The Right and Wrong Way to Think About Belts

In the drama filled world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, few topics create more drama than belt ranks and promotions. Let’s talk about the good and bad aspects of belts, starting with the negatives:

MISTAKE #1: Focusing on belt rank instead of personal development

How often have you heard talk like this? “Can you believe that purple belt got tapped out by that white belt? Did you hear that a new blue belt tapped out a brown belt? Can you believe that guy got his stripe before me? I’ve been training for a full 3 weeks longer!”

The belt hierarchy can bring out this pettiness in people. Gossiping about who deserves what belt, and who taps who, creates a negative environment that is not ideal. Learning happens best when students are free to try and fail -- that’s how we learn, after all -- without fearing how others will treat them or what is said behind their backs.

MISTAKE #2: Thinking a new belt color will instantly change your life

As a beginner, it’s easy to look up to those higher belts (or even striped white belts) and think they are on another, almost unattainable, level. Then one day you get promoted to that supposedly untouchable rank and you realize you’re still just a human with no superpowers.

MISTAKE #3: Asking your instructor for your belt promotion

Many instructors, especially old school ones, have a rule (often unspoken) against students asking about belts and promotions. In fact, bringing it up may even be seen as a sign you’re not ready because your head is in the wrong place. I know an instructor who half joked that if someone ever asked about their next belt, he’d add 6 months. You risk offending your instructor by making them feel like you’re second guessing them and know better than they do whether you’re ready or not. I’m not saying the instructor is correct for acting like this, but it’s something to watch out for.

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With those pitfalls in mind, let’s now turn to how we can use belts to improve ourselves:

Using belts to set goals and understand your journey

While I have spent most of this article warning against caring too much about belts, there are positive ways to use the system. The key is shifting the focus away from the belt rank itself, and instead focusing on acquiring the skills and traits that will earn you the rank up.

Knowing what is expected of a student at your level and what they should be striving towards can give you a clear focus on what to work on. Many instructors, including myself, have written about what students should work on as they move up the ranks. You can read my series here:

Talking about belts the right way

So I said earlier that talking about belts with your instructor can be a touchy subject, but there are ways to go about. You will do better with questions like “What skills do I need to work on to get to my next belt?” or simply “What do I need to work on to improve?” (leaving out any mention of belt). If you’re worried your instructor is a hardass who won’t even want to talk about it like this, you can try asking the higher belts who aren’t involved in your promotions.

Understand that promotions are not a science

Each instructor has his or her own criteria for promotion, and even then they are not applied to everyone the same way. Each student gets judged individually and may be promoted (or not promoted) for different reasons.

This can be very frustrating when you wish you knew exactly what you needed to do to get promoted, but that’s just the way it is. The best you can do is keep showing up, learn all you can, and push yourself past your limits.

Matt Kirtley

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