There has been much discussion recently regarding the validity of the BJJ belt ranking system in the modern no gi grappling scene, after seeing “blue belts” winning ADCC trials and even reaching the podium at top-tier events amongst a field of higher ranks, including black belt practitioners. Many competitions now group purple and above in to an advanced competitor bracket and some have no belt pre-requisite at all.
This fact could indicate somewhat of a crossroads in modern BJJ ideology with the idea of “allowing” a lower belt to compete against higher belts being a topic of discussion within itself. When this idea is cross-referenced with pure wrestling events (for example), where no rank requirement is necessary, we begin to see a slightly more truthful and balanced competitive outcome take shape. The argument of safety will always be at the forefront when competing in a rule set with the ability to apply submissions, so in this way, the argument can be made for either position.
One thing I believe we can agree on is that whilst the landscape changes, one of the most important things to keep intact is the objective, application-based rank and progression system that has kept BJJ so strong throughout their history and aided in not devolving into a “belts for cash” McDojo Ponzi scheme.
Belt gradings can be used as a guideline or motivator, or potentially a benchmark. Though at the end of the day, one must be able to apply technique against fully resisting opponents who are also educated in the art in order to demonstrate their true skill and progression.
A coach, or any person who is in the position of assessing an individual practitioner, should weigh up one’s intention vs their outcomes in rolling; What they were attempting to achieve vs what they actually achieved. Assess the individuals knowledge to application ratio; What knowledge do they posses on a topic compared to how they apply that knowledge in real time? Is this individual potentially being graded on a scale? i.e. Are you using the competitor or hobbyist scale? Certainly, many factors to include, but all are based on the individual practitioner’s journey and not on a comparative basis, meaning the coach or assessor must truly know the individual they are grading very well in order to make those calls.
A coach has even more to assess when it comes to the human side of grading as this is pivotal to maintain the integrity of the art. Some factors I include in my own decision making are how well does this person communicate and contribute to those around them? Are they willing to share, aid others and grow as a group? Are they a positive influence in the academy without any questions as to their ethics or morals? Have they made progress in that regard as well as their technical progress? For me, those are important factors that should be preserved at all costs.
Unfortunately, all those factors are eradicated by an academy adopting a curriculum-based grading approach. It means that a morally poor individual can be graded to a high level without hinderance. That, to me, is not just problematic, but very detrimental. And a mistake that I have resolved not to make.
In my opinion a curriculum/syllabus/check list for learning BJJ can be somewhat useful (particularly for juniors), but if used as an exclusive grading criterion for belts; it’s almost completely irrelevant. I would go as far as to say that in truth, it can be quite damaging to the integrity and standard of grappling overall.
Working from a checklist means you can show someone else that you know the name of a move and what the mechanics are in the sole instance that relates to that move. It does not however, demonstrate that you understand the context of when to use the move, how it fits in to the broader game, or even if it is relevant to you as an individual practitioner. In short, you will know the move, but you will not understand the technique.
A curriculum/syllabus removes all the individuality from grappling. Everyone’s body type, preferences, mobility, balance, flexibility, strength, co-ordination, and strategic understanding will greatly separate them in terms of how they apply their techniques. To attempt to standardize that is a true disservice to what makes grappling so special, which is just how diverse and creative the individual can be with the arts.
A curriculum also nullifies the personal aspect of the journey, which is self-improvement as a human being. Everyone’s pathway to a new belt should be different! Some will take longer at one belt and less time at another, struggle at times before adapting and then excel through perseverance and introspection.
When it comes to the relevance of belts, or the usage of them as motivation in BJJ, I think it really can be quite simple. I believe that gradings should be special. There should be a personal milestone met, not just a study for a hollow test. Generally when you cram for a test, much of that information is lost once the test is over, pass or fail.
You don’t just want to be a new belt for one day, you want to have the lessons engrained within you so that you have a platform to progress from, for your whole life.
Who you get your belt from should matter and how you feel about getting the belt should matter too. It should mean something to you, and it should really mean something to the person who awards it to you as well. It is the personal aspect to the belt system and the community building potential that is worth being preserved.
I have included here a summary of each belt through my eyes. Whether we deem them relevant or not, these have always been my thoughts regarding grappling progression in general. I hope you can relate and enjoy.
What Do Belts In BJJ Really Mean?
The white belt rank is incredibly difficult as students with absolutely no knowledge of grappling begin to take on completely foreign concepts and new ideas regarding the art of combat and are therefore prone to being overwhelmed with information. Taking the core fundamental approach; The white belt proceeds to learn about the technical aspects of each position and positional hierarchy, with these concepts being related to anatomy and efficiency. Simply put, the student learns why the positions exist and how they are powerful and effective.
From here it is normal for the student to be attracted to submissions and the finishing aspects of the game however the most important step to take is conceptual, like learning about the details of framing. If defensive and offensive framing can be understood and pursued at this fundamental level; much more educated rolling interactions will begin to surface. The attention to detail of defending one’s “Zone of Control” whilst rolling will add a deeper level of immediate composure for the student and curtail the instinctual response to push and pull with great force and without aim. It also helps to circumvent the tendency to fixate too much on one specific technique, allowing the individual to think and breath whilst problem solving in the moment.
In order to move from this to the blue belt level, a technical metamorphosis must occur with the student showing the aptitude and ability to gather all relevant core information and begin to translate it in to composed rolling interactions that lead them to a well-rounded understanding of the game in total.
Finding and utilising basic submissions is the final functional step at the white belt level. What’s possibly more important though, is the student demonstrating the mental and emotional breakthrough of removing strength and power from their movements. Not attempting to “win” every roll within the academy and to truly demonstrate comprehension of why the pursuit of this is so important in their overall progression. Until this is achieved, a blue belt cannot be given.
Now that the student has demonstrated a well-rounded knowledge of the fundamentals of Jiu-Jitsu and has developed to a point of having safe, composed and mutually beneficial rolling interactions with all students; the inevitable next step for the student is to begin to develop a specific individual system that suits their body type, athletic attributes and physical limitations. Accordingly, the individual student will naturally gravitate towards developing techniques and pathways in which they find immediate initial success and comfortability with, favouring some positions, pathways and submissions over others and choosing to focus on the development of their “A-Game”.
This instinct should not be curtailed! However, it should certainly be channelled. Good advice and mentoring here will allow BJJ blue belts to begin to make logical links and connections in their total grappling perspective; a practice which will serve them extremely well when it comes time for outside-of-the-box techniques to begin to be incorporated to their game.
When the blue belt student begins to identify, from each scenario and position; clear, precise, efficient pathways towards sweeps, passes, reversals and submissions the practitioner will begin to be looked at closely for the purple belt rank. To tip the scale, a dedication and commitment to consistency in class and knowledge-sharing will also be considered at this stage as this is an important communal trait that is expected to blossom throughout their journey. Starting the process here will speak volumes to one’s character and push them over the line to the purple belt rank.
Now that we have a practitioner who is community-minded and confident in their grappling systems, the next step forward becomes much more about understanding the games of their opponents and equipping themselves with the necessary tools to identify and defend against them. Part of this is developing well thought-out attack systems of their own, developing strategies that incorporate both their own goals and those of their opponents to put them a step ahead when rolling.
This process is also a natural one as the student begins to become exposed to precise gameplans from their grappling partners and potentially their competition opponents. Another trait of successful purple belts heading towards the next level in the BJJ ranking system is the chaining and linking aspect of both their submission attacks and defensive movements.
As these two aspects blend and become more seamless, new timing elements and technique choices will present themselves and the necessity for the student to begin to incorporate techniques and tactics outside of their own preferred strategies will become necessary. When the student demonstrates an understanding of the aforementioned and begins to shift their focus from their own wheelhouse of techniques to the broader game of all that is possible, a demonstration of the next step has been shown.
Speed, timing, fluidity, broadening of techniques and ability to execute new strategies in real time situations all surmise the necessary progression process for a purple belt. With these new skills, it is also expected that the purple belt gives time to share their newfound understanding of BJJ with blue belts and white belts in class time to further solidify their understanding of techniques and to show support to the aspiring students. The act of integrating these aspects naturally will show the appropriate progression for the next rank.
This is the belt dedicated to details. At this point a vast understanding of grappling is already present, now the focus becomes almost like white belt once again. Brown belts will concentrate the attention to the anatomy and details of every single concept, position, submission finish, game plan strategy and the interplay of all these aspects of BJJ.
A common trait of this belt is the practitioner developing truly inescapable control positions by enhancing their fundamental details to the point of peak precision and energy efficiency. In turn, the development of truly sharp and almost inescapable submission chains is the hallmark of the brown belt rank.
Along with this, a deeper understating of individual strategy begins to take place, with the student building upon the expansion efforts at purple belt as they look outside of their own skill set and break down or reverse-engineer a potential gameplan for absolutely any practitioner of any size, shape, ability, or rank.
Due to this, an expectation of enhanced leadership qualities, humility and respect for all participants becomes prevalent when considering brown belts for the next BJJ belt level. Showing true long-term dedication, an aptitude to coach and mentor with positivity and efficacy along with intelligent and refined functional skills will be the indicator of when the student is ready for the next rank.
The black belt is the culmination of all learning that has taken place in the individual’s journey to this point. The functional characteristics of this rank are depicted with the ability to read between the lines when rolling. Subtle blocking, mastery of timing, peak fluidity, and precision with all technique in every aspect of the game is the expectation.
Along with this being the height of one’s technical ability, in order to join the ranks of black belts in BJJ one must also exhibit exceptional traits as a human being that portray true communal, humble and respectful attributes that uphold the values that this rank represents. Every individual will have their own personal set of personality upgrades that simply must occur prior to this rank being awarded. This is an important ideal that must be upheld in order to maintain the dignity and integrity of the art. As the wearer of this belt will be looked upon with authority and trust they must exhibit the traits of an individual, even outside of grappling, that shows the capacity to fulfil those responsibilities.
Black Belts are at a point of re-dedication to every single aspect of grappling as the wearer has a duty and responsibility to share their knowledge as widely as they can and to aid in the evolution of BJJ overall, elevating all of those around them.
For more of our opinion pieces on various topics, visit our opinion piece archives.
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