Friday, July 02, 2010

Promotions, skill sets, and gender equality.

First, if you haven't read Steve's really, really well-written post on getting your mind out of the belt and back on the mat, you should go read that right now. As he says, go on, I'll wait.

Now, back to my friend's question in this previous post. Here's her question to me, interspersed with my comments back (with the ***s in front):

"I wanted to ask your opinion about promotions as a female. From what I’ve read, I know quite a few females who have received their blue belts relatively quickly, 8 months or less.

*** Yeah, like me, 4 months. Ridiculous.

And then I know of several girls that have been white belts unusually long bc of being the only female at the academy or their instructor holding them at a higher standard. One possible reason is that they want girls to do well at competition

*** I don't agree with this as a requirement. I can understand it, but more important should be how you do against women your size at home on the mats. If there aren't any women at your academy, then the comments of your teammates should be given more weight.

and another might be to hold girls to a higher standard so that it is not questioned as much by the guys.

*** Anyone "questioning" someone else's rank is a much more serious problem for the instructor in general and will not be solved by overcooking girls at whitebelt.

Part of me understands the thinking, but part of me thinks its crap to be held to different standards for being a girl.


I think it sucks that when a girl gets their blue belt under this line of thinking, the other guys getting their blue belts will be getting theirs faster than the girl because they are guys, and when they get theirs the girl will have already been at their level for some time. I don’t know if that makes sense, sorry for all the rambling. Anyways I just wanted to get your take on it.

*** I'm with you. I am in kind of the opposite position personally-- I think I have been promoted faster than the guys, and promoted before I have been ready or merited the promotion. Mainly this is because I can pull off wins in tournaments so on paper I look good-- but if you watch me against guys my size and level, it's apparent I'm not as skilled as they are. So I get stripes for winning tournaments, then brand new blues at home school me.

***I think promotions should be on the basis of skill on the mats, tempered with some small handicapping to account for size disparities, physical challenges etc."

Now back to just Georgette's rambling.. this is an issue of interest to me lately, not just because of my crying jag. I've been told by people at other schools about promotions that seem overdue, promotions that seem unmerited if merit is equated to skills on the mat, and then my friend's question about promotions varying by gender.

Go ahead, disagree with me (I think these debates are excellent food for thought) but I don't think people should be promoted simply because they've put in enough time attending class. I don't think promotions should happen because someone does well in a tournament. I think the only thing that makes the wonderfully supportive comments from the last couple of days true is the underlying assumption that your instructor knows how you're rolling and your rank is given because you deserve it for your skill set. [Possible exception being the carrot and stick concept, of motivating a student by withholding or granting a promotion... but I think that's gotta be for the penumbra student who is on the edge of the next belt.]

In other words:

1. Your instructor must have adequate personal experience of your skills to promote you. If your instructor doesn't roll with you on a semi-regular basis, or at the very least, doesn't consult with upper belts who do roll with you, and doesn't watch you rolling, then they have no business promoting you because you have punched your ticket a requisite number of times (McDojo anyone?) or because you won a tournament. Because what if you're not absorbing and executing? What if the people you beat in the tournament just weren't very good?

2. Promotions should be directly related to only THAT INDIVIDUAL'S skills, and not the reactions of others. In other words, don't hold the chicas back from promotions their skills merit, just because you want them to be better than boys of the same rank. Don't hold gals back because you worry that the guys will question your decision. Don't make promotion decisions in general on the basis of what people will say. That's just nonsense. If you believe they roll like a purple belt, then they're a purple. If your students are so immature and out of control that you have to protect women and smaller men by underranking them, that's a serious problem.

Okay. I'm ready for the flamewar. I know, I'm not a school owner, I'm not a black belt, I don't make promotion decisions, and maybe if I did then I'd feel differently.

Tell me what you think.


Mark said...

I had a friend once who was a mountain bike racer. Like BJJ they too have "ranks". She was terrified of increasing in rank for fear of losing, being outclassed or humiliated.
The rules for her sport were fairly standardized across the various leagues and she eventually had to advance purely on race performance. Sandbagging was nearly impossible due to computerized bracketing using past performance.

In mountain bike riding, your times over distance and consistency determine your overall skill. IMHO, considerably more objective/scientific than BJJ rolling!

She never, ever won a race. But her consistency gradually improved. Pushing her into new ranks kicking and screaming the whole way.

In contrast, the belt ranking fears never came up in the classical martial arts schools I trained in. One couldn't wait for the next rank! We had strict belt tests with particular techniques, katas which had to be performed at a decent level. I wonder if the objective nature of that system helped boost the practitioner versus the semi-subjective system in BJJ?

I know Carlos Machado tells his guys, they auto up-rank if they win a 16 man tournament or larger.

This probably didn't really relate to the gender equality questions. It's really difficult to answer as no one is identical in performance. Some advance forward quickly, some even retard a bit then launch forward. After getting my 2nd Dan in Shotokan we had an older lady show up to class. We suited up to spar, and she nearly knocked my head off with some jabs she learned watching her husband box! She had about 2 total hours of training vs my 12 years at the time...


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post G! I do agree with you. I think the person should merit a promotion because they are ready. A person can be dedicated and hit up every single class, every day, and not have good jiu jitsu game. Sometimes it just doesn't click...they can't piece together the whole picture. And there are those who just come twice a week and can nail moves like it's nothing. (those ones tick me off..LOL) I go to class religiously, like my life depends on it. I roll with the guys because that's all that is there for me to train with. There is a blue belt male that I roll with that I wonder daily why is he a blue because he plain out sucks( in my eyes). It's a prime example to me that somebody just gave him that belt out of pity..(i don't know where he was promoted, i really don't know him well at all..)maybe I'm biased about him. I just feel that no matter who it is, they should be promoted when ready regardless. The instructor should consider all things like how training partners feel others progress. Ultimately, it's the instructor's place I know. LOL..I put in the time required and I'm far more technically sound than this blue dude.But I don't want to get my belt before he feels I'm ready. I'd be stoked however to get it before I leave. I think the true test of people's levels show on the mat, whether it's just practice or competition. Size does matter, because guys tend to be bigger and stronger..sometimes stronger isn't a match for technique...sometimes they get lucky.LOL. You never know how it will happen. I think that it's crap to hold any one back because of their sex.Didn't they say egos have no place on the mat? Recognize the skill of a person, not the gender. I don't expect to win competitions, I feel if I don't have any expectation of winning that I can't be disappointed. I expect a learning experience and that's all. I'm still cutting my teeth in jj, so I'm no pro..
But I'm not sure if I'd take the instructor's comment over beers and insult or compliment. I'd just have to shake it off and keep on truckin.

Megan said...

I'm testing soon (my school does green belts), so some of these questions have been running through my head, especially since I don't want to be given anything I haven't earned. I'd personally prefer being held back to being handed a belt.

I wonder how much of the difference in gender motivation plays into all this. As much as some women in the school want a higher belt, I can just see that overall, it seems to be a bigger deal with the guys...that whole ego thing just plays out differently.

I may be assuming a lot here, but I wonder if some instructors take advantage of that, knowing that many women will hang around and just tough it out, focusing more on technique/weight loss than belt color. I'm sure there are plenty of guys that'd be ready to leave the school if getting the next belt were taking too long.

It's easy to forget, but instructors are motivated by profit and keeping the school running, and not just the name and purity of jiu jitsu. Maybe some of the guys are being promoted too early to keep them interested/showing up.

Thinking about it more, a lot of the women that train that I've run into are there as girlfriends/wives...less chance they'll just up and leave because of their individual treatment.

After getting to know my school and instructor, I personally don't worry too much about it anymore. My instructor trains professional fighters of both genders and has very good perspective on the whole skill/gender/size/reason for training mix. He is reasonably protective of the women, but at the same time, I know he has expectations, pushes us and everybody tests on the same list of techniques at every belt.

I used to gripe about testing, instead wishing the belts were just surprises, but having a formal test does remove some of the potential doubt.

libbie said...

Good ol' promotin equality...
At least once a week I have an arguement with myself as to why I should be at the rank I am at. I am a female and I earned my purple belt in only about 2 years. I dread the new meathead guys that show up every other week, that I have to roll with because I know my instructor wants me to. After muscling me black and blue and using all the "legal" dirty tricks in the book, and ususally don't catch anything, then ask me how long I've been training, as if they expect to all of a sudden get hteir purple after only being there 2 hours, drive me crazy.

I train as much as possible, almost every day of the week, sometimes twice a day, yet I still feel I have to prove myself to the meathead even though I know, my instructor knows, and the other "regulars" know, I've earned that belt.

My view of belt promotions are that there is no cookie cutter as to who should be at what rank. Yes there should be a list of moves that that person is expected to know for whatever level they are getting close too. In addition, as they work their way up the totem pole, the importance of transistioning from one move to th enext, baiting others into traps, etc, become an added skill they should display.

But, each person is different. Thus different expectations should be set for different people. One person may compete more than another. One person may be 20 and another be 50. One person may be a female and the other a male. One person may weigh 100 pounds and another 200 pounds.

I'm fortunate to be about 165 lbs and pretty strong for a female, so I can relatively hold my own against some of the smaller guys. But if you expect me to start throwing up triangles on our 6'4", 280lb white belt guy, excuse me why I laugh. However against him, I've learned how to survive and use techniques that will help me control him adn once and a while catch him with a submission.
(sorry for the rant)

Anyhow, my point being, its taken me a lot of training time to be able to survive against our resident "giant" who has only trained for about 2 months. If I had come in at the same time as him, and you expect me to be able to roll and compete against him, win some, lose some, because we are the "same", in order to earn my blue belt; I'd probably never see that blue belt, ever.

However if you expect us to both know certain techniques and show it to you in drilling, now we're talking. For the most part, I don't think people should be promoted based on their rolling success in class. Otherwise, if this where the case, I'd have permanent fingerprint marks on my arms, elbow bruises on my thighs, and gi burn on my chin, permanently, because everyone would be afraid to try new things and learn from why they got caught.

Steve said...

It's about trust, when it comes down to it. Do you trust your coach or not? A lot of self doubt actually stems from a lack of trust, whether we acknowledge it or not. Or it comes from not acknowledging it.

What I mean is, if you trust your coach, then it's really not an issue. You have a blue belt with some stripes. He clearly thinks you warrant that rank. If you trust him, then it's not an issue.

Significant internal conflict starts to occur if you don't trust your coach. If you believe he or she is awarding undeserved rank to others or to yourself, you're going to eventually reach a crisis.

One of the things that ultimately led to my love of BJJ is that I believed that if I was awarded a blue belt, I undoubtedly deserved it. When I get my purple belt, I will deserve that, too. If I ever reach a point where that isn't true, I'll be very, very sad, because overall, I truly believe that rank is largely very uniform world wide and hope it stays that way. I'd hate to think that I might go visit my friends in England (which I'm working actively on making happen Adam, Can, Seymour and Matthew!) and not be competent to represent myself well.

But I trust my coach. He's got perspective I don't. And ultimately, it's really just part of the journey. When we're all black belts, it won't matter much. :D

Elyse said...

Steve brings up a VERY good point - trust is the heart of the matter, as I have explained to many peers and grasshoppers before...

HOWEVER anyone who can completely trust their instructor is extremely lucky.

I am in that boat. I trust all of my instructors, especially those that promoted me to purple 100%. At the time I had 5 black belts, 3 brown belts and a slew of purples to train with on a regular basis, along with people (male and female) my own size - I'd imagine this made the decision a bit easier for my coach than it would be for someone operating in a vacuum without any other opinions.

Most people don't have this luxury. Steve said "if you trust your instructor..." implying the question, "Do you trust your instructor?" But now I realize that the question is, "Should you trust your instructor?" I'd like to give this one the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe he is a new black belt and needs more time to mature in his confidence in promotions etc.

BTW - I think this is a etiquette thing that has been somewhat lost in alot of schools in recent years -
Q - At what frequency should you ask your instructor about belt promotions, unsolicited?
A - NEVER. If you are really dying to know, or you feel there may be some injustice going on (very possible) then phrase your question like this: "Hey _____, I would really like to take my jiu jitsu to the next level and (choose one: become a top-level competitor / take on more of an instructor's role / really develop my game). What can I do to achieve this?"

If you do it that way, then the conversation is based on self-improvement and your instructor will see that you are driven to get to the next level and willing to put together a game plan to get yourself there rather than being greedy for the belt and relying on them 100%. It puts the topic of promotion in their mind without explicitly stating it.

I know many instructors who will set you back several months every time you ask about promotions unsolicited. Think about it.

slideyfoot said...

Not much to add, except that I agree with Steve: as long as you trust your instructor's judgement, then you don't need to worry about your rank. If you don't trust their judgement, then you need to consider why you're training at their school (as I think Elyse sensibly implied).

Also, it would be awesome to see you on a visit over here, Steve: drop me an email if/when you're going to be over, so I can make sure I'm around. :)

Georgette said...

slideyfoot has left a new comment on your post "Promotions, skill sets, and gender equality.":

Not much to add, except that I agree with Steve: as long as you trust your instructor's judgement, then you don't need to worry about your rank. If you don't trust their judgement, then you need to consider why you're training at their school (as I think Elyse sensibly implied).

Also, it would be awesome to see you on a visit over here, Steve: drop me an email if/when you're going to be over, so I can make sure I'm around. :)

Jmozaic said...

I don't think rank should be obtained by how well you match up against people in your school...they may not be the most technically sound out there, so you should worry about your own technique and what you feel you should be working on. Please follow my blog at