From White Belt to Black Belt, the Martial Arts Journey

Whether you are a novice student training on the mats, a skilled fighter practicing routines, a world-class competitor preparing for a tournament, a coach mentoring others in the pursuit of perfection, or anything in-between, the most important lesson to remember is that, at any level, a martial artist should always be a student. Every time you train, individually or with others, you should always strive to exhibit the qualities of an engaged student.  This article will highlight several basic but important practices that all martial artists can leverage to demonstrate what it means to always be a student.


In reference to being a student of life, Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” This is certainly true for the martial arts life as well; however, not all students who regularly attend classes actually improve. Showing up is essential, but is it enough? Does anyone truly set out to be 80-percent successful in any walk of life? Should we be satisfied with giving 80-percent of our all in anything we do?

True success, for any goal, lies in that additional twenty percent, which requires more than just showing up: It requires showing up with the desire to learn and the will to develop. It’s in the twenty percent where true growth occurs, and that should always be the goal of a martial artist. While training, be sure to use class time effectively and efficiently.  It is imperative to stay physically and mentally engaged and to pay special attention to detail concerning the movements and techniques that are being taught in that particular lesson. Study, practice, improve, repeat. All these steps are imperative to growth, and they all lie within that extra 20 percent.


During class and training sessions, avoid the temptation to socialize instead of drill.  We all enjoy the social aspects of martial arts training – and they are important – but sometimes students will half-heartedly drill a technique a couple of times and then sit and talk with their partner until the instructor introduces the next technique.  This is a sure sign that a student has shown up content that day to be 80-percent engaged. This not only detracts from the student who is not focused on training, but it also denies the drilling partner the opportunity to learn and to improve.  Over time, this can also damage the overall culture of the academy by setting a precedent that being 80-percent successful is sufficient.  

A true student of martial arts – one who possesses the necessary desire and will – should never be satisfied with anything less than 100-percent effort. If you are a novice student, it should be your goal to exhibit maximum effort every time you train. If you are an experienced student, it is your responsibility to set the example that 100-percent effort is essential 100-percent of the time.


One of the most effective ways to improve when learning and developing any new skill is to ask questions and communicate with your training partners and instructors.  It is essential to seek clarification on any uncertainties you may have and to regard your training partners and instructors as valuable learning resources.  When you are working with a higher-ranked or more experienced student, be open to pointers and ask for guidance as you practice. More experienced students can help you refine and improve your technique. When you are working with a lower-ranked or less experienced student, be open to learning from them as well. They may have worked on a certain detail in the past that you may be seeing for the first time. If both training partners are open to learning from each other, regardless of rank or experience level, then each becomes a valuable resource.

Many students may feel anxious or inadequate when it comes to communicating problems or confusions when practicing a technique. Sometimes asking a question can feel like airing your own ignorance. This can be a toxic way of thinking that can stagnate your improvement as a student. Every Força member, including the teachers and coaches, began with nothing more than a drive to learn, and seeking guidance is essential to the learning process at all levels. It is very likely, in fact, that with any given problem you may be having with a certain technique, there is another student in the class experiencing the same confusion. Never be self-conscious about asking questions and seeking guidance – the best students always do. Asking questions and communicating your struggle with those around you is vitally important to your improvement and, therefore, just as vitally important to us.  


Keeping a training journal is one of the most powerful tools that you have at your disposal.  Whether you use a print or electronic journal, documenting your techniques, strategies, and observations incorporates an academic approach to learning and retaining concepts. It’s a proven educational technique that helps students retain information – in effect, it queues your brain to transfer the information from short-term to long-term memory. The same concept applies to skills building as well. Including a journaling routine as part of your regular training regimen will help you retain important details related to technique and strategy so that they eventually become ingrained and function as a form of muscle memory, and in any skills or knowledge development, the most important muscle is the brain.

Note taking also provides students the opportunity to organize ideas into lists, mind maps and flow charts, which are other great ways for you to familiarize yourself with your own strategies and develop more refined and effective techniques.

The willingness to travel, gain new experiences, and learn new information is an excellent way to continue to demonstrate the qualities of a good student while bettering your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills.  Regular attendance of seminars and workshops and participation in classes taught by other instructors and students are also essential to continued personal growth and evolution of your technique.

Ultimate Fighter Veteran, former UFC lightweight contender, and Jiu-Jitsu black belt George Sotiropoulos recently shared his perspective on being a better student and his experiences gained through traveling the world in pursuit of better technique.  While discussing his many travels he stated that “there was always a goal in mind, something specific that I wanted to learn, so that is why I would go.  I always wanted to add to my repertoire.  It was always to add, not really invent or change, but to add.”  

According to Sotiropoulos, being a student is a life-long pursuit: “It never stops at black belt. It always continues. … When I look at my career, my improvement, I competed in everything, I always had an open mind, and I was always willing to learn.  White belt, blue belt, purple belt, brown belt, black belt, I was always on a learning curve and putting things into practice that I had learned.  The second you stop learning, you stop that improvement.  You have to put yourself in the mindset of a beginner.  If I am seeking out knowledge for a specific thing, I will travel to go get it.”

The trial-and-error process of competition will improve confidence and teach many valuable lessons that can only be learned on the competition mat.  Performance in competition is always a learning experience at any belt level.  The lessons learned through competition, whether the match ends in a win or a loss, are invaluable in a student’s growth in the martial arts.

According to world class Jiu-Jitsu competitor, multi-time World, Pan-American and ADCC Champion Andre Galvao in Rolled Up Episode 26-Jiu-jitsu Missionary: Andre Galvao, he discusses some of the differences between a competitor and non-competitor in Jiu-Jitsu: “The difference [between] the guy that never competes Jiu-Jitsu and the guy that competes all the time [is that] the guy who competes all the time [gets] better faster than the guy that never competes.”

True competition, as opposed to sparring or rolling, can be an intimidating experience as it can feel like a final judgment of one’s strength or weakness, but Dave Kama, a Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt and long-time competitor, suggests that students can better themselves in training by “forcing yourself into your weakest position.” It’s only through recognition and understanding of our own weak points that we can begin turning weaknesses into strengths, and competition is essential to that process.

Private lessons
Engaging in private lessons is another excellent way for students to expand their Jiu-Jitsu education and refine their skills. Seeking out mentors, other top-level instructors, and seasoned competitors for private lessons and personal training sessions will do nothing but speed the growth of a student.  The best students will always seek out those who can help them attain their goals. Ultimately, success is not only the result of a student’s hard work and determination; it is also built upon the foundation of excellence established by those around that student, ones who have embraced the role of a lifelong student of the martial arts.  They are some of your best resources. Learn from them.

Research (Books, E-Books, Magazines, Articles, Video Breakdowns)
It is very important for students to stay engaged by learning about the history and culture of the art and forming guided opinions concerning their own personal analysis of facts.  Learning first-hand is essential to developing as a martial artist, but don’t overlook the value of learning secondhand as well.  Exposing yourself to the insights, struggles, and achievements of those who previously navigated the path you now tread can be instrumental in helping you forge your own path.

Online publications like BJJ Eastern Europe or magazines like Jiu-Jitsu Magazine and Black Belt Magazine are a great way to stay in touch with jiu-jitsu culture.  Publications offer a martial artist a chance to see industry related products, learn from others at the pinnacle of the art or sport and expand their overall knowledge of martial.

Fortunately, we live in a digital age in which information can be accessed from your smart phone or smart TV via social media platforms, YouTube and other creative methods of visual delivery.  Online Jiu-Jitsu academies like MGInAction, Art of Jiu-Jitsu and the Grapplers Guide are becoming more and more popular among grapplers looking to see what the best of the best at the pinnacle of the sport and art have to say about technique, training and strategies for on and off the mat.

Competition breakdowns and highlights are a great way to see techniques in action against a live and resisting opponent.  YouTube has become a great source for mixed media channels like BJJHacks and BJJScout, which showcase elite level Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and competitors from all over the world.  YouTube is also home to one of the most popular documentaries on the site, “Choke”.  Other documentary series like “Rolled Up” are also a great way to get in touch with Jiu-Jitsu culture.  

Whether you are a casual student, a competitor, coach or even a black belt, everyone can continue to improve in his or her martial arts journey through focus, drive, communication, exposure to higher level ideas, techniques and individuals, as well as putting in the time traveling, doing private lessons and investing time off the mats by keeping a journal and accessing widely available digital information.