Protecting White Belts From Themselves

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

Photos By John Cooper


Beginner Protection Program
I think about injury prevention through strong active ranges of motion all the time and how to get people there. I also train Jiu-Jitsu a lot, which is a nice place to contemplate such things around people that need it. Your friendly neighborhood beginner is at risk, and I’d like to offer some suggestions about what you can do to help.

Beginners are Delicate
No, really. Unless they are coming directly from a wrestling or grappling background with little to no break, these people are not conditioned for the demands you and every other student at the academy are about to throw at them. From the skin on their feet to their ribs to their breathing patterns and joints, they are probably going from 0-100 compared to their life just before they walked through the academy doors. (You could apply this attitude to nearly any sport by the way, I just like Jiu-Jitsu best.)

For some reason people seem to understand progressive loading when it comes to weightlifting better than any other analogy. You walk into a gym, you try and lift a weight that is too heavy for at least one part of your body that just tried to lift it, and you hurt yourself. The stress you exerted exceeded the capacity of the tissues used, and bam! Injury. Better to start with a lighter weight to create an adaptive stress that will eventually allow you to lift a heavier weight, with proper rest and recovery in between (which should be at least equal to training intensity but somehow never is, and we have a society of broken active people. There is a reasonable correlation to my generalization. I digress.).

How much force do you think a 170-lb man twisting his ribcage on top of you is exerting? I don’t feel like doing the math either, but I can 100% guarantee it’s more force than almost every beginner is used to absorbing or adapting to.

I LOVE an enthusiastic beginner. I want them to flourish in to the dream training partners of eternity for everyone on the mat. What can we do to protect them from themselves?

If you are an advanced belt training with a beginner, use this opportunity to focus on flow. Literally how little strength you can use fighting to control and submit this person. Leave your ego at the door (I know you didn’t) and focus on developing your angles, timing, and adjustments. You are using less force on their unconditioned body and improving your game at the same time. When you focus on flow with beginners it shows them that they are not losing because of strength and is less likely to hurt them.

Train Them
You’ve been there longer and have authority and my blessings to consider telling beginners they shouldn’t train every round every day. Intensity and stress build up with repetition as you fatigue in both body and mind. Good stress is needed for adaptation. Bad stress is something crossing a threshold that leads to pain, injury, and a student that just quit. When you’re just getting started, err on the side of caution and consistency and build up with a plan. An example would be students only train 2x/week at first and build up to more classes as their bodies adapt. Another option would be to train more frequently but at less intensity. Don’t do the live training every night. Use that time to let yourself absorb what you’ve already experienced and build up with a plan. Some academies don’t even allow training before the first stripe, and though I think that’s often done so as to dangle a carrot/prize in front of them if they stick around it also helps their bodies get used to the mats and the chaotic forces acting on them from everywhere.

What Else Can You Do?
Talk to your training partners, find out how they’re feeling, encourage them to listen to their bodies. Sore isn’t necessarily bad but if the word “drained” comes up I would worry they can’t be attentive enough to protect themselves anyway. Don’t glorify injuries. This is that cool part where someone training Jiu-Jitsu is suddenly taking better care of themselves off the mat in other ways in order to feel better on the mat. Adequate sleep, reasonable diet, hydration, recovery time, all the things you know to do but don’t? Start planning them. Set the example. Plan them so you actually do them and don’t let things override it. Treat your health like a job and do the “work” to make yourself feel awesome all the time. Look, I ate a good portion of chocolate today so I’m not going to claim perfection, but what I do shouldn’t matter one bit to what your decisions with your body are. Don’t allow other people’s habits to dictate your own. If you do, own it and stop lying to yourself about what your excuses are. In my opinion it’s ok to have them but not to lie about them. Acceptance is a very freeing thing. I think we’ve started a new article here.

For more implementation ideas, check out the book How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb. For more physical adaptation ideas, start researching yourself!