Build Skills, Not Belts

There’s always students in the academy that you look at and wonder if they deserve their jiu-jitsu rank. There’s others that you wonder why they haven’t been promoted. Stop wondering. It’s not healthy or productive. As the highest ranked student in my academy, as well as the fundamentals instructor, I’d like to give you reasons why that stripe you’re thinking you deserve mostly doesn’t matter. Then we can cover why the color of your belt is nearly arbitrary.

It’s a jiu-jitsu truism that the only people who say it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get your black belt are usually black belts. But every serious student has that black belt as their biggest goal. On the way to black belt, there is the white belt that indicates you are a beginner, learning the fundamentals and the language of jiu-jitsu. The blue belt that indicates you can take on an unskilled opponent and work some jiu-jitsu magic on them. The purple belt is the gateway to the advanced game where you are discovering what it means to be an expert and applying your skill against skilled opponents. Brown belts are often considered the bullies, imposing their will almost perfectly. Their confidence and skill go hand in hand.

At each of these colored levels, most academies have 4 stripes to indicate the progression through the belt. There are various opinions on how long each stripe should take to get, and normally no two students will have the same intervals between stripes.

Been There, Done That

I remember vividly the anticipation of each level of my progression towards blue belt. When I was finally ready to be promoted by my figuring, it took many more months of training before I was actually handed my blue belt. In that interval I stopped caring. I knew from experience with blue belts that I was ready to join their ranks. Then after the blue belt, I started getting the stripes on my way towards purple. I had friends from other schools and those around me to judge how I was doing. I started competing more, and that further reinforced my perception of how I was doing on the blue to purple scale.

I became focused on how to think like a purple belt, and tried to decide just what it meant to be a purple belt. As with many schools, there wasn’t a formal guideline in place for what a purple belt candidate needed to do to prove the belt. Essentially left to my own devices, I simply started learning what worked well for me, and tried to fill in gaps in my skills. Again, I felt like I reached purple months before the purple belt was finally given to me. I even started competing at the purple belt level and winning even though I had a blue belt on. After getting my purple belt, I had other purple belts around me that had different skill sets than I did, and some I could handle easily, while others would handle me easily. Many more were simply a battle to stalemates. I also discovered that the list of things I wanted to work on was only getting bigger. I no longer had the white belt illusion that black belts knew everything about jiu-jitsu. Every black belt I met was learning and studying the art, working on their game and constantly trying to improve.

Somewhere in my progression to brown, I discovered that I no longer wanted a breakneck pace to black belt. As I write this, I’m a three stripe purple belt, and I feel like I have a lot to work on before I’m worthy of the brown belt.

All this background is a precursor to the discussion of stripes, just so that you know that there was a time when every stripe and colored belt mattered to me. Realistically, it still does, but in a different way.

Stripes

The first thing to realize is that everyone has a different skill set. A can beat B, B can beat C, but perhaps C can beat A. There is nothing wrong with a one stripe thrashing a two stripe. If a one stripe thrashed every two stripe, then they’d probably actually be a 4 stripe. I have never seen a scenario where one or two stripe differences actually mean anything, unless you are talking about a no stripe white belt with no grappling background against a two stripe white belt. After that, there is no clear pattern.

Furthermore, you and your stripe hunting biddies are not qualified to evaluate your stripe stature.  Honestly, I think this task is best suited to instructors that couldn’t care less about stripes and belt colors but merely need some way to provide feedback to students, much like giving out grades for test scores. At worst, you may find that your skills haven’t been noticed and you’ll suddenly get two stripes or more, while others seem to get regularly spaced stripes. If everyone is training hard and learning all the time, does it matter if the person next to you has two stripes and you have none, even if you appear evenly matched?

You may not realize it, but there’s also all kinds of criteria that can be applied to determine if someone deserves a stripe. It could be a list of techniques to perform. It could be attendance and effort. It could be delayed because of how you treat your training partners. It could be accelerated by your ability to compete or even to teach. And in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, each of those could-be items may be applied to different people at different times. A teenager may have different requirements applied than a 70 year old practitioner. A 110 pound woman may have different requirements than a 185 pound athletic male.

Ultimately, the best way to think about a stripe is that when you get one, it means you are better than when you got the last one, and your two stripes may mean something different than the two stripes on the person next to you. If you read anything more into your stripes than your personal journey, you are missing the point.

Belts

What about belts? I’m not going to tell you they don’t matter at all. There are practical aspects, such as ability to get into advanced classes if you are purple belt, or simply a built in assumption of respect by those with lower belt ranks.

If you are training properly, you’ll see lower belts tapping out higher belts. The higher belt may have been working on something and let things get a little out of control. The lower belt may have legitimately caught the upper belt off guard. Regular training is not a competition; it’s a learning environment. If you let your ego get in the way, you’ll miss out on the things that a white belt can teach you, even if it’s just a lesson in human behavior.

We all have gaps in our game, or things that don’t come naturally. It’s not uncommon for a black belt to say their skill level in a certain aspect of jiu-jitsu is no more than a blue belt level, meaning they’re competent against someone unskilled in that area, but they can’t apply it against someone who is familiar with the technique. It’s as if a certain color belt is more of an average or your skills, rather than some absolute measure of what you know.

So, stripes can be arbitrary, and color belts at best approximate your skill set against other people with the same color belt.  You will run into same colored belts you can destroy, while other same colored belts destroy you.

Your Results May Vary

The pattern here is that every stripe and belt color is an approximation of your skill, and you aren’t qualified to determine where your skills fall in the spectrum. By the time you might be qualified, it doesn’t matter anymore because you have a black belt on and further stripes are mostly about time in and contribution to the jiu-jitsu sphere rather than an absolute measure of skill.

This may sound harsh, but complaining about your stripes and belts is like a child insisting to a parent that their bedtime is too early. A child does not have the capacity to objectively determine their needs for sleep. Every jiu-jitsu practitioner working towards black belt is a child in jiu-jitsu, and the only parents in the room are those that have been training many other students and can objectively evaluate the child based on past experience, both their own path towards jiu-jitsu adulthood, as well as their observation of their other students. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not – the adults are still the adults and you have no choice but to accept their authority until you are finally an adult.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. -Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 13:11

So if the rank is an approximation that you aren’t qualified to evaluate, what really matters? The skills. Your personal toolkit. I’ve met no-gi competitors with a black belt level of grappling, but no formal belt level because they never trained in a gi.  They built their skills and measured themselves against everyone without obtaining a single stripe. Some schools don’t give out any stripes, or sometimes promote a two stripe student up to the next level without warning.  The jiu-jitsu world progresses just fine without any clear standards of when to promote because it all comes back to your skills and how you use them.

Also keep in mind that time erases differences. If you are a blue belt, and your buddy is a white belt, there’s a reasonable chance that when you are a black belt, they will be a brown belt. In other words, as time goes on, the differential between you and your regular training partners will shrink. If you and your teammate plan on doing jiu-jitsu for another 20 years, you’ll find that the stripe differential you are griping about today has no meaning. Time will heal your stripe wounds.

Ignore Everyone Else

If a stripe or a belt is handed out to someone that is truly not deserving, it has no reflection on the skills you are building. It is a reflection on the person giving out the promotions. It’s not your problem. If you are the one being promoted early or late, it’s still not your problem.  Do you honestly care if you are a white belt but you are consistently tapping out purple belts?  You may deserve a purple belt, and you might get banned from competing at your given belt level, but it’s the skills that do the talking, not the belt. Sit back and chill out because if your goal is black belt, you’ll eventually get it.

If you think you were promoted early, consider doubling your efforts to get your perception to match your instructors. Test yourself against as many people as possible at your assigned level. Let your instructor know how you are doing against all these opponents you are supposed to be equal to. Even if your estimation of your own black belt may be delayed from the evaluation of your professor, the type of person that is capable of becoming a black belt is capable of developing into a fuller black belt.

If you do test yourself against your supposed peers and you consistently are unable to get anywhere with them, you might have to ask yourself if you are in a belt factory school. It might be time to find a different school. and get reranked by a better instructor.

If you think you are being promoted late, enjoy the stealth mode and shrug off the claims that you’re sandbagging. Take on the upper level players and force your instructors to notice your skills. Consistent success against fairly matched players speaks volumes.  Just don’t be the 200 pound blue belt doing victory laps around the 120 pound purple belt you just muscled into submission.

Quiz Time

If you are a purple belt, can you learn from a white belt? If you are a blue belt, can you teach a black belt? Can a blue belt submit a black belt in training? Can blue belts win against brown belts in competition? The answer to all these questions is an unequivocal yes. I’ve done each of them. An affirmative to each of these questions demonstrates a healthy and dynamic martial arts ecosystem, not a dysfunctional and chaotic ranking system. If you aren’t open to learning, teaching, or even competing across belt and stripe levels, you are artificially limiting yourself. Be respectful when teaching, receptive when learning, and ambitious when competing.

It Really Is The Journey

Getting a belt doesn’t mean you stop learning.  Getting a stripe doesn’t magically imbue you with mystical powers to submit all those with less stripes. All of this takes years of effort and countless hours on the mat.

Jiu-jitsu is a uniquely individualized affair. An amazing array of body types can engage in training, and while the broad brush strokes may seem similar, the fine details of the jiu-jitsu painting differentiate between a world class practitioner at a given level and a recreational practitioner at that level. There is plenty of room for both.

Enjoy the journey. Stay healthy, train regularly, and be better than you were yesterday. If you can focus on that, what is tied around your waist won’t matter anymore, and you won’t care what is around anyone else’s waist either. Build skills, not belts.

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