It’s that time of year again, right after the IBJJF World Championships, where Jiu-Jitsu academies around the world are promoting their students to a higher belt rank.
Some belt promotions are without a doubt justified. If a student won a medal at the World Championships, it is hard to argue against moving him to the next rank. On the other hand, some belt promotions just don’t make any sense. When you see the typical “New BJJ Belt” post on social media, everyone says “well-deserved” but many are also thinking, “Really? What was that coaching thinking?! Why is that person getting promoted now?!” Don’t instructors know that promoting too soon will only speed up the process of the student quitting prematurely?
The fact is that early belt promotions actually cause the BJJ community to shrink – despite the good intentions of these early promoting instructors.
The most common reason for early belt promotions is that a student has been training for too long and the instructor wants to keep his paying customer happy. We call this a ‘time-in’ promotion, meaning that if you train for so many years than you’ll get promoted eventually because you’ve paid your dues and put in the time. One day you’ll be a black belt regardless of whether you learned the necessary skills. This is almost as bad as buying your belt online. In fact, it’s arguably worse. The most damning criticism launched against online belt promotion is that you can’t tell how good a person actually is based on a video; in a time-in promotion, the instructor knows that the student doesn’t have the skills but promotes them anyway.
The fundamental inequality is this : Everyone starts training at a different level and learns at a different rate. Some people are zombies on the mats. They come in, go through motions, and walk out a little sweaty at the end of the day. They don’t put in the mental energy required to build a sufficient skill set that the next belt requires. As much as the instructor would love for the zombie student to join the ranks of the living, the zombie student has to play his or her part. Compare that to the all-star student – who not only has the athletic background – but takes her training very seriously. She not only puts 100% into her class time but is doing the extras outside of class.
There is an expectation that at each belt level, that a student knows the proper actions and reactions for both top and bottom positions. The best Jiu Jitsu players have a good foundation from all positions as well as a unique game they specialize in. But notice the key point: Higher belts must have the appropriate skill level of Jiu Jitsu for the belt that they wear – regardless of how long it took for them to achieve it.
What happens when students are promoted too early?
Short-term, everyone is happy. The student is excited and (temporarily) re-motivated to train. The promotion validates the coach’s teaching ability if they have a room full of higher belts. There are lots of social media congratulations and thank-you’s to be had.
But what about long-term?
They student wasn’t up to the challenge of the lower (easier) belt level, in the training room and in competition. And now the demands at the higher belt are even greater, oftentimes too much for the individual to overcome. This is why we see a big fuss on social media over an early belt promotions only to never see from the person ever again. These students stop competing, their training drops off, and they disappear from the Jiu Jitsu community entirely.
In the end, as these zombie students accumulate, and the skill level of these students become out-of-sync with the rest of the Jiu-jitsu community, the gym’s credibility tanks.
The uncomfortable reality is that every student isn’t willing (or doesn’t know how) to forge through the difficult learning process that is Jiu-Jitsu. (Read our previous blog post on the infamous Blue Belt Curse). That is why a good portion of the classroom time at Crazy 88 is dedicated to how to learn rather than simply Jiu-Jitsu technique.
What can we do to prevent the decrease of our beloved Jiu Jitsu community? If you’re a coach, talk openly with the students and let them know what they need to do to make it to the next belt level. Give specific examples and be honest. If you’re a student and stagnating at one belt for many years, ask your coach what positions you need to improve. Ask how the instructor defines proficiency in that position and how to go about reaching that goal. One conversation a year doesn’t cut it. The hard conversations need to happen on a regular and consistent basis. Otherwise, more students will be promoted too soon and eventually drop out of training.
The Jiu Jitsu community needs to continue to grow in order to thrive long term. Keeping good students on the mats can be achieved by guiding them through the belt promotion system at a reasonable pace. So please instructors—slow down your promotions. And students—suck it up and ask what you need to do to make a jump up to the next level.