The BJJ black belt solution works — just like BJJ does
Those familiar with traditional martial arts know that achieving a black belt means you just got out of beginner, or maybe intermediate if it’s a particularly rigorous or large system. And anyone who’s been involved with martial arts for a while also know of the many ills associated with black belts: chasing them and quitting, ego inflation, quality degradation, sketchy sales tactics, and so on. Try as they might, it always seems like a losing battle to restore the ‘true’ meaning or philosophy behind achieving the lack belt.
Then BJJ came along and fixed it with an incredibly simple solution: move the target. Can’t get it through your skull? Just raise the standard so high that you’re actually as good as you think you are (or should be) by the time you get your BJJ black belt.
There’s something that’s fairly important to understand: the relative mastery of a BJJ black belt is higher than the relative mastery of most black belts in another art. But it’s just relabeling the axes: some nth degree black belt in their system is just what the 1st BJJ black belt is.
Common BJJ ranking practice has other features that make it naturally more respectable. There’s often no test that results in immediate promotion, reflecting the nature of a journey. But they’re always testing: either in competition or at the very least rolling (sparring) all the time in class.
And before you go defending how awesome your own art or school is, I believe you. It’s just that statistically speaking BJJ has more of the aforementioned features in practice than other popular systems. And formal testing does have plenty of benefits, not the least of which is having a convenient checklist of what you should know and be able to explain.
While it rankles my sense of tradition and pedagogy, there’s no arguing with the results: even the biggest meat-headed, chest-pounding fighter or keyboard warrior holds some respect for the BJJ black belt as an achievement, regardless of their opinion on its effectiveness.
In fact it worked so well that even blue belt holds some degree of respect. This is amazing, because who cares if you have a yellow belt in karate? Agree or disagree with BJJ’s take on black belt, it’s an incredible feat of marketing. And good marketing keeps your art alive with dedicated, athletic practitioners.
But this started to make me uncomfortable…if you had to move the goal posts did you really fix the problem?
Does waiting 10 years as opposed to 5 years really change the practitioner’s perspective? You may have weeded out more people, but where’s the data that the ratio of assholes to the truly humble improved? Many will quit or not make it for perfectly legitimate reasons who had the desired temperament.
And plenty of people quit after blue or purple the way others may quit at black in another art, and part of their willingness to do so is understanding the different scale of achievement.
If the belt doesn’t matter (as all true martial artists should know) who cares how you measure so long as people understand where they really stand?
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be proud of our achievements, but we don’t want putting on our belt to be like shining our medals or trophies. The harder something is to achieve the more it may be worth, but the more you’re conscious of the achievement, the harder it is to let go, and here the brand of BJJ definitely spends a lot of energy for better and worse.
Also interested to see how the murmurings of dilution and outright fraud will evolve over the next 40 years that karate and taekwondo have had.