Don’t Chase Belts, Chase Experiences


Sure we all want the holy and coveted black belt. Or at least to rise in rank in some way. However, belts wear and fade in time, certificates get acid-stained and crumble, and medals rust with age. What doesn’t fade away is the time spent on the mat. Of course, your Jiu-Jitsu will diminish if not used, but your urge to train (while sometimes waivers) will never really go away. I believe once you start your martial training, you kick start an almost mystic engine that you can never quite turn off.
Remember back to the reason why you first walked in to the Jiu-Jitsu studio. Maybe you were searching for just self-defense. Maybe it was just to get back in to shape. Or perhaps, you were just curious and searching for something beyond your immediate surroundings. All of these are actually good reasons. Now, if you signed up just to learn how to hurt somebody, that’s not a good reason. Unfortunately, there are people who do this, and they usually get smashed on the mat awfully quick, then have an epiphany as to what their real reason for belonging to a Jiu-Jitsu academy is. Most of these people come in once and never return.
But back to belts. I’d like to point out that the belt system that basically all martial artists know came into use around the year of 1885, so it’s really only about 130 years old. Considering martial arts have been practiced for at least 2,000 years, the belt system seems like a small ripple in martial arts history. It was invented by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. Soon after he created the belt system (or Dan system, which was taken from the Japanese game Go) nearly all martial art styles adopted it. Before this system, a rank signifying some form of mastery in an Eastern martial art (Japanese Ju-Jitsu, old-school karate, etc.) was usually certified with a scroll. Belts (or obi) were worn to keep kimono in place or to “hold up pants,” like Mr. Miyagi jovially told Daniel-son. Nevertheless, the belt system has become virtually mainstream with martial arts, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Now, with my history lesson over, consider what the martial arts were really practiced for: self-defense, building of spirit, even keeping national heritages alive. For example, high school students in Okinawan are taught five traditional forms for their “gym” class. I’d argue that the United States has cultural heritage with boxing and wrestling but that’s for another article.
My first martial arts instructor (Shorin-ryu if you really want to know) had a saying about belts: “The belt won’t buy you a cup of coffee.” For a long time, I never really understood what that meant. As I grew older, I realized it meant nobody will give you a free lunch or a free whatever just because you’re a black belt with 30 stripes on it. Yes, it’s great to have a high-ranking belt (especially if you can back it up), but it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free pass. It’s a personal accomplishment obtained through labor of love.
Therefore, don’t be so concerned about belts. A Jiu-Jitsu black belt recently told his students at promotions, “If you’re chasing belts, you’re in the wrong sport.” I believe what he meant is that it’s the journey that is important. Belts will come, usually later if not sooner, but they are certainly not your main concern. The time making your gi weigh ten pounds from sweat, the knowledge you gain through training, the self-improvement that you should see within your life, those are things that you should be chasing.
Personally, I think the most important thing you should gain through Jiu-Jitsu is how to exist with another person. What I mean is that having a black belt is fine, but if you can’t get along with people or have not developed some new sort of brotherhood or sisterhood with your Jiu-Jitsu family, no one will respect you as a person. Sure, they may respect your black belt and your presence on the mat, but don’t expect to get asked to go for coffee later (you wouldn’t be able to buy it anyway). I joke but I’m trying to get my point across: People respect those who give it. The belt doesn’t allow automatic entitlement.
It’s growing together with your Jiu-Jitsu family and learning how to walk off the mat with a little more self-confidence than before that is important. Belts are a part of it, and they are nice to receive. But if that’s all you’re after, you can actually just go and buy one. You can’t really buy the great experiences that happen through your Jiu-Jitsu journey. In my opinion, they’re priceless.