The Belt Problem

I must say when it comes to the issue of belts, there are so many misconceptions. Let me make it clear!!! Belts aren’t everything but they can be very useful for the sake of organization in my opinion. Rank keeps a structure in a gym/academy that lets people coming in know where people generally stand.

Once again, a belt rank just shows where you are in regards to what you’ve learned and your experience level. Having a high rank doesn’t automatically make you a certified murderer. I’m sure some wise instructors and professors don’t hold the former Division II wrestler to the same standard as the soccer mom trying an alternative way to workout (refer to my blog on Athletes and Non Athletes).

If anything, belts and stripes are for the teachers. It helps instructors and coaches keep track of their students. I know where you are as far as training goes. I have an idea of what to expect from a student. I know what standard to hold a student to. Especially, if you have a lot of students in a Taekwondo academy. Rank can be very helpful. It’s not everything but it can be helpful.

I mean, some people can take rank way too seriously. I’ve seen practitioners try to discredit purple belts and brown belts with citing “you’re not a black belt” meanwhile the person complaining is a white belt. Some people will let it affect the social dynamics of how teammates interact with each other….. off the mat. Of course, in situations like tournaments and such, rank should matter. But I’d like to think that grown adults should not let go so far as to how they conduct themselves at a bar. But then again what do I know? I’m just a blue belt. 

Some jiujiteros let the color of their belt get wrapped around their ego. When a higher belt gets tapped by a lower belt, sometimes a barrage of excuses like “you’re strong” or “I was going easy” tend to come out rather than just admitting that they were tapped by a lower belt and that low belt is growing as a practitioner. Sometimes those excuses are true but that neglects the fact that higher belts can be humbled by lower belts. Isn’t that part of the beauty of BJJ. It’s constantly humbling. Reminding us of our mortality every time we step on the mat. Telling us that we are all human and can be harmed as easily as we can harm others. Rewarding us for the time we spend studying such flaws of the human body.

Speaking of rewarding, the way of belt advancement is as universal as it is diverse. Many professors find fun and creative ways to surprise their students with a belt promotion. Pulling it out of their gi, finding ways to blindfold people, tying people into knots to where they don’t realize that there’s a new knot around their waist. Even promoting people on the podium has been shown as a method… although for sake of optics it’s probably best not to give a new belt to the person standing in third place with first and second place guys witnessing the person they just smashed becoming a higher belt.

Y’all can judge me if y’all want but by far my favorite way of belt promotion is via an actual test. It’s the exact way my professors prefer to do belt promotions. Perhaps it’s my TKD bias but I find a formal test very enlightening to see where someone stands in their experience and technical knowledge. There isn’t a better way of showing that you know what you know but cutting away all the noise and actually demonstrating the technique while talking through and discussing exactly where your hands and feet go. And telling why. It ensures that while a person rolls, they aren’t doing the live action equivalent of button mashing while playing ground quantum physics (my favorite way of describing jiujitsu). It ensures that the techniques are actually understood. 

Also, movements done on previous tests are encouraged to be repeated on future tests. A white belt doing an armbar from guard should be different from how a purple belt does an armbar from guard. Showing progression and improvement. Things that should take time, drilling and experience.

I mean part of the reason why BJJ is so popular is because the style doesn’t pressure you to chase rank. It takes off the pressure of “ I gotta do such and such to level up” and let’s the practitioners just enjoy their time on the mat and improve their skills. It’s especially helpful for people looking to fight and compete because you’re not distracted with doing what’s required for rank. There’s plenty of time to just focus on getting better. An appeal for the athletes. Those people who are more concerned about who they can hang in there with rather than what color is around their waist. 

In the same realm, that’s why the traditional system for BJJ may not work for younger ages. Perhaps a preteen won’t mind having to slowly work his way through the ranks like anybody older, but it will cause issues for those age 8 and younger. If younger kids don’t have a tangible/reachable goal or some visible way to see their own progress, then they’ll get bored, discouraged or will think it’s just plain “too hard” and eventually quit. That’s why the IBJJF belt system for ages 16 and below has so many levels and stripe ranks.

Even as a Taekwondo instructor, things can tend to get slow when someone reaches black belt. There’s not exactly new techniques to learn but rather perfecting and learning to mix up what you already know. Also, waiting years in between belts can seem like a long wait (and yes we have black belts below the age of 16 in our TKD program; I’ll explain in another blog). Once again, the prospect of waiting a long time between belts gives time for people who fight and compete to focus on just that. The people who will struggle with this time lapse are the ones that don’t compete and don’t even go out to explore the style with other practitioners. In other words, the people who just show up to the gym to chase belts and leave are going to have a hard time staying motivated and put themselves in a rut. 

This problem doesn’t really occur as often in BJJ. In an ever evolving style with new guards and the latest whatever-trap system, it’s hard to find yourself getting bored with so much to learn and master. Also, the overall culture of the style is different (something I’ll discuss in another blog). As a combative art, BJJ doesn’t forget about the “combat” part. If your professor wants to see you compete in a tournament before you earn a rank, well so be it. If professor needs you to do a super fight match, you’re there. If your professor asks you to do a cage fight for your black belt…. welp, looks like you’re getting in that cage.

A meme created by someone funnier than me.

With so many avenues within the discipline to explore, it’s easy to stay busy if you want. From different tournaments, to rule set matches and things like combat jiujitsu (yes, I like me some slap grappling) can give new perspective on the same old thing. And skills can be tested in extreme methods like fighting in MMA. A whole lot of ways to show the work and the grit behind whatever belt you have. A rank system that tends to keep things simple.

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the standard white, blue, purple, brown and black system is what guides the style as a whole. The system isn’t the “ultimate guide” or “end-all-be-all” to deciphering someone’s skill level but it helps to create a color-coded map to navigate through the growing world of practitioners. 

I must say as a person with a Taekwondo base, the belt system in BJJ is a MASSIVE breath of fresh air. Most people don’t realize the confusion caused by the TKD belt systems because of the word I just pluralized. Systems as in more than one. As I say to many people who ask me about TKD belt systems; you can walk into my academy and see the belt system and notice it’s nothing like the belt system at the academy less than a mile from us. These system differences have been caused by a mixture of schisms, people wanting to do their own thing and the usual culprit that is money.

The main two factions of TKD are the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) and the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). Then there’s other schools of practitioners like American Taekwondo Association (ATA). Then there’s American Modified Taekwondo (AMT; although it’s considered Karate). Then there are schools that neither associate or identify as any of the school systems I just mentioned.

These systems can get so complex that I even had to explain to a friend of mine how I was never a purple belt at any point in time learning Taekwondo.

Just be glad that in BJJ, people are only burdened with white, blue, purple, brown and black (and I coral too). It doesn’t matter if you’re in Brazil, the US, the UK, Arab Emirates, Spain, France, Mexico, Uruguay, Australia, Senegal, Japan, Barbados or the Philippines; the system is congruent wherever you go. If not, well…… the rest of the community will call you out for it. Some instructors with merit might do something but they ultimately have a good reason for doing so. For the most part, if you do things wrong or fake and label yourself BJJ, expect a knock on the door from what one of my coaches likes to call the jiujitsu mafia.

Really, what people should take away is that the belt should be a reflection of YOUR progression. Whether you are an athlete, non-athlete, competition fighter, weekend fighter, hobbyist, lobbyist; whatever. Make sure that you’re improving yourself and have something to actually SHOW for that belt rank. I’d rather be the world’s nastiest blue belt in the world than be an average or below average brown belt. Stop comparing yourself to others. It doesn’t hurt to measure where you can improve on the grand scheme of where you are but don’t get caught up in it (unless you’re a competitor because that’s the point I guess). If you’re a better practitioner, martial artist and person from your journey from white belt to blue belt, then you’re on the right path. Just make sure to keep improving.

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