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.
Several years ago, black belt Roy Harris wrote a good article detailing what was expected at each belt. I have extrapolated on this and provided a breakdown of what I expect from my students at each belt. Keep in mind that these are just guidelines.
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.
White Belt: The Empty Cup
Frame of Reference
As a white belt, your goal is to create a frame of reference for your future learning. This is where you figure out what you need to know, and start to formulate a plan for how to acquire it. Think of BJJ as a jigsaw puzzle that you are putting together. At the white belt level is where you create the bordering or outer edges of the picture before you begin filling in the centre. Using things like flow diagrams and a basic curriculum that focuses on the fundamentals will help greatly.
Learning to relax is an absolutely essential skill and white belt is the best time to acquire it. I cannot overstate how important this is. The only way you will be able to do this is by learning to control your ego.
Remember: nothing is expected of you at this stage. Try to focus your energy on taking in all the different aspects of the training experience instead of trying to win every sparring encounter.
Less is More
A major enemy of the white belt is the tendency to try to acquire too much technical knowledge. It may seem counterintuitive, but at this stage learning twice as many techniques will not help you twice as much. It’s actually more likely to hinder your progress. It’s far better to get a deep understanding of a few basic movements and techniques than to get confused by an overwhelming number of possibilities.
Get in Shape
Conditioning is also important for the white belt. Although several weekly bjj classes will eventually cause your body to adapt, this can be sped up with an intelligently designed supplemental training program. I discuss some of the methods I have had success with here.
Some Suggested Goals at White Belt:
- Learn the names of each of the main positions and acquire a basic familiarity with each of them. For example, be able to identify the guard position.
- Learn to control your ego by accepting that you will be beaten by the more advanced students. If you are big and naturally athletic this will be even more important for you.
- Get used to the ‘feeling’ of jiu-jitsu. Pay attention to how your body moves on the ground and the way a resisting opponent uses his strength and weight.
- Choose one from each position technique and try to master it. For example, one guard pass, one submission from side mount, one sweep etc.
Blue Belt: Escape Artist
Focus on Defence
I once asked Roger Gracie, the best jiu-jitsu fighter in history, what made him so good. After thinking about it for a while, he replied: “I built my game off a solid defence. I first made it almost impossible for anybody to tap me out.”
Hearing that made a deep impression on me. From that point on I focused almost exclusively on my defence. In fact, I will not promote any of my blue belt students to purple until they have a rock-solid defence. I want to see them able to escape from all the major positions and classic submissions with relative ease. I don’t care what flashy sweeps or submissions they can do, if I don’t struggle to control and submit them they won’t get graded.
Get Good at Guard Passing
Secondly, You will need to learn to pass the guard. To me, passing the guard is the most difficult aspect of jiu-jitsu. And every year it becomes harder, as new more complicated guards emerge. You will spend a great deal of time in opponents’ guards, so it makes sense to become proficient at dealing with them. When one of my students is approaching purple belt, I start grooming him by making him begin most of his sparring matches inside the other player’s guard.
Some Suggested Goals at Blue Belt:
- Have two solid escapes from Mount, Back Mount and Side Mount.
- Master three techniques for passing the guard, in particular one each from any closed, half and open guard variant.
- Fight in at least one competition.
You can read a detailed article about what I expect from my blue belt students here.
Purple Belt: Becoming Well-Rounded
Learn to Use Momentum
This is the belt of movement and momentum. Through the acquisition of timing and sensitivity, you will learn how to use and generate momentum (as well as redirect the momentum of your opponent) to achieve many of your objectives. A lot of the ‘wasted movement’ that naturally occured in your game at the previous belts will be shaved away.
Although sparring is always an integral part of jiu jitsu, at the purple belt you really need to put the hours in. There is no short-cut here, but ‘Flow’ rolling and grappling with your eyes closed will definitely help.
Double-Check Your Foundation
Purple belt is also where you will finish laying the foundation of your entire game. As mentioned earlier, I suggest that the bulk of this foundation be a solid defence. Before you become a senior grade it’s wise to revisit this and make sure that you are a master of escapes and a nightmare to submit.
Focus on Your Weaknesses
About a year into your purple belt is a good time to do an honest assessment of your game. Figure out where you have the greatest weaknesses (or ask your coach) and through focused training make it a goal to turn those areas into your greatest strengths. This will make you a well-rounded fighter that is able to specialise into his style of choice.
A good purple belt also has a great offence and is dangerous from any position. This is also where the player should start learning to attack using combinations of techniques – an initial set up and at least one counter to the standard defense.
As a purple belt your guard should be very effective. You should have a familiarity with all the different guards and be very dangerous from at least a couple of them.
Some Suggested Goals at Purple Belt:
- Know and be able to execute 3 combination attacks from guard position.
- Know and be able to execute 3 submissions from the Side-Mount, Mount and Back-Mount.
- Become familiar and adept with both using and passing the most commonly encountered variants of the guard position (de la Riva, deep-half, spider etc.).
Brown Belt: Forging Your Own Style
Shifting from Defense to Attack
The brown belt is the point at which your focus will shift primarily from defence to attack. The air-tight defense you laid during the earlier belts will allow you to be much more aggressive in your hunt for submissions, sweeps and passes, as you will have little concern about being attacked or being placed in a bad spot.
Dominant From the Top
A brown belt is always a threat from the top positions. In mount and side mount he knows how to use his body weight and makes sure the fighter underneath feels and carries every ounce of it. He will pass the guard at even the narrowest window of opportunity, and his excellent balance will make him very difficult to sweep while he does so.
Depth of Technical Knowledge
Even though you will probably develop your own style and preferences, there will be very, very few positions or situations that you will be unfamiliar with as a brown belt You will have learned (or created) counters to almost all the most commonly experienced defensive and offensive techniques. This means that you will be one or two steps ahead of lower-level opponents.
You also will have several ‘signature’ techniques. These are moves which you know exceptionally well and have a relatively high percentage of success with on almost anyone.
A quality brown belt should be able to teach the art to others. This is actually when many BJJ players realize that they have a passion for teaching and decide to embark on coaching as a career path. You will also understand that teaching is a good way to consolidate the knowledge you have gained up to this point and acquire deeper insight.
By now, as a long-term jiu jitsu player, you have probably started to take a holistic view of your training in the art. You realise that your jiu jitsu performance is intrinsically interlinked with your physical and mental health, so you will seek to improve both using any avenues available.
Some Suggested Goals at Brown Belt:
- Try to teach a few classes at your academy
- Perfect your weight distribution and balance in the top positions.
- Have at least two 3-phase (Attack -> defense counter 1 -> defense counter 2) attack sequences from each of the main positions
Black Belt – Instinct and Reflection
You now know that there are no absolutes in jiu jitsu and begin to transcend the techniques and guidelines you picked up along your journey. You can easily ‘riff’ during sparring – just going where your body and your opponent take you. Your deep, intuitive understanding of the art means that you can instinctively ‘feel’ your way through most matches, even when confronted by a move or situation you’ve never seen before.
The black belt starts to look at everything with a fresh set of eyes. You are now able to take see new nuances in ‘basic’ movements that you’ve already practised thousands of times, and continue to improve and refine them.
You will also begins to see jiu jitsu in everything and draw inspiration from not only other martial disciplines, but diverse fields of art and study.
Quality Human Being
Most importantly, the path to the black belt has created (or enhanced) a quality human being.
By this stage you will know far more about your body, mind and spirit than you did at the start of the journey into jiu jitsu, and you will be acutely aware of your capabilities and limitations.
The black belt is humble, friendly and respectful of others. Although you are a highly efficient and dangerous martial artist, you never seek confrontation and only use your skills and abilities to defend and help those less capable.
Some Suggested Goals at Black Belt:
- Understand that the journey is not over. Remain humble and continue to learn and grow.
- If you haven’t yet already, consider training in a second, functional martial art (Wrestling, Muay Thai, Boxing, Judo, MMA)
- Become proficient at yoga in order to maintain your body and attributes into old age as much as possible and allow you keep practicing.
Don’t worry about the red belt. Seriously.
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Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood Recommends:
Here are our recommendations for products and services that can improve your jiu jitsu and health. This is a short list since it only includes our top picks.
For white and blue belts: BJJ Building Blocks – The ultimate fundamentals program for jiu jitsu beginners
For improved mobility, flexibility and balance: Yoga for Grapplers – Add years to your grappling career with intelligent conditioning
For those struggling to remember their techniques: Beyond Technique – concept-focused jiu jitsu program by black belts Nic Gregoriades and Kit Dale
For those wanting a reference manual for BJJ: The Black Belt Blueprint – Nic Gregoriades’ bestselling book on the art of jiu jitsu