The endangered BJJ Blue Belt!

Im gonna touch on this topic because quite frankly im seeing a trend within my art that is most disturbing. As an academy owner and professor the belt system of BJJ is something that i hold very near and dear to my heart. The honor of graduating my students to each level is an experience that has no equal and the moment shared between teacher and student as the belt is tied on is truly remarkable. I distinctly remember each and every belt I earned from my professor, as well as the events that precipitated it. The belts were all significant to me. They were monumental and marked the achievement of a goal that few would ever experience. Today, if i were to say the black belt was any more significant to me than the blue belt, would be a lie. At the time I remember thinking just how amazing it must feel to make it to black if blue felt so good. The significance merely changed with the black belt. The moment the black belt was tied on my waist, a flood of emotion hit me. The same man that had the distinction of awarding the blue was now marking the highest achievement at that moment for the both of us. I had made the climb. He was now, in a sense, validated and officially had a black belt under him that he had taken all the way. What an achievement for both of us. We made it, together. We had withstood the trials and tribulations of conflicting personalities, questions of loyalty, and conversely, dedication. We had walked right past monetary concerns and had weathered the storm of BJJ politics. We were now and forever bound by that two inch strip of cloth that i carried. It was all these things that would keep me humble. All these things would always make me question my own actions and how they would reflect on my master. We both walked the path together and that was undoubtedly what had made the journey so special.

I say all this to explain the significance of graduations in our art. Keep in mind here, in the paragraphs that follow im speaking only of the blue belt. Personally, number of classes or time mean absolutely nothing in consideration for graduation to purple brown or black. Its nothing outside of skill set in relation to each respective level and self mastery. The trend, i want to speak of,  is the rather insignificance with which the blue belt is being treated. More-so now than ever, i see the blue belt being damn near given away. Sometimes bought, often handed out for simply hitting a certain class requisite, other times its given away as a reward for private sessions, new affiliations or otherwise. New students often ask me what my standards for promotion are. I assume they are speaking shortsightedly and referring to the blue belt. I assume this, because generally during the first few weeks of attending classes they learn that very few will ever make it to purple brown or black. Strangely enough, it is not me that tells them this. It might surprise you to know that my students are to blame. In passing, I hear the new student speaking to the crusty pit viper blue belt as he/she says; “Hey, how long you been training?” There is a little math at work here and ill straighten it out for you right quick. This phrase is directly translated in our language as “how long did it take you to get to _____ belt.” That translation is then used to evaluate the athletes own capabilities against whatever rank they”re evaluating and a rough estimate is then worked up against the instructors requisites for graduation. Lets jump back a tick. The aforementioned crusty blue belt likely replies with 2,3,4 or in some cases 5 or more years. The new student is perplexed and utterly speechless at how someone could be training that long and have only achieved the first rank within the art. To the new guy, the crusty old blue belts abilities far outweigh the rank they hold simply because the blue belt stomps their ass. The new guy begins to question the instructor and wonders exactly what the standards are. The new student is not completely ignorant and already has at least some comprehension of the standards at “other academies” and has heard that most get to blue belt in well under a year or in some instances less than 6 months at other places. Why are these guys so much better than me? Ive been training for the same amount of time as these guys! Why would a blue belt from this academy beat a blue, purple brown or possibly even black from another academy? The questions continue. The new student has no idea of the struggles of each student. Some suffer injuries that keep them from the mats for extended periods, a few will end up with extended times as they switch from professor to professor, others have extended leaves of absence due to family or job obligations while still others simply progress slower or can only train one day a week. Here’s a little nugget of irrefutable truth. Ultimately, the quality of students at each academy will rest on only two things. Quality of instruction and belting standards. The former is typically not an issue if you’re dealing with a legitimate black belt. The latter is often a topic of debate. I have seen legitimate black belts with extremely loose belting standards. Conversely, i have seen black belts with extremely stringent belting standards. One thing i have never seen is a professor with stringent belting standards that has a technically weak or untalented student pool. The answer to the question of blue belt requirements are, for me, very simple. 300! That means 300 classes MINIMUM to get a 4th stripe. Notice i didnt say blue belt. I said 4th stripe. The time between 4th stripe and blue may be extended for a variety of reasons. Character improvement, loyalty, leadership, humility are just a few. There may also still be one small detail that the professor would like to see the student iron out before achieving blue. Personally, this gap between 4th and blue allows me some time to fix any deficiencies that i may see in the student.  The math essentially equals out to 1.5 years of training at an average of 4 classes per week. For some it will be much quicker, for others it will be much slower. For instructors, the most important thing to consider here is what kind of technical ability you want your academy to be known for. If you want a weak pool of talent, by all means, hand out those blues as a reward for simply paying dues, or simply doing privates. Hand them out for a white belt launching a program and or starting an affiliation under you so that it somewhat legitimizes things within our community.

I want to remind everyone within our community that our art was then and is now a proving art. The family that started it all exists this day in lore and their exploits in the pursuit of dominance of their art, while sometimes good and often perceptually bad, are definitively based in combat. As professors, lets not forget our obligations to the progenitors. Lets not forget how fine the line between a combat art and a mcdojo truly is. Lets be ever mindful that each and every belt we reward is a direct reflection on us and their performance or lack thereof is tantamount to being the parent made famous for having the kid who went on to be the next big thing or epic flop. Finally, lets remember that the damn blue belt is the first stop in a journey that less than 1% will see through to the end and we are not blessed with the gift of foresight. We know not who will make that journey. Forsaking the joys of achievement for the undeserving is to rob the elites of the success in the art. Lets remember that every belt we someday retire to a display will some day go on a wall to mark our achievement. The blue belt in that display is the very first one in the lineup and is just as important as those before and after it.