Monday, May 25, 2015

The unwritten rules of jiu jitsu etiquette: 5 things I wish I knew as a white belt

There are myriad explicit rule sets governing jiu jitsu. Competition organizations have their own sets of published rules (the IBJJF rule book is 44 pages long!).  In addition, different schools have their own sets of rules, which are often posted around the academy. It's easy enough to avoid breaking these types of rules, since they are explicit and readily accessible. But what I'm talking about here are the unwritten rules of jiu jitsu: things that no one tells you but can nonetheless get you in trouble.

Here are the unwritten rules of jiu jitsu that I wish I had known when I was a white belt:

- Do not ask black belts to roll. I'll admit, this one has gotten me in trouble a few times. Some schools even go as far as to say that you can't ask any upper belts to roll. The line of thinking here is that rolling with black belts is a privilege and once you have achieved that rank, you have earned to right to roll with your choice of training partners. So, if a black belt wants to roll with you, she should be the one to ask you.  

- When you collide with upper belts, be the one to move. Jiu jitsu is magnetic. Even when there is plenty of space on the mats, rolling pairs tend to gravitate toward each other. When this happens, the lower ranking pair should yield space to the upper belts. As a courtesy, the lower belts should be the ones to get up and reset someplace else.

-It's cool to help your training partner. But when your instructor walks over to make corrections, stop talking and let him take over. I often miss details when I learn a new technique. I am grateful when my training partner picks up something I didn't and helps me fill in the blanks. I'm happy to do the same for them. But when the instructor approaches to make corrections, it is time to shut up. The instructor is the one who taught the technique, so let her take it from there.

- Assume the most restrictive set of rules while rolling, unless otherwise specified. If you are rolling no gi with a purple belt or above, do not assume that heel hooks are on the table. There's a reason that certain techniques are reserved for only advanced ranks - advanced students know when to tap in time but they also know how to apply the techniques with control. Personally, I have a limited set of training partners whom I feel comfortable rolling for advanced techniques with. When in doubt, ask your training partners what techniques are on the table and always respect their limits. 

- It's great to ask questions, but there are times when silence is golden. Such as when the head of your affiliation is visiting. I think it's fine to ask questions, even stupid questions, 98% of the time. But when a high level bad ass comes to give a seminar, we all know folks who would benefit from a gag order, for the sake of their own image and that of the school. We all say the wrong thing from time to time, myself included. If you are prone to putting your foot in your mouth, it is best to speak only when spoken to when your instructor's instructor is visiting. Take notes and ask questions to your instructor in private later.

What about you? Are there any unwritten rules of jiu jitsu etiquette that you wish learned earlier?


  1. Amazing article. Just starting BJJ and it is having such an impact on me already. I am reading and absorbing and studying as much as I can to gain a mental understanding of the fundamentals. I know my patience and mental tactics are lacking, as I am a rush and get things done with kind of person. I am excited to learn patience and strategy. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu in Connecticut

  2. Great article! There is also this unwritten rule stating that you should roll at least once with the person you drilled the techniques with. Took me a while to figure that one out!

  3. As a white belt, no stripes, a black belt came into our gym during open mat and asked me if I wanted to roll. I had never rolled with a black belt before, and said, "Are you really a black belt?" He said yes, and I was like, OK. We went pretty easy, and he let me tap him with a choke. I still feel like an ass for asking him if he was really a black belt, but I wasn't expecting a black belt to come up to me ask me to be his first roll of the day. I will never question a person's belt again, unless he is obviously a faker.