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'TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN'
article by: Vince ChooNo! That's outrageous! What a joke! Unacceptable. You cannot change this. You must not change that. You're diluting the art! This is the crie de coeur that's happened recently. It seems that I have ruffled some feathers in the BJJ community with a recent article I wrote about the Monkey Jits program that is offered as part of the Crazy Monkey Defense program.
Let me elaborate to shed more light on this topic; firstly, what I offer via the Monkey Jits is the option for clients to take part in a competition or not. It is not mandatory for a client to participate in a competition in order to receive their next rank. Competing is an individual activity and has as many positive benefits as much as negative benefits. Secondly, I am not the one changing anything. If you read carefully, I'm just reporting on the words coming out from the mouths of two 8 degree BJJ Black & Red belts, and a host of other BJJ Black Belts. Thirdly, I am in no position to make any changes to BJJ. I'm just a beginner. What does Wikipedia say?
There have been few published guidelines or standards that determine when a practitioner is ready for promotion, with the criterion generally determined on an individual instructor and/or academy basis. Even the IBJJF, while maintaining an extensive graduation system that takes into account time-in-grade and membership standing, makes no mention of specific performance or skill requirements. When instructors or academies do comment on the criteria needed to achieve the next belt, the most widely accepted measures are:
- The amount of technical and conceptual knowledge a practitioner can demonstrate, and;
- Performance in grappling (randori) within the academy and/or competition.
Technical and conceptual knowledge is judged by the number of techniques a student can perform, and the level of skill with which they are performed in live grappling. This allows for smaller and older practitioners to be recognized for their knowledge though they may not be the strongest fighters in the school. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a distinctly individual sport, and practitioners are encouraged to adapt the techniques to make them work for their body type, strategic preferences, and level of athleticism. The ultimate criterion for promotion is the ability to execute the techniques successfully, rather than strict stylistic compliance.
Informal versus formalized testing
As noted above, the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu historically has had an informal approach to belt promotions, with one or more instructors subjectively agreeing that a given student is ready for the next rank. In recent years however, some academies have moved toward a more systematic, formalized testing approach. This is especially true for the lower ranks, where the decision to promote is arguably the least contentious.
One of the first instructors to publicly publish some of this formalized testing criterion was Roy Harris, who has formalized promotion tests, up to and including black belt.Formalized tests are generally based around the same elements as a normal promotion, that is, technical/conceptual knowledge and the ability to apply those techniques against a resisting opponent. Some tests however, take other aspects into account, such as a student's personal character or a basic knowledge regarding the history of the art.
Formalized testing may also contain conditions more familiar to traditional martial arts, such as testing fees and a required amount of pre-testing private lessons with the instructor.
Students are generally encouraged to compete, as it can play an important and often times accelerating role in a practitioner's growth and overall speed of promotion. Competition allows an instructor to gauge a student's abilities while grappling with a fully resisting opponent, and it is not uncommon for a promotion to follow shortly after a good competition performance. In most academies it is not an essential prerequisite for promotion, but there are exceptions to this and in a minority of schools, competing is not only endorsed but required.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Jiu-Jitsu_ranking_system
Ah, the last line reads, "in most academies it is not an essential prerequisite for promotion, but there are exceptions to this and in a minority of schools, competing is not only endorsed but required."
So why the fuss? Perhaps it exactly due to the different cultures at different BJJ academies. Some are 100% competition, the majority are 50/50 or 90/10 competition and some are non-competitive at all (meaning that they don't compete in open events). I have decided to draw a line on the beach and choose a side. I'm Mac and you're PC. Both computers nonetheless but different OS :) At least its very clear where we stand so there are no delusions, lame justifications or excuses to do what we do.
There are some schools who only award ranks based on competition wins, such as Baret Yoshida's BJJ school among many others. I believe that he awards a new belt for every 10 podium wins, however; I may be mistaken so don't quote me on that. But as Wiki points out, this is a minority. This seems a great, easy way for the instructor to gauge a student's ability by testing them in an open competition format against all other students of the same level. That is a different can of worms there which I'll touch on later.
Before I continue, let's rewind the clock to the 1980's, more accurately in the late 80's to early 90's when I was competing in the USA on the A.A.U. Karate circuit. Representing the state of Hawaii at the time, I competed against some of the region's top competitors, national squad members included. If you don't know anything about sport karate, they have been trying to get it approved as an Olympic event since the 1950's, and still trying.
They have unified rules, standardized competition formats, scoring formats, approved clothing guidelines, etcetera all in accordance to Olympic event requirements. A typical AAU competition will see anything from 300 competitors up to 900 (at least that's the largest I've participated in) in a single day. There are so many divisions for every age, weight, belt category. There are so many officials and spectators and it's really a show! These would be the larger competitions that are sanctioned and will forge a path towards representing the national team and from there to compete against other nations in karate competitions. Then there are also the smaller events held almost every weekend where you can expect a minimum of 30 competitors in your division so there would be around 200 people at minimum.
You can participate in the individual sparring event (kumite), team sparring, individual forms (kata), team forms and rack up wins and a reputation. From there the stage is set for larger events until you are ready for the State, then Regional and finally the Nationals. You can see there are a lot of competitors in these events, some of whom are superb athletes, while others, you wonder if they wandered into the wrong event and everyone one in between.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
The competition team at my former dojo consisted of 6 or so guys who took part for fun and it was. The camaraderie, the travelling, the excitement, the special training sessions, the preparations, and all the events leading up to each tournament was loads of fun. The 6 guys represented only 2 or 3% of my former club membership. The rest were retirees, adults, military, law enforcement officers, college kids, high school kids who didn't participate at this level of competition but they were not ostracized, segregated, but belonged with the whole group and the part of the "team" even though they didn't attend our championships or cheered for us from the bleachers.
During training, despite our competition prowess and experience, there were a number of members in the club who should have been competing alongside as they were so good at what they did and more. They had the time and luxury to develop a more well-rounded game, different angles and combination set ups to trounce us easily and we learned from these individuals as much as from our main coach. These were the "unofficial" coaches who never competed, simply because their martial art meant something else to them at a very deep, personal level. They did not want to express that in an arena of 300 people. Some were military, some were working professionals (architects, businessmen and such) and I would hate to bump into them in a dark alleyway and be on their wrong sides. There was a simple elegance and refinement to their technique that was not present in most of the competitors'. The sense of timing and distance was spot on, but their skills was not lacking in any sense.
Back on the competition floor, I've witnessed poor sportsmanship more often than great sportsmanship. I've seen fathers publicly scold and beat their kids for losing a match and start fist fights with the referees over decisions. I've seen the crowds react and heckle questionable win decisions and have also been on the receiving end of the same due to favouritism and "pressure". Whether the event is in the USA or in Malaysia, the same traits emerge again and again. In the end, the negatives outweighed the positives. Even when you win legitimately, someone out there who is a sore loser will leave you with a scathing, sarcastic remark to darken your otherwise bright day. There are great, friendly competitors and there are lousy, insecure champions and everyone in between. Don't fool yourself with the romantic notion that all champions are pure, innocent and fight for freedom, justice and the truth. As we will see later on, there are plenty of former champions whose true colours are revealed after the public relations machines and managers have been withdrawn and they are left to their own devices.
In addition to karate, I've also competed in judo, fencing, and swimming. Over the years I feel that I've competed enough and I've enjoyed the run and now to pass on the experiences to the next generation.
Back to the present day.
But karate is NOT BJJ I hear you say. 100% correct. I was drawing the similarities of sport and competition training. Competitions all share the same or similar format, whether its judo, boxing, wrestling, ping pong, lawn bowls or darts, there are stages and rules, and all competitors will experience the rush and play by the rules as much as they can. But BJJ competition is not the same as a karate competition. That's right too. They are not the same but you think someone playing in a golf championship for a million bucks is going to feel any less stressed than someone going for the gold medal in synchronized swimming? You think a golfer trains any less than a someone going for 100 meter race in the nationals? Please grow up, competition is competition.
I've lost count of the number of competitions I've participated in, sanctioned, in house, regionals, state level, within the association, within the style, etc. Maybe 90, maybe more. I've competed in the UK, USA and in Malaysia. I don't remember them all but would it make any difference whether the event was a poker game competition or boxing match? Someone is going to lose and experience hurt (physical, emotional, financial, egoistical, confidence, etc.) and someone else will win. One day it's you and another day it'll be another person. That's the game. We will all win and lose on different levels. Some wins are great and definitive while others leave a bad taste in your mouth. Some losses are educational while others make you angry or regretful for taking part.
By allowing the individual's prerogative to compete, is the best option. By penalizing someone for not competing, I think is unfair. What if the person cannot compete (for whatever reason- personal, medical, financial, emotional, psychological, physical, etc.) and cannot be graded is a sure fire way to kill the art.
There are professional gamblers. They go about different casinos around the world and some casinos don't let them play or only let them play (compete) at very high stakes. If we apply the same principle, only competitive, high stakes gamblers should play poker. I don't think many people would agree. Poker is a fun game whether or not you gamble for money or clothes or gamble at all. Poker is played worldwide. Some do it professionally because that's their lives. They are good at it and make a living from it. Is it for me? No, I don't like it that much and more importantly I don't have the talent for poker. Doesn't mean I can't play it for fun and I wouldn't call myself a professional poker player. On a side note, there are lots of websites and magazines promoting poker as a sport and profession. Yeah, I was surprised too.
In Brazil, there are young, competitive blue and purple belts who submit black belts all the time. Do these black belts go and commit suicide after that or give their training partners a hug and thanks for a good roll and sharing a great technique. I think not! There are hundreds of black belts who don't compete but who regularly give champions a hard time on the mats. Where do you think BJJ competitors get constant training partners from? Only via competition or via their home gyms where it's ok to make a mistake and have someone correct you in a safe training environment?
Competition can come in many forms. It can be your best training buddy on the mats or facing the unknown in a tournament. It can manifest as an internal challenge to master a technique but above all, the fundamental reason for competition is to allow one to grow. This often doesn't end up this way though as we all have skeletons in the closet that sabotage our efforts to a greater or lesser degree.
Individuals who are centered and have been properly coached, both physically and psychologically to enter a competition arena with a positive attitude and leave with the same. How many do so? Unfortunately, not a lot. Most trainers understand the physical aspects of training but are clueless when it comes to the mental preparation, pre-competition, during the competition and post-competition de-briefing. That's one of the reasons why you often read about former sports superstars using drugs, BJJ stars using drugs, resorting to violence or involved in financial scams (motivated by greed) in bouts of depression (because they don't get the same "high" from being in front of thousands of fans so they do something else abusive to themselves or their spouses as a substitute). Are these the role models you want to have? Would you invite them to your home and trust them with your family, girlfriend, wife or kids?
My reason for this is because everyone trains in a martial art for personal reasons. If your desire is to become the next BJJ superstar competitor then absolutely, you will have to compete to showcase your skills. If you are training to enhance your skills as an undercover law enforcement or VIP protection detail, then staying out of the public eye is a great decision. I've had one of the European Royal family personal body guard come to train with us and in addition to a military career and responsibility as the Prince's personal bodyguard, he has his own family to look after.
Different motivations for different people; I hope you can appreciate how different people whose job may be to protect the lives of others or the casual hobbyist to learn some cool moves to impress their school friends or a girl down the street may want different things from learning martial arts. You cannot have a blanket policy for all. After all, the belt only means something to its wearer. It is a personal symbol of progression, advancement and growth. Some grow at a faster rate than others and not all are equal. Such is the law of Life. For example, it's not fair that someone like BJ Penn can achieve his black belt in 4.5 years while I was still stuck at blue belt in the same amount of time. No, it's not fair that BJ Penn can train 24/7, everyday with top level instructors as his lifestyle and circumstances affords him that lifestyle while I have to work and deal with business. However BJ Penn has the talent and athleticism and he has achieved what millions cannot. This is what makes him special but what of the non-BJ Penns in the world?
The can of worms
Many BJJ academies agree that a great way to evaluate a student is via competition. This becomes a double edged sword. On one hand an unscrupulous instructor can use competition as a bait to keep the students chasing the belt. He can deliberately "hold back" a student in white belt, for example and keep the individual competing there for many years to "test" them. Others call this sandbagging. It's like a Olympic Judo black belt competing as a BJJ white belt and keeps throwing everyone for the win. On the other hand, the student realises that his or her evaluation is based on the outcome of the tournament will resort to their main technique again and again until they specialise in only that singular technique but as we all know BJJ is beautiful because of the depth and breadth of the techniques. As an instructor, do you only want a student who is one-dimensional.
Some, not all, BJJ competitors only have an "on-off" switch. They are highly competitive and have an attitude about it. They strut when they win, but storm off, often yelling in frustration if they lose, even if its a friendly, in-house training roll. Every roll is as if it's life or death, even against total beginners or smaller, lighter people or the few women in the class. What gives? What's there to prove or are they using the roll as a vent for their problems at work or home?
Many competition based schools have a lot of students with bandaged elbows, knees, and neck injuries. Back injuries are common place too. Injuries costs and causes family members and spouses to worry, often the catalyst for arguments leading to other greater problems in "the real world". With every injury, I fail to see how that makes you a better competitor. It either meant that your partner did not respect the tap, the referee did not enforce the rules, or you failed to submit in time because you either did not recognize the submission was in completion or you were too proud to admit defeat.
I've injured people accidentally. I still feel bad about it and this was almost 4 years ago. I really felt that it could have been avoided but at the moment the individual did the wrong thing and the term was "spazzed out". Although it wasn't my fault, I still feel responsible. This is how injuries happen. It makes people feel bad even when you weren't the one who was injured. Some people laugh it off as if it is a hard-core, macho thing to do. Those are the ones I don't want to train with.
Some competitors are really bad teachers. Some people don't know how to communicate and have a real time expressing themselves verbally. They don't know how to show, lack the patience and vocabulary to teach someone to do what they do and I'm not the only one who thinks so. BJJ Black belt Stephen Kesting also advocates that top competitors do not necessarily make the best teachers. Can we agree that a few competitors are excellent teachers but most are not? It's no coincidence that the best teachers are the ones who have stopped competing. They have focused their energy into becoming better teachers.
So why do people compete if not for the shallow desire to "prove something" or to chase the next belt?
Competing is not the cheapest activity. For many in the South East Asian region, there is a lot of flights, hotels, and the risk of injury is high. Injuries may cost you time off work and no work means no pay in some cases.
Surely there must be more. Testing your technique? Facing your fears? We have to question what motivates us to compete. You have the answer inside yourself. You just have to face it.
So there are people who enjoy practicing and playing the martial arts for fun. It's something that appeals to their warrior archetype personality. It doesn't mean that you have to be rated in the top 10 BJJ players in the world to enjoy what BJJ has to offer. It simply means that this is person who enjoys this martial art. This person may not necessarily have to compete in the martial art to enjoy what the art has to offer. As an example, many people have heard of Chuck Norris, Dan Inosanto and Ed O'Niell (and a whole bunch of other celebrities). I believe they are also BJJ Black belts and I don't think they have any competition records.
For those who enjoy competitions, you can also have in-house competitions like these guys:
I don't think the larger white belt was having an easy time and the smaller blue belt definitely is fighting hard. This is a fun way to train and probably a lot more realistic for the smaller guy to train against a larger opponent in a fun, safe environment. You could say the smaller guy definitely is a blue belt or you could say the white belt was holding back his 100% strength and weight. Whatever, but they enjoyed the roll and no one got hurt. Everyone went home to talk about this event over dinner. Fun!
When we started BJJ in KL back in 2003, the only competitions were the ones we organized ourselves. People in the local BJJ scene are still far and few and remain scarce. Malaysians are just not used to nor accept the grappling scene. Most are uncomfortable with the close contact, the sweat and "roughness" but to me that's the currency you pay for developing skills on the ground. To date, I still don't think there are enough local participants to justify a competition although there are now close to 20 blue belts in the country. Maybe...?
More on competitiveness, I avoid this type of competition/competitor:
As the sport matures and becomes more accessible worldwide, naturally there will be a growth and different people will specialise in different areas of the sport. For example, in Judo there are specialists like Kashiwazaki who is known for his Judo Newaza while others like Russian Shota Khabarelli who uses a unique pickup throw and are known for them. Some judoka never practice the grappling or newaza aspect while others specialize in them and are all regarded part of the same family. There are probably a lot more judoka who do not compete because they recognise that they do not have the necessary skills, talent, or mindset for it.
I'd like to end this by sharing some links to other discussions and circular debates on a related subject of BJJ belt ranks as more food for thought: