The topic of BJJ came up in a social situation and a friend who was not training BJJ asked a not uncommon question: “Shouldn’t a higher belt never be tapped out by a lower belt?”
There’s a great quote: “There are no lies on the mats.” You can’t fake your jiu-jitsu skills.
Since BJJ is one of those combat arts where near 100-percent intensity sparring is performed regularly, you quickly realize the reality of your level of skill. Belts are awarded at least partly by how well you can execute your techniques in live rolling with other students of similar belt level.
So it follows that a BJJ student should not be promoted if they get tapped by a lower belt right? Shouldn’t a purple belt be better than all of the blue belts, or else they don’t deserve the purple belt?
No. There are many factors to consider. Generally speaking, a purple belt has a more refined level of technique than a blue belt. And more often than not, a purple belt will have the upper hand in a roll against a blue belt of similar weight and age. But these differences are not absolute and individual differences vary greatly.
There are a few instances where we see a lower belt tap a higher belt in training, none of which mean that the higher belt is not deserving of their rank.
1) Size does matter.
I recall a very technical blue belt of mine who had very smooth movement and was one of the most technical students in the academy. He had to be — he was a flyweight in a mat full of bigger training partners.
There was a much larger, younger, more naturally athletic and physically fit white belt who possessed a lower understanding of jiu-jitsu technique than the technical blue belt. But due to his physical advantages, he was able to dominate the more technically skilled blue belt.
The bigger white belt knew maybe 50 percent of the moves that the blue belt did, but his physical advantages were enough to enable him to get the submission. That did not invalidate the blue belt. In fact, if the smaller blue belt were even able to avoid being submitted in the roll, I consider that victory for him!
In the reality of fighting, size, strength, and age are also factors, not only technique above all.
2) There are two types of students.
One of my instructors said a long time ago that he saw the students divided into roughly two different groups: recreational and competitors.
For example, we have two BJJ students in the same school:
Student #1 is a 40 years old purple belt who is a white-collar professional who does class two to three times per week to stay fit and learn the martial art of jiu-jitsu.
Student #2 is a 23-year-old blue belt who is very physically fit, has the time and energy to train nearly every day and loves to compete.
Can that competitive blue belt dominate and tap the older, recreational purple belt? Yes.
Does that mean that the older purple belt should never graduate in belt rank? No.
The instructor’s expectations for each can and should be different according to the student’s goals and capabilities.
3) The higher belt was just training.
There is a reason why gossiping about “who tapped who” in training is considered bad dojo etiquette: because it’s only training where we experiment and try new techniques.
When a higher belt decides to limit their usual A-game to experiment with a new position, this can create an opening that a lower belt can capitalize on. And sometimes this means a tap.
If the higher belt just played their strongest positions and stayed safe, there would be little chance of them getting caught by a lesser experienced training partner. But that isn’t very much fun, nor can the higher belt expand their own game.
When we see a higher belt get tapped by a lower belt in rolling we don’t know what the higher belt may have been trying to work on. Don’t be quick to jump to the conclusion that the lower belt is better than the higher belt.
Sometimes black belts get caught by blue belts. It happens. It is just part of training.