Ask a Panda: Who Has to Move It, Move It?

Question: I am a purple belt with four stripes. The other day I was rolling with a blue belt when two other purple belts, one with no stripes and one with two, collided with us. I asked them to move, but they said two purple belts outrank a purple and a blue, even though I pointed out that I have more stripes than either of them. The instructor agreed with the purple belts, but at the end of the very same class made sure I was higher in the ranking line than they were when we bowed out. What is the correct way to handle these kinds of situations? Does my rank trump two purples with fewer stripes even when I am rolling with a lower belt, or are the two purple belts in the right?

Answer: In these kinds of situations, “correct” and “incorrect” are going to depend in large part on what your instructors say. It is true there is a generally accepted protocol when it comes to belt/stripe rankings, where the highest-ranking person trumps everyone else, even if that person is rolling with someone brand new to the sport. For instance, a third-degree black belt could be rolling with a first-day white belt, but if they ran into two second-degree black belts, etiquette would dictate that the second-degree black belts move out of the way.

There may be exceptions, however. I am fond of saying that “foot beats face,” for instance, which means that if I see someone’s heel coming for my forehead, I am going to move if I possibly can, regardless of whether I outrank the person that heel is attached to. (I developed this philosophy through unfortunate experience, and as a result, I tend to focus more on safety than ceremony.) Or perhaps a higher-ranking pair is in a stable position (e.g., one is inside the other’s closed guard) while the lower ranked pair is in the midst of a scramble, which means the higher-ranked pair could more easily move. The point is, this generally accepted rule about who must move for whom is not hard and fast, and it may be interpreted differently by different instructors.

In the case you mentioned, the issue seems to be that the rule—one person’s higher rank trumps any two people’s lower rank—is being applied inconsistently. As you mentioned, when you line up to start or end class, you as the highest-ranked purple belt are placed at the front of the line. But when collisions occur on the mat, a different rule seems to apply, at least according to the instructor who taught that class.

I suspect that in many schools this is one of those pieces of jiu-jitsu etiquette that is not taught explicitly, but instead is something students pick up tacitly as they become acculturated to training. Perhaps this is true of your school as well. Instructors who do not teach this are not trying to be obtuse. Rather, they are probably like fish who have become unaware of the water in which they are swimming, and, as such, they do not immediately recognize what it is like to have just dived in.

My suggestion to you is that you ask your instructor for clarification of the assumptions you are making about rank and who must defer and when. Feel free to use this article as a starting point. The upshot is, if you are confused, chances are others are confused as well. Your instructor might welcome the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions, as this will lead to an even safer and more respectful training environment.

Thank you for the question, and good luck!