The journey from white to black belt in BJJ
The belt system in BJJ is highly regarded, and for good reason. Unlike many other martial arts, where rank promotions can be acquired in relatively short periods and often with very little practical requirements, the Brazilian jiu jitsu belt system is quite strict and difficult to progress through. You know that unless he ‘bought’ it from a scumbag instructor or awarded it to himself, the holder of a belt is usually at the expected level of competency.
It can take upwards of 10 years to achieve the dan (black belt) grade, and requires not only technical knowledge, but also verifiable ability in sparring. Competition experience is also often expected. And as there are only a few belts, you will spend a long time on each one. Also, your progress will not be linear. You might spend 1 year at one belt and 5 years at another. It’s both an extremely challenging and rewarding institution, and it’s no surprise that the community pounces on anyone who messes with it.
Belts Are Not Always Good Indicators of Ability
Belt promotions don’t always go with hand in hand with skill or even knowledge and vary according to the coach and student. Sometimes it’s just down to time in service. Or it can be closely related to the practitioner’s raw fighting ability and competition performance. In fact, sometimes competitive performance can even slow belt promotion as coaches ‘sandbag’ their best students to increase their likelihood of medalling at tournaments.
In jiu jitsu the different belt levels generally equate with the student’s ability. But keep in mind that the dynamism and complexity of the art means that there are many parts to the equation, with physicality and athleticism being two that weigh heavily. So don’t be surprised (or judgemental) when the 56 year-old businessman who just received his blue belt after 2 years of hard training is smashed by the 22 year-old linebacker who just started coming to class 3 months ago.
The Plateau is Your Friend
Within each belt level there will also be many invisible sub-levels. You will often spend weeks or months on plateaus before being rewarded with a jump in ability. Sometimes it will actually seem as if you are getting worse instead of better. But the plateau is actually your friend and is itself an indicator of progress. It is those who have the mental strength to keep going when they find themselves on a plateau that break through to a higher level of ability.
No matter what, remember to enjoy the process.
Don’t be too focused on achieving the next belt or winning competitions and miss the ride.