For being an integral part of the jiu-jitsu experience, promotions are often treated as taboo topics of discussion when the student is the one leading the conversation. Many students fear how their coach may react if they give any hints that they’re expecting a new stripe or belt, and oftentimes, jiu-jitsu instructors seem to encourage that fear. Every time promotions roll around, jiu-jitsu students are told, essentially, to keep their mouths shut and be happy with what they’re given. Don’t complain if you don’t get promoted, just shut up and train harder.
While a sense of entitlement should, of course, be discouraged in BJJ, it seems a bit silly to frame promotions as being an indicator of a student’s progress and then shame the student for being confused as to why their progress hasn’t been acknowledged. The belt hierarchy in jiu-jitsu is a huge part of the sport — even to the point of being a bit culty and toxic, depending on where you train — and yet coaches still act flabbergasted and offended when students feel dejected about not being good enough to progress to the next level.
The conversation around belt promotions shouldn’t make students feel like they’re walking on eggshells — that if they don’t ask “Why didn’t I get promoted?” just right, they’ll be perceived as arrogant. This only serves to reinforce the concept of belt promotions as gatekeeping rather than as an indicator of progression and responsibility. Your students should be able to approach you with questions about what they need to do to get that promotion next time around. They should be able to ask what they were missing this time around. If they’re on the cusp of another belt or stripe, they should be able to ask what you need to see from them to prove that they deserve it.
They may not ask this question the “right” way. Lower belts, in particular, often don’t understand what they should be asking. They see their peers getting promoted and wonder why they aren’t standing up there with them. All they know is that they’ve been putting in effort — literal blood, sweat, and tears — and are still sitting uncomfortably at white or blue belt. It’s unfair to expect people who are in the infancy and childhood of their jiu-jitsu journeys to flawlessly communicate about an experience that is mostly new to them. It is doubly unfair to expect this if you indicate that promotions shouldn’t be questioned, just experienced.
As an instructor, it is your duty to take a directly worded question, such as, “Why didn’t I get promoted?” or “Am I gonna get a stripe?” and reframe the discussion so that your student understands what is expected of them. You are the upper belt. You have been here before. You are their guide. No one knows better than you what your student needs to do to progress to the next rank. You should have the skills you need to steer a conversation productively so that your student walks away feeling heard and knowing what’s expected of them. Your student shouldn’t feel ridiculed or fear that their next promotion might be withheld from them because they asked their coach a question.
Your student isn’t necessarily acting entitled or greedy; they are rightfully excited about a very hyped-up component of their hobby and want to know how they compare. Yes, they’re adults, and yes, they can probably understand basic social etiquette, but jiu-jitsu etiquette is not “basic social etiquette.” There are a lot of weird rituals and both written and unwritten rules in this martial art, and as long as your student is showing basic human decency and respect, there’s no reason they should fear being punished.
Promotions are a big deal in BJJ, and rather than being annoyed that your student wants to be acknowledged for their hard work, you should strive to ensure that they feel safe coming to you to ask what needs to happen for them to have that special moment. And, if you’re a student yourself, you should be training in an environment in which you feel safe approaching your coach with questions about your progression, no matter what stage of your journey you’re in.