The BJJ belt ranking system is not a uniform system. Every BJJ instructor/academy/affiliation etc, does them completely different from each other: some schools require testing, some schools base promotions solely on competition performance or attendance. Some schools have a formal curriculum where their students are required to demonstrate a set list of techniques, while others just “go with the flow”. Regardless of how students are promoted, I think that the main idea is that everyone at any given belt level is able to demonstrate a certain level of practical skill, in a “real life”, or sparring scenario.
Since I’ve always moved around from location to location for much of my adult life, I’ve had the opportunity to experience how various other instructors grade their students, and much of how I choose to promote my students is based heavily on how my former instructors did their grading. That being said, I’ve been an active instructor for a while now, so some of my approaches to promotions are exclusively my own invention. I think it’s important to realize that I’m (hopefully) always evolving and learning, so my ideas are bound to change over time, but…
Here’s what I look for when promoting a student to a new belt level:
White belt: This is your first belt you get in BJJ, and you get it automatically, so I will talk about stripes for a minute. When I was coming up as a white and blue belt, I never received a stripe at any of my schools. Then, all of a sudden, one of the schools I trained at was a Ribeiro affiliate, and Xande came through to grade everyone and he gave me 4 stripes on my belt all at once. These were the only stripes I ever received on my belts until brown belt.
When I first started Open Source BJJ, I wasn’t sure whether or not to award stripes to adults at all. But then I had the experience of our promoting instructor, Rich Sab, awarding me my first, single stripe on my brown belt, and I felt super special. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I thought it looked pretty cool.
So, it was official that I would be awarding stripes. Now, do the stripes have meaning? Going back to what I was originally talking about, you start on your BJJ journey from day one with a white belt already, so it would make sense that each stripe on your white belt might have some sort of meaning. Here’s what I look for in an athlete when awarding stripes on a white belt:
You’ve been training for a while and understand that the BJJ hierarchy of positions exists. You know how to tie your belt and where to line up at the beginning of class. I can probably remember your name, like 80% of the time. Congratulations! Keep coming back!
You are able to execute most of the basic movements in BJJ, and you have a demonstrable idea of what you’re generally supposed to be doing in each of the major positions.
You’re actually starting to become more of a threat on the mats; you’re able to be competitive with most of the other white belts, and there’s at least one thing you do fairly well from one of the positions, even if you’re just really good at escaping something!
You’re pretty close to blue belt, but there are just a few things that need to be cleaned up before you advance. At this point you’re fairly competitive against many of the blue belts at your weight/age.
After white belt, stuff starts to get a little more esoteric. Stripes awarded from here on out take on a different meaning, one that is very specific to the practitioner’s own, personal “BJJ journey”, as cliche as it is. The fourth stripe on your white belt is the last time I take a standard approach to grading, and from here on out promotions are awarded on a more conceptual/abstract basis. Let’s check out the blue belt…
Blue Belt: Once you are able to start chaining moves together, and you are generally able to execute at least two “moves” from each position, offensively and defensively during sparring, then you are at blue belt level. I need to imagine you in a one-on-one self defense situation, and you are able to at very least DEFEND yourself against most untrained human beings on the planet. I don’t take grading my students to blue belt lightly. None of my blue belts suck. You MUST be able to demonstrate competency in BJJ through sparring in order to receive a blue belt from me.
In addition to ability, I also expect my blue belts to at least be aware of some of the more “traditional” aspects of BJJ, such as cross collar chokes, defending against strikes in the guard, basic takedowns, as well as some of the more basic BJJ history. You don’t have to be proficient at every position/situation, but you do have to be competent and not embarrass me if you go to another school and they’re going over something like omoplatas (for example) and you have no idea what an omoplata is…
During your blue belt journey, you should be experimenting with various guards, finding your style and your flow, and working on being incredibly difficult to submit. The blue belt is a time to test yourself physically, mentally and emotionally and it is usually the most difficult belt to surpass for most of us. I stayed a blue belt for almost 8 years, and I was accomplishing some fairly amazing things during this time, and while I don’t expect everyone to go through a similar experience, your blue belt years will most likely be the most challenging for you.
Purple Belt: A good purple belt is very well-rounded when compared to your basic blue belt. They have ridiculously good defense, as well as a very well-developed guard. Personally, I define my transition from blue to purple belt when I ceased to be a wrestler who happened to know some jiu-jitsu, and I became an actual jiujiteiro. By this time you should be able to demonstrate that you have next to zero obvious holes in your game, and you have an answer to everything in every situation.
A good purple belt has already laid a solid foundation for what kind of black belt they will become, by going through all the trials and tribulations of being a blue belt. By this time, you have figured out what kind of fighter you are: guard passer vs guard player, what your favorite grips will be, what your favorite position to submit from will be, etc. Only after you’ve continued to build on these personal features of your game, yet continue to be well-rounded, will you begin to evolve into a brown belt jiujiteiro.
Brown Belt: At the time of writing, I don’t promote anybody to brown belt. At our gym I take a more cautious, conservative, collaborative approach when it’s time to promote someone to brown belt. As a zero-stripe black belt, I only promote up to purple belt, so if you get a brown belt at our gym, at least for the next 1.5 years, you will most likely be promoted by Rich Sab. That being said, I usually start to advocate for someone to get promoted to brown belt when I’m certain they are able to meet certain criteria…
Like I said before, you should really start looking to develop something you consider “your thing”. For example, if you’re known as the “triangle guy/girl”, you probably have a very developed approach to setting up various triangles from pretty much everywhere, and you always have a back-up plan if they don’t work.
Additionally, a good brown belt needs to be competent at the leg lock game. Even in the most conservative rulesets in competition (i.e. IBJJF) you are introduced to the prospect of getting leg locked in more ways than before, so it would behoove you to at very least learn to defend them. This is the time to get out of your comfort zone and continue to build on the solid foundation that you established as a purple belt.
Black belt: I have no idea. I’m a lowly, rank black belt and will never give out a black belt to someone else, at least for another 4.5 years or so, so I really don’t have to think about this right now. That being said, I think that there should be a certain level of emotional maturity in addition to a semblance of “mastery” when you become a black belt. Think about the wise old monk in your standard 1970’s martial arts movies who lives on top of a mountain and just meditates all day, disseminating nuggets of wisdom for all those who venture up to ask for advice. Even if you’re a 19-year-old black belt, I think you need to have a little of that wise old monk… in your heart (lol).
One last, very important aspect of grading that I should add, is that when I’m looking to promote you to the next level, I try my very best to compare apples to apples, meaning that if you are a 90lb, 49-year-old, unathletic person, your actual, practical ability is not being compared to that of a 19-year-old ex-wrestler. It is unreasonable to expect that a significantly smaller, weaker, slower grappler can consistently beat a larger, younger, more athletic athlete. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try :).
OK, so I hope this was helpful. Maybe I’ll try and revisit this every few years and adjust some of what I wrote to accurately reflect my own evolution as a jiujiteiro and instructor. In 1.5 years’ time I’ll be able to promote to brown belt and therefore will undoubtedly have better-defined criteria for what a good brown belt looks like. Same goes for black belt in 4.5 years.
In closing, I just want to reiterate that this is my own personal approach to promoting students from one belt to the next, and it is definitely not the only way, and it’s not the best way for all instructors. I still have a lot to learn and understand and I’m looking forward to continuing to use the belt system to encourage and motivate my students to be the best person they can be through BJJ. Thanks for reading.