Jiu-Jitsu Letter

Thinking About Belts

A few months ago, I forgot my belt and went to class without one. I had to borrow one as it was gi day, and they only loan white belts. I sparred with a few people that I hadn’t met yet, and it’s always interesting to hear their comments after, or even during, a round. It’s remarkable the story we tell ourselves about our partners, based just on their belt color.

Today was no-gi day, and I left mine in the locker and rolled with a couple of people I’d never met. One was visiting and had no belt, so I just assumed the best, black.1 The other was a blue belt, but he had a belt from a certain sport-oriented school. I admit, I judged him based on that and expected him to go all out right away. He did, but he was respectful and safe.

I used to play pickup basketball. After a while, you become a regular at the courts, and you recognize who’s good and who’s not, and when there’s someone new, you just play and let their game speak for them. We don’t have the good players wear any specific color jersey to designate them as good. And we don’t have the bad players wear another color. It’s this way in every sport, team or individual, from golf to football, and even other combat sports, like boxing, wrestling, or Muay Thai.

Jiu-Jitsu is changing a little, with the continued growth of mixed martial arts and no-gi grappling competition. There are MMA schools and grappling academies where the gi isn’t used at all. And if there’s no gi, there’s no belt.2 3 4

I’ve never visited a no-gi-only school, but I imagine without the belt for people to use as a prejudgement signal, it’s more respectful and possibly safer. Without a need to “defend” your rank, maybe you wouldn’t care so much about tapping to a lower ranked student.

If everyone at your school wore the same color belt, how would that change your approach to sparring? Obviously, this is different depending on whether the school is heavier on the hobbyist or on the sport end of the spectrum. At sport-oriented schools, the rules and training goals are different.

Why have belts? I usually hear it’s a good goal to strive for. It’s a motivator. It’s also a marker for where you are on the journey. And it’s a reminder of how far you’ve come. So for the hobbyists who just want to train forever, belts are more useful than not. If you’re thinking long term, then the black belt may be less about something to strive for, and just something you get “accidentally,” simply by never quitting (and improving over the years, of course).

For the competitor (both casual or aspiring pro) going for trophies, belts are useful because of the rules. You need a black belt to compete at black. And, it appears many get promoted based on tournament wins, so it’s a clearer path to promotions.

For children, belts are useful as motivational tools. (Plus, what a cool collection to have when they grow up and make it to black.)

For the hobbyist that isn’t clear about his or her goals, the belt can be what makes them stop. I sometimes hear from students who complain about someone getting promoted ahead of them, or more commonly, that they don’t feel they deserve their rank. I try to remind them the belts are mostly arbitrary anyway5, and that it’s not productive to compare themselves (favorably or unfavorably) to others. In these cases, the student may just want to have fun. So that has to be a top priority. (We assume you already prioritize safety and good instruction.) If you’re not having fun, then do it somewhere else. It’s common to blame the activity, when it’s actually the other players that’s the problem.

It’s easy to forget that as a blue belt, you’re already way ahead of most of the world, as far as self-defense ability goes.

The problem is blue belts play on the same mat as purple, brown, and black belts and some don’t know how to handle it. It’s like a rec-league basketball weekend warrior getting a game in with college or pro-level players. But what a difference between basketball and jiu-jitsu. The basketball player would be happy just to get a few runs in, but the jiu-jitsu player could end up depressed about getting tapped over and over, or perhaps even worse in their mind, getting submitted by a lower belt.

Or consider the golfer with a 10 handicap. If he somehow gets to play a few rounds with Tiger Woods, he’s not going to quit golf after Tiger destroys him one afternoon. On the flip side, Tiger sure isn’t going to quit if he’s having a bad day and doesn’t win as dominantly as he expected. Why do jiu-jitsu people struggle so much with staying on the mats?6

As an experiment, the next time you train, “forget” to pack your belt, borrow a house white belt, and get a few rounds in with people you don’t know.

  1. It was quickly apparent he wasn’t a black belt, but it’s usually better to overestimate someone’s skill. (This also helps you stay out of trouble in self-defense scenarios. You just never know who you’re dealing with.) ↩︎

  2. Schools like 10th Planet award belts, but they aren’t worn in class. They’re literally just awards. And we can say that about belts in traditional/gi schools, except that we wear them with pride, or sometimes discomfort, as imposter syndrome is very real in jiu-jitsu. (And of course, it’s the belt that causes it! A bad golfer isn’t afraid of representing himself as better than he is because he can’t.) ↩︎

  3. “It’s not about the belt” is something repeated a lot, but the more accurate saying is, “It’s not all about the belt.” ↩︎

  4. At Gracie University (and affiliated schools), we typically wear our belts in no-gi classes as well as gi classes, though there are a handful of students (mostly black belts) who are inconsistent with that. ↩︎

  5. If you’ve rolled with a lot of black belts, you probably understand that some black belts are on a completely different level than others. And we can assume (we know, actually) that it’s that way starting from white belt. ↩︎

  6. I would certainly leave a school because of bad culture, dirty mats, unsafe partners, or poor instruction. But the answer isn’t to quit jiu-jitsu. The answer is to find the right school. If you play pickup basketball at a gym with a crooked hoop or reckless players, you don’t quit basketball. You just play somewhere else. ↩︎

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