The first time we walk into an unfamiliar place with new people, understanding the routine helps us to feel comfortable in our new setting. Most schools follow a basic structure that can be divided into three parts. The warm ups, the lesson, and rolling (live sparring).
Walking in the door.
Before the first class, it’s important to be as relaxed as possible. Almost everyone will offer a free class, but please be considerate. Be on time, be clean, have short finger and toenails, and eat lightly before class. It’s customary to bow when walking on and off the mats, and line up by rank at the beginning of class. Most gyms won’t care if you have a gi on your first day, and can offer advice about what kind and size to get. A shirt with at least short sleeves is a good idea. You may be asked what sparked your interest in BJJ, but don’t feel pressured to tell a long story.
Learn the movements.
Warm ups can vary from one gym to the next. To the uninitiated, the movements are pretty strange. Invariably, we all learn to shrimp. Below is a short video on shrimping. There is no shame in not knowing things in this environment, usually people are excited to share what they know. Paying attention to how the movements work, and learning how to breathe will make it easier. We all struggled a little at first, and everyone will be understanding. As a general rule, it’s best not to try to be athletic right away.
Repetition leads to mastery.
The lesson and drilling will be one or two major movements with several details. It helps to stay relaxed and ask questions. Try to move smooth, not herky jerky. We’ve all had that moment when we forgot everything the instructor just said. An experienced drilling partner can help without overdoing it. Something to keep in mind is that every drilling partner is different, and mixing it up from one class to the next will help to learn from everyone. If you’re in a class that doesn’t permit talking, it’s still ok to watch your neighbor.
Test your skill.
At the end of class is rolling. Some schools dictate every pairing, while others allow everyone to choose for themselves. I encourage first timers to sit the first one out. This allows a chance to get a feel for the game and who’s in the room. Usually, an experienced student or instructor will explain what’s going on. Different schools place varying emphasis on takedowns, which is an art in itself. On the ground, the top player is looking to pass the legs and secure dominant position. After that, a submission can be applied. The bottom player wants to sweep (get on top) or submit.
For the first several rolls, it’s normal to tap a lot. I encourage everyone to guard their necks, keep their elbows in, and pay attention. Again, asking lots of questions is a great way to get past the tough phases. “What was that?” and “What do I do when this happens?” will clear up a lot of problems quickly. A good gym has friendly people willing to share what they know. Keep in mind that a serious competitor will benefit from making you better. Showing off for new guys/gals does nothing to prepare for someone of equal experience.
Do NOT get in shape first.
Being in shape is good. But you will improve along the way. Most people who want to “get in shape first” are procrastinating. Be honest with yourself, and break this habit!
In the end, your first couple days will be a distant memory very quickly. If you want to progress, it’s important to last a while. Select a couple days to make consistently instead of going every single day at first. Sustainability will develop with practice. Pay attention to the experienced players, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Enjoy your training!