White Belt Rabbits and Turtles: The Hard Road at White Belt and What to Expect

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

There are two common types of Jiu-Jitsu beginners, a classic tortoise and hare story. Tortoises are meek, possibly kind of giggly, and act lost all the time. They crawl along, afraid to try almost anything and say “sorry” a lot. The hares are people that hold on enthusiastically for dear life, pushing and pulling with vigor and trying to bench press people off of them. They move forward eagerly regardless of their knowledge base. As unskilled beginners, they both have some big challenges in the first two months or so of their training.

From the Bottom to the Top for the Tortoise

Our more submissive group gets submitted all the time. They feel hopeless. They tip over at the slightest breeze and don’t know why. Thankfully, they are driven enough to keep dragging themselves in to class to get beaten down once more. The nonexistent or depressed ego of this group means they have no option but to grab at every technique as a potential life preserver. The first week or two is a critical stage in which they may decide to leave altogether, before they’ve had a chance to realize all they have going for them. It’s super important for these people to realize that no matter where they start from the only way to improve is to continue trying.

If you can help these meeker friends out for just a few more weeks they’ll start to see their efforts pay off. Things aren’t as scary because even the smashing is more familiar. They are more aware of when they’re about to be submitted and start to see where they want to go even if they can’t quite get there yet. By the end of their second month they understand that this stuff works, even for them, (can you tell I’ve felt hopeless before?) with enough practice. Things are starting to click. They feel invigorated and excited for the future. This new physical knowledge brings inner strength and confidence. Our tortoise starts to blossom and may be a practitioner for life.

My favorite tip when I’m training with a total beginner “tortoise” is to make sure they know what mount is and then tell them to try to get there. Whatever makes sense to their body right now is fine and gives them a goal to reach for. If they need more encouragement, I’ll put myself in a position we drilled in class that day and see if they recognize it.

The Road Downhill for the Hare

The confident beginner may be naturally athletic with good instincts. They’re the kind of people who bump all over the place and are very hard to catch. They do everything “wrong” but in a way that makes it mystically hard to do that many things to. They drive the more advanced people in class crazy with their unpredictability. These are the guys whose elbows are either superglued to their sides or extended in magical iron posts that are impossible to get around or armbar. They hang tough, well enough to feel pretty good about themselves. This Jiu-Jitsu thing is hard, but more fun than anything else.

Interestingly enough, our early optimists start to suffer after they’ve been doing great for a while. Instead of just reacting to everything they start trying to think about what they’re doing. As a result they get submitted and swept a lot more than when they acted on pure impulse. Things that seemed to work before become convoluted by awkward timing and misplaced sequencing. These athletes may have a great first couple of months but suddenly find themselves in a training low, wondering what went wrong.

As a training partner for a hare, it’s easy to just be happy you can finally catch them more often when they start to get mired down. Resist the urge to enjoy yourself too much and make sure to explain why things are slowing down. This is a delicate and frustrating time for anybody in training. You see things in front of you but can’t connect the dots yet. This pattern gets relived throughout your career every time you try to add big new chunks to your game. Remember how hard your first plateau was and make sure these students don’t quit! There’s another mountain to crest just around the corner.

Everybody does Jiu-Jitsu for a challenge. They definitely stick with it for the challenge. If it weren’t fun nobody would do it. We are not practical enough beings to practice a martial art just because it’s good for us. (How many cookies have you eaten this year? How many salads?) It’s our job to make sure students are given the tools they need to succeed (if they come to class enough) and catch them when they start to psychologically fall down. You made it, and so can they.

If you fell in the middle, never had a plateau, have been happy and realistic and fair with yourself the whole time you’ve been training – I both hate you and want to be your friend. Congratulations.