What It Means to be a Brown Belt and How to Make Progress Towards Black

In part one of this series, I gave my best advice for newbie white belts and anxious new blue belts. Part two was for blue belts looking to level up to purple and purples figuring out how to keep progressing. Now I finally get to high level purple belts and brown belts on the verge of reaching black belt.

As a rank, brown belt can have a very wide spread in what that color represents. Nelson and I talked about this last time we trained together. Every belt can represent different things for different people, but it gets more pronounced the closer you get to black belt.

Consider these 3 fictional but common biographies:

Brown Belt #1: Started training BJJ as single 20-something, but now 40-something with a wife and kids. Originally got into BJJ because of first UFCs and dreamed of doing MMA, but couldn’t find good instruction for years while waiting for BJJ to come to his town. Now trains mostly for fun and to stay in shape. Can only make it to class 2-4 nights a week because of family and work obligations. Has a simple game with a few good tricks up his sleeve, but still has trouble with young competitors like Brown Belt #3. Always friendly with new students and supportive of the school, especially financially.

Brown Belt #2: One of the few women to stick with BJJ at her gym long enough to make it to brown belt. Few training partners her size that aren’t teenager boys. Lucky when a female brown or black belt drops in. Has to travel to women-only camps to get more experience with her peers. Competes when she can but has to juggle work and social life. Very dedicated but has trouble getting in solid training with people her size and skill level.

Brown Belt #3: Started training BJJ at 6 years old, wrestled in high school and college, 21 years old now. Competes as much as possible, trains 2 times a day, 6-7 days a week, plus strength and conditioning sessions. No real job beyond helping teach kids classes. Lives with parents. Aspiring to win Worlds and qualify for ADCC.

What being a brown belts means to each of these people is very different, and their instructor will have promoted them for different reasons. The idea that “the same” belt can mean different things for different people is often debated, mostly by lower belts who want the higher ranks to be a definite and unbreakable statement. In making a promotion, an instructor is making a judgment that considers many factors, including the person’s skills, knowledge, dedication, contributions to the school and the sport, their ability against people of similar experience, size and age, tournament performance, and much more.

All that said, in the dream world where we can hold everyone to the exact same standard, here is my best advice for soon-to-be-promoted purple belts and brown belts:

Nail down what defines you as a grappler. The early belts were mostly about filling in the blank spots on the map. This exploration continues through the middle belts, where the focus is usually on adding more techniques, and less on refining what’s already known. By brown belt, you should know what you like and don’t like. You shouldn’t need many more techniques. Own your favorite positions and techniques. Cut out the fat and fluff. You should have a gameplan that you can skillfully execute with confidence against competent opponents.

Sharpen your signature submissions. A solid brown belt should be able to threaten submissions from almost every position. You should feel like you can submit anyone, even the black belts, if given the opportunity. All those years spent developing positional control were so you could be confident once you want to end the fight. The submissions don’t need to be anything fancy (in fact, it’s likely better if it’s just the classics like armbars, chokes, kimuras, etc.) but they need to be sharp, clean, and instill a sense of inevitable doom.

Deepen your appreciation of the fundamentals. The experimentation that often defines the middle blue and purple belts can be fun, but often has people chasing the latest trendy techniques or flavor-of-the-month guard. There’s a time and place for that, especially if you’re a competitor, but they can be a distraction from developing what you will really use throughout your lifetime of training. With all of the experience you’ve gained since white belt, you may be surprised by how much you can gain from reviewing your basics with the desire to see the deeper concepts and finer details. This is especially important if you want to teach and pass the art on to your students.

Shore up your weaknesses. With black belt on the near horizon, this is one of the best times to fix any glaring weaknesses. This may be escaping from certain positions that you’ve gotten good enough to usually avoid. You may define yourself as a “guard player” or a “top game player” to the neglect of the other, and it’s time to develop the opposite skill set. For pure sport BJJ players, the commonly neglected skills are takedowns, self defense, and leglocks. Your weaknesses could also be physical conditioning or mental aspects like a lack of confidence or negative beliefs about yourself.

Stay dedicated and put in the work. The biggest “secret” is that there are no real secrets. Keep coming to class. Study and drill your techniques, keep learning new things, and reviewing old things. Become more efficient, more fluid, more dynamic, more solid. Direct your personal progress by what you do at open mats and during free sparring. Keep your nose to the grindstone, but keep your passion and love for the art alive.