Results: BJJ Belt Promotions/Gradings Part I

Image used with permission from Scott Wallace

The main (academic) purpose of the study was related to the variable experiences of belt promotions (or gradings if you are in the UK) within the BJJ community. Belt promotions in BJJ run the gamut from elaborate events involving hundreds of people to a simple handshake and the passing of a new belt at the end of a training session.

They are also an extremely polarising topic and while almost everyone who has been training in BJJ for any length of time has come across the famous quote, attributed to Royce Gracie, that "A black belt only covers two inches of your ass. You have to cover the rest", it is also true that receiving a belt, for many people, is an extremely powerful experience and it can even signify the culmination of over a decade of effort. Moreover, even those in the early stages of BJJ training often report being motivated by a belt promotion to train harder to live up to the higher expectations associated with their new belt.

Image used with permission from Vagner Rocha Martial Arts 

 Belts designate ability, status and seniority within the BJJ community, can be translated into legitimacy to teach and are thus inevitably objects of desire. And yet, there remains a palpable sense within the community that focusing on gradings/belt promotions is an unworthy goal and one that is distinctly inferior to the purer motivations in which belt promotions are a mere insignificant side effect of making progress.

Other common criticisms are the lack of clarity regarding promotion criteria, the potential for personal relationships in a school to trump ability, sandbagging- i.e. instructors artificially holding people of higher ability at a lower belt in order to win more tournaments and debates surrounding the benefits or conversely the problems of belt whipping gauntlets.

To illustrate the polarisation consider a few extracts from answers provided in the survey:

 "Grading ceremonies are an extremely important part of the sport. In BJJ belts are not handed out easily and they are largely based on merit. Therefore, with all the blood sweat and tears we put in, it is important to mark the occasion with a ceremony." 

"I believe that certain traditions and practices separate Brazilian Jiu-jitsu from other martial arts, particularly those watered down and or commercialized. BJJ is a truly special art that demands a special level of commitment; it is a unique and trying path...This is why the belt testing, and gauntlet tradition is so important. It is a reminder of our martial roots, and the tradition of perseverance BJJ demands. Not only does a whipping gauntlet turn away the weak of heart, it also  demonstrates the difficulty of the path to come for the lower belts, and elevates those who have achieved a rank in their eyes. No one ever forgets their gauntlets, and I think for true practitioners, it is a source of pride."  

"Grading ceremonies for non black belts are generally meaningless... belt whipping is ridiculous, pointless garbage that should be confined to frat houses.  Belts are meant to keep your gi top shut, and indicate roughly how your developed your jiujitsu skill set is, not for obnoxious hazing."

 "Belts are pretty much bullshit and I'm not going to throw away money for some piece of cloth."

"I fail to understand the need to inflict pain or humiliation as a part of these ceremonies or those involved in BJJ.  It certainly appeals to a segment of the population, but I am not one of them. I suffered intense physical abuse as a child and it's quite traumatic to endure these ceremonies. That is the primary reason I do not participate in whipping other students."

Regardless of which arguments your sympathies lie with, it is clear that there is no uniform position across the community. My overall impression from the survey and from across forums is that, by and large, people tend to justify their own school's practices. This isn't always the case though and in particular people who've trained at more than one location tend to be more critical/more objective about their current school's practices.

In terms of the data there is lots of interesting findings to get to and for this topic I have a lot of fine grained data on various aspects of promotions (e.g. How long does the average belt gauntlet last/who is involved/how painful are they?) and attitudes towards them (e.g. How far do people invoke tradition vs. pragmatism? How positive/negative are people about their past experiences?). For this post however, I'm just providing some more general info about the prevalence of various practices, the frequency at which they occur and how much they cost on average.

Any comments/feedback, as always, are welcomed and I do eventually respond to all direct emails. Also for info about sample size/demographics please see the following posts: Survey DemographicsBJJ Demographics.