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Bloody Elbow Open Mat: Are martial arts belt rankings a good thing?

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The Bloody Elbow Technique group shares their views of the use of belts in martial arts.

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Bloody Elbow has a collection of contributors and writers who train in a variety of martial arts that form the Technique Group. The question of martial arts belts was posed to this group: What are your views on belt ranks? Are they helpful to the learning environment of a martial arts school? Do you prefer an environment with or without them?

Included in this discussion: BE writer and occasional Muay Thai student Zane Simon, BJJ blogger and purple belt Can Sonmez, no gi grappler and SBNation Writer David St. Martin, BE writer and BJJ purple belt T.P. Grant, judo bum Kwasi Kwakwa, BE judo chopper and BJJ purple belt Ben Thapa, and new BE members Jen Flannery, internationally excellent BJJ brown belt, and breakdown guru James Stapleton, aka "a guy2".

Let's get things started:

Zane Simon: Even as someone who has only trained in martial arts, formally, over short bursts I'm pretty firmly anti-belt. For me, a belt is a replacement for actual skill, a meaningless designation that placeholds for the fact that you're not making use of the skills that you've been learning. It's one of the reasons that I was very drawn to muay thai as my combat sport of choice, along with boxing. The test of a combat sport should always be, can you actually use it to best someone in competition. If you can't, then the belt is just a meaningless placeholder that says you've done something a lot.

I realize that the ideal scenario, and one that BJJ seems to make best use of, is that you have belts and a lot of active competition, and the belts accurately create classes of competition. They keep inexperienced people from getting over-matched and beat up, and they keep experienced athletes squaring off against one another, they're a sort of de facto matchmaker, in a sport without much fighter management. But, because there's no actual set system or criteria by which belts are awarded, because they are not necessarily a title that is earned by achievement, they've become a fairly meaningless designation outside the tournament circuit. If I hear someone say that they're a BJJ black belt, I hope that they're pretty decent at Jiu Jitsu, but I don't assume it.

I'd much rather see records and titles and medals, things gained through active competition as a delineator of talent, than a belt system that is incredibly easy to manipulate for status. And beyond that, I dislike the "testing" structure that a belt system often promotes along with it. The idea that classes and skill levels can be decided by how many side kicks you can throw, or burpees you can do in three minutes, or some other meaningless designation by which a belt may be awarded and advanced teaching may be gained. It just feels like a lazy way of picking out which students are worth your time and which aren't, instead of working with them and getting to know them, and figuring out exactly where their skill level is. They can get instructed at your school and then if they pass their test, they get a belt from you, the instructor. I realize that most of the very best schools/dojos/academies/whathaveyous do award belts based on individual merit and skill rather than meeting some preset requirements, but that still feels like a minority among a vast sea of cut rate martial arts studios.

James Stapleton: I think they have value in providing a feeling of progression. There's a time in any martial arts pursuit where practitioners start to get discouraged and feel like they aren't improving. Belts can be something to work for, a carrot on the stick to keep you running. This can be especially important for individuals who aren't competitors, but is also commonly misused by frauds. For example, I had a conversation with a girl about a year ago who told me she had a black belt in MMA. I nodded, but in my head I was sadly thinking "someone is lying to you".

Belt systems can also be meaningful if you understand the lineage. If you know who someone got their belt from, you understand what it likely signifies in terms of dedication, experience and skill. The downside is, of course, you often won't know the lineage or how consistent the standards are for promotion unless you're in that specific gym.

Thinking from the perspective of a leader, belts establish a hierarchy and sense of respect in the gym. Higher belts have more authority.

Zane made great points about belts functioning as skill classes for tournaments.

Personally, I understand why they're used, but I'd rather not worry about them. I prefer to judge skill when it's demonstrated, not when it's worn around the waist.

Can Sonmez: I think the belt system in BJJ is the best I've experienced so far since I started training in martial arts back in 1994 (although there are, of course, many martial arts I've haven't tried for long enough to experience their grading system.) What attracts me to it most is that the belt system is meritocratic, so your ability is tied directly to your rank.

Having said that, I really, really dislike formal tests for belts, which unfortunately (for me) is becoming more common in BJJ. But as I now run my own school, I can avoid that problem (unless my own instructor suddenly brings it in, but I can't see that happening).

As to why I think the belt system is useful: the two main things for me are that it provides a quick indicator of ability, which helps me as an instructor when pairing people up for sparring, and secondly (as Zane said) it is an easy way to divide up levels in competition. Doing away with belts would remove all the angst and political nonsense that can come with rank, but on balance I think the positives outweigh the negatives.

I babble at greater length on the BJJ belt system here, in case anyone wants to hear me get long-winded.

T.P. Grant: My only real experience with belts comes in BJJ and I think the do serve a useful purpose but I also think they can just as easily become a distraction.

I think belts greatly aid the learning environment in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. A student can walk in and immediately take stock of a class, who he or she can turn to for advice and who might need a little help or guidance. Instructors and coaches can easily pair experienced students with less experienced, and it also prevents the much dread "white belt seminars" from occurring, where a student with limit experience begins to instruct a student he has a slight experience edge on.

I've done some work in martial arts with no belt system and when it came time to drill I was at a loss of who to pair up with because I didn't know who had any experience. I would ask questions and get answers like "I have no idea, I've never seen this before" and realize I'd paired with another beginner.

Additionally I think the awarding of belts is a big part of building that community feeling Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools. The instructor in me sees those end-of-class belt promotions as a celebration of the student, a recognition of their hard work by their teacher and their peers in the class. I feel like all the good promotions in BJJ really capture that sense of the group showing their respect for the advancement of teammate and it brings the whole group together.

However, I do feel belts have a downside. They very easily feed the ego that martial arts are supposed to combat. In the BJJ world in particular, people become very proud of their school's method of belting, the slower the better, and will get very huffy over their school having "real" blue belts, a phenomenon I've witnessed several times. It is mostly fed by this idea that a black belt is this undefeatable badass, only able to be challenged by other black belts, and that is a bit of a trap as that mentality bleeds down into the other belts. I've seen purple belts catch black belts, white belts tap blue belts, and blues beat purple belts. This idea the belt is somehow a video game level that provides a martial artist with extra hit points or additional attack bonus that is pure fantasy.

So I tend to lean away from the places or arts that "test" for their belts, or create this mythology around the belt system.

Can Sonmez: I did a bunch of other martial arts before BJJ, but the only ones I stuck with for any length of time were fencing (a year when I was at school, around the age of 12/13, IIRC) and a random variant of kung fu called Zhuan Shu Kuan (which was basically kickboxing with some traditional trimmings, like forms).

I hate belts in ZSK. Completely pointless. I got them regularly after attending gradings, where you paid your money, did a choreographed dance and a round of sparring, then got your belt. I never felt like I was progressing, I was just getting new belts. There were also some black belts who quite clearly did not deserve their rank, but they'd paid the money and done the forms: lackluster sparring was sometimes ignored.

Now, I should say that ZSK wasn't a bad martial art, even if it had a few of the standard TMA flaws. The sparring was often hard (I got KOed twice) and there was plenty of fitness. But the belts were stupid: the only one that ever had any value was the black belt, because the grading for that was actually quite hard. You had the silly forms and some brick breaking, but sparring was intense, with a bunch of brown and black belts, including a two-on-one spar.

In fencing, it wasn't belts, it was grades. You got a certificate when you hit a certain level: I don't remember doing any kind of tests, they just gave you a certificate at some point, I think based on your ability, like in BJJ. If I'm not imagining things (It's 6 in the morning and that was a long time ago, so I might be ;p)., that's in some ways better than a belt system. Though it's easy enough to view 'Grade 1', 'Grade 2' etc as equivalent to white, blue etc.

David St. Martin: Having more of a no-gi grappling base and just recently (within the last few years) putting on the gi, I'm already largely disillusioned by the belt system. I've trained at academies that award stripes and belts at the discretion of the instructor and others that use more of a 'promotion season' so to speak.

While I certainly prefer stripes and belts being awarded 'at random,' it seems like more and more academies would rather worry about it twice a year than being forced to stay up on their students' individual progress.

'Twice a year? Why, we should hold a seminar in conjunction with the promotion ceremony. A seminar that people pay to attend. Out of town that weekend? Never you mind, there's always next time.'

There's some carrot, but too much stick.

The argument that belts should be awarded based on pure performance is also a bit tricky. I was recently in a no-gi class with a visiting high-school wrestler. We're made to line up by rank in no-gi classes based on our BJJ belt. The wrestler, unsure of where he falls, just sort of melds in somewhere in the middle. The instructor pulls him out of line and puts him with the blue belts. 'Being a wrestler makes you at least a blue belt.' Not exactly reassuring to someone who may have spent 2-3 years earning that rank in a separate martial art.

The true utility of the BJJ belt was its ability to provide a clear message of skill level, allowing practitioners to safely compete, test themselves or refine techniques. As BJJ has grown and splintered, that's becoming less of a fact. There was recently the story of a Kron Gracie student who received his blue belt after eight years of consistent of training. On the other hand, other Gracies have reputations of awarding blue belts, 'like candy.'

As more and more academies pop up, eager to attract and retain students/customers, I think we'll see a refinement of the belt system as people try to sort out the pecking order. Tournaments are a great way to do it, but I wonder if discerning future newbies won't spend a bit more time shopping around now that they have more options.

Kwasi Kwakwa: Short historical note: Black belts are actually a fairly modern development in the history of martial arts. Much like the use of the gi/kimono they were popularized by Jiguro Kano as part of his effort to modernize jujitsu and then kinda spread into other martial arts over time. Prior to that, martial arts in Japan and China had very limited ranking systems that mainly separated those with enough mastery of the art to teach it from everyone else, and those took years, if not decades of dedicated study to earn. I'm not sure how it worked in other parts of the word so I'd be curious to find out.

There is some debate about who first started using colored belts, but the most reliable sources I've seen have them starting in either England or France, again as a result of early Judo instruction there. The point with those was simply that coaching judo was a profession and most westerners weren't going to where a white belt for half a decade or so until they were good enough to deserve a black belt, so intermediate stages needed to be created if Judo coaches wanted to keep them around.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the original purpose of the black belt wasn't to denote mastery, but competence. In judo, all it means is that you have a broad understanding of the art and are decently technically skilled. There is still a ton to learn after you are given one.

Personally, I've never gotten the point of being incensed about belt color when you practice an art that has live sparring as a part of daily practice. You very quickly get a feel for who deserves their belt and who doesn't. I train at a decently competitive club and occasionally we get people coming in who got their black belts without, say, putting in as much work as they should have. They usually get embarrassed and rarely ever come back. At the same time we get people from eastern bloc countries that don't really grade students very much who show up wearing a white belt and turn out to be absolute monsters, and everyone learns quickly to disregard their belt color.

That said, if there is going to be a belt system, I'm a fan of having a clear set of requirements for achieving each belt, including live sparring/competition points for black belt gradings. That way, students have to demonstrate knowledge of the art both in theory and under pressure. For my black belt, I already have theory and kata signed off, but I won't get it until I have 100 competition points which I can get by winning 10 matches in competition *by ippon* against other brown belts or higher, or beating 5 brown belts back to back by ippon in a single day. I haven't had the time to train for it until recently so no belt for me.

In summary, I think they can be useful as a method of quality control, but nothing beats being part of an art that forces you to go live regularly and so get a feel for what you are capable of and where you stand.

Can Sonmez: The subjective method of giving out belts has a lot of pluses, but it also has one considerable minus: it depends entirely on the integrity and judgement of the person giving out the rank. That means if there is somebody whose judgement or integrity (or both) is suspect, you get what may be a 'legitimate' lineage which produces subpar grapplers.

The whole Ari Bolden saga is probably the best-known example: a grappler whose skills are questionable at best (based on his attempts to teach on video and the little competition footage available) has a totally legit lineage, from Pedro Sauer via Keith Owen.

There are various other examples: e.g., a number of people question some of the black belts under Joe Moreira. He is, like Sauer, a well-respected and unquestionably skilled instructor, but there are those who would accuse him of at best making poor judgement calls with some belts, at worst outright selling rank.

However, I still think that this flaw in the subjective, meritocratic method does not detract enough from that system to make it inferior to the alternatives. It's the best method in my view, with the big proviso that the instructor has to be trustworthy.

Also, it's slightly mitigated by the so-called 'BJJ police' phenomenon. Especially in the UK, the community of BJJers is small enough that anyone suspect is very quickly revealed and outed publicly.

With regard to the wrestler example, I would have no problem awarding them a blue belt if they performed to the level of other blue belts though I would probably have some kind of a minimum time (at least a few months, to get a look at how complete their game was).

There are unranked people who are athletic enough to give even more senior belts trouble, either down to prior experience or just really high levels of physical capability. A good instructor should be able to tell the difference between "awesome wrestler smashing people because she's an awesome wrestler, using wrestling rather than BJJ" and "wrestler who has added BJJ knowledge to her wrestling base, so that she is using BJJ at a blue belt level".

Also, I am 100% opposed to any kind of formal testing. I think it's a tried and failed system of ranking, based on my observations of other martial arts.

T.P. Grant: I am also totally against formal testing, it feels too much like a money scheme and it also promotes that mythology of the belt. It means belts are given out subjectively and it does leave room for funny business, but even a totally non-subjective system doesn't solve the system.

Can mentioned fencing, I fenced in the United States for around 10 years and in the U.S. they have a system of grading based purely on performance in competition. All fencers start with a "U" for unranked, and can move up through E, D, C, B, and A based on how they place at competitions. Different tournaments get a set rating based on the ratings of the fencers that take part, and then based on that tournament rating the top finishing fencers are awarded certain ranks. Once you earn a rank you keep it with a year attached denoting the last time you placed well enough to earn that ranking.

This sounds great, but there were plenty of issues. Fencing hot spots in the U.S., like New York, would get such a concentration of A's that it became very easy to earn a rating at local tournaments. You'd get aging A's who would lose to younger fencers, giving them their A, which they then keep for their career, even if they aren't an A quality fencers in their career, making it easier for local fencers to earn their As. Also, coaches with good stables of fencers would hold "in-house" tournaments to pump up their fencers' ratings to get them better seeding heading into those North America Cups. Where as those fencing out in the Midwest often couldn't earn high rankings at local tournaments and had to go to North America Cups, large domestic tournaments, to earn their higher ratings, known generally as "getting your rating the hard way". I fenced out of the Midwest and never progressed past a D because there was not a great deal of local tournaments and I couldn't afford to travel all over the US chasing my rating, but I did fence in the NCAA, which didn't count towards ratings, and beat Cs, Bs, and even As on a fairly frequent basis there.

So a system purely based on competition doesn't filter out coaches who wish to pump up their students, or see rank as a means to an end. No matter the grading system there will be guys who are ranked higher than they deserve and those who get ranked lower than they deserve.

There are benefits to not having rank: wrestling, boxing, and muay thai have no ranking structure and get along just fine. There isn't drama over who isn't getting belted or who got a belt they didn't deserve, but the competition scenes of those sports are much different. Wrestling, at the least in the United States, is by large part children and young adults, very few people "find" wrestling in their late teens, early 20's or later the way some will turn to boxing, muay thai, Jiu Jitsu, or judo, age divisions serve in a similar way to skill or experience based divisions, with clear exceptions. In boxing and muay thai, those who wish to compete, but are not professional prospects, are set up with matches through their coach and gym, ideally to someone near their level.

But for Jiu Jitsu, competitors enter into tournaments were age and experience do not always align, so belt rank does help create better competition for those not seeking to reach the top ends of the sport, and for those seeking to reach the peak of Judo or Jiu Jitsu, accomplishment before black belt is largely irrelevant and it simply serves as a developmental league.

So those are our thoughts, let us hear yours in the comments below!