What makes a blue belt

“A blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu really means that you are a serious student of the art. Nothing more, nothing less. When I see a blue belt I know that is someone who has put in a significant amount of time and effort towards improving their game. It doesn’t really say anything about their ability to fight, or how many moves they know. It simply means that they are a serious student.” — Bill Thomas from “Are you ready for the next level?

I’m very curious about what black belts what they look for when they promote blue belts, because it’s completely different from one school to another, as I’ve mentioned in a previous article. I recently went to a seminar by “Magical” Ray Elbe, a BJJ black belt, whose website can be found here. I’ll be writing a review of the seminar later, but wanted to share this tidbit, which was amazing. I asked Ray what his personal philosophy is about promoting to blue. We actually talked for a while about it.

Ray is in the middle. Cupcake is on the right. 🙂

In his gym he said that to get a blue belt there’s a minimum amount of knowledge necessarily. They should also be able to give a brand new person an intro lesson, and were he to leave for a day, his blue belts should be able to run a class. Then we talked about the extra, more intangible things.  One thing I hadn’t really considered – when you give someone a belt, you’re passing on YOUR lineage.

Then he did an exercise with me. This was taught to him by Marcos Avellan, a BJJ black belt who guest taught at Ray’s gym for a month, and which I now pass it along to you, because it’s really freaking cool.

You will need a pen and paper, or open up MS Word or Notepad and do it digitally.

Now, make a list of everything you want in your ideal BJJ coach. No really, do it now.

Here is my list:

Friendly
Accessible
Knowledgeable
Understanding
Sense of humor
Family feel
Knows students
Challenges students
Kind
Good, solid methodology

Do you have your list? No? Dang it – go do it now! Got it? Okay – now go through it and write a T next to anything that is a TRAIT (ie. dealing with personality) and an S next to anything that is a SKILL, anything that needs to be gained/learned.

[edited to add this awesome comment by SL, who was listening in at the time] Actually Ray mentioned that the Skill section is exclusively BJJ related. So that would make stuff like: Good listening skills, Humble, self-critical, Good judgement of character as Traits instead of skills 🙂 – Things like “black belt” or “competition experience” or “won the Mundails” would be the types of “Skills” he’s talking about.[/edit]

Mine looked like this:

Friendly (T)
Accessible (T)
Knowledgeable (S)
Understanding (T)
Sense of humor (T)
Family feel (T)
Knows students (T)
Challenges students (T)
Kind (T)
Good, solid methodology (S)

While he did this I realized I hadn’t listed anything like “Black belt” or “competition experience” or anything. Most of mine was trait based.

Then Ray pointed at the TRAITS and said if you’re looking for a coach who is friendly, accessible, knowledgeable, understanding, etc, then promote based on that list. So someone could be a total genius at jiu jitsu at white belt, but if they’re a complete tool they will be a white belt for a VERY long time. This made so much sense to me. If I am passing on a LINEAGE to someone, they’re going to be a reflection of me. If I were a black belt, I wouldn’t give some toolbag my lineage. I would give it to people who I would be proud to attach my name to.

Thanks, Ray, for sharing that with me!

At this point I feel it necessary to share what is auto suggested by Google after you type in “Magical Ray Elbe.” Yes, it made me laugh out loud.

Ray hasn’t promoted a ton of people to blue. He has a list of people he’s promoted on his website here. As of today (January 26, 2012) he has promoted 10 people to blue and 1 person to purple. To be fair, his gym mostly deals with ex-pats who visit his school during a 4-6 week camp so this record does not necessarily speak to whether or not he’s super stingy or not. 🙂

I’m curious – what ended up being on your list? Did this completely blow your mind like it did mine?

Also, if you’re interested, I’ve been posting photos from my visit with Cupcake Armbar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! You can find the set here!

  1. I thoroughly understand where he is coming from. I would want a person that trained with me to essentially be a ‘nice’ person. However, this is what also bothers me about BJJ. Knowledge and skill is not always properly rewarded. Politics plays too much of a role in who gets promoted and who doesn’t. It is nice when you are on the fast end of a promotion but it ‘sucks’ when you find yourself on the slow end or worse, a non-promotion vortex.

    I think many professors should learn how to integrate merit-based promotions into their systems and not place all trainees into a box due to them being new to their academy (such as disregarding past grappling experience or skill) or based on politics or a loyalty index. I think that eventually it will hamper the growth and sustainability of BJJ and BJJ will find itself challenged by other grappling sports.

    I am a professor for a living. My students have all types of personalities and dispositions. If I based their passing on their attitudes rather than their proficiency in outlined objectives then I would have a serious problem. Although I do base a portion of their grades based on participation, it is not enough to fail them or to keep them from passing my courses.

    • Yeah, but think about this – if they do get their black belt, they will forever be tied to your name. If I get a black belt under Jang Duck Young, I’m forever tied to him. Similarly , if I get my black belt under Saulo, I’ll be forever a black belt under Saulo.

      Passing on a lineage is different than just passing someone in a course (I’m a teacher trainer, so I feel where you’re coming from). If they’re your student for X years, are you really going to essentially reward shitty behavior?

      What I mean is: if the person is just a straight up asshole and you can’t even stand to have a conversation with them – you want to forever be tied to them by passing on your ranking? yeesh.

      Seriously – just like there are some schools that are not a good fit for a student, there are DEFINITELY students who are not a good fit for the school.

      I suppose it depends on how you define a black belt. Is a black belt just a person with XYZ skills? or does it have a deeper meaning to you? If you think of a black belt and it is only tied to skills, then good on you. If it has a deeper meaning, then you should foster that in your students. Besides – if they WERE your student for 10 years and they still couldn’t be bothered to treat new students nicely – would you sincerely want them to represent you and your school? I certainly wouldn’t.

      • I think outliers (in the negative sense or as you put it “straight up asshole” :-)) would be hard to promote in the academy as well as through the classroom. No student who outright disrespected the classroom environment would be allowed to remain in any setting (at least in my experience). I’ve had instructors who have refused to train people and have asked people to leave their academy based on being an ass.

        I don’t think it’s an either or proposition though. Of course, a person who operates a school should do what they want. It is their business. However, with all businesses, a customer has the right to disagree with the owner’s business methods and can move on.

        My major point is that instructors should be careful that they do not allow their politics to interfere with people who truly deserve to be promoted. Merit should be a stronger factor in promotions. I truly do believe that the 10 – 20 year model (to achieve a Black Belt) will have to be adjusted or BJJ will lose sway to other systems. (I don’t want this to happen and that’s why I bring it up.)

  2. I really have to say this, sometimes i miss the discipline in my jiu jitsu’s gym.
    There, we have only trains,if we talk about something it’s about positions. And as much as we have to train our body, i think that we have to train our minds.

  3. Hmm. Interesting, for several reasons. First off, I’m wary of this:

    “So someone could be a total genius at jiu jitsu at white belt, but if they’re a complete tool they will be a white belt for a VERY long time. “

    I can see what he’s saying, but I don’t think it is a good idea to start treating martial arts as some mystical philosophy where it’s about character rather than skill: that’s something I always disliked about TMA. If somebody is a genius at jiu jitsu, then they should have a rank that reflects their skill, whether or not they’re a tool. It would be silly for somebody with black belt skills to wear a white belt because their character is questionable. It is entirely possible to be good at jiu jitsu, and indeed be a good teacher, without being a pleasant person. For example, Helio himself had a very unpleasant side to his character, judging by this infamous interview. Yet he was clearly a very good teacher and a superlative practitioner of jiu jitsu.

    On the other hand, I definitely wouldn’t want to train with or teach somebody who is a prick. I know an instructor who had this problem recently: he mentioned to me that one of the reasons he wanted to set up his own club was that he wouldn’t have to deal with disreputable characters. Rather than having to worry about their character, if you own the school, you can simply kick them out.

    Also, I don’t think coaching should be any part of the requirement for a blue belt, which is another reason why I wouldn’t put character as part of the requirements. For a brown belt, perhaps, but then not every brown or black belt wants to teach.

    Having said all that, I have to admit that character would be something I’d care about if I was looking for a teacher. My ideal list would be something like this:

    Great communicator
    Experienced and inspiring teacher
    Extremely technical
    Is motivated by a love of teaching rather than a love of money
    Trustworthy
    Relaxed
    Black belt from a legitimate lineage
    Similar build to me
    Same views on aliveness etc to me

    It’s an interesting thing to think about it. The traits you’d want from an ideal instructor is definitely something worth considering, although it’s also worth noting that you frequently don’t get much of a choice, unless you live somewhere like Los Angeles of Rio.

    The mention of Marcos Avellan is also a little off-putting, because Avellan is very, very keen on Lloyd Irvin (I know Elbe recently attended an Irvin seminar, so perhaps he is too). I’m sure Avellan is a good teacher, but I would be extremely uncomfortable training somewhere that used Lloyd Irvin’s marketing methods. Then again, I’ve never experienced the Irvin training environment, so perhaps it would make up for the marketing.

    Your post is also interesting for a silly reason: I first heard of Ray Elbe because of this old video my instructor put up. ;p

    • I actually miss that my old TKD school chanted something like: courtesy, integrity, perseverence, self-control, indomitable spirit. Not that I’m advocating chanting or drinking BJJ koolaid or anything.

      Like I mentioned below – it comes down to – what does a black belt in BJJ mean to you? If it means skill, then by all means, promote totally based on skill. If it indicates some character traits, have that be PART of it. If it indicates an ability to teach people, have that be PART of it.

      That’s the beauty of a lineage/school – it’s YOUR school, YOUR lineage, and YOUR name. You want a skilled asshat representing you, absolutely wonderful. If I get any royal douchebag BJJ savants at my school I’ll send them on to you, because I most certainly don’t want them representing my name.

      • It depends if their prickishness has any impact on training. While I wouldn’t factor character into ranking, if somebody was injuring training partners repeatedly, making sexist/homophobic/racist comments on the mat, coming in with staph all over their face, etc, I would kick them off the mats. If it continued, they’d be kicked out of the school.

        If they are unpleasant people, but they don’t bring that onto the mat, then that’s different. Indeed, jiu jitsu might even help them become a better person. Having said that, I wouldn’t tolerate certain extremes: e.g., if they beat their wife, are arrested for rape, get caught stealing etc.

  4. Slidey, I think his point was simple. He didn’t want to have douchebags representing him and his lineage of jiujitsu. As an instructor, I think he has the right to do that. If the said person is unhappy about not getting a promotion, he/she can leave.

    Having said that, obviously promotions aren’t based on character alone, one must have the required skillset, but character is a component that is essential when assessing promotion criteria.

    Fang

    • I would say character should be a component of remaining a student at the academy – not necessarily as promotional criteria.

      My own list would look much more like Slidey’s than Julia’s. However, I would switch “Relaxed” for “Knows the proper timing for different intensities”. I would discard “Similar build” for “Maintains good to great physical fitness”. A giant instructor like Werdum or a tiny girl like Bia Mesquita can teach me all kinds of things.

      A good reputation in terms of grappling skill as evidenced through competition or word of mouth and verified with a personal roll is a must for me in an instructor. It doesn’t have to be super-elite, but there has to be a very solid grappler teaching for me to go to the school regularly. I stick with my school, despite other, cheaper alternatives because I know by direct experience in rolling that my instructor is much better than the others around.

      I would also add “Knows the difference between sport jiu jitsu and dangerous jiu jitsu and can go back and forth effectively.” Sometimes for me, the competition/hobbyist training has to be put aside for real life defensive or offensive training. I’m not speaking of “Gracie jiu jitsu” or any of that name branding nonsense, but of “This move is not competition-legal, but if you need it, it goes like dadadada and can do dididididida things. Here is how to defend it too.”

      • Tree Frog – it’s interesting that you aren’t too bothered about the build of your instructor. I’m a tiny person, and my instructor is tiny too. He teaches “big guy” moves a lot of the time, and then helps the little people in the class modify the moves if necessary. I hadn’t really thought about the size thing too much until this weekend, when a different, much bigger instructor took the class because the main instructor was away with some of the regular guys doing a competition.

        I was having some problems escaping my husband’s mount, and the instructor was coaching me. He didn’t seem to understand that even bridging was stupendously hard work (my husband is, quite literally, twice my weight). After that round I got paired with someone closer to my size and the techniques worked a lot better. I’m sure that once I’m more skilled and move more fluidly the techniques he was teaching will make up for such a massive size difference, but in that moment it felt like the instructor was asking me to move mountains!

        My husband is a tall guy and not particularly flexible. He sometimes gets frustrated when our main coach (and one of the other coaches who is also a big guy but is super flexible) don’t understand why some moves are hard for him.

        I think learning from someone with a similar body type really helps. It’s not mandatory – all three of the instructors I’ve mentioned in this comment are good teachers and I feel privileged to train with them. BUT, if I had to choose just one I’d stick with the smaller one full time because he just intuitively understands what will and won’t work for me.

        Have you trained under several different instructors? Do you have any moves that you struggle with because of your body type?

  5. I really do love this idea as a starting point for passing on a lineage. While I’m sure it’s not the only criteria he uses, it’s a great way to set a metric to evaluate character.

    • Agreed. It’s hard at times to remember that that person represents their instructor and their school – gets weirder when you think about them representing YOU.

      TMA aside, I think that a black belt in BJJ MEANS something more than just skill. If you disagree with me, that’s totally fine – I think that a Roy Dean black belt means something different than a Marcelo Garcia black belt. That’s precisely why some people choose their instructor – because of what a belt under them represents.

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  11. alway remember a student only shows you one side of them. I have neourological reasons why i pick up things slower. I can often find things draining so to the knowing i will appear that i am not picking stuff up or i might be really quiet and find it hard to instruct others verbally but can demonstate a techique.

    I guess all im saying is there is more than one say a future blue may instruct and help his fellow white belts

    • Hi Doug – I agree – not everyone learns at the same pace. I do think, however, that blue belts SHOULD be able to guide someone through their first day of class. Whether or not you’re a fabulous teacher – beside the point. But as a “senior” student who has likely been there for more than a year, it seems reasonable you can help out newbies.

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  13. I’ve talked to some guys who said their schools promote their students based on fighting ability. In order to get a blue belt at his school, one guy said you have to be able to tap every white belt, even guys who may be twice as big as you, and even one blue belt on top of that. It took him something like six years to get his blue belt.

    In addition to techniques you would use in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament, my instructor teaches self defense techniques. He teaches some wrestling and judo takedowns so that his students know how to take the fight to the ground. He also teaches techniques that involve striking and techniques that allow us to defend against strikes.

    In order to get a blue belt from my instructor, you must be able to demonstrate the self defense moves in addition the ground moves that you’d see in a typical BJJ tournament.

    • Hi Steve! Sorry – your comment got caught in my spam filter. From now on your comments are auto approved, so no worries about getting caught by spam!

      That is nuts! I don’t understand how a school like that handles older, less fit students. They don’t end up promoting small women, older men, or the like? It seems strange to have one single criteria like that for every age and every fitness level.

      I read something by a black belt (wish I could remember where!) where they said that after every 80 classes you get a stripe. Everyone is promoted at the same time because just as in life you have two people with the same degree and they have different ability level. That was an interesting concept for me. I wish I could find the original comment!!

      • My instructor appears to just promote people “when they’re ready”. For some people that means performance in class, for others it means doing well in competition. I’m still a very new white belt, so I wouldn’t dare try to judge the skill levels of others, but I trust my instructor’s judgement and I feel genuine excitement when I see others get promoted – there’s no expectation of “ah well they’ve been around for ages of course they were due”.

        I do like the idea of tests with a clear pass/fail line though. Not quite to the extent that Steve mentions, but a minimum standard of fitness and skill makes sense to me, even if it excludes some people. The karate organization I train with used to have a test that required you to perform a list of exercises within a two minute time period. If you couldn’t do those exercises, you weren’t fit enough to get your black belt. That requirement has fallen by the wayside and now we have black belts that can only do push ups on their knees, and would never be able to do the full test.

        There were some other binary requirements (e.g. kicking to a certain height), this meant that some black belts who got theirs later in life or suffered from an injury were unable to get to higher dan because they couldn’t perform those movements. Now that’s been relaxed and some people are awarded dan grades for “contribution to the sport” – they’re nice people, and they give a lot of time and effort to helping others. They deserve recognition for that, but part of me wishes that our art was like Judo and had technical/teaching dan grades in addition to competitive ones, so that people could follow different promotion tracks.

        While that fitness test was a requirement there were two people who failed their black belt test more than five times each, and there was one older adult who knew that he would “never get his black belt”, but he kept training anyway. Student retention wasn’t an issue and belts weren’t a big deal. Now the requirements have been relaxed I think that belts are more coveted and there are more complaints about “Sam got an exception for his knee injury, and that’s OK because you can see he wears a brace, but Joe’s just whining about his back, he doesn’t deserve his belt”.

        If requirements are fixed, clear and measurable, no-one can complain.

        • when i was in tkd we had a set list of moves we should know as well. in order to get to the higher belt, you needed to know those moves as well as any you learned in previous belt tests. i think bjj should be the same way because not everybody wants to do competition and get promoted that route. i do think those who compete should be able to fast track it a little more because they are demonstrating their technique in full swing.

          • The gym I’m at now is curriculum based, and it’s quite nice to know that every blue belt here knows XYZ, and to know what those expectations are. I’m not totally in agreement with the competition thing because I think that the goal of a competition is to WIN, and it’s VERY possible to have a very focused, effective, yet limited game. You may only know an armbar from mount, and you know how to get into mount, but you have no clue what other basic things are. It’s extreme, yes, but it’s still easy to have gaping holes. Yet, you are correct – you’ve proven your skill vs someone else’s.

  14. Wow! I wish Ray had a school in North Carolina. Unfortunately, I live north of Raleigh and the only school in town promotes you if you remind them of some MMA person. If you’re older and/or overweight, it’s not going to happen.