Tuesday, May 24, 2011

There's always time to fill in the holes.

I've been dragging my feet on being promoted pretty much ever since I received my blue belt. I've always felt like I had too many holes, not enough game, for whatever level I was at, whatever stripe or so on.

Trust your instructor, everyone says... but what if I don't trust the *system*?

When I started BJJ, everything I'd read and heard told me that there was none of the McDojo, blackbelt-in-3-years, train six months per belt bullshit in BJJ that I knew was endemic in other arts.

Now, with some time, I am not sure. Granted, it's nowhere near as bad as some other martial arts with kids getting blackbelts at age 10-12. But here's the problems I have with some of the ways it seems some people (okay- I) am/are promoted in BJJ. (I'm not trying to make blanket generalizations about everyone, every school, everywhere, all the time.)

1. A pro and a con of BJJ is there is no list of techniques that you have to be proficient at to progress from one belt to another. Some schools do it this way (Roy Dean for one) but at my academy and many others, your progress is measured very individually. This is great, to accommodate differing physicalities, ages, attributes, interests etc. This sucks, if you feel like you got promoted too soon and aren't being held to the same standard as others. This sucks, if you feel like you should be able to hold your own against other people of similar size and similar belt.. or greater size and less-experienced belt.. but you can't.

2.  I think (in my experience, which is very limited) it might be that some girls get promoted faster than boys.  Or another way to say it would be that boys are better at certain techniques when they're promoted than girls are, at the same promotion level. This is maybe also true for older jiu jitsu practitioners as compared with younger ones (meaning people who are 40+ when they start compared with those who start around ages 18-20).

There are probably many reasons for this, but I suspect a major one is that there are lots more average-sized men than there are small people/women/older people doing jiu jitsu, so smalls/women/older people don't get as much practice with techniques almost working. Men have all kinds of training partners about their size, women usually don't. Men have greater room for error... whereas it seems women have to get the technique EXACTLY right for it to work. So we have a harder time "homing in" on the idea. I think this is especially true when learning sweeps and reversals, to a lesser extent but still true in things like escaping. As a result, average guys learn fairly quickly that "this" sorta-kinda worked, so they keep trying "this." Women/smalls/olders have experiences where "this" doesn't work (they're in the same "sorta kinda right" place but lack the same capability to make it work despite less than perfect technique) so they stop trying it. It probably was close to working, but the difference between "kinda working" and "not working" seems to depend on physicality that is maybe not available to smalls/women/olders.

So taking myself as an example: I got my blue belt after grappling about 7 months, and of that only 4-5 months was at a recognized jiu jitsu academy, taught by a blackbelt, with any kind of purposeful curriculum. By my accounting, September 2011 will mark 3 years of jiu jitsu for me... but I'm JUST NOW getting some of the stuff that is considered the most basic for whitebelts. How did I get a blue belt without ever having ONCE triangled a fully resisting adult opponent (of either gender) to submission? without ever having cross collar choked, from mount or guard, a FRAO? without ever having once swept a FRAO?

I have a little bit of a top game. But my sweeps and reversals and guard game lag way behind. I am not blaming my gender, I'm not trying to escape responsibility, I accept this is my fault. But I do reflect on my rolls with my teammates, and I think I learn jiu jitsu in a different order than average guys. And therefore, maybe I wasn't promoted because of proficiency in the same array of techniques as the guys. Maybe I was promoted because of time-in-service, or effort, or whatever... but I know I'm not as capable of executing as guys my same rank.

Does that mean I'm not "as good as" the guys? maybe so.  Probably so :)

Or maybe I can look at jiu jitsu like... a circle. Imagine a circle divided up into a thousand little squares. (for argument's sake.. there's probably more than a thousand.) Each square is a technique, a movement, an elemental concept of jiu jitsu. Triangles, sweeps, armbars, hip movement, grips, base, connection-- "It's in there!"

Maybe some people start out learning on square one and proceed sequentially. By the time you get to 75 or so you're a blue belt. Some others, maybe women/smalls/olders, or maybe just me-- might start at one, skip to ten, then 17, then 150, then back to 33. They get their blue belt and maybe they've dabbled in 75 squares' worth, but they're scattered around the circle.

The point I'm feebly trying to make is that it doesn't really matter what order you learn your squares in. Eventually, we'll all be black belts. We'll have all the time we need to carefully color in all the squares. Some of the squares are best learned in a certain order; sometimes we'll do better in competition jiu jitsu if we have learned the first fifteen in order, or at least have the first fifteen somehow in there. Maybe women/smalls/olders (or people who learn at home in the garage watching DVDs, or people who learn from instructors with widely differing educational philosophies) don't "perform" as well against more traditional opponents, early on in their games, because of the factors I discuss above. But I suspect that at the "end" (when we're all multi-degreed blackbelts with years and years and years on the mats) we will all have covered all the squares on the great circle of jiu jitsu, and whatever order we did it in, we'll have filled in all the holes.

So it shouldn't really matter when we get whatever belt, as long as we keep on training.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this alot lately because apparently many people at my BJJ school think that I have some magical influence over our resident BB/school owner, and so they barage me with questions and whining about promotions. An unfortunately small portion of it is actually constructive (i.e. "I'm having trouble with this counter, can you help me?"). A much larger portion of it is completely unconstructive (i.e. "What do I have to do?" and "I'm just so frustrated, I train and train and get nothing [read: no promotion] out of it."). And still another portion is unconstrutive in different way ("I'm frustrated, I don't deserve this belt." and "I think I was promoted early.").

I seriously hear alot of whining.

My point is: why care?

Care about your jiu jitsu, care about your physical and mental health, and care about your competition performance when it comes around to it. When you can achieve this, you’ve reached BJJ maturity or some semblance of wisdom. I admit, I’m not all the way there either.

Focusing on the promotion system is myopic.

Your head instructor promotes however he/she feels is the best way given the restrictions, the principles, and the heritage of his/her team and lineage. It’s important to understand these restrictions, principles, and heritage since they will help you along the path to BB.

You know, play the game, change the game, or leave the game. Ender didn’t whine.

slideyfoot said...

First off, I think it's worth noting in your post that in your case, 'five months' is a little misleading, as you train a lot more than most people. Your five months, training several times a day, is very different than my five months, training a couple of times a week. ;)

On the promotion thing (which I've babbled about before, here). I'm not a woman, but I am a small guy, so I run into a number of the same problems, especially regarding strength. I've also only ever competed once, back as a white belt, so that means I lack one of the two major reliable indicators of progress.

The other reliable indicator, which I fortunately didn't lack for my last promotion, is an instructor I trust and respect (although I've recently moved city, so will be building that relationship with somebody else in the next few years).

It can sound trite, but when it comes to promotions, you really have to rely on your instructor's judgement. It is a difficult adjustment, particularly for an intelligent, educated person, as one of (if not the) most important skills you get from university is critical thinking.

That means a lot of people find themselves second guessing instructors. You see other blue, purple, brown etc belts, and you inevitably compare yourself to them. You think of all the holes in your game. You think of all those basics where you still feel weak. You think of that lower belt who can still beat you up.

None of those thoughts are necessary, though they're impossible to avoid. I was recently promoted to purple, almost three months ago now, which terrified me. I didn't, and still don't, feel ready. However, I trust the judgement of the instructor who gave it to me.

An instructor who is giving out belts will have been training for a long time (we're assuming the instructor is legit here: if not, that's a whole other issue) . They know what people at each belt level feel like, from rolling with them, supporting them in competition, from going through the ranks themselves. They've been evaluating people for years: they are, in short, qualified to promote. Rank is for them to worry about, not the student.

As much as I repeat that to people on the net, and repeat it to myself, it is still difficult to accept: as a PhD student, I've got critical thinking coming out of my ears. However, having found an instructor to trust, who has given no cause to indicate that trust was unwisely placed, the student has to switch off their second-guessing when it comes to rank. Otherwise, you can drive yourself nuts with feelings of inadequacy, doubt and fear.

Now, if the instructor isn't somebody whose judgement you trust, then that's a problem. That's when you need to consider why you are training there. It is also why it is of such huge importance to find an instructor you DO trust

Liam H Wandi said...

Very interesting. Very interesting indeed. In one of his best posts, Matt Thornton once said that those who improve the best and fastest within BJJ are those who always try to keep the "big picture" (or to use your analogy, the circle) in mind when they learn and roll.

I stand by my opinion that the belt is there for the instructor, not for the athlete.

I teach my brother privately on a weekly basis. If he reaches a level where could wear a blue belt and walk into a BJJ class and hold his own against blue belts, it still wouldn't mean anything for me to put a blue belt on him :) His only learning environment has always been 1-on-1 private sessions. I know where he's at and I have a number of spreadsheets I track his progress on. I don't need a belt to remind me what he should and shouldn't be working on.

Many schools have a different view on belts. There is a beautiful connection between the teacher and student and the belt symbolises a reward along the journey. That's beautiful but its a completely different measeurement and ruler but we use the same peice of cloth to symbolise it.

What is meant by "trust your teacher/instructor/coach" is that she grades you to colour belts that mean something to her personally. She's simply establishing yard sticks that she can use to measure and quantify your development. The black belt is different. It's a graduation of sorts: You have the tools, now go make something unique and wonderful.

As for having an ok top game and not much of a guard (paraphrasing) you actually sound like a lot of 200pounder guys we have at the gym who are great blue belts. They'll take you down (or get taken down then climb up) and pass your guard and play from top.


he has a guard game, but he knows it's not his strength at all.

If you and simon love jiu jitsu and carry on playing it until black belt then there is no doubt in my mind that the wheels will turn and you will become even players.

sorry for the long reply

Anonymous said...

I think the belt is something to hold your gi closed. Will I be proud to wear blue? Absolutely, but I will do my best to measure my progress against myself.

I agree: it all evens out in the end.

I come from a language teaching background, and to be honest, it's often tricky to decide what level someone is in. Imagine this Saudi student I had: he could speak fluently--absolutely amazing communicator, but his grammar was basic and his writing was like a 2nd grader. What should I do with him? Should he be in the advanced class where his technical skills aren't up to par? Or should he be in the beginner class where he's bored? What about his writing?

My feeling is that the belt system is that way. So what if you hadn't ever submitted someone--you know you should work on that, and you do (hopefully).

Speaking of Roy Dean, I think he's a poet. Here are two of the things that I draw inspiration from:

"At [the white belt], the student’s ruler is in inches, and they do not yet know that the journey is in miles."

"It’s your race, your journey. You make friends that encourage, support, and keep you on pace. Mutual welfare and benefit, to honor the maxim of Jigaro Kano, is the goal. Jiu Jitsu an individual journey, with guidance and inspiration from others, but no one can carry you over the finish line. You must make it on your own power."

For me, that has nothing to do with belts. My skills didn't magically get better overnight when I went from zero stripes to four stripes.

I wonder how Saulo does his promotions. His whole thing with white belt is that it's about surviving. His book doesn't show any submissions at the white belt level (iirc). If he focuses on survival, what does it mean when he gives a blue belt? Would he give a blue belt to someone who hadn't executed an armbar in sparring? I don't know, but if his philosophy is consistent with what he's written, I think he would.

Good topic! I can't wait to hear what other people write.

And for the record, I did NOT think you were whining. You took a talking point and talked about it and invited discussion.

Anonymous said...

What Slidey said! I'm irritated I deleted part of my comment which was:

It comes down to this: do you respect and trust your instructor? If not, you should train at another place. If you do, you should trust them. They are the qualified ones.

I hear this all the time from students. I told one guy he was an advanced speaker of English and he said "No way! My English is terrible!" Ummm, no it's not--you're communicating clearly, you're not having difficulty coming up with words, you can convey your thoughts, talk around words you don't know, etc. Being an advanced speaker of English does NOT mean that your grammar is totally perfect all the time.

I have to ask him: do you trust me? Do you think I know what I'm doing? If yes, then you must believe what I am saying and not what you are feeling.

In many ways I think that "black belt" and "advanced language speaker" are similar. They're still working to improve, they're good at many things, and they are still learning. There's no "congratulations, you're finally finished." It's always a work in progress.

Anonymous said...

Also--AGREED!!! Your "five months" and my "five months" are not the same at all!!! You train enough for four people.

Charles said...

Thought provoking post, Georgette.

If, as you say, it shouldn't matter when we get whatever belt, how about never? Why not just put on your favorite color belt (mine is green), leave it on for the rest of your career, and focus on what counts--people rolling together.

That's what I'm working on in Grapelo, (shameless plug: www.Grapelo.com.) and it works. There is nothing that can be done with belts (or any formal, hierarchical ranking system) that cannot be done without them. That's true for both teachers and learners.

Why do people care about belts? Because they are told to, either explicitly or implicitly. An instructor who uses belts, no matter if they down play them, is telling their students that rank matters. Stop telling grapplers that belts matter, show them that skill development and mutual benefit do matter, and a remarkable change happens--they start paying attention to the things that lead to long term personal development and the growth of the sport by way of helping others do the same.


slideyfoot said...

There are several things a belt ranking system does make much easier, however.

To take a simple example, I recently started instructing, and I haven't been at the school very long. Therefore, I don't yet know everybody's skill level, as I hardly even know people's names yet.

So, when it comes to matching people up in sparring and drilling, or if I'm looking for an uke, belts are useful.

E.g, say there is a brand new white belt who happens to be quite large and powerful. I'll look to pair them up with a higher rank, which will both help them learn and be much safer than putting two white belts together.

Even if I did know everybody's level, what if somebody new joins from another club? Again, handy to know their skill level at a glance (at least roughly speaking).

So, I'd agree with Liam that the belt is there for the instructor rather than the student. I'm not sure I'd agree that you could happily throw out the belt system entirely and lose nothing.

JCC-CSV said...

first of all, that's what she said, on the title. Secondly, I really liked this post because I have been lacking good solid basics and wonder how the hell I will ever learn what I'm supposed to know. It prompted me to tell my new instructor and she promised I would be proficient. Also, echoing Slideyfoot, it's like Tony Robbins was saying: if you practice more times a day, then it's like doing something longer. You got well over a year's worth of training in.

Dolph said...

Great post, Georgette!

Thought I'd weigh in as one of the smalls / olds. I was a blue belt (going 3 times per week) for about five years.

After being a blue belt for three years my coach offered some unsolicited (but valuable and appreciated advice): You're stuck. You come in here, play the same damn game every day. You aren't making progress at learning jiu jitsu.

Over the next two years, I really worked to develop other aspects of my game.

Then I started ducking any promotions (yes, I was sandbagging, but I also had stopped competing during this period). I would forget my belt when I thought stripes were about to be awarded, skip in house tournaments (at which stripes might be given), etc.

I'd take privates to clean up holes in my game, but I was very content being a blue belt. I felt like a competent and solid blue belt, and didn't want the pressure or responsibility of being a purple belt. Of course, all of this was counterproductive to actually learning jiu jitsu.

One day, our head coach walked into an open mat that I happened to be at, told me to stand up, untied my blue belt, and tied the purple belt around my waist.

With every white and blue belt gunning for the new small and old purple belt, I realized that I needed to make serious progress on my game. A few months later, I moved cities and switched gyms. Once again, nearly every white, blue, and purple belt came at me again to test me and see whether or not I was really a purple belt.

I've made more progress since being promoted to purple than I made in my last several years as a blue belt. And I'm competing again for the first time in years. Looking back on it, I really believe I got the promotion to purple because it would cause cognitive dissonance and force me to find ways to make progress in my jiu jitsu skills.

As an old and small guy, I think my game and its development will always be different than someone twice my size and half my age (we have some college students at my gym who are about half my age). I will rely more on technique, and less on speed and strength. I will also stay calmer under pressure and wait for an opening, instead of trying to force one.

Zen Mojo said...

I'll take a different spin on the title - There may be TIME to fill in the holes but do you have a PLAN to fill in the holes?

If you don't feel like you "own" your belt, it is time to evaluate why - where are the holes - and THEN come up with a PLAN to start filling those holes in.

You can't just go to class and expect it to magically happen - most instructors structure their classes for "everybody" not you specifically. You need to be responsible for structuring things for YOU.

A lot more philosophizing here: http://zenmojobjj.blogspot.com/2011/05/time-is-not-on-your-side.html

Anonymous said...

Another angle on the same topic.



Anonymous said...


Your post is thoughtful and promotes discussion. I do not hear any whining in what you wrote, just critical thinking (as Slideyfoot mentioned).

I read your first few paragraphs as either wishing that there was, or assuming that there is, an objective standard for BJJ belts. From this objective standard, we could then measure whether or not a particular student is qualified for the belt she wears.

Here are my observations and unorganized thoughts:

Saulo requires calm temperament, great defense, and a well-timed hip escape to re-guard. Roy Dean has a list of offensive and defensive techniques that must be demonstrated during a prescribed test. At a very strong Nova Uniao school, I was handed my purple and brown belts during class without any formal test.

The students’ skill level tends to converge as they climb the ranks. In other words, the greatest variance is at blue belt, somewhat less at purple, even less at brown. Because black belt is a terminal rank, the variance increases again to account for the fact that a newly-promoted black belt and Marcello Garcia, Cobrinha, and Rickson are all black belts.

Your comment about average-sized men either being promoted more slowly than other groups, or having a higher skill level upon promotion than other groups is directly tied to the fallacy of objective standards for belt promotion. I have seen athletic, strong young men held back. For example, I know of one top-tier instructor and competitor who did not promote a student to purple even though that student won Pan Ams and Mundials in consecutive years and was training 5-6 times per week.
Slideyfoot makes the most important point about belts: we must trust our teachers. Belt promotion is based on technical ability and character considerations, among other things. There is no objective standard for technical ability. Accordingly, we have to trust our teacher’s judgment that we are ready (or not) for a particular belt. The corollary to Slideyfoot’s point is key: if a student does not trust his instructor’s judgment, she needs to find a new instructor.

Excluding total beginners, I have not executed a triangle or a kimura on an average-sized FRAO. I am a black belt. The dissonance of those two sentences gives me a roadmap for what I need to develop in the next 6-8 months.

See you on the mat.