Over the course of your jiu jitsu career, your focus should always be on improving your skills and improving your game. Promotions are a byproduct of successful training. Every single BJJ Black Belt Professor worth his or her salt focuses on the long term journey, not the short term promotions.
Despite that example and the frequent reminders, some jiu jitsu students spend a fair amount of their time focusing on the next promotion. When these students get promoted, their ego jumps into overdrive and they feel like it’s ‘long overdue.’ If a student has this mindset, they lose focus on improvement, because they are too driven by extrinsic rewards, promotions, tournament wins, etc.
Again, rewards, stripes, belt promotions, and bjj tournament victories are the AFTER EFFECT of successful focused training. When your eye is on improvement, you will often get promoted when you aren’t expecting it. I remember getting promoted to brown belt and thinking that I wasn’t done working on what I was trying to accomplish. My brown belt promotion happened fast, I got two stripes at one promotion, and I jumped a class of guys who had been purple belts longer than me. I was struggling with work and school and so I dove headfirst into my training because it was the one area of my life that I could control. I trained 6 days per week, often twice per day, and I was on a mission to get better.
When I was promoted to brown belt, I didn’t feel ready. It was like I had just started to understand how much more I had to learn. And in typical ‘black belt fashion,’ I was told by my professor Saulo Ribeiro that that’s how he knew I was ready to be promoted. He said, “You’ll grow into your belt. It shouldn’t feel comfortable on Day 1.”
I’m a black belt professor now myself, but I completely understand that sometimes the things we say are CONFUSING! :) But.. they are also true.
Recognizing how much you have to learn is a sign that you’re finally learning something.
So... what do you do with that? Understanding how little you know isn’t an excuse to stop and be satisfied with knowing that you can’t know everything. But instead, it’s the catalyst that will cause you to dive headfirst into your training and keep learning, regardless of the color belt you’re wearing. You must always have a focus, something to work on, and always have a direction for your training. You’re only as strong as your current challenge.
So today, I’m going to break down some of this “Black Belt Speak” & help you understand my mindset when I promote.
Despite a belts main purpose of holding up your pants or keeping your gi top closed, belts in jiu jitsu have power. Someday I may write about the significance of jiu jitsu belts, but today, I want to share with you one of my favorite experiments that illustrates it instead. Fernando Terere has talked about this before and I recently did it in my academy. I paired up white belts with upper ranks and then had them swap belts. I really like that concept and I feel like it breaks down the barriers between your newer players and more experienced players. High ranks practice humility & remember the real reason why we enjoy what we do week in and week out. Low ranks get a boost of confidence and a glimpse at what it will be like at the next level.
Xande Ribeiro did this once with me when I was a new blue belt. He swapped belts with me not long after he had won BJJ Worlds. The moment I put on his black belt, I felt like a superhero. Despite any effort to “stay calm & stay cool,’ I couldn’t help myself. It changed me and changed my confidence. Now, it didn’t immediately make me roll like a world champion black belt.. But I didn’t roll like a brand new blue belt either.
It doesn’t matter if you believe it’s the belt which holds the power, the label, the status, or the time and training itself, OR if you think the whole thing is bollocks. Aside from this ‘in academy’ experiment, there is a much larger example where you can see the effect of belt rank and promotions.. Specifically delayed promotions.
In jiu jitsu, there has always been a debate about ‘sandbagging.’ Many coaches will hold back their star students in an effort to fill up their trophy cases. Aside from the ego and ethical issues that come from trying to find a way to cheat the competition by misrepresenting yourself, I think sandbagging has the potential to destroy the competitor that coaches are holding back.
As a coach, people think that if you hold back a prodigy that they will just destroy everyone that they go against in their division because they are so much better than the average competitor. For a short time.. That’s true.. It will work for a short time and they will win. BUT, while they are walking through the low levels collecting medals and team trophies, they aren’t being challenged and they aren’t improving. Everyone else around them is competing with them, training with them, working to bring themselves to the prodigy’s level.. And then, all of a sudden, your prodigy is an equal. After years of comfortably winning, they are no longer able to rise to a challenge. They start getting caught in the early rounds of tournaments by people they used to beat. Everyone knows their game, because it’s never changed or evolved. Everyone improved around them, and they run the risk of getting swallowed up by the masses. The prodigy is now average, and they have to play catch up and try to catapult up the next level after not being challenged for years.
Sandbagging can lead to mental defeat and ‘lows’ that cause many to leave the sport altogether. It’s the rare few who can get out of a situation like this, find new direction, put the work back in again, and then get back on track. I think sandbagging may be the greatest disservice that a coach can do for a competitive student.
I believe that with the right amount of trust and respect in a coach/student relationship, that students will rise to the occasion presented by the coach. If I promote a student to blue belt before they feel ready for it, it’s because I know they are ready to rise to that challenge. That promotion will force them to get there faster. Belts aren’t punctuation marks. They aren’t the end of the sentence. They are doors that open to show you your new challenge.
For that reason, I don’t promote based on tournament victories. Depending on the student, competition COULD be a factor, but winning a medal is not the only thing that shows me that you’re progressing. Are you training consistently in the academy on your set schedule? Are you trying new things or are you stuck in your old habits? Are you challenging yourself during your matches or are you collecting the same taps from the same techniques on the same people every day? Are you setting a goal to improve by 1% every single day or are you allowing yourself to stay in your comfort zone? Are you working with your teammates to help them improve? As a team, we are all an integral part in each other's success. Their success is your success. I am fiercely protective of our team. Some people disagree with this, but in my academy we don’t cross train at other local schools. We learn from others in seminars and train when we travel, but we don’t have mini factions from our team that go around to do weekly challenge matches at every local gym that has a padded floor. I’ve never seen any value to the clash of egos that happen during most local cross training. The development of our team is so much more important. Because “iron sharpens iron” and we are only as strong as our weakest teammate. Your development is a direct result of the growth and improvement of your team and your training partners.
All of this adds up to what Saulo calls “seasoning” on your belt, training for your mind and body, and ultimately leads to your next promotion.
Train your mind to focus on the challenge. Recognize how far you have come since your first day of training and where you can be a month from today, 6 months from today, a year from today. Keep coming in, roll, sweat, have fun.. Keep putting the work in, and lift your eyes up to see the longer journey, not just your ‘wins & losses’ on a daily basis. It’s my job as your coach to see the bigger picture and recognize when you’re body & mind are ready for that new challenge.
Then, when promotion day comes, trust me to know that I can see that it’s time, even when you can’t. Your team & I are here to support you and give you the tools you need to ‘season’ this belt & eventually move on to the next. Saulo told me, “You only experience each belt once, you’re a black belt forever. Enjoy the journey.” Be excited that you have reached your milestone, not afraid of it, & embrace the challenge that lies ahead.