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BJJ Fundamentals – What Should I Focus on as a BJJ White Belt?​

BJJ Fundamentals - What Should I Focus on as a BJJ White Belt?​

There were plenty of days when I left the gym feeling frustrated that everyone was playing this intense and intricate chess game that I was completely unaware of since the game I was playing was one more of being red-faced, exhausted, and frequently being smothered.

Related: Looking for our full list of beginner tips? Check out our post here

Gordon Ryan states in this video (and I’m paraphrasing) that having the confidence in your ability to escape bad submissions and positions will give you the confidence to go for more submissions

Table of Contents

    Why structuring what you should focus on as a white belt matters

       When you start bjj there is so much info coming at you often during physically intense scenarios.

    You can get lost and frustrated at what you don’t know and what to learn first. Instead of getting hung up on flashy moves (which are fun), what will serve you best long term are learning the basics and learning them well.

    When considering BJJ Fundamentals a student should focus on any jiu jitsu technique related to surviving and escaping  – I attempt to answer what exactly those techniques are and more within an example white belt curriculum.

     In general, when starting bjj, you will often find yourself in less desirable positions and may not have an exact plan to escape such positions and submissions.

    This plan will help guide you through those first couple months of training and into your next jiu jitsu belt.

    If you want to look ahead and see exactly how long it will usually take to get a blue belt in bjj check out our post here.

    White Belt Curriculum – Surviving

    The White Belt Curriculum should be focused on surviving and escaping.

    After learning all of the basic positions, a strong emphasis should be on surviving those positions that often can lead to submissions. Below is a table of positions and common attacks from those positions as well as survival basics. This is a general overview on the most popular positions and submissions:

    PositionCommon SubmissionsSurvival Focus
    MountArm Bar, Head/Arm Choke, TriangleKeep elbows inside their knees +keep them low on your body +avoid any arm isolation
    Side ControlArm bar, KimuraKeep elbows in, keep inside position with hand/forearm frames
    Rear MountRear naked choke, rear triangle, arm barKeep hands attached and on top of their choking arm
    TurtleGuillotine and other front headlock variations, them attempting to get to your backAgain keep hands attached inside their choking arm, sit to guard or use an arm block to avoid them getting to your back

    While it is important to know the basics of surviving a certain position, do not be discouraged if sparring partners are still able to successfully attack these submissions on you, especially those opponents who have more experience and hold one of the higher ranked jiu jitsu belts.

    The steps to learning a new technique should always be:

    •  awareness and knowledge of technique
    • practical application against sparring partners who are less experienced than you in sparring
    • finally, application against peers at your same skill and experience level during sparring

    Keep in mind that it will take time to learn new techniques and successfully add them to your current jiu jitsu repertoire – do not be discouraged if the new techniques do not work the first couple times.

    BJJ Fundamentals

      When you start jiu jitsu, you hear everyone go on about learning the BJJ fundamentals, but there is so much to learn and in class the instructor will go over a move that you already forgot, and during your live rolls you end up not being able to articulate quite how you ended up in such poor positions and submissions and completely unaware of all the mistakes that may have been made to arrive there. (sorry that run-on sentence gave me a bit of bjj PTSD)

    The first thing is to calm down and pace yourself. 

    Everyone is submitted hundreds if not thousands of times while going through the ranks of jiu jitsu belts, and it’s very easy to get lost in the intricacies of even the most seemingly simple jiu jitsu technique. 

    More specifically, when you start live sparring, things seem to be going in hyperspeed.

    It’s important to focus on your breath and learn how to better understand the tempo of live rolling.

    There are times when you can take a nice full breath and times when you may not breathe for seconds at a time while struggling. 

    Once you are able to calm down, you are better able to be aware of your current position, possible offensive and defensive options off of that position, and how you ended up in that position.

    Realted: Check out our post on each jiu jitsu belt explained in detail


    Escaping Jiu Jitsu Positions

       From the first class of drilling and live sparring, there are a lot of uncomfortable moments.

    It is important to get used to being uncomfortable in these spots – accept and embrace them. After that, it is much easier to stay calm and survive then effectively escape. 

    Below is a breakdown of the most common and most effective escapes to survive and escape the most dominant positions.

    These are not an exhaustive list, but do give an idea of what to aim for in each position and what to focus on for future learning:

    1. Mount – kipping escape or knee trap escape
    2. Side control – side guard escape
    3. Turtle – roll to guard
    4. Back – misaligning your body and beating hooks

    1. Mount – kipping escape

    Mount is a very claustrophobic position for the defending player so it is very important to drill your preferred escape until it becomes instinctual.

    The kipping escape has been shown to be extremely effect especially at the highest levels. In John Danaher’s DVD “A New Philosophy of Submission Escapes” he goes over the kipping escape in detail. 

    Some key things to focus on to successfully complete this escape:

    • First work to get your hands inside theirs and place your hands in 90 degree configuration with your hands meeting on top of their hip
    • Use your knee to bump them forward to get their weight over your head and on their hands
    • Perform a quick hip bump to make space then use your hands as frames to keep them raised up
    • Finally, in a “kipping” motion with your feet together bring your knees inside their hips

    2. Side Control – side guard escape

     Side control is another very domination position for the top person.

    When you start bjj you will find yourself in this position a lot so escaping side control should definitely be one of the main things you focus on as a white belt. 

    Some keys to successfully escaping side control:

    • if you can by all means stop your opponent from getting control of your upper body (usually this is done by a cross face and underhook) this will allow you to escape much easier
    • If your opponent does get full upper body control then you have to work to incrementally bring all of your limbs back to inside control and then escape

    Here is a quick video from Gordon Ryan describing side control escape basics (this video also includes some good details on mount and north sout escapes as well).

    3. Turtle – roll to guard

    Turtle is a very dynamic position that can lead to a variety of options for both the top and bottom player. 

    For the bottom player they must constantly protect their neck from different front headlock attacks such as guillotines, and they must not let the attacking person go behind to their back and get back control. 

    A good conservative option for the defending person is simple rolling back to guard. 

    Some keys to focus on in order to roll back to guard effectively are:

    • if your opponent’s hands are around your neck, just like defending a rear naked choke, you must keep your hands on top of theirs in order to avoid being strangled
    • You can use hand fighting to free their hands from your neck and once some space is made you can work to sit back and bring your legs back in front

    Here is a another clip from the King for options from turtle such as getting back to guard or coming up to wrestle:

    4. Back escape – misaligning your body and beating hooks

    When someone is on your back it is the most dominant position that they can have in jiu jitsu.While it may be less claustrophobic than mount or side control, the likeliness of your opponent getting the submission is much higher. So depending on your opponent’s hand configuration here there are two basic escapes that work for all from white belt to black. 

    Key points to note to escape the back:

    • always keep your hands on top of theirs to avoid them sinking in a quick choke – this is usually done with a primary and secondary defensive hand
    • if your opponent attempts to get their arm across your neck immediately grab their thumb line* (and not their wrist) to pull their hand back down safely away from your neck
    •  to properly escape, focus on controlling their hands, misaligning your body from theirs, and freeing both your head and your lower body (ideally at the same time for maximum effectiveness)

    In the video abpve from Lachlan Giles he details how he works to systematically free his lower body using his legs.

    For more detailed information on these exact escapes I strongly recommend checking out the below bjj instructionals:

    obvious note: I’m a big fan in jiu jitsu instructionals and here is our guide for how to get the most out of them

    To drive the point home one last time:
    when considering BJJ fundamentals a student should focus on any jiu jitsu technique related to surviving and escaping. These should play a large part in any white belt curriculum.

    If you are looking to accelerate your learning as a white belt, I can’t recommened diving into this instructional enough:

    The Pillars of Defense: Pin Escapes – Defensive to Offensive Cycles by Gordon Ryan

    This is my number one recommended instructional for all white belts and beginners and beyond. It completely changed my bjj game. I watched each section and drilled the escapes and techniques frequently.

    Over time, I was letting higher belts get into very dominant positions such as mount, back control, and side control and then working to effectively escape and immeidately go on the counter attack.

    I can’t recommend learning this foundational skill enough for anyone struggling to escape those claustrophobie positions.

    Structuring Learning

    The focus of BJJ fundamentals inside of a white belt curriculum should be strongly focused on where beginner students will often spend the most time.

    It is important to learn these positions, surviving submissions from there,  and have knowledge of basic routes to escape.

    While bjj basics should be the first thing to focus on, a student should be aware of their learning style, their weak points, and their strong points.

    For the average student who trains 2-3 times a week and learns a handful of moves during the drilling portion of each class, it is very easy to see how it will take a long time to fill in your mental map of every single jiu jitsu technique. 

    So it is very important to sit back and analyze how you best learn a new skill.

    Think about the last time you had to learn something like a language or learning to draw or learning guitar. How did the information best stick in your mind?

    Was it through daily repetitions, building off your already existing knowledge, or taking extensive notes.

    Learning jiu jitsu techniques is more similar to learning other skills than one might think.

    You can take ideas from yourself and apply them to how you learn.

    Instead of following along with the meal piece details in a handful of classes a week, there are always ways that may better suit your learning style perhaps by taking notes, learning on your own through instructionals, or even drilling at home with your partner.

    With these ideas in mind, I hope you were able to gain some insight into basic survival goals and some conservative escapes.

    Thanks for reading and see you on the mats!

    For other tips for how to improve faster check out our quick guide here

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