Saturday, January 28, 2012

Promotion Standards and Belt Meanings

The catalyst for the enormous wall of text that is going to follow this was this thread on JJ Forums and the conversation about women and BJJ standards that came out of it. This is a long post and contains largely my own personal philosophy created out of my experience with Taekwondo, BJJ, and Judo.

How SHOULD promotions be handled?
Black Belt: My personal view is that not everyone necessarily needs to achieve a blackbelt. Solely putting time in grade should not be enough to eventually land you a blackbelt. If you are getting tooled by blue belts that outweigh you by 50 lbs just because they are super athletic then you aren't black belt material no matter how good you are at teaching or how many years of experience you have. Black Belt is a signal of both ability AND knowledge. For the same reason I don't believe that solely winning the mundials 5 times at brown belt is enough to warrant promotion to black belt. If you can't teach worth crap, then you also aren't black belt material.

Brown Belt: This is where most people belong in my mind. If you are excellent at competition, or excellent at instruction, but aren't at least good at both then you should get stuck on brown belt and stay there. That doesn't mean I expect every black belt to be a world champion, but if you aren't getting on the mats to compete and beating other brown belts then you don't need to make the step up to black. However, if you hate to compete but are a great teacher then there is no reason why you shouldn't be a brown belt. At that point there's not the same expectation of ability to handle blue-purple belts that outweigh you massively, or to have all of the answers. So you can be a competition only brown, or a knowledge only brown and get by.

Purple Belt: This is the belt where the distinction will end up getting made for you. Are you going to be a competitor or a teacher or both? To reach purple belt I think you should be competent at both already. You need to be able to teach a beginner class and you need to have competed. This doesn't mean you should be able to school a whitebelt that is 100lbs bigger than you are, but you SHOULD be schooling white belts who are your size and you should have a technique library to draw from that is much larger than white belts or new blue belts. You should definitely be able to run roughshod over anyone with no experience pretty much regardless of size difference.

Blue Belt: This is the commitment belt. You've shown some dedication to training and grasp the basic concepts and techniques. The only requirement for blue belt is that you be able to perform the basics and roll competitively against other white belts your size with similar training, and roll successfully against new people your size.

Women vs Men: This comes up a LOT. Should a woman be required to roll successfully against a man of equal size in order to progress in jiujitsu? For me I say no for blue belt. Getting your Blue belt isn't about rolling, it's about knowing the basics and being ready to learn how to use them. As a purple belt, it's a different story. You SHOULD be able to splatter a 150lb untrained male. If you can't do that then stay at blue belt until you can. If that means you have to hit the gym to develop the physical attributes necessary, then so be it. My reasoning behind this is that a Purple belt is a sign of competence at self defense as well as everything else. If you have one then you should be able to defend yourself if attacked. I wouldn't want a woman that I promoted to purple belt to be unable to defend herself from at least a moderately sized male attacker. At Brown belt I would expect women to be able to handle 200lb untrained men with assurance, if not with ease.
However, I hold men to the SAME standards. If you are a 135lb male and you want your brown belt you better be able to breakdance all over a 220lb noobs face all day long.

Batsugan Promotions: This is something from Judo that you rarely see in BJJ, but is becoming more popular. It shows up in MMA occasionally when a fighter gets promoted after winning an MMA fight, and it happens sometimes when a blue or purple belt wins the Mundials. It's promotion based specifically on competition victories. Alliance took it one step further this year and held a "fight for your belt" event for white  belts trying to make blue and blue belts trying to make purple. The competition was no weight class, no time limit, and as soon as you and your next opponent in the bracket finished you started your next match. Minimal breaks. One of our guys won 5 or 6 matches in a row to go from white belt to blue. This guy is a GREAT competitor. Extremely athletic, really good at the things he does, but his technique library is very small and his technical understanding is limited. His technical execution of the things he does is great, but he would he can't explain past the basic details. Does he deserve his blue belt? Absolutely. But he will require a lot of development on the his understanding of the technical side before I think he is ready for his purple belt.
I'm interested to see if more of this catches on and what it does to the sport overall. I think Batsugan up to Brown belt would be fine for me, but from brown to black as I mentioned above I believe you have to be more well rounded than can be determined by solely competition prowess.

All of this being said, I really liked the exercise that Julia mentions here about determining how to promote people. Black Belts want the people they promote to represent their lineage, their school, and their instructor well. Not just be able to do the techniques, so every Black Belt is going to have different and equally valid promotion methods. I fully expect to be a black belt four years from now and will be working super hard to make that happen, and if I do then I expect I'll be no different.


  1. Interesting. I agree that belts should be tied to skill, though I don't agree that teaching ability should be factored in. IMO, rank should be a direct reflection of your ability to apply your technique on a resisting opponent, not whether you are able to pass it on to somebody else. That's an entirely different skill set.

    If someone won the Mundials five times as a brown belt against their peers (the only exception I can think of would be some enormously huge monster in a category with no weight maximum), IMO they definitely deserve a black belt, regardless of teaching ability. If they suck as a teacher and try to run a class, they'll either get better or they'll end up with no students beyond blue belt.

    Of course, I'm only a purple belt, so have no direct experience of what it is like to judge rank and promote students. Most likely my views on the topic will develop over time.

  2. I had actually thought you would come down on the side of teaching ability being factored heavily into promotions simply because you don't compete.
    If competition success is a large component of promotion then you're likely to never see your brown belt.

    I really feel like black belt REQUIRES the ability to teach others.

  3. What about all the black belts who have no desire to teach? E.g., clubs in Brazil where there are 20 black belts on the mat, mostly older with a family and a full-time job who are just there for fun and fitness?

    IMO, I don't think competition success should be a mandatory part of the promotion process. It should be optional, but speed things up if you do compete. Ability can be judged through sparring a range of fully resisting opponents in class over a long period.

    The class sparring only route isn't as clear as competition, given all the potential mitigating factors (they're working something specific, they're taking it easy on an injury, they're hung over, etc), which is why that route should take longer.

  4. What about all the black belts who have no desire to teach? E.g., clubs in Brazil where there are 20 black belts on the mat, mostly older with a family and a full-time job who are just there for fun and fitness?

    IMO, I don't think competition success should be a mandatory part of the promotion process. It should be optional, but speed things up if you do compete. Ability can be judged through sparring a range of fully resisting opponents in class over a long period.

    The class sparring only route isn't as clear as competition, given all the potential mitigating factors (they're working something specific, they're taking it easy on an injury, they're hung over, etc), which is why that route should take longer.

  5. Oops, sorry for the double post: on my phone.

  6. My view may be heavily influenced by the decade I spent in Taekwondo where "Black Belt" and "Instructor" are nearly synonymous.

    Any blackbelt should be able to take over the teaching of a class and communicate the concepts and techniques clearly to students of any level if called upon to do so.

    I just can't imagine someone spending 5-10 years training and then NOT being able to do that. Just as I can't imagine someone spending 5-10 years training and not being able to completely crush someone that has trained for a year or less.

  7. Some people just suck at teaching, even if they're damn good at BJJ. I'd be surprised if you hadn't seen examples, unless you've not had much of a chance to visit other academies?

  8. I have, and I don't see any reason why they should be promoted to black belt.

    In fact, if you have no intention of teaching then being promoted to black belt is pointless vanity anyways.

  9. I don't think so. If you're a brown belt who has proven you have black belt skills, either through competition or sparring against other black belts with similar physical attributes to yourself over a long period, it is entirely reasonable to receive a black belt, whether or not you're interested in teaching.

    Not to mention that obviously a good competitive brown belt is going to want a black belt in order to compete at the next level, but I assume you were already taking that into account.

  10. And to me "Teaching" IS a Black Belt skill. If you want to show that you have black belt skills, then you have to be able to impart the knowledge you have to new people. That's an undeniable part of what makes a black belt in my mind.

    If you haven't demonstrated the ability to teach, then you haven't demonstrated black belt level skills.

  11. So if Roger Gracie as a brown belt decided he never wanted to teach and just loved competing, you'd never promote him to black belt?

    Although it would be interesting to know how many black belt world champs didn't teach. I imagine most of them do, if only because the lack of prize money means that teaching seminars and/or running a school seems to be the main way they raise money.

  12. I didn't say they had to teach, I said they had to be ABLE to teach. As long as I knew that Roger (to use your example) was capable of teaching a class effectively, and had observed him doing so, I would promote him regardless of whether he intended to be an instructor in the future.

  13. I don't like the idea that my valuable time as a student will be spent/wasted as the guinea pig for all the other students in the class who want to be promoted and therefore have to be evaluated on their teaching skills. I know this is a common practice, and it's A-ok fine by me when classes are taught by other students who are already good at teaching. But it's really irksome to use my two hours for the instructor to discover that this individual sucks at teaching... then another two hours next week or month, and then another two hours, etc, to tweak and fine tune their ability up to a mediocre level. Call me selfish. I just want to learn the right technique from a good instructor. I don't think teaching ability is a requirement for promotion.

  14. How do you expect an instructor to become good at instructing if they never work at it? Taking a couple of 3 day long instructor courses isn't going to do it.

    Do you never teach in class? Never show a whitebelt how to upa escape from mount?
    If so, are you wasting that persons time because you aren't as good of an instructor as the head instructor?

    There seems to be some idea that I'm in favor of forcing each blackbelt candidate to take over a school for a month and teach every class or something. That's not at all the idea here. But participating in instruction during classes and demonstrating proficiency at communicating the technique to another person should be requirements, in my opinion, to get a black belt in any martial art.

  15. "But participating in instruction during classes and demonstrating proficiency at communicating the technique to another person should be requirements, in my opinion, to get a black belt in any martial art."

    Why? I wouldn't expect a good footballer, gymnast, surfer etc to automatically be a good coach. Or indeed more closely related sports, like boxing and wrestling. I don't see BJJ any differently, except it happens to have a ranking system.

    If somebody wants to teach, like me, then they should take the opportunity to do so. I think it's beneficial, and would encourage others to try it. However, I don't see it as at all related to belt rank: teaching is a totally different skill from sparring ability. One is about communication, the other is about application. IMO, belt rank should be a reflection of your ability to apply technique, not your ability to communicate technique to others.

    For me, rank is purely a matter of whether or not you can hang with that belt level. If you can, and you've gone through the other ranks already (I think it is worthwhile having people work their way through the ranks, even if they're already good, but I would definitely promote an awesome judoka, wrestler etc faster presuming they adapted well), then IMO you're eligible to be that belt level.

  16. And that's fine for you guys.
    If that's how you want to promote when you're running your own school then more power to you.
    But not everyone deserves a black belt. Not everyone needs a black belt. And TO ME being a black belt implies not only the ability to perform the skills, but to pass them on as well. It's what being a black belt means to me and so it will be part of my criteria for promoting.
    And anyone that filled out that list that was on Julia's blog and put anything related to teaching ability on the list of what they wanted from an instructor, then turns around and doesn't see why I would promote with that as one of the requirements either didn't understand the exercise or is being a hypocrite.
    If you promote based on the traits you desire, and teaching ability isn't one of them, then I don't think there's anything I can do to help you understand.

  17. Interesting commentary. As a humble white belt, I have not yet formed an opinion, but enjoy reading your the discussion and learning from it.

  18. Just for clarification Josh, If a star Brown Belt under your instruction who regularly medalled at tournaments and often tapped out some of your other Black Belts (we're going into the Hypothetical here), but who trained 4 days a week to stay competitive and outright said that due to his off the mat business concerns he couldn't afford the luxury of teaching a class, would you promote him if he showed competence at demonstrating the odd technique to the white belts in your class?

    Or would you require a more thorough demonstration of his instructional abilities over the course of a longer period?

    What I'm trying to ask is how much of a skill level/teaching level balance would you require from your future students for them to qualify to compete at Black Belt in your name under your banner?

    1. Because of the expectation I have for my eventual students he would already have spent a reasonable amount of time instructing others in class. But I would require a little more than the odd random white belt intro.
      Say, something like having him teach one of his favorite techniques to a promising blue or purple belt and really go into detail on it.

  19. I can't comment on everything yet - running late, but wanted to mention that my friend is a black belt, and when he considered coming out here to visit me, he said that he would have to contact my school and get permission from the instructor.

    Then, he may be asked to teach that class. Additionally, if you are the highest ranked student in class and the instructor needs to leave, it's totally reasonable that you should run class.

    Personally, as a teacher trainer, if I get my black belt, my students had better be able to teach. It will be HOW I teach - getting them involved and having them be responsible for it. Saulo did this when I visited his gym. He said he makes everyone responsible for the knowledge they're learning. Part of that is passing it along. He teaches them how to teach.

    Regardless of whether or not you can teach an entire class, by the time you're a black belt you absolutely should be able to show a simple armbar or what to do if your partner gets mount. 100%!

    Anyway, that's my preliminary views.

  20. Oy - realized that I hadn't really finished my thoughts.

    So my black belt friend basically would need to teach if he visited a club that had a lower belt teaching (say, brown belt) and they asked him to - it's a courtesy thing.

    I am a teacher trainer, and the way that I tend to teach in my classes is in a way that is empowering and methodical. I have a consistency (or at least I try to). Because of that, I have been able to get my students to teach portions of the class. It's regular enough that they, theoretically, can handle it - assuming I've done my job.

    If someone has been my student for 5 years and is unable to help beginners - I would feel, as an instructor, that I failed.

    I would question why. Is it because they're just being an ass and don't want to take the time? Are they being selfish and only concentrating on themselves? Or is it a true inability to articulate details and steps to the move.

    So yes, were I to have my own school, you can bet your ass I'd be teaching focused. However, competition, perhaps not as much.

    Slidey - I think a LOT of it comes down to KNOWING what your teacher expects from you. For example, if you started your school and you knew absolutely that to get to belt E you have to do steps XYZ it would just be something you accepted as part of your school. If you didn't accept it, you'd find another school. If your school required competition to move up belt ranks and that did not suit you, it would be 100% appropriate to change schools.

    Were I to have my own school, methodology would play a HUGE part in that process. Hell - even if I paid to open a school NOW and hired a black belt, this would be something I absolutely insisted upon. But it's not like it's a magical ability that they either are just born with or not - I'm a teacher TRAINER. If I can't teach someone how to be an effective teacher, then I need to quit right now.

    But I agree with Josh - black belt means something different. For me, it ISN'T just about being a student who comes every day. It IS about a lineage. Each lineage says something different, and that's absolutely fine and wonderful.

    All that said, if I had my own school, I would want to be fully transparent with my students. I would want them come and talk to me and ask questions. I would encourage things like that.

    @Georgette - would you feel the same way if it were taught during, say, open mat time? Like that you could go to open mat and EITHER participate in a free lesson or just roll/practice anything? Also, I'm really surprised by your response - mostly because for someone who has spent so much time on the mats I would definitely think you had more of a marathon approach, but this sounds very "sprint-y" - as in focusing on a single class here and there as "wasting your time." Haven't there been purple belts you learned from? Or haven't there been brown belts you'd absolutely take private lessons from? Why is this different?

    Josh - awesome topic.

  21. Thanks JJ, I'm glad someone liked it. I'm getting huge flack for it over at /r/bjj.
    It sounds like a lot of people think that time in grade and static technique knowledge should be the only measure of promotion based on what I'm hearing over there. I'm getting shit for both the competition requirement AND the teaching requirement.

    So as far as I can tell there are people out there that think that showing up to class 3 times a week for 10 years is all it should take to get a black belt. Seems weak to me.

  22. Heh - yep, you've definitely got an interesting debate going, Josh! :)

    @Julia: It isn't so much about whether you can teach someone how to be an effective teacher. I think the key question here is why should you expect that everyone develops teaching skill, even if they are capable of doing so?

    There are plenty of people who just don't want to teach. I don't think they should be forced to teach in order to get rank, in the same way I don't think people should be forced to compete either. I really like the way that jiu jitsu rank is normally predicated purely on your ability to perform on the mat.

    Admittedly that is changing, as some places now have formal tests, others expect certain minimum attendance, etc, but that isn't a development I like. It worries me, as I'm concerned these are small steps towards the ranking methodologies of the kind of martial arts I wanted to get away from by taking up BJJ (e.g., TKD or aikido).

    I have no problem with people who want to train that way, as TKD and aikido can cater for them, but I have a big problem with BJJ moving in that direction.

  23. @Slideyfoot At least people are talking! I see just the opposite issue. If advancement is predicated on performance on the mats SOLELY in class, then that leads to insular performance issues whereby I might be a complete badass at my academy, and get awarded a brown belt by my instructor based on that badassery, but then go to another academy and get tromped by blue belts because the standards are so divergent.
    I feel that requiring a competition component is some protection AGAINST going down the road that TKD, etc... went down.

    As for WHY you would require someone to have teaching skills... Well, I imagine most instructors want their students to be able to pass on their lineage as well as possible and like it or not ALL black belts are in some way instructors when they are on the mat. They will all get asked to explain things from time to time, and they will all benefit from being able to teach the material.

    Additionally as I've stated before elsewhere, teaching something is an incredibly good way to learn it. So a curriculum which includes teaching as a component of learning creates stronger students.

  24. I agree that competition is an important check against stagnation, so if NOBODY from the school competed, that's a problem. However, the way it seems to have worked in BJJ up until now is that if at least a few students compete, they act as a marker for the instructor.

    I babble about it more here, as you may remember.

  25. Great questions and points. Promise I'll respond soon. :)

  26. In case anyone is interested in watching, I asked John Frankl his opinions about belt promotions and posted it here:

    What didn't go into the video was that I asked about the intangible qualities - about the jerks, and what he ended up saying is that by the time they get to brown belt it's not an issue because it's worked itself out by blue belt.