“But Why Would You Want To Learn From a Brown Belt?”

“But why would you want to go learn from a Brown belt?”

This is a question that I’ve asked. This is also a question that, as a brown belt, I’ve been asked. And it’s a question that to the uninitiated is perfectly legitimate and reasonable.  

But let me take a step back to give you some context:

A few weeks ago I saw this post from 10th Planet brown belt Bryan Brown. Brown runs a successful academy in Jacksonville, Florida, that currently serves 100 students in a nearly 5,000 square foot facility with just under 3,000 square feet of mats. He has competed at a high level for a while, has won some and lost some, and has been involved in the growth of the competition scene through his “Olympus Invitational” events.

Bryan is actually far more typical in the realm of brown belt gym owners than you might think. He’s been training for about 13 years, and produced students who win at the expert level. And yet questions like, “Why should I train with you, you’re just a brown belt?” still get fired his way.

Bryan’s post on the subject conveyed his thoughts on, and answer to, that exact question:

‘After 3 years of being an instructor I finally got to hear that someone said “But why would you want to go learn from a Brown belt?” 🤷‍♂️

My response:

Step into my office,😊

We have blue and purple belts at our school already mauling brown and black belts from other schools, that’s why…Also, we have double and triple the mat space of almost every gym in town. Must be doing something right…🤷‍♂️😂😂😂’

When I first got back into jiu-jitsu I started out training with a 4th degree black belt at a gym that was entirely run by good black belts, in a town where most instructors were brown belts at the time. I asked the head instructor why I should pay him 40 more dollars per month in comparison to gyms run by brown belts.

His answer was actually solid on a few levels.

He told me that in the jiu-jitsu world there are different levels of education. The brown belt run gyms are like state and community colleges while his academy, and ones like it, are more like universities.  

This analogy is apt in that yes, to truly learn high level technique sometimes the best avenue is to go with the high level academies. But on the other hand, sometimes state and community colleges offer you the same or higher level of instruction at a lower cost. Sometimes they even have programs that the higher level universities don’t. (Remember, electricians make as much as people with higher education degrees…)

The truth is that the belt is often a poor indication of the quality of an instructor.  And there are a few reasons for this:

  1. Lower belts are sometimes hungrier and more passionate.  The waters at black belt become almost infinitely deep. Enjoying success at black belt becomes very difficult because of the level of competition, and as a result some black belts lose their zest for the art because they have an existential crisis. Some don’t, and those are special, amazing people, but those who do may still be great instructors but without that oomph that can be found in competitive purple and brown belts.
  2. Teaching ability isn’t inherently related to the amount of time doing something.  Look at great coaches in other sports–many never played the sport that they’re coaching in at a high level.  In fact, the martial arts world is one of the few where being a competitor is seen as a qualifying factor to be a coach.  I personally like for my coaches to lead from the front if possible. But that’s not really the point here. The point is that a lower belt can accrue a tremendous amount of knowledge and be a black belt level instructor.
  3. The lower the belt the more clearly the individual remembers what it was like to be a beginner.  This is a double edged sword, but ultimately being able to connect with the beginner is deeply valuable.  

Are all colored belts qualified to teach? Hell no. I’d say that a very small percent of people in the jiu-jitsu world are qualified to teach, period. Conveying information that is best learned through repetition and muscle memory is really hard, and being at the black belt level means you have the optimal amount of experience…but that’s just one factor to determine the quality of an instructor.

How then does one discern between a brown belt that one SHOULD learn from, and a brown belt that one SHOULDN’T learn from?  

It can be tricky.  

I’d say the only surefire way to find out is to actually drop in and get a feel for what is being taught, and how it’s being taught. I’d rather learn from a high level brown belt who owns a gym than a dispassionate black belt who hasn’t competed in decades and views me as a meal ticket. On the other hand, if you find a high level black belt who still loves training, and loves teaching even more, you may be better off putting your training in their hands.  



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