. This desire to impress can cause them to tap late and hurt themselves as well.
  • The person is a dick: Some people are just assholes. What I have found is that most shitty people quit before or shortly after blue belt and if you wait them out, they will disappear. These people just don’t do well in team environments, they’re too selfish. I can remember many times when someone was giving me grief and I thought to myself, “You will quit within the next year and I will still be here. Someday I will be a black belt and you will just be able to say you used to train jiu jitsu.” Turns out most times, I was right.

All of us experience these issues when we start jiu jitsu but eventually, the intensity decreases.

Since we are aware of what life is like for new grapplers, we want to be understanding and approach difficult conversations with them in a way that is encouraging. They don’t understand what is happening but now that we do, we can try to help them be better training partners. If we treat them well and help them develop, we all become stronger.

HOW TO DEAL

When I started training BJJ, I was 32 years old and 105lbs. I got murked all the time unless I was rolling with a higher belt who was technical and flowed well. I very rarely got a submission. I think my first real submission was at my first tournament at blue belt. If you’re just there for submissions and you’re the smallest, weakest and least athletic person, BJJ is probably not for you. If you actually want to learn jiu jitsu, there are ways to deal with unintentionally dangerous training partners.

I have a back injury so BJJ for me now is just play fighting. I keep doing it because I enjoy it but I can’t really do much. When I was first injured at the 2015 World Masters, it was so bad I had trouble walking, I had to kneel at my desk for the first six months and wear a back brace all the time. So now, knowing how bad it will get if I’m not careful, rolling is like walking on eggshells for me if I’m with someone I don’t know or trust.

What I do when rolling with people I’m wary of to avoid injury is:

  • Before the roll starts, ask to roll for position only, not submissions to avoid the panic response.
  • Chill for about 90 seconds to two minutes and they will gas themselves out. Then you can start working.
  • Relax and let the person do what they want, waiting for mistakes to exploit. Most times, a person will match your level of aggression so if you come at them hard, they will amp it up, too. Sometimes if you let a person play their game with minimal resistance, you will learn a lot of cool moves. Even if you get submitted a few times, it’s a valuable experience.
  • Play defense only. If you think it’s bad before you submit them, wait to see what they do after you submit them.
  • Just tap rather than hold out for the sake of your ego. It’s better to tap and be able to go to class the next day than be off for months with a torn rotator cuff.
  • If the person turns out to be a nice roller and you aren’t afraid of injury, start playing your own game and give it your best shot! You never know what you can accomplish if you try.
  • Take your learning into your own hands. You have to understand the fundamental concepts of jiu jitsu if you want to have any success. Classes are tailored for the entire class, not just you. You have to do your homework outside of class. Enroll in Rob Biernacki’s BJJConcepts.com if you want to really understand base, posture and structure.

Most men want to be a gentleman and they want women to feel welcome. They really do want to be good training partners. If you tell them what it’s like rolling with them when they are going too hard, they will try to be more gentle, I guarantee it. Especially if you say it calmly and with kindness. I teach one of the beginner classes at Titans Fitness Academy and the white belts are awesome. Once they know better, they do better.

How to Be a Friendly Giant

If you are a big white belt and are at a loss for how to roll well with little people, this is what I notice in my rolls with my favorite training partners:

  • Stay calm, regulate your breathing. Keep it playful.
  • Don’t use your weight.
  • Don’t hang out on top. It’s very hard for a small person to get out sometimes so if you’re spending most of your time on top, or in any position, try to transition to something else.
  • Work on your weaknesses, put yourself in bad positions and try to get out.
  • Use open guard rather than closed.
  • Pretend to make a mistake so your partner can exploit it.
  • Focus on transitional rolls where you go from position to position.
  • Never force a submission, only take what is presented to you.
  • Avoid shoulder and arm locks until you know how to apply them smoothly, do not jerk on people’s arms.
  • Don’t crank necks or faces. Make sure if you choke someone, you’re actually choking the neck. If you apply power to a neck, it can cause issues duh.
  • Don’t give pity taps. You can be nice, but not that nice.

If you really want to be skillful at jiu jitsu, pay attention to the greats! Are they smashing or do they appear to be floating around their opponents and taking advantage of submission opportunities?

Check out Rafael Mendes below and tell me what you think in the comments!

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