The Mystery of the BJJ Belt Promotion

I have been training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu since Fall 2001. I’ve always been drawn to combat sports, and had wrestled competitively and practiced Hung Gar Kung Fu for years. However, when I found BJJ I found my niche. One of the reasons I fell in love with this martial art/sport is how individualized it is. As a relatively inflexible dude with short arms and legs, I’ve turned what could be potential disadvantages into advantages (try to open my knees from butterfly...I’ll break before you can do it!). Everyone’s game is different. We’ve got lasso players, lapel players, half guard specialists, takedown wizards, guard pullers, inverted guard players, fast passers, tight passers, get the picture.

However, this is a double-edge sword. Because it’s so individualistic, how on earth do we deal with promotion and advancement? The short answer is - everyone’s journey to advancement is also individualistic. Everyone’s path is different, and the time to reach the next level will also be different. The slog to a black belt is a long and arduous one. I trained and competed constantly and was awarded my belt after 9 years, which is relatively fast. I wanted another year at brown to try for one more chance at placing at worlds, but academics and jobs did not allow that to happen.

There is no magic calculation. There is no magic number of classes, or elapsed time, that automatically gives you the next stripe/belt. In the kids classes this is a little more predictable, but it is designed as such. There is no magic number of competition wins, seminars attended, or videos purchased that causes the sweet strip of athletic tape to be put on your belt bar. These factors are certainly taken into consideration (except for the videos part), but aren’t the deciding factor.

When it comes to actually belting up, one major factor is...would you be reasonably competitive at a tournament at the next belt in your age and weight bracket? BJJ is, for better or worse, a martial art with many of the ‘art’ aspects such as katas/forms, etc., removed so all that is left is application. You can ‘know’ a thousand moves, but if you cannot apply any of them, especially in a higher-stress environment such as a tournament, your progression through the belt system might be slower. And that’s OK.

‘What else do we consider? Age is a big factor- we don’t (can’t) expect older students to be able to hang athletically with the younger generation, although it happens a lot, and old-man/woman strength is real. There’s a reason matches in the masters divisions are shorter. However, some of the most technical people we have are the older students, specifically because they cannot rely on athleticism alone. On the other side of the coin - you could be a talented grappler, but if all you do is wrestle to dominate and not embrace learning BJJ techniques and strategy, you will also take a lot longer to progress, especially at the upper belt levels, EVEN IF YOU SUCCEED in tournaments.

A lot of our subjective decision also has to with YOUR goals as a student. If you want to be a high-level competitor on the international stage, you may very well progress more slowly so you can get the looks you need to be competitive for the podium. We’re not advocating sand-bagging- rather, we’re cognizant of what it takes to win at the highest-level tournaments.

Lastly, there is also a holistic approach to promotions. Promotion to the next belt is an indication of our (instructors) trust that you will be a reliable ambassador of our school, and that you will comport yourself appropriately in tournaments, other schools, or with visiting students who come to our gym. If we see you hungrily eyeing a new student so that you can dominate them during rolls, that shows us that you’re not mature enough to move up and take on the responsibility of mentoring these students as a higher belt. BJJ is controlled violence, there is no doubt about it, and if you cannot control it enough in the gym or in tournaments, that also means you still have more to learn. If you find yourself upset because someone gets promoted before you, then perhaps you need to look at your priority in training - are you chasing the belt, or chasing true progress?

The most important thing for any of our students to know is: you WILL progress. Your pace is your own. The only thing that is an absolute requirement on the road to black belt is time and showing up. We hold our belts to a high standard, and I would confidently put any of our belts in any competition with the belief that they have a good of a chance of winning. Even if you decide NOT to compete, rest assured we would be confident in your ability should you choose to do so. I know it’s difficult not to compare yourself to others during your journey, but there are so many factors that are agonized over by us coaches that you have to trust the process.

And if you ask about when you’re going to get a stripe/new belt, it’s an automatic 6 months before we even consider it.

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