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Journey to a thousand jiu-jitsu instructors and ask about their promotion qualifications, and at journey’s end, you will find yourself buried under a mountain of arbitrary requirements. Should we prioritize self-defence or sports techniques? Should hobbyists and competitors be evaluated differently? What about a 20-something college athlete vs. a 30-something single parent? How about character—must a person demonstrate technical and ethical depth to earn a black belt? Given all this, and the ability of our mat performance to “speak for itself”, do promotions even make sense?
Before this last question causes our discussion to immediately implode, let’s agree to this: Promotions exist and belt colours are established. And admittedly, promotions are useful incentives or potent rites of passage for many people. Yet the challenges broached above are neither trivial nor easily solved. So instead of getting lost in those weeds, let’s focus on two things in the bjj belt system: Expectations and mindset. Using these broad though perhaps abstract concepts, maybe we can creep toward a more universal understanding of what each belt is meant to represent.
Expectations: Things here are simple, because very little is expected of the white belt in the bjj belt sytem. Show up with some regularity, work on what is taught, ask questions, and discern between “enthusiasm” and “spazzing”, avoiding the latter to minimize injuries for all.
Mindset: Constructing your mindset at white belt may be the most critical thing you can do because here’s the ugly truth: Relative to others, you will not perform well. But you’re not expected to. It is normal to feel self-conscious when lacking proficiency, but remember that there is a better word for “making mistakes”. That word is learning. Appreciate this early and find personalized ways to maintain your commitment to learning. Laugh at your mistakes and take pride in your victories, however small. Yet overcommit to neither because they will ebb and flow. Finding the coping skills to overcome self-imposed disappointment will facilitate your progress along your entire jiu-jitsu path.
Expectations: By now your movements look different than when you began. You may not be aware of it, but your instructor sees it. Most common positions in jiu-jitsu are not dogma, but rather generations of experience revealing effectiveness. You should find yourself in these positions more often and even have a couple that you prefer, with associated techniques. Sparring should feel less like constant scrambling. There will even be the occasional moments in which you know precisely what to do.
Mindset: You’ve worked hard and your movements are resembling jiu-jitsu. Receiving a blue belt is like your instructor saying, “You are one of us now.” Sadly, many reply, “Thanks! I quit.” AKA, the bjj blue belt curse. Well… don’t quit. A jiu-jitsu blue belt is an acknowledgement of your efforts.
It is not a feat meriting retirement. It is a certificate of participation, not completion. You finally acquired some baseline skills that make learning easier. So get on the mats and explore! Try everything. Stick with what comes naturally. Plant a flag in what is challenging. Some white belts may still give you trouble. This is normal. You are not a fraud. Just keep exploring. Keep refining. Keep training.
Expectations: Like at blue belt, your movements resemble jiu-jitsu, but increasingly fluid. There are still gaps in your knowledge, but you have speciality positions and techniques as well as some backup plans. You chain attacks and have developed some defence and counters. You may be asked to guide lower belts technically. Do it—the best way to learn is to teach.
Mindset: Your skills allow you to experiment with the lower belts, and you should. You’ve been tapped enough by now to know it’s part of learning, so open up. Remember the flags you planted at blue belt? Revisit them and either make things work or understand why they don’t. Focus on your weaknesses. Don’t just collect techniques; start asking yourself why techniques work. This will facilitate troubleshooting.
Expectations: Though having areas of specialization, your skills are much more comprehensive. In many ways, you resemble a black belt, perhaps with slightly less refined timing or fluidity of motion. You have explored the technique in depth and can articulate your knowledge to others. Defence, offence, it doesn’t matter—you have a game plan and rarely find yourself completely out of your depth.
Mindset: For most, this is time spent patiently polishing one’s skillset until deemed sufficiently “smooth” to receive a black belt. However, although not as well known as the blue belt curse, this can be a tough time for some. Gains can come slower and you may feel a plateau. The only person to really challenge you may be your instructor. This can lead to boredom. You have three choices: Compulsively refine what you already know, seek new and interesting challenges, or quit. Again… don’t quit. You’ve come so far. If attempts to acquire skill becomes frustrating, try contributing.
Expectations: No one’s jiu-jitsu is perfect, but a black belt should be relatively complete. You will not have a mastery of all positions, but you will likely know enough to provide, or reason your way through, the key details from almost anywhere. In an interesting inversion, most expectations now come from lower on the bjj belt hierarchy rather than from above. Particularly if you run a gym, many students will expect you to be invincible.
Mindset: If you’ve made it this far then you likely have the mindset thing mostly hammered out. You’re now fully aware of how much there is yet to learn and how impossible it is to know it all. Everything can be tweaked or refined and there are new ways of approaching old problems. For the gym owner, living up to the expectations of lower belts can occasionally be stressful, but no one is invincible and trying to live up to expectations may stagnate your progress. Go down the rabbit hole. Keep things playful, stay curious, and try to contribute to your grappling community.