Promotions and Broken Gym Math

Promotions and Broken Gym Math

Belt promotions are a funny thing. For as joyous of an occasion a promotion should be, many of us can walk away from one with mixed emotions. Yes, we are thrilled that our instructor took the time to recognize the effort and investment we have made in our development, but when we look around at our training partners, we can start to feel as if we didn’t really deserve the promotion.

We look at our training partners with the same rank who were promoted before us and think, “I am nowhere near as good as they are.”

We look at our training partners who were promoted with us and think, “How can we be the same rank if she beats me all the time?”

We look at our training partners with lower ranks and think, “I tap to that person every class. There’s no way I should outrank them.”

Sensing a theme?

We often base whether or not we believe we deserve a promotion on where we think we fit into our gym’s food chain. That’s natural and makes sense on the surface. A purple belt should be able to beat blue belts, which is roughly true but is also a limited view of what a promotion might mean. Ultimately, a promotion is a recognition of progress, and measuring your progress solely on who you can and cannot submit means that you miss much of your own story.

Let me tell you about Dave.

I’ve known Dave since he was knee-high to a duck. Well, not really, but we have trained together for almost a decade. When he first started training, he dropped into my no-gi classes regularly, and soon we became regular training partners outside of classes as well. For many years, I could graze Dave with a butterfly hook and get the sweep, putting me on top and into my A-grade top game, even though Dave is bigger and more athletic than I am.

Here’s the problem: Dave has kept training. After years and years of me doing nothing but butterfly sweeps, his base has evolved. Now if I want to sweep Dave I almost need to stab him in the thigh first and then still take three minutes setting up the perfect trap to actually get the sweep. If I were to judge my own skill based solely on how well I roll against Dave, I would get pretty depressed because Dave has gotten pretty damn good.

Dave’s progress is not a clear indicator of my own progress. Dave getting better does not mean I am getting worse. All it means is that Dave is getting better, which in turn helps me get better as I am challenged in new and in different ways.

If you get a new belt and feel badly about it because of how you think you compare to your training partners, stop. Your instructor has assessed your ability based on a big picture view of your skills and your development, and that’s an assessment that likely happens over months and months of observation. If you insist on doing the gym math to see how you think you add up, you will almost always conclude that you are unworthy (unless you are an egomaniac). That’s because that math is flawed.

Be happy you got a belt. Be happy that you are making progress. And then get back to honing your skills. Leave the belt assessment to the instructors and keep doing your thing.

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