I have thought alot about the belts and what they mean when it comes to BJJ. There are many different metaphors and analogies that can be utilized to help one understand that progressing through the ranks is difficult and takes significant time, but to keep perspective on why, I like to use the analogy of the modern American educational process. I thought through this in 2004, but never put it in writing.
The modern American educational system allows for someone to graduate high school with a rudimentary knowledge base. No certain skill need be mastered, nor is there a requirement of ability to teach or even adequately explain “why” things are the way they are.
Next, comes undergraduate college and bachelor’s degrees. Here, significant time is spent learning theories explaining ‘why’ and developing a more detailed knowledge base. Through the use of essay exams and comprehensive exams, by the end of undergraduate studies, analytical thinking has been further nurtured and a moderate degree of expertise in the fundamentals and working ability to apply knowledge to practice is expected.
From there, a few pass through to a Master’s program. Here, intense time is spent on theory, variations, honing the ability to teach/explain/understand nuance. A Master’s degree is specific to a field and the student will be highly knowledgeable in his/her course of study.
After the Master’s, a few move on to the Doctoral program. At this point the students are working on a complete mastery as well as developing their own contribution to the field. There are varying values and practical functions with Doctoral degrees, but universally they are held as the respected by their peer group, capable of explaining and understanding the nuance details of their field as well as a comprehensive knowledge of how the field fits into the larger world view.
BJJ belts can be similar to the above. A blue belt can be equated with a high school diploma, a purple belt might equal an undergraduate degree, a brown belt a master’s degree and a black belt a doctorate degree.
A blue belt is expected to have an ability to know the basics. Basic positions, submissions, transitions and principles should be known. Much as a highschool graduate is expected to be able to differentiate between algebra, chemistry, literature, so too should a blue belt be able to differentiate between mount, knee on belly, and guard. Just as a highschool graduate is expected to have a knowledge of both world and national history, a blue belt should at a minimum know the origins of BJJ (i.e. the JJJ->Judo->Brazil path). While I hold my students to a much higher standard than this, over the past 10 years, the aforementioned adequately describes the majority of students I have seen move from white belt to blue belt.
Just as a highschool education is near compulsory, a blue belt is growing more common and under quality instruction nearly compulsory for anyone willing to dedicate 18 to 24 months to consistent and dedicated training. A college education though is far from compulsory. The percentage of people who have graduated from highschool who go on to graduate from college is low. These facts bare true for the transition from blue belt to purple belt too.
A purple belt in BJJ is considered advanced and in some regions even elite. Not only will a purple belt have a working knowledge of basic positions, transitions, and submissions, the purple belt is able to apply the fundamentals in flowing fashion because of his/her more developed understanding of the principles behind the techniques. I have yet to meet a purple belt who could not thoroughly explain ‘why’ a certain sweep works or ‘how’ to make an armlock tighter. A purple belt is beginning to really analyze the fine details and hone their areas of interest within the broader picture of BJJ.
Professor Caique told me on the day of my purple belt promotion that I knew enough technique to be a black belt, but improving on strategy, tightness, and timing would be necessary for advancement to the next levels. So, not much should ‘surprise’ a purple belt as far as ‘new techniques’ or principles are concerned, even though the purple belt may not be able to apply every technique in the appropriate situation.
To me, a purple belt IS a STUDENT! A purple belt is exploring, reading, watching videos, asking complex questions, and working on understanding, not just blindly following. The purple belt is invested, not only in progressing through belts, but most importantly in getting better. I have often seen white belts who only want to achieve a colored piece of cloth around their waist. They get the blue and within days they are asking about a purple belt. Somewhere around the middle point of blue belt, that inquiry ceases. To become a purple belt, years pass, whining loses value, with personal development and improvement accompanied by flowing performance being the replacement of belt color focus.
A purple belt who wants to continue will undergo a process of refinement. I have found observed that purple belts (while being able to execute fundamentals) will explore non-traditional positions and lower percentage of success attacks in order to find their validity and to increase their bag of tricks. Through this exploration they pass into the next level, brown belt.
The brown belt is committed, invested, and looking toward complete mastery. They have seen the periphery of the sport and are able to discuss/explain/ and demonstrate such, but the eye is most focused on eliminating what works least in their game and improving what works best. Much like a passing from a master’s program to a doctoral program, the brown belt is reducing to minutia the ‘truths’ surrounding their game. They are pushing the boundaries of these truths to test them and through experimentation and elimination they are truly identifying their game, in effect, their jiu jitsu.
The black belt is the culmination of all the foregoing. Time has been spent, details learned, relearned, explained, and questions asked and answered. As with the doctorate degree, perfection of knowledge is on going, but a black belt will be able to teach, teach well, perform, perform well, apply, apply well, and will be recognized and supported by a peer group of equally accomplished individuals.
The value of a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not $15.00. It is the network of people who come together behind a promoting instructor to say that an individual has attained a level of knowledge and ability to warrant distinction. The beauty of a BJJ black belt is that no one has yet to walk in, demand, and earn one. There is a distillation process (much like academia) that is undertaken.
So, if you have undertaken the journey of becoming a Jiu Jitsu practitioner, know that it is more than a check the box or fill in the bubble exam. It is most likely it will be more than learning an essay exam formula. Being a BJJ black belt will involve formulating a dissertation (an individualized explanation of the area of study sufficiently demonstrating mastery).
Get to studying and happy grappling!
P.s. for great viewpoints on this same topic, make sure to check out www.aliveness101.comand/or google Roy Harris’ belt requirements. These have been great insights to me.