Girl Talk: Things I Wish People Had Told Me Before My First BJJ Class
So, you want to try Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You've heard a bit about it, maybe you know a bit of what it looks like, and you're interested enough that you want to try a class. And for whatever reason, you're scared. Well, listen: my first class was a few months ago, so why don't we chat about what the experience of your first BJJ class might be like?
Grab a mug of tea, cozy up into your chair, and let's have a girl chat.
First of all: It's totally okay to be scared. It is perfectly normal to feel anxious about stepping outside of your comfort zone. In fact, that is the definition of fear, right?: the idea that we don't know what is going to happen, and we feel threatened by that. This is actually a totally logical response. Many girls I speak with about trying BJJ say to me, "But I've never done anything like it. I would die!" At first, this reaction frustrated me, but I realized that it makes total sense to have such a strong, visceral reaction. Truly, the goal is not to do away with your fear, but instead, to lean into your fear, examining it nonjudgmentally, using it as a tool to better understand yourself (this is called Mindfulness). I would argue that trying to hide from our fear might not be the best route. Instead, I propose that when feelings of fear and anxiety arise for us, that we stop, breathe, and remind ourselves that whatever happens, we can handle it (this is the premise of the book, "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway" by Susan Jeffers.)
My first ever BJJ class was a No-Gi class at an MMA gym. I went alone, because I had no one else to go with, and that's how badly I wanted to try jiu jitsu. I was so freaking nervous, but I decided that trying BJJ was more important than the fear I was feeling. Some advice for those who need to deal with serious nerves: be kind to yourself. I gave myself plenty of time that day to figure out directions and locate where I needed to go. I spent two hours beforehand in a coffee shop close to the school so that I could relax and not have to worry about getting stuck in traffic during rush hour.
All in all, it was a good class. I made sure to think big picture, to be open to the new things I was being asked to do, and to try to focus as much as I could. I didn't end up signing on long-term at this particular facility, but I went on to a different place where I am currently training. I think you'll find that most people on the mat are very friendly, and genuinely intrigued that there is a new girl who is ballsy enough to try BJJ (maybe "ballsy" isn't the right word here?).
Here's a bit of what I learned from my first class that I thought you might like to know (maybe bookmark this page!):
- "Fundamentals" does not necessarily mean "Beginner". This was hands-down my most hilarious lesson. I learned the hard way that I didn't actually comprehend the meaning of the word "fundamental". I was chatting with the instructor before class was about to start, and once he realized that I was under the wrong impression of what I was walking into, he informed me, "Oh, this isn't a beginner's class. You're gonna be rollin' with UFC guys tonight. It's okay, you'll figure it out."
Moment of panic, or what? I had to mentally remove myself from the situation for a minute and just laugh. Lesson learned.
"Fundamentals" in BJJ does not necessarily refer to an "introduction", as we might be used to using the term, for instance in reference to a philosophy class or an economics class. It refers more so to the principal techniques that are important for any BJJ practitioner to master. So don't go to a Fundamentals of BJJ class expecting that it will necessarily be "easier". It is still a great class to go to, but please don't think that "fundamental" = "beginner", like I did (and don't worry; it will be okay, and you will figure it out).
- You will be expected to at least try to do everything everyone else is doing, even if it's your first class. If you haven't yet realized it, much of the rhetoric in the BJJ community is about keeping a positive attitude, letting go of your ego, and learning from your mistakes (who needs Deepak Chopra when you have BJJ?).
In my first class, I followed along to the warm up, but I couldn't help thinking, "WTF are these people doing?" It was unlike any warm up I'd done before; I felt like I was being prepared to be sent off to war overseas, or like I had accidentally walked into a gymnastics class. We had to do tumbling, army crawls, bear crawls, cartwheels (which I had never done before in my life), breakfalls, crawl on our hands and do a bunch of pushups at specific intervals, and on and on...
BJJ will never bore you, and you will always have a challenge. You WILL get better at all of these movements, so enjoy the process, and have fun!
- Believe in BJJ angels. What I call BJJ angels are the people who will be looking out for you on the mat whether you realize it or not. They are there. At both schools that I have experienced, I have received encouraging words and focused help from some of the guys who could probably tell how terrified I was, or that I had no idea what was going on. Don't forget that people want you to succeed, and one day you can be a BJJ angel to someone else to help make their start a little easier.
- Line up according to rank at the end of class. This is one of those annoying things that no one actually tells you, you just either figure it out on your own or read it somewhere on a blog and then it hits you (ta da!). At the end of class, you'll be asked to line up, and the instructor will do a little "great job today" kinda talk. Advanced belts at the front of the line, white belts at the end.
I'm not going to dig deep here into any commentary about hierarchy, but don't think of yourself as "lowly" just because you're a white belt. Think of the belt system more as a spectrum where everyone is equally valuable, instead of a top-down autocracy. Today I was speaking with Lawrence Siegel, a brown belt, and when I referred to myself as a "lowly white belt", he had this to say:
I realized today that if you insult yourself as a white belt, you are insulting every other white belt out there too, and every blue, purple, brown, and black belt. Because they have all been white belts. So be proud of that label, and realize what an awesome tradition you've joined and the incredible journey you've started on.
[update: as of June 2015 Lawrence is a black belt! Congrats!]
- Prepare for bruises. Girl, if you have something important coming up and you need to wear a dress for it, contemplate whether or not you're comfortable repeatedly explaining to people where you got your bruises from, and if you want to look at photos of your bruised self on that occasion into perpetuity. For instance, trying BJJ right before you're a bridesmaid in your best friend's wedding might not be a great idea. Just saying. Could make for a funny story, though.
I have found that now that I have continued with training, I no longer bruise as easily. I managed my bruises with ice as well as lots of arnica and calendula cream to help with pain and swelling.
- Mat burn sucks. So, I didn't even know this was a thing. All I know was, after that first class, I was in the change room, and man oh man it freaking hurt to put my socks back on. It's just a superficial wound, but it stings, man! This being during the winter, I ended up having to keep the open areas on my feet bandaged because I was wearing boots all the time, which kept the area moist and gross. I neglected to apply Polysporin or anything, so the sores got infected. Another lesson learned.
- Some newer dudes may find being smushed up against your body awkward. They may not have trained with a girl in such close contact before, so be understanding. Once I was working with a guy on the mats, and he just froze and said that he felt that it was awkward. I told him that it's only awkward if we make it awkward, and on we went. Guys - even tough guys - are still human. Getting comfortable rolling with different people will be just as much a part of their journey as it will be part of yours. Some dudes might be afraid of accidentally grabbing your boob or something, and I don’t blame them. No one wants to be accused of being a perv. Give it time and I bet it won't be an issue for long.
- What not to wear:
- Piercings: I even take out my belly button piercing. You never know!
- Long nails: I miss my French manicures, but it's worth it.
- Zippers: you're gonna be smushed up against someone else, and zippers hurt!
- Loose clothing: Wear tighter clothes if you can. I wore spandex shorts and a tighter top. You don't want baggy clothes because people's limbs will get caught in fabric, and that's just annoying. You'll be moving around a lot, so make sure that your bra sufficiently holds the ladies in, and that nothing is going to pop out.
- Makeup: Okay, sometimes I cheat a tiny bit on this one, but even Ronda Rousey cheats a bit on this too. Sometimes I'll wear a coat of waterproof mascara. But that's it! Don't wear any powders or foundation or anything like that because it'll smear off on someone's gi and that's gross and they'll all know it's you so JUST DON'T.
- Hair down: Tie it up! Get it outta the way! I just do the simple ponytail, but there are whole blog posts about how to do your hair for BJJ.
- You're more likely to get hurt by a beginner than someone advanced. When I was told on my first day that I wasn't in the beginner's class like I thought I was, and that I'd be working with dudes from the UFC, I essentially pictured myself being chewed up by a giant BJJ monster. I thought I was going to be beat up and torn apart. Thank goodness I was really, really wrong.
If someone is advanced, it means they have a decent amount of experience and know what they're doing. By definition, a beginner doesn't really know so much what they're doing, and because of that, they're more likely to hurt you. And really, I think the case could be made that as a beginner yourself, you're more likely to put yourself in situations that might be more likely to get you hurt anyway.
Keep in mind, as with any athletic activity, injuries will happen. Just be as smart as you can about it.
So, my dear. There you have it. Would I change a single thing about my intro to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? No; it wasn't perfect, but it was good. What I've gained just by waltzing outside of my comfort zone has, without question, been worth it. My friend told me the other day that she has never seen me be so aware of my body, and so comfortable athletically in trying new things, pushing past the mental block. If that's not worth it, then I don't know what is.
Know that your fear needn't run your life, and that you can handle whatever comes your way, whether it be an intimidating warm up, or some swelling and bruising. Years down the line you are more likely to regret the things you didn’t do, than the things you did do.
Finally, be prepared to be addicted to jiu jitsu. If you had told me three months ago I would be writing a BJJ blog, I would have rolled my eyes. But that's what it does to you! Girl, I can tell you this: there is no better feeling than learning how to do an armbar, than learning how to sweep a heavy dude onto his back, than learning that people are excited to have you join in. BJJ was made for us; the ones who are smaller and physically weaker. BJJ is meant for everyone, and don’t let anyone or anything make you feel otherwise.
If you need someone to vent to about feeling nervous, or having little/no support around you, or any questions that I didn’t address here, please feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com. Support & encouragement is everything, and you deserve it. In this interconnected world, there is absolutely no reason we need to feel alone. I’m scared too. But if I can do it, I promise promise promise that you can too.
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Update: I have had tons of email from ladies looking to try their first class. What I would highly, highly recommend to anyone who is interested in BJJ and is feeling a little nervous, would absolutely be to go check out the school first and watch a class! Check out your local academies online, give them a call, let them know you're interested in trying a class and would like to come watch a class first. Most places would be more than happy to give you a quick tour and have you observe. :) This will give you a great idea of what typically happens in a class, and give you an opportunity to check out the vibe to see if it's right for you.