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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

29 January 2010

Article - BJJ Belts: What's the Point?

Article #10, by Can Sönmez [FAQ Entry]

As far as I'm aware, the idea of using belts to reflect rank was first popularised by Jigoro Kano, who is easily among the most important figures in modern martial arts. According to JudoInfo, Kano's senior students began wearing black belts in 1886, signifying their higher status. It took until 1930 to bring in another colour, an alternating red-and-white belt. BJJ was once similarly sparse on rank, as Royce Gracie explained in a recent interview:

In my father's old days, in the beginning, the history of jiu jitsu let's say, there was a white belt, a blue belt, and a navy blue belt for the instructors. That was very hard to get, it wasn't just anybody could get it. There were no stripes, just plain blue belt. That's what my father used to use for the longest time, until about 1970s, when people create the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation. Under pressure, my father kinda give in, and told the people, "Go ahead, do the Federation." That's when they came up with all kinds of different belt colours, and they award him red belt, ten stripes.

The JudoInfo article goes on to state that in 1935, Mikonosuke Kawaishi introduced a more extensive system in Europe, ten years after Carlos Gracie opened his Rio academy. The reason is telling: "[Kawaishi] felt that western students would show greater progress if they had a visible system of many coloured belts recognizing achievement and providing regular incentives."

This continues to be a major factor in why people like to get new belts. It is human to crave praise, from your mother smiling at some abstract scribble you produced at the nursery, right through to your boss congratulating you on a job well done. In BJJ, belts are supposed to be a direct reflection of ability, meaning that in a legitimate school, promotion can be a cause for great pride. You've accomplished something, and are now being recognised.

The purpose of a belt is to mark your progress. That makes it easier for the instructor, if they're looking for an uke, or if they want to match people up during sparring. It also grants you greater access to competition: if you've spent the past year or two smashing your way through all the white belt tournaments, then you're going to get a lot more out of competing at a higher level against challenging opposition.

Yet many people feel undeserving upon promotion. What if you haven't been dominating at competition? What about that one girl in class who always manages to pass your guard? Or the big white belt who tapped you with an Americana yesterday: why isn't he getting promoted?

The only absolute is your instructor's faith in your ability. BJJ leaves you in no doubt about your failings, as the mat is a harsh critic. There are always areas to work on and people who can painfully expose those mistakes. In BJJ's highly subjective ranking system, it is essential you feel able to trust your instructor's opinion.

If the instructor is worthy of a student's trust, due to their honestly earned rank, then BJJ's meritocratic grading process falls into place. This is why it is so important to maintain the direct link between ability and status in BJJ belts: any frauds who seek to debase rank must be exposed. Many other martial arts have lost all credibility due to compliant belt examinations, where the candidate is never truly tested. If performance against full resistance is not a central part of promotion, the belt becomes meaningless.

At the same time, obsessing over a piece of cloth instead of concentrating on your actual ability is detrimental. After all, Hélio eventually gave up his impressive red belt with ten stripes, preferring instead to wear one of those old blue belts. He didn't need a belt to demonstrate his skills: he already had incontrovertible proof, in the ring and on the mat.

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  1. Oh man you picked a good one. BJJ ranking is a HUGE topic. I mean there is all the hoopla surrounding the 'bought for' belts which you linked to, but also the like/disliking of stripes, the fact that BJJ has only four colours, that each belt takes years and years to earn etc etc.

    For me, I experienced belt chasing on a level that was rife in my previous martial arts and after many years of this, BJJ ranking (or lack of focus on chasing for gradings) was a refreshing change.

    Most of my peers are not fussed about having been a blue belt (etc) for years and years, it is skills on the mat that matter. When I did karate, the sole purpose, or so it seemed to me, was to build up to our once every 3 months grading. Bit like how these days, at school, you attend lessons just to be spoonfed stuff in order to pass the SATs or GCSE's, but do you actually learn anything?

    Honestly, I would say if the powers that be suddenly dictated that we should all relinquish our belts and be known only as either a white or black belt (as they do in some ultra traditionalist MAs) then that would be fine with me..apart from the fact that I have just paid a lot of money for an embroidered belt and it would be very annoying not to be able to wear it ;)

  2. Yeah, there is plenty more I could say on belts: probably enough to do another article at some point later on. I've gotten through most of the planned topics I briefly drafted last October (about four left), so starting up a new batch now. ;)

    I initially enjoyed getting belts in my previous martial art, Zhuan Shu Kuan (which is where the brown belt is from), but gradually I became jaded, due to the feeling that my sparring was still a load of shit but I was going up the ranks anyway.

    In ZSK, the main jump is from black tag to black belt: before that, it is mainly "do some forms" (though they do at least include some sparring. As TMA go, I still think its one of the better ones).

    If BJJ got rid of all belts except white and black, then in many ways that would be pretty cool. Ego would be less of a problem, as people wouldn't be so worried about getting tapped by a 'lower belt', or conversely, painting targets on all the senior belts.

    Still, it would be tough to match people up in sparring, or decide at a glance who to use as an uke. Then there is the issue of competition: I could see a white/black only belt system causing a lot of problems there.

  3. I disagree. While I appreciate the idea of having just two belts - "student" and "instructor" (for lack of better terms) - I think that it ignores the variation within the student ranks. Could there be more belts? Sure, but then you REALLY run the risk of cookie-cutter schools. Could there be fewer belts? Sure, but we've already got a wide variation of skills in each belt level, particularly at white and blue.

    I think outside skills balance each other out around the senior blue level, and by purple, if a guy is a judo expert or a wrestler it doesn't matter because the other guy has the BJJ technique to counter it.

    Is there another way to represent progression in the art? I'm positive there is, but I don't think it's something to get wound up about.

    Is there belt hunting? Of course - like the article said, it's a natural feeling to want to accomplish things. And of course there is some abuse of the system. BUT from my very limited experience, I see the reliance placed on the instructors as instrumental to the equality of the students at each belt - instead of a curriculum, instructors just kind of "know" when the time is right, when a student is working at a comparable TECHNICAL level to the next belt up.

    And I say that because you don't have to compete to be promoted. In fact, like it says, so what if the one girl continues to pass your guard? If no one could pass my guard, I'd be Pe De Pano. Maybe that white belt has one technique you're just now learning to defend. The only way to learn it is to get your guard smashed a couple times.

    At the end of the day, it's a personal progression, but it's truly a community effort to improve everyone's abilities, and you need the help of that brand new white belt to test your skills just as much as you need the brown belt to fine-tune them. Belts are an easy way to figure out what kind of experience someone has, nothing more.

    Just my $.02. Or two pence, Slidey. :)

  4. As it was Meerkatsu's point, I'll be interested to hear his response, but:

    True, the variation within belt ranks would certainly increase massively as a result.

    On the one hand, that wouldn't matter, because after you've been in a school for a while, it isn't difficult to work out skill levels from rolling with people.

    On the other hand, it is much easier for both instructors and students if they don't have to roll with everyone first in order to work out what level they are, and adjust accordingly (e.g., with a brand new white belt, you know you can probably work your game and practice, whereas a tattered purple belt is going to be a very different spar).

    The competition question is one I plan to address in a later article, as I think that's another big topic. As someone who doesn't compete (except for once, so far), should be fun to explore the issue. :)

  5. Awesome. I will be very interested to read your thoughts on competing. As someone who has competed quite a bit over the last year, I think it is a good test of your own skills against people you don't normally get to compare yourself against.

    BUT I also don't think you have to compete to increase those skills.

    Anyway, it's not my article. :) Thanks, Slidey!

  6. These comments tend to be pretty useful for fleshing out my ideas for future articles, which is cool. Hence why I always appreciate the discussion, along with just generally enjoying feedback. :D

  7. The belts are a tool. A tool for the INSTRUCTOR. I think the more people remember that the easier it becomes to disassociate from them and just get on with experiencing the art itself. Have you all noticed the the belt matters until you shake your partner's hand? I've never thought much about what belt I'm (or my partner is) wearing when I'm trying to pass guard or defend guard or sweep...etc. I feel and think about my hands, feet, head, hips...etc. and even the gi itself, but I've never thought about the colour of the belt. It's such an engulfing experience to roll but people seem to forget it as soon as they hear tap or the round timer. :)

  8. Hmm. I agree that they are important for the instructor (for the kind of thing I mentioned, like matching people up), but speaking personally, I most definitely think about what belt my partner is wearing.

    That is how I set the level of my roll. If I'm with a shiny new white belt, then I'm going to take the opportunity to play around and experiment, because I can generally make the assumption that a new white belt is going to give me more openings (if there is a major size difference, then that significantly changes things). I'd also look to help them out if I can, particularly if they keep making the same mistake over and over.

    If on the other hand it is a higher belt, then I'll be trying to learn from them as best as I can, especially if it's my instructor. That's when I want to focus on staying in my problem areas, in the hope that they can pinpoint what I'm doing wrong.

    There was a great thread on the topic over on Bullshido, which is linked at the top of my blog in the 'Essential Reading' bit, called 'Maximising what you get out of rolling'.

  9. The white or black only belt system was just a hypothetical. It'll never happen. I like things as they are right now.
    Actually I'm with Slidey on the mental noting of belts before a roll. Tonight a new guy came in, he looked pretty good and I thought when it was our turn to spar, I would have to work pretty hard as he seemed to be of very good blue belt standard. And indeed that was the case, I actually did a spiral guard type sweep successfuly, but apart from that he pretty much was all over me.
    Oh I forgot to say, I'm colour-blind and the reason he was so good was he actually is a purple belt (I can't tell the difference), hahaha!
    So if I could lobby for one change in the ranking system it would be to alter the purple to another, easy to see colour, eg green (I know it is a kids belt but I can't think of another logical colour that isn't already used!)

  10. Heh - I'm not colour blind (at least I don't think so), but there have been numerous instances where I've had to squint and concentrate to distinguish a purple from a blue.

    Some quick Google Image results for purple belt to illustrate the point, here, here and here.

  11. I never knew the history on belts. I just thought there was always many colors. I find it interesting that most no-gi guys at my school could careless if they have a belt. I wonder if gi and no-gi really defines two categories of people in more then one way. Didn't Rolles Gracie just give a black belt to a MMA fighter that caused some controversy?

  12. Really enjoyed this one. Looking forward to the additions to this subject in the future.

  13. @Jason: Yeah, the nogi vs gi thing is another huge question. I used to think they didn't care about belts either, but the Rashad Evans furore indicates that could be changing, especially the manner in which Rolles said it was a 'black belt in no-gi jiu jitsu'. Full interview on Fightworks Podcast.

    On the other hand, you could blame the IBJJF No-Gi Worlds for that, as it is split by belt category rather than the usual no-gi brackets of beginner/intermediate/advanced.

    @LUKE: Thanks! :)

  14. Firstly, let me say this is a good area to examine. There's a couple of things I want to add here.

    Firstly, the article concentrates on the motivation provided by belts when discussing the obsession. Unfortunately, this is only half the story. A good portion of students see the belt as the be-all and end-all.

    They want to tell people they are a black belt. They think they can teach and want some cred to open their school with. That sort of thing. It's the same reason I started my MBA. I just wanted the paper. Not necessarily to learn.

    The other thing I wanted to mention is on the no-gi vs gi rank thing. The reason no-one cared about rank with no gi is that it has always been a sport expression more than an artistic one. Mush like boxing, wrestling or athletics, where talent is the pure and deciding factor.

    BJJ in the gi has come to be an artistic expression. The majority of your frame of reference is perfection in your own technique and your progress against your peers, rather than competitive results. Hence the belts. Although, I will say there is a lot of crossover here on both sides.

    Lastly, I wanted to mention that Kano's idea of rank was very suitable - especially for the Japanese culture. Similar rank structure has existed in Japan for many activities outside martial arts.

    I'm no expert, but I believe Japan is a results oriented culture where in the west we have a more image-oriented culture, hence we are more likely to abuse the system for prestige.

    An old Karate instructor told a story of an early trip to Japan where he, a black belt, was flogged senseless in the dojo by any number of guys wearing white belts. Ultimately, he found they were fourth and fifth dans who simply hadn't bothered with putting on the new belts.

    My best students have been the ones who didn't care about rank. And it worked for them.

    Sorry if this is a disjointed rant.

  15. Thanks for the well thought out response, Chris.

    Just to address one of the points you made - and I may be misunderstanding your use of terminology - but personally I don't believe gi is any less about sport than no-gi, and that's a good thing.

    IMO, competition is essential to maintain the credibility of the BJJ ranking system, as it is an important additional level of testing over and above sparring in class. Ability on the mat against your peers should be the central factor when it comes to rank.

    That isn't to say that I think it is essential to compete in order to progress through the ranks - after all, I've only ever done it once myself - but I do think it's important that competition is always held in high regard within BJJ.

    Like I said, I'll get into the topic of competition in much more depth in a later article, as there is much more to say. :)

  16. Duly noted.

    This is why I expressed that there is crossover between the philosophies.

    More correctly on my part - BJJ is a sport-oriented art, however, not so much as no-gi traditionally is.

    Thanks for providing a great resource.

  17. Oh, poor Seymour! (But also, LOL.)

    There are some belt manufacturers that make a faded purple color belt that looks nearly blue. I've been stuck trying to tell before, and I'm not colorblind.

    My former TKD master started taking Judo at one point, but then decided he didn't have enough time for it, so he was going to do his next grading and then quit. His next grading, he was promoted to Tangerine Belt. Then he said he had to continue to the next rank because he couldn't go around telling people he was a Tangerine Belt.

  18. "It is human to crave praise".

    hmm, my cultural anthropology professor might take exception, and maybe even call this an ethnocentric statement. some cultures belittle acts of great magnitude either way. Richard Borshay Lee learns this in his study of the !Kung people of the Kalahari ("Eating Christmas in the Kalahari"). if someone comes from a hunt bragging about how big an ox is, everyone belittles him and his game. it is more appropriate if he waits until someone asks what he brought, then his reply would be something along the lines of "something little. almost nothing, really."

    this story (hopefully) illustrates a point that Chris McCracken brought up: what something is, is what it is, not what it appears to be. a bjj purple belt (say, under Rickson) may roll like a brown or black belt, and it doesn't take a promotion to tell him so. likewise, it would seem, that you as a ZSK brown belt felt like you had achieved very little.
    although belt colors can be a guide, and certainly serves as motivation, i agree with you more when you say "obsessing over a piece of cloth instead of concentrating on your actual ability is detrimental."

  19. addendum- i also agree with you that a student should trust his or her instructor's decision in promotion.

  20. Fair enough: I'm no anthropologist, so 'human' may have been too broad a statement. However, I would be surprised if BJJ was a major activity among the !Kung. ;)

    Then again, Japan presumably has a quite different attitude to rank than the US, something Chris implied in his story about the fourth and fifth dans wearing white belts.

    I'm in the UK, so I'm mainly writing from that perspective (though technically I'm not British, I've just lived here a long time). It would be interesting to hear from people who live in places like the Philippines, Spain, Sweden etc about their culturally inculcated attitudes to ranking systems.

  21. Very interesting discussion! What I have noticed, especially in the last few years, is that there are some BJJ instructors who are starting their own belt ranking systems within their own schools. I remember seeing half-white, half-blue belts in competition recently.

    I've also seen instructors who keep the traditional white, blue, purple, brown, and black belt grades, but award stripes (of different colors) based on class attendance.

    I guess these instructors are trying to strike a balance between traditional belt ranks and keeping their students feeling like they are progressing.

    Luckily, my instructors, past and present, have decided to stay with the traditional system. One can hold a blue belt for three or more years.

  22. I use belt ranking to determine the training protocol for each rolling session' White Belts get a different approach than do purples. WB's i try new things, explore new moves and positions. Higher belts get my A game where I take what I already know and refine it, and I avoid trying new things.

    So multiple belts are important for my training.

  23. @sasquatch989: Yeah, I do something comparable. I've also been finding belt ranks useful now that I'm an instructor. It helps when I want to pick somebody from demonstrating, as well as for matching people up during sparring.