In the last month or so there's been a lot of talk about online-grading and it got me thinking about what students and instructors expect from each other when it comes to this issue. I still believe there is a mystique to promotions as each school varies in their practice. Some are competition based while others provide tests with preset requirements for each belt. With the increasing amount of information and access to instructional DVDs, books and everyone's favorite youtube, the source of a student's education can be blurred.

While I am not offering any definitive answer to how things should be done, I would like to hilight some of the issues that are being discussed that may set one school apart from another. I do believe as the art/sport develop there will be a greater need for regulation and unified cooperation in order to maintain the quality of instruction, grading and credibility.


One of the elements that attracted me to BJJ was it's casual and sometimes informal nature. Not to say there was an absence of respect and tradition but it didn't feel as dogmatic as other martial arts. And in that absence there was a mystique in how you progressed from one belt to the next. While fellow students would remark that if you competed well and came regularly that it would set you on the right track but I noticed it wasn't always the case. Now the reasons could vary from anything from time, personality or investment. The point is I had no concrete idea but had faith my instructor knew best.

The subject never came up, there was never an outline of requirements on the school website or bulletin board. When I first started out I didn't know the difference between a blue and a purple-belt other than the purple typically dominated the blue (not always true). So it wasn't clear what I needed to accomplish other than to get better and beat and tap-out everyone at my belt-level. Now some schools offer stripes to distinguish levels within each belt and I had earned some stripes for tapping visitors that came in with a wrestler's background or looked to be physically tough. I tell you, those matches were not fun but in the end, if I proved to be a good soldier I got a stripe. So up to that point my understanding was that I had to win and not tap to my fellow white-belts and hunt the blues. Also my fear of seeming needy for affirmation kept me from asking the instructor what it took. It just didn't seem appropriate. While jiu-jitsu is a personal journey we can't help but compare ourselves to others. Whether it be in the club or at competition, we aim to out do our partner/opponent. So for several years this is what I knew.

Fast forward two years later in all honesty it started to get to me why others were promoted faster than myself while they didn't pose a particular threat to me or dominate me on the mat. I was still fearful of asking which only added to my confusion but in the end I just stopped caring about it. There was a tournament coming up and I was intent on destroying everyone in the white-belt division. By that point my white-belt was a nice grey/brown/yellow and wreaked to high-heaven. My dream of sandbagging the white-belt division came to a stop over a bowl of noodles. Just two weeks prior to the tournament, my coach at the time, promoted me to blue while eating dinner and that was that.

I get my blue-belt but couldn't articulate what was different about me at the time, if anything.


From my personal experience thus far, promotions appeared to be based
on performance both in the club and at tournaments. Over time I've come to realize it's a bit more complicated than just being a bad-ass on the mat and I think it's here is that each school begins to have their own (perhaps unspoken) criteria for each belt. I think it's another thing to point out that some schools are more articulate about teaching both technique/concepts so that each student has a micro/macro understanding of jiu-jitsu and no just a step-by-step memorization of techniques. Over time you come to understand them but whether the instructor has set a foundation for the students to learn directly or by experience alone is something to take note of.

Here are two references I'd like to put out there in regards to criteria and example of how jiu-jitsu can be articulated, Dave Camarillo and Roy Dean.

WWW.DAVECAMARILLO.COM (attitude, active, ability)
The link above goes to Camarillo’s Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu: The Three Principles, touching on the subject of criteria for promotion. Not so much an itemized list of moves but more so a guideline. I've been fortunate enough to train at AKA when visiting family in San Jose, CA and always leave with a better understanding on how to train jiu-jitsu both physically and mentally. Besides the technical instruction I notice there's an emphasis on attitude and how a student can appoach jiu-jitsu mentally which I find really interesting.

The second reference is from Roy Dean. Here, a purple-belt student performs a demonstration for his brown-belt. What I found interesting about this is that the demonstration is an elective and not a requirement. The student has already earned the promotion but is given the choice as to receiving the belt in class or after a demonstration. According to Dean, most opt for the demonstration. If you have a chance, take a moment to ready Roy Dean's article on being an uchideshi as an Aikido student. I think it illustrates a lot about the life of a martial artist and his path.

brown-belt demonstration at Roy Dean Academy:
I think these are both excellent sources for how jiu-jitsu can be articulated in a manner that allows the student to fully realize their potential in more ways than the physical ability to perform technique or compete well.


Coming back to performance, I do see a difference in what I'm sure most can understand as a 'club-blue' versus a 'competition-blue'. I'm referring to the difference between two persons with the same colored belt but with different attributes and abilities in the academy versus tournament. When it comes down to it one can be considered a regular guy who may or may not compete while the other is a beast in competition. One could be quite knowledgeable about technique but not the strongest competitor. The other can tap you every which way but couldn't tell you how he/she did it. It's all interchangeable but we can at least recognize there is a distinction between the two types given any color belt.

A very athletic person can win based on their attributes and a few key moves but when brought back to the academy, may not have the complete knowledge and understanding required of the next belt/level.

I don't believe that one is particularly better than the other nor do I think either should be favored exclusively. Earlier when I posted on the topic there was the statement that one type pays the bills while the other promotes the school's name. I believe there's some danger in this comment. It implies that the attraction and value of the school is based on the success of a few individuals (champions) but considering the personality/talent/discipline this person could potential be a champion at any other gym/academy. I think what will prevail is the quality of instruction and the ability for the instructor to nurture a community of students to be great examples and ambassadors of jiu-jitsu. Not every champion can teach and some are just blessed.


All this talk about what it takes to be promoted, I think it only fair to ask yourselves what do you want out of all this. What do you hope to accomplish in your journey? What's the value of each level and accomplishment and how does this effect the way you see yourself?

I have a fulltime job which requires that I travel regularly throughout the year, I will be a father soon, I write this blog, I manage my own bjj academy, produce t-shirts and gear and I train jiu-jitsu as often as I can while teaching every Saturday morning. My goal in BJJ is to do this as much and as long as I physically can.


What was it like for your instructor to get where he/she is now? In an interview with one of Rickson Gracie's top students,
Luis “Limao” Heredia, he shared that he was a blue-belt for 6 years. 6 years! Without asking outright I think your instructor's story can give a lot of clues on what you can expect or contrary to.

The further we go in our journey the more we understand that it's not an easy one and I think it's safe to say that we all take pride in the fact that these things don't come easy. I think it's safe to say that when given the opportunity, we look to represent what we want each belt to be at its very best. It's a responsibility we hold to ourselves, to our instructors and to each other.


2Old said...

Very thoughtful and helpful article. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

That video of Roy Dean rolling with his purple belt is cool. In all honesty, i doubt that newly promoted Brown could finish his black belt instructors that easy. I think it was more of a show of technique than anything else.

elee said...

There's alot of other factors too that goes into evaluating people at any given belt level. For instance, is it fair to compare a blue belt that trains 2x a day 5 days a week vs a 30 year old weekend warrior who holds a office job and trains 3x a week? Its a fact that some schools have more of either these type of students.

What about white belts who have black belts in judo or having a D1 college wrestling background?

Recently we have a fresh wave of white belts that enrolled in our Academy. One guy used to play rugby and is pretty tough for the time that he's put in so far. The other white belt is having a hard time just keeping up with going to class two days a week, but it's clear who will be the one to progress faster.

LUKE said...

I agree. There are some clubs that have introduced a belt between white and blue for adults. At ATT this belt is 'green' and is given to those that may have previous martial arts/wrestling experience that gives them an edge in sparring/competition but may not have the technical knowledge that constitutes a blue-belt level.