BJJ: When are Belt Demotions Okay?

At their heart, belt demotions signify that someone’s previous rank was believed too generous, and they are no longer recognized at that rank. Unfortunately, they can also have political motivation, and very often they are a trope in BJJ Soap Operas, as they generate lots of High Drama.

BELT DEMOTIONS BY INSTRUCTORS

Standards Based

“BJJ is getting so watered down!” Combat that by busting everyone down to white belt. At one point, Saulo Ribeiro demoted all his new students to white belt, requiring they earn their rank through him, regardless of previous rank. In theory it is about the sanctity of the sport, belts needing more meaning, etc. Similarly, if a student is constantly getting the crap kicked out of them by lower belts, maybe they should be busted down. Drama potential factor: Medium-high.

Politically based

“Screw you!” While a well respected person in BJJ may be able to demote someone without it causing a lot of Dramatic Fallout, Politics can come into play if Big Name A demotes students who come to him from Big Name B. It tells Big Name B “We’re going to the mattresses.” Drama potential factor: High.

<youtube=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB8xPnhpzAM”>

BELT DEMOTIONS BY STUDENTS

Insecurity Based

“I suck.” Lots of folks have anxieties about their skill level, especially at blue belt level. Let’s say you  transfer to a school where every lower belt kicks your butt. You feel super insecure, so you decide to demote yourself.  Even Georgette peeled her stripes off after a class where she got smushed. Drama potential: Medium to high.

Time Based

“It’s been a loooong time.” It could also be that someone earned a belt, quit training for 8+ years, then came back. They might decide to come back as a white belt. Drama potential: Low.

Politically Based

“Screw you/I respect you!” Demoting yourself can be a way to tell your former instructor that you disliked them and the things they stood for, or that you have no confidence in them. It could also be a way of saying that you respect your new instructor much more and are coming in fresh. Drama potential: Medium to High.

DEMOTIONS HAVE BACKLASH IN OUR COMMUNITY

From other students: If you are demoted and you compete, you will absolutely be called a sandbagger, and it may be considered cheating. You may also not be permitted by the organization to compete at your newer, lower belt level. You may also be looked down at by your former teammates.

From instructors: If you self demoted, a new instructor may take it as a red flag that you don’t respect your former instructor. If demoted by a new instructor, your old instructor may be terribly offended. Our community is small, and social media makes it even smaller. Pictures and status updates DO get back to your old instructor. Unfortunately, instructors are people who have pride, ego, emotions, and can feel insulted, hurt, offended, or angry by things their students do. Some of them are also active in social media.

Vaguebooking, so doge!

Vaguebooking: writing status updates, intentionally leaving out important details

RECENT BELT DRAMA ONLINE

Recently, on Facebook, Keith Owen disavowed a student’s belt:

I disavowed someones belt today.

I awarded someone a blue belt last year and they showed a COMPLETE lack of integrity AND dishonesty in some dealings with another person. I don’t think it’s right to take a belt away because people truly earn the belts I present them BUT I can certainly disown and disavow them.

If anyone asks me about this person in the future I will say “I no longer sanction their belt because of “A Lack of Honesty and Integrity.”

Please Please don’t think I’m not trying to hold myself up as some kind of poster child for perfection in all things ethical. BUT I’m trying to make a good faith effort to be a better person and only surround myself with people in my life, school and affiliation who are trying too as well.

What this person did was inexcusable and I’m not putting up with it. Let that be a lesson to everyone who is my student or affiliate.

This is vague enough that anyone not involved would easily nod their head, filling in those blanks with whatever details they think fits. What is exactly is “a COMPLETE lack of integrity AND dishonesty in some dealings with another person?” Someone sexually harassing another student, bullying someone, stealing, maybe even infidelity? This would have been a PERFECT statement to Maldonado and Schultz after the NYE sexual assault.

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Apparently this “dishonesty” was a person leaving his affiliate school to go train at another. The “COMPLETE lack of integrity” was the person removing the belt they were awarded and putting on a white belt. I became aware of this belt situation by way of this Reddit thread: “Keith Owen bullies a young woman after she leaves.” I have had major disagreements with Keith Owen’s writings in the past, so I was not surprised, nor even remotely skeptical, especially given his articles such as “Creonte.”

She never came clean that she was getting ranked at another school and what’s more she is starting over.

It was a complete and utter shock that this young lady would not only change schools but disregard her blue belt that she rightfully “earned”!

The Reason I Disavowed a Student’s Blue Belt

WHO SHOULD BE “BLAMED” IF AT ALL?

Is it the student who took off the belt? Is it the instructor who supported that decision? Should anyone be blamed, or should the former instructor merely shake their head and silently judge that person? At what point should instructors make an “official statement?”

Heck, how many folks out there have wanted to change hairdressers, but were too scared to tell them face to face?

The person who demoted herself is a young, female blue belt. It’s common for younger women to feel intimidated by older men in power, and it can be hard to stand up to someone trying to sell you something, especially if you want to avoid drama. Heck, how many folks out there have wanted to change hairdressers, but were too scared to tell them face to face? Avoidance is much easier than confrontation.

This totes makes it better!

This totes makes it better!

Teachers in general should take a stand about Big, Important Events, and let the small stuff slide off. They need to be bigger than student drama. Students don’t generally want to disagree publicly with their instructors, so commenting on drama polarizes schools and communities. Be responsible, and be the better person. If you are tempted to Take a Stand, ask yourself “why?” Did the student actually do a Big, Bad Thing? Do they deserve to have stigma attached to them? Is it worth “warning” their new gym? Will it matter in a year or two? If not, let it go.

When black belts take stances against former students, it can serve as a Big Red Flag. The Internet never goes away, and your statement will stand. Will a new student think twice before visiting your academy? Will you sound petty or bitter? Will they be worried about what awful things you would say about them?

TO STUDENTS CHANGING SCHOOLS/BELTS

Have a short, heads-up conversation with your old instructor. It doesn’t have to be face to face. Our community is small, and they WILL find out, so let it be from you first. Be direct and factual. If at all possible, try not to make it A Big Deal. If you go into it expecting it to be High Drama, I guarantee you will elicit that response. Be cool, and remember that Life Happens, and sometimes a school just isn’t a good fit, and that’s Okay.

Jiu Jiu’s Questions: What are your thoughts on belt demotions? Are there any cases you think belt demotions are understandable, or are they always a Big, Dramatic Thing? What about this Belt Disavowal situation, or disavowals in general?

  1. My first jujitsu school was a very traditional Japanese rooted school. Our sensei told us that it was bad manners/bad form to wear a promotion from another school. You were starting anew every time you joined a school, so it was appropriate to wear a white belt. He would decide whether or not to promote you and when. This makes a lot of sense to me, and I’ve followed it over the twenty years or more since I first met him. I’ve joined three diferent martial arts schools since, as I’ve moved around the country, and I started with a white belt every time – I have black belts in two different styles/schools, never made it past white in one, and now a one stripe blue in bjj. If I ever go to a another different school, I’d expect to start again. The new instructor has something new to show me, and I have something new to learn. He or she will tell me when I’ve learned something by giving me a promotion. I wouldn’t assume that I knew anything by wearing a promotion when I walked in the door. To me, that would seem presumptous and rude. As for competitions and ‘sandbagging’, my instructor will know where I should be competing, and will tell me (I hope – if s/he doesn’t, I need a new instructor). And taking away my promotion because I started somewhere else seems – to me at least – to be pouting…..

    • Oh man. I have gotten out of the awesome habit of responding quickly. Someone smack me, please.

      I can see what you’re saying, but at the same time, it’s exceedingly rare for someone to be required to join a new gym at white belt level. Your belt DOES represent something important, and in general, belt rank is respected at every gym you go to. It’s not ego to wear what you’ve earned. I think if you change schools, a chat with the instructor would be the best course of action “Hey, do you want me to put on a white belt?” I would absolutely guess his/her answer would be a resounding NO! You EARNED that belt!!

      I’ve visited many academies, and similarly, it is not considered rude or presumptuous to wear what you’ve earned. I think overall folks understand different academies have different standards, and generally the idea is that you simply train until you “catch up” to other students. Really and truly, belt demotions are rare in our sport for a reason.

      Thanks for your comments!!

    • Well, there’s a definite distinction to be made here between starting in a new school and starting in a new style.

      If you have a black belt in Goju Ryu and you join a school that teaches American Kempo, you would be expected to start at white belt. If you have a black belt in BJJ and you join a Danzan Ryu dojo, you would be expected to start at white belt.

      On the other hand, if you have a black belt in Judo and you join a new Judo dojo, you would NOT normally be expected to start over. You would keep the rank you had earned. Same thing if you have a BJJ rank and you join a new BJJ school. My gym has always accepted the BJJ rank of students who started at other academies. Apparently there are some BJJ schools that refuse to recognize the rank of students who were promoted elsewhere, but I think they are definitely the exception.

      I’m not a big fan of demotions for any cause. Too much drama potential. If you aren’t ready for the belt, just be patient and train until you get there. I might make an exception for a student of Klay Pittman who moves to another school, since Pittman (while a totally legit instructor) is running his own odd little belt system that doesn’t match up with the rest of the BJJ world.

      • Hahaha I was on reddit and I remember a BJJ troll saying if he started BJJ he would NEVER wear a white belt because he was a black belt in his ninja art. Oh man it was rich. Heck yah if I joined a new martial art I would wear a white belt. If I joined taekwondo again, I’d have a talk with the instructor, as it has literally been…10 years since I did tkd, and I remember barely a thing.

        Thanks for adding some great points!

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