This article on Heroes Head Instructor Gumby’s thoughts on belt promotions originally appeared on Reddit in 2016 and can be viewed here along with commentary https://www.reddit.com/r/bjj/comments/402vgq/my_thoughts_on_belt_promotions/
Belts are a highly subjective matter at best. Where to the outsider what your ranking is a cut and dry answer, those of us who are more in the know or in the involved will say that certain rankings are worth more than others. For a (bad) example, a college degree is always something to be proud of, but one from an Ivy League School will carry more weight than one from your local community college. Sorry, that’s just how it is. The belt of course, only has a value that we place on it, and I should say I value mine very highly.
Why is my opinion important? Well my opinion may be as valid as anyone else’s, but I do feel I come from a tough pedigree. Depending on how you count, I am either the 10th or 11th Black Belt that Ralph Gracie has awarded (an instructor notorious for his tough standards. I received every one of those belts from Ralph directly, and the last one presented to me was his own belt (the first and possibly only time he has done that). My path wasn’t easy, it took me 10 years total training, at my peak two a days six days a week to hit my goal and Ralph certainly held me to a high standard (I had actually WON two blue belt tournaments while wearing a white belt and still wasn’t promoted for another six months!) I have my own academy for seven years now, and I have had over 100 promotions of my own, including promoting a dozen to the rank of black belt.
Let’s get this out of the way first:
I DON’T charge for belt promotions. My reasoning is that I don’t want any kind of financial incentive clouding my perception of whether I should award you a belt or not. That is not counting the possibility that someone might be frustrated and leave my school because they did not get promoted. Good. Makes the promotions I do give out that much more valuable.
I DON’T have belt promotion ceremonies. I can see the value of gathering everyone together and celebrating the new belts. But I also think it creates undo pressure to promote or get promoted as well. I like to leave things as a surprise, and hopefully plan to make the event memorable. It keeps people on their toes and working hard all the time, not just around promotion time.
I DON’T have belt tests. Every day on the mat is a belt test in my opinion. Since I’m on the mat with my students almost everyday, don’t find it necessary. I also strongly believe that katas don’t have any place in Jiu Jitsu (and I’m sure this is going to be a controversial statement).
I DON’T give out stripes. Again, this will controversial I’m sure. I used to at white belt, but if a piece of tape is what motivates you, I’m the wrong instructor for you. Coming up the ranks my school made fun of other school who did stripes. Don’t get me started on these half belts or made up belts either. In some ways I’m a traditionalist, and the prescribed Brazilian Jiu Jitsu belt ranking system work fine for me.
I believe that every belt, every ranking means over coming some kind of challenge. That challenge isn’t necessarily competition success either. For some people showing up to class consistently provides it’s own challenge. I’ve told some students that the better lose some weight and show some discipline off the mat if they wanted me to even consider ranking them. Every ranking represents a new challenge met and overcome, and each progressive ranking represents about double the amount of work and responsibilities in my estimation. Merely attending isn’t enough, to get ranked by me you better be prepared to push yourself in someway.
There is a of course an objective way at looking at a student’s knowledge and abilities; I review both their technical expertise and their ability to perform. The latter is where I use a sliding scale to a certain point. I don’t expect a 110 pound co-ed to handle the same level of opposition as a crossfit world champion (and I have both as students). I do expect you to perform to the best of your abilities and rank you according to your potential as well. If people think I’m tough, just look it as if I actually have a higher regard for your potential abilities than you do.
Beyond this, I have specific thoughts on each ranking:
Blue belts are one step removed from beginners, and although mine are tough, they still have a way to go. Demonstrating an understanding (if not mastery) of the fundamentals is a starter, plus the demonstrated ability to apply that knowledge (drill and spar). As the first ranking a student will receive I scrutinize this very carefully, after all, at this rank they are truly beginning to represent the art, the academy and me as an instructor, but you can get the blue belt by doing what you are good at.
Purple belt in my opinion is the toughest belt to achieve and represents a big hump. If you got the blue belt for doing what you are going at, you will get a purple by working on your weaknesses. I believe at blue belt virtually everyone has a preference for either “top” game or “bottom” game and develops a comfort zone based on that. If you want a purple belt (from me), you need to get out of your comfort zone and work and places you know you are weak at and shore those up. In that sense it is why I believe the purple is the hardest best to get and many students will drop out before seeing this belt.
Brown belt, while still difficult, represents a much more nuanced improvement. An overall game and tactics are developed at purple belt, however pace, timing, and psychology becomes much more important. Rorion Gracie has said something to the effect that a purple belt knows all the same techniques that he does, but the difference is the amount of times he has done those techniques, his timing and the depth of how to use those techniques.
Black belts are a misunderstood belt in my opinion. While it definitely represents a huge measure of accomplishment, it is neither an expert above all ranking nor a congratulations now you are starting over. I see it as the ranking where the student is ready to stand alone, not that I cannot continue to teach them, but they are ready and able to come with a new sort of authority and presence to Jiu Jitsu.
Nothing is ever correct or right because “I said so”, rather you should be able to logically defend your position (figuratively and literally) on your own. I greatly respect the conversations I can have with the black belts I’ve awarded and have learned from them as well.