So as some of you may know, I love cross training but Jiu Jitsu is the art I spend the most time with. In this article, my intent is to help people new to it get started in their journey, but with the benefit of my experiences. I think that many of these principles probably apply to getting started in other martial arts too, so no matter where you are starting your martial arts journey, I hope you find something in this article that is helpful. But, all the same, I am writing this article through the lens of Jiu Jitsu since that is what I have the most experience with.
Mindset and Attitude
To your credit, if you are just beginning your martial arts journey, congratulations. Many people do not even start. This is a huge step, and is indicative that you want to change and improve yourself, which is always a positive thing. I talk a lot about the rewards of martial arts, but it’s not without its challenges. Then again, most things worth doing aren’t easy. But, in getting started, you’ve already done what many do not have the mindset to even attempt, so, congratulations, let’s keep the momentum rolling.
I guarantee there will be times of frustration; times you feel like you haven’t improved despite all your efforts, or times where you feel like you can’t do any of it right. This is natural. Everybody experiences a block. These obstacles are where you really build character. For it is not the success or the failure that makes us, but rather, the will to persevere no matter what. In the pit of failure is where champions are forged, and quitters wash out. This is where you decide your own fate. I encourage you to persevere, and let the experience chisel you into the champion you were meant to be.
Once upon a time, a strange blue belt came to our gym. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but when I rolled with him, he did not roll or conduct himself like a blue belt. I dominated him easily, and all he did was whine, complain and make excuses. He had a choice to examine where his technique was flawed, and to keep going, but he chose the path of the weaker mindset.
The very next night, I met a new white belt, who couldn’t even afford a gi but was still determined to train. We rolled, and every time I submitted him, he was stoic about it. We simply reset, and went again, no whining, no excuses. He took his lumps, asked questions, and was genuinely curious and hungry for knowledge. THIS is the right mindset. Or as the Mandalorian would say: “This is the way.” Consequently, I was so impressed with his good attitude that I gave him my old gi with the proviso that a) he keeps training and b) when he can afford his own gi, he gives the old gi to someone else just starting out. He honored both parts of the agreement, and I am proud to say he went on to win gold at his first tournament.
The point is, your success starts with your mindset. Take your losses with dignity, because each one is an opportunity to make yourself better. Take your wins with humility, because each one is an opportunity to help someone else become better. In having a good attitude and strong mindset, you encourage and empower those around you to do the same. Without even knowing you, I can promise you these two things: 1) you will face difficult moments in your journey 2) so long as you actively choose the right mindset, you got this.
Picking a School
Of paramount importance is finding a mentor you can trust. I’ve moved around a few times, and each time I have had to re-establish myself, I vet every gym in the area. Most gyms worth a damn will offer you a couple of free trial classes so you can see how you like it. When I moved to AZ, I vetted I think six gyms in my area before deciding where I wanted to train. Here are some things I look for:
- Is the teacher/gym reputable? Even though BJJ has spread worldwide, it’s still a small community, and reputation means a lot. Do a search on your would-be instructor, see what the community thinks of them. Do a search on your would-be gym. Now, to some people lineage is important, to others, it is not. I’m middle of the road on that. My current coach has excellent lineage, he got his black belt under Gustavo Dantas. But, lineage isn’t everything, reputation is more important.
- Do you actually LIKE the teacher and the vibe of the gym? This is huge. The way I see it, when I pick a gym and a teacher, I’m making a commitment for at least a year (I mean, memberships are cheaper with a 12 month contract as opposed to month to month… but also, I am serious about training). So, with that kind of commitment, I have to like it there. I tried six gyms in my area, really liked some, disliked others. I strongly recommend taking advantage of any trial classes of the gyms in your area so you can get a feel for the teacher, and the vibe of the people in the gym, as they will become your community.
- How good is the gym at cleanliness and Hygiene? How some gyms can miss the mark on this one is beyond me. An example: a good gym is serious about no shoes or sandals on the mat, but absolutely wear shoes and sandals OFF the mat, especially if you use the restroom. One gym I tried out, these people were just running around the whole dojo barefoot, even going to the bathroom barefoot then running back on the mat. Needless to say, I did not choose that gym, because that’s fucking appalling and gross. My current gym has a very strict policy about wearing shoes off the mat, but not on. I mean, it’s common sense but it blows my mind that there are gyms out there that miss the mark on this. Also, observe how frequently they clean their mats and gear. You always run the risk of ringworm or some other form of yuck in contact sports, because humans are gross and there’s no way around that fact. But a gym with a culture of cleanliness will increase your chances of avoiding that kind of stuff.
- What’s the Gym Culture like? This ties in to my last two points, but bears mentioning all the same. Remember what I said earlier about how a good mindset empowers and encourages others around you? Well, this is also an aspect of gym culture. What is the general attitude of the people there? Do you feel like these people will bring out the best in you? This is another part of what drew me to my current gym. Not only did I respect and like my coach right away, but the people there generally have a great attitude, and during my free trial there I discintcly got the impression that everyone was there for the same reason, and that these people would help me become a better version of me. Also, as a husband and father, I love that our coach fosters an environment where women feel safe training (it pains me to admit that there are still sexual predators in every demographic, including martial artists, so, again, vet your coach). My current school has a great culture, and one of the strongest women’s competition teams in the state of AZ, which is perfect because my wife and daughter have joined. So, if you’re a woman, ask yourself “do I feel safe here?” And if you’re a man, ask yourself, would you be okay with your mom, wife, daughter or sister training with this coach and these people?
All that said, I realize that some people may live in an area where there really isn’t much choice, maybe there’s only one school to choose from, and it’s an hour away. You may have little choice in where to train, but vet that one gym anyway. Most places I’ve been to are pretty good at hiring reputable teachers and fostering positive environments, so chances are, you will be fine. BUT! If you go to that one gym and do not feel comfortable for whatever reason, I would listen to your gut. I realize this seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation if your goal is to learn Jiu Jitsu. I’ve been fortunate in that I usually live nearby at least a couple of gyms, so I am not sure how to advise in this situation, but this may be a good topic to research for a future article.
This topic is oft overlooked by newer practitioners, but it’s pretty easy. If you’re not already in the habit of hygienic self-maintenance, then congratulations on joining Jiu Jitsu, you will learn the importance of this stuff:
- Clip your nails: This is one of my pet peeves. I don’t like getting scratched up rolling with someone with long nails. It takes little to no effort to set aside time once per week. For me, I tend to trim my nails every Sunday evening (although sometimes I get off schedule but that’s rare) so that they’ll be short when I return to the gym Monday. There is no reason why any person cannot control this, clippers are dirt cheap and literally all you have to do is just sit there and so it. Not only will you be less likely to scratch up your training partners, but you’ll also be less likely to split your nail. Ever accidentally stub your toe with a long toenail? Yeah, the nail can break and split down the middle. No fun. So just clip your nails. Easy.
- When to shower: I typically shower AFTER the workout. I have a boring office job, so I don’t get gross before the gym. But, if you have a physical job where you get gross and sweaty, please do shower before your workout (but also still after too). A caveat to showering before your workout: Your body is covered in bacteria, both good and bad. When you shower, you wash away both bacterias. So, if you shower before gym time, it’s advisable to allow at least an hour or so between shower time and gym time, so that your body’s naturally occurring good bacteria can replenish itself.
- Wash your gym clothes: because humans are gross, Jiu Jitsu is also gross. After every class, I am drenched in my sweat as well as that of my classmates. Cooties abound, and it’s gross and awful, which is a testament to how much I love the sport if I’m willing to put up with the grossness of other humans. That being said, don’t let your smelly ass gym clothes just sit in your gym bag or a hamper, where they fester and stank and probably breed new strains of gross super cooties. I actually have a separate hamper for my gym clothes. When I get home, I take my used, sweaty apparel out of the gym bag or off my gorgeous manly body and relegate them to their special hamper. I spray the inside of my gym bag with disinfectant, and generally do the same with my special hamper. I wash my gym laundry with detergent AND oxi-clean. I’ll do another article later on specific care for your gi and no gi apparel.
- Please, for the love of God, don’t wear tank tops*: Some coaches I’ve met don’t seem bothered by this, others are. Speaking for myself, this totally bothers me. Wear some fucking sleeves for the love of God. Not only will it better protect you from mat burn, but your training partners don’t want your uncovered, sweaty, hairy-ass armpit in their face while they’re rolling with you. Jiu Jitsu is gross enough as it is (even though I love it with all my heart), so as good partners and team mates we do our best to mitigate that grossness. Wear sleeves. I don’t care if they are long or short, just so long as it’s not a tank top. *please note, this applies to Jiu Jitsu and the grappling arts. I wear tank tops ALL THE TIME in Muay Thai and Boxing.
- Brush your teeth: I’m usually on this but admittedly, sometimes I slip up. Today, I was guilty of breathing my god awful breath into the face of an irritable brown belt. I felt slightly embarrassed. Now, this isn’t as big a deal to me as the fingernails or the showering: bad breath can’t scratch you or give you ringworm, but it IS off-putting and gross (but in competitions it can be your secret weapon, shhhhhh don’t tell anyone muwahahahahahahaa). So, don’t be a jerk like I was today, clean your teeth and use mouthwash. I’d rather win with a proper submission than with my dragon breath.
- If you still stank even after all this, clean your house: Some people, no matter how much they shower, wash their gis, etc still smell like some funk. Maybe they live with dogs who pee all over the place, or their roommates are smokers, or something. They may try to mask it with Fabreze or essential oils (for fuck sake please no). But, that’s equivalent to the old saying “don’t put lipstick on a pig” or “you can’t polish a turd.” The problem may be your house. I realize people are generally adverse to making huge lifestyle changes, but martial arts are a vehicle for self improvement in so many areas of life. My whole lifestyle has changed to accommodate training, but I’ve been better off for it over all. Maybe it’s time to quit smoking so that you don’t come to the gym smelling like someone smeared patchouli oil over an ashtray. Maybe it’s time to deep clean the house. I realize this is all easier said than done, but there is a logic to this, not to mention long-term benefits that will help you in the long run. This is a small example of how martial arts push us to be better.
I realize there are other factors to cover, such as diet and nutrition, whether to start with gi or no gi, etc. Because this article is already pretty long, and these items necessitate their own rabbit holes, I’ll address those topics in their own separate articles down the road.
Starting your martial arts journey is a huge life-changing step. You are not just learning how to fight, or just getting in shape, you are also becoming part of a larger community, and in doing so, improving aspects of yourself that you may not have before considered integral to martial arts. This encompasses your mental and emotional state, as well as your hygiene. As discussed, the majority of gyms allow you a couple of trial classes, so try out all the trial classes of the gyms in your area, make note of which environment feels right to you, and make note of the teacher’s and the gym’s reputations in the martial arts community. You want to give yourself every reason to succeed, and joining a gym with a positive culture is a good step in making sure you have every incentive to stick with it. As I said before, if you’re starting out, congratulations on taking the first step, and I wish you the best on your journey. Happy training, my friends.