There are a lot of grey areas in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is to be expected. Every combative discipline, based upon reality, has a level of vagueness to it. There are endless unwritten and unspoken segments of the gentle art. Why does this happen?
In combat, you can anticipate and strategize, but there is always a level of unpredictability. The answer to solving this problem is time and experience. Over time and through experience, you will train the circuits in your brain to fire reactions quicker and you will learn the deep complexities of the art. Eventually, the deepest complexities will make the simplest sense. That is called mastery.
This is why traditional belt tests are so difficult to administer in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Your understanding of the art comes through practice, struggle, failure, and development of muscle memory. How can you test that? This is a major problem. So often, students quit due to frustration. However, in reality, they are exactly where they need to be. They just don’t understand what they should know, feel, or improve upon at each rank.
Here is my answer:
White Belt – aka, Elementary School
In the beginning, expect a tsunami of confusion. Expect to feel as if you’re walked into another realm of reality. Expect a feeling of excitement, unlike anything you have felt before.
Improving yourself and gaining knowledge is one of most important things you can do to prolong your life and become fulfilled with happiness.
You might feel like you aren’t getting any better and wonder why you can’t make anything work! What’s interesting about this is if it were anything else, you would chalk up your frustration to inexperience and the fact that you are a beginner. The problem is, jiu-jitsu digs deep into your ego and chokes you into humility. Humility is one of the hardest things to develop. Everything in you fights against it. You have years of pride built up and maybe a false sense of personal abilities and insecurities. Most of us start jiu-jitsu in adulthood, where we are riddled with bad habits and some tough life lessons from our past. Then jiu-jitsu reinvents us.
White Belt is elementary school. You are just learning the alphabet and then making sentences. Pretty soon, you will be off into middle school, where you can start to roam a little more freely. It is hard for a person to be a beginner. But it is something that will humble you and keep you engaged with life forever.
The two most important parts of your white belt experience are:
- Getting fascinated instead of frustrated.
- Allowing 90% of your training to be academic.
This means you should be, drilling, watching, studying, asking questions, and finding and developing minor patterns. Jiu-jitsu is human chess, right? Physical training and rolling will be more important later. So white belt is about learning what the game is, figuring out what the pieces are and how they move, and getting to a point. As Chris Haeuter said, it is where you can sit down and play a game.
Blue Belt – aka, Middle School
This is your biggest feeling of gratification yet. After hundreds of classes and countless car rides home wondering what the hell you just did, it is starting to make sense. Then, just as it is starting to make sense, you start to feel like you are going backwards. A sudden re-emergence of your ego comes back with your new found skill only to be crushed again.
White Belt is over. You have a decent grasp on what this jiu-jitsu stuff is. Now, your performance is being more and more evaluated. The teachers and teachers’ aides that you had in elementary school aren’t there 24/7 anymore. You have to start doing your own work and will be dealing with tougher material.
Blue belt seems like forever and there might even be some bullies who are closing in on purple. Sometimes it feels like things are getting worse, and then you realize your partners were just getting better — like you! You feel a sense of uncertainty and increased pressure. You might miss that white belt. It was nice, because of the lower expectations and lack of pressure. Now it’s time to perform!
Focus on three main areas to accelerate your progression.
- Defense – Try and learn to become un-submittable. To improve, you will need to test your offense. But sometimes, see how long you can last without being submittied or fatigued. Do it with various skill levels, sizes, and ages. With better defense, you will have most of your problem areas and gaps close, which will lead to time slowing down for you and a better chance at offense.
- Strategy – Knowing a certain move in a certain position doesn’t mean it will work against every person, even in similar conditions. The moves you know are useless without the right strategy and plan of attack. Start thinking about how you will out-technique or out-smart your opponent. Start analyzing where you are getting beat. Don’t get too obsessed with a position (yet). You might love the half guard, but you might not want to be there against a half guard slayer.
- Try to be gentle – Pedro Sauer said in an interview on Budovideos.com, “Do the move to your partner like they are a five-year-old child.” Reflect on that. If they were five, you would have to do it correctly to show form. You would have to do it smoothly as to not hurt them. This is what you should do to everyone. Smoothness and fluidity are what you are searching for. It’s easy to add speed and strength to a perfectly smooth technique. Focus on being gentle and fluid and you will truly feel jiu-jitsu.
Check out this great article by Mark Mullen for more information about blue belt.
Purple belt – aka, High School
Hey, you survived! At this point, you are most likely a lifer. You aren’t going anywhere and you are actually, quite advanced. You have your own flow on the mat and have developed your own “style”. You can expect to have some pretty exciting things happen on the mat. A lot of purple belts, finally “catch” a brown or black belt. Don’t lie, you know it’s exciting.
But, like high schoolers, you might think you know it all, and might have someone more experienced put you in your place. You know a lot, but the experience is still missing.
At first, like all belts, you will have growing pains. As the belt is being tied on, you are whispering to yourself, “Do I deserve this?”
You definitely do. It’s a simple equation. You have people at the same belt rank who might be two to five years ahead of you. It’s a big gap. You will grow into it. As I talked about in a previous blog, you are dealing with some un-teachable aspects of jiu-jitsu, namely, transitions, anticipation, and sensitivity. Only experience develops those attributes. Higher belts transition a bit quicker. They have more experience, so they anticipate the road ahead. They have a sixth sense, and can feel the fight better than you. This comes with time and this is why rolling is so important at this belt.
Brown Belt – aka, College
There are two types of pressure at this belt:
- Pressure that you use on your opponents.
- The pressure of that next belt.
Here’s a bit of advice. Focus on your next belt. Focus on what you need to do in order to get there. I have found that people don’t focus on their next belt for two reasons.
- It takes pressure off of them. Having to think about what it takes to get that next belt adds anxiety and stress. Good! All great things evolve because of survival and necessity.
- People have this idea that if they are focused on the next belt, they are just focused on the materialistic part of it. Maybe, maybe not. Everyone wants their next; let’s not kid ourselves. If you say you don’t, then when you get your black belt, don’t post it on Facebook. Of course we want that belt. If you went to college, wouldn’t you want that diploma? Yes! It signifies the amount of work you have put in! When you look down at your waist, you will feel such accomplishment as you scroll through your mind and recall your BJJ history.
You will struggle with those damn black belts kicking your butt and even some of the purple belts doing well against you. Well, if tapping, getting swept, and taken down, is a sign of not deserving a rank, then all of us should go hand our belts back. Brown belt is undergraduate and graduate school rolled into one. You are cramming the final pieces of information in and you are preparing to enter the workforce. You will be let loose. Don’t waste your time at this belt. The last thing you would want to have happen is to get your black belt and not know what to do with it.
Focus on using pressure. I don’t necessarily mean body weight pressure. Use pressure to induce panic. How? Real pressure in jiu-jitsu will make your opponent open up quickly in ways they usually won’t. This pressure is caused by the threat of offense. When you are advancing position, working a submission, or unbalancing your opponent for a sweep, they have to react. If they don’t, they will lose. When imminent damage is unavoidable for them, they will panic. They will do whatever it takes to survive or they will fail and they will not survive. Pressure your opponents. Make them constantly uncomfortable and unsure of what could happen.