Every now and again, the Jiu-Jitsu Times posts a piece about a spectacular lower belt who is able to overcome the odds and beat higher belts, or who gets promoted to the next belt and wrecks shop there as well. Just about every time one of these stories gets posted, someone comes out of the woodwork to accuse the person of sandbagging or really being a higher belt than they present themselves to be.
Winning at competition doesn’t mean you’re deserving of or entitled to a higher rank. In fact, the IBJJF requires competitors to stay at their rank for a designated period of time before moving on. (Look at what happened to Gordon Ryan when he was promoted “too soon.”) But are people with exceptional abilities cheating by not competing at a higher rank?
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time training with some extremely high-level wrestlers; we’re talking NCAA champs and even an Olympic wrestler who has been dropping in from time to time. Training with the Olympian has been eye-opening because there are some areas in which he makes me feel like a child, but others where he’s still very much a beginner. There are even areas where he can submit me.
A jiu-jitsu blue belt can have areas of competence that are at a black belt level. When I was a blue belt, I had a black belt level armbar from closed guard and could frequently submit hobbyist black belts with it. These black belts weren’t “less than” me, but I had put in the repetitions on this armbar and obtained a high enough proficiency with it that if they made even a slight error, I’d secure the finish. These same black belts had areas where they were vastly superior.
My coach’s mentality behind promotions is that a person needs the weakest areas of their game to be at the level of the belt to which they are going to be promoted before they can be promoted to that belt. So if I have a black belt level takedown and pressure game, and even have some black belt level submissions, but my guard is white belt level, I need to bring my guard to blue belt level before being promoted. Therefore, when we have high-level wrestlers come in, they don’t automatically get the blue belt. They may be black belts at wrestling, but until the other areas of their game catch up a bit, they’re still just white belts.
This mentality means that competitive success doesn’t necessarily mean someone is ready for the next belt. You can have an Olympic wrestler whose takedowns, top pressure, and control are enough to overwhelm even black belt level practitioners and they will win in competition. After all, in competition, your responsibility is to play only to your strengths. But in the training room, that person who can beat black belts is still a white belt. The key to that person’s opponents in competition is to find their white belt level deficiencies and avoid their black belt level proficiencies.
A couple of months back, we saw a similar effect when a six-month white belt took third at the ADCC Trials and then won last month at blue belt at IBJJF No-Gi Worlds. I don’t train with this individual, but I’d go out on a limb and say that maybe his guard isn’t as good as his takedown game, or maybe there are areas of his game still at that blue belt level, but he does a great job of hiding it when he’s out there in competition.
The next time you want to accuse someone of sandbagging or being of a higher skill set than their belt indicates, know that what you see is not always the full picture. Readiness for the “next level” may depend upon factors that beyond your scope. Also bear this in mind when you feel slighted by not receiving a promotion in spite of decent competitive results — maybe there are areas of your game that your coach wants to see you develop.