You only need to cross-train or compete once or twice to realize that promotions in jiu-jitsu are relatively arbitrary. Of course, most jiu-jitsu instructors know what they’re looking for as they prepare to promote their students with a new stripe or belt, but across the martial art as a whole, there’s a whole lot of variety in skill level within and between belts.
Some instructors, for example, require students to test for their belts and stripes, having a specific set of techniques and skills that students have to demonstrate before getting promoted. Others take a more subjective approach, grading each student as they see fit based on their own perception of their skills. Some coaches are more focused on competitive results when grading their students, while others acknowledge progress based on their students’ individual goals and journeys. There are even some coaches who promote solely based on attendance.
In some ways, this “organized mess” of jiu-jitsu grading is beneficial to students and the art as a whole — students can decide how they want their progress to be judged and find a coach that fits their preferences. The downside of this, of course, is that there are lots of outliers within belt levels, with some practitioners being far more advanced than most of their “belt mates” and others being significantly less experienced and knowledgeable than what is typically expected of their rank. There are also some students who have the appropriate skill level for their rank but not a lot of knowledge, and others who know a lot of techniques, but struggle to put them into practice.
In other words, if you ask someone, “What makes a blue/purple/brown/black belt?” you’re probably going to get a lot of different responses. Yes, you can probably safely assume that a blue belt is “good,” a purple belt is “very good,” a brown belt is “really good,” and a black belt is “great,” but there are absolutely purple belts who can beat a lot of black belts, and blue belts who are more knowledgeable than brown belts. Whether it’s because the lower belt is above where they “should” be or the upper belt is below where they “should” be, it’s simply proof that every instructor has a different perception of what a student at each belt level “should” look like.
What does this mean for us as students? How can we trust that we are where we “should” be on the jiu-jitsu belt rainbow, that we aren’t getting unfairly held back or promoted too early?
This is a question that I once asked one of my upper belt mentors as a brand-new impostor-syndrome-riddled purple belt. After finally battling through the “blue belt blues,” I found myself knee-deep in “purple belt panic” (Is that a thing?). I thought I was ready for my purple belt — I had defeated purple belts in competition as a blue belt, and I was doing well rolling with the other more experienced purple belts in the gym. But then, I also started getting my butt whooped by other purple belts and even some blue belts. I felt like the new kid at school again, wondering where I fit in or if I fit in. I really thought this was a complicated question with a complicated answer, but when I asked my upper belt teammate about it, he just asked, “Do you trust our coach?”
“Well, obviously,” I said.
“Okay,” said my friend. “Who do you think has a better understanding of what a purple belt should look like? You or him?”
I carry that rhetorical question with me all the time now. I needed it when I was surprised with my brown belt, and I’ve needed it to reassure my friends and teammates who have also experienced the impostor syndrome that can accompany a big promotion. Jiu-jitsu has so much variation within the art, and if you think about it, it’s unreasonable to believe that a 10th Planet gym would promote students the same as a Gracie Barra gym, which would promote students the same as a tiny MMA-focused gym in rural Idaho, which would promote students the same as a gi-only gym in South Korea. If you trust your coach enough to train with them, you should be able to trust their judgment on where you stand on the jiu-jitsu spectrum.
You can argue that belts mean nothing or that people put too much focus on a piece of fabric that holds your gi together. I’ll probably agree with you, to some extent. But jiu-jitsu is a competitive sport, and it’s only natural for practitioners to want to know how they stack up against other people who are considered to be at their level. If you travel the globe to find the answer, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as everyone else: there are lots of people at your rank who can kick your butt, lots of people whose butt you can kick, and many, many more who are just a bit better than you on a good day and just a bit worse than you on a bad day.
What’s more important than where you stand in the rankings is how happy you are where you’re training. If you trust your coach, even a promotion that comes “too early” will feel like big shoes to grow into, like any major life change that forces you to step up. A promotion that comes “too late” will feel satisfying, like you’ve truly earned what your coach has given you.
If you don’t trust your coach, the feelings associated with these promotions will likely have negative undertones. An “early” promotion may feel like it has ulterior motives attached, like the coach just wanted to bribe you to keep your membership fees or to boast about having an upper belt. A “late” promotion may feel like your coach was holding you back out of spite, only giving you your new belt when it became clear that there was no way they could justify not promoting you. In cases like these, the question isn’t whether or not you deserve your belt, but whether or not you should be training there in the first place.
As long as you keep training, you will eventually grow into your new belt, whether or not you were happy to receive it. There will always, always be people at your rank who are better than you and worse than you. Focus on what you want to achieve in your jiu-jitsu journey and who you want alongside you as you travel it, and you’ll find fulfillment at the end of your BJJ rainbow.