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A Look At The BJJ Ranking System
The ranking system in Jiu Jitsu is really quite simple once you understand it, but as a new student it can certainly be challenging to understand.
A lot of martial arts have tons of belts that you typically advance through rather quickly. Jiu Jitsu on the other hand is very different in that there are only 5 belts to get from white belt to black belt. While there are 2 belts beyond the black belt few practitioners ever reach this level as it would take over 40 years of consistent training to do so typically. Let’s take a look at the belt system and what you should be focusing on at each level.
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The first rank in the Jiu Jitsu belt system and in my opinion the hardest is the rank of white belt. Becoming a white belt is the hardest because it takes the most courage. While signing up to compete takes a lot of courage too at least then you have an idea of what you are getting yourself into. When you are signing up for the first class, or even before when you are deciding to go check out an academy, it takes a lot of courage to take those first few steps in the door into an unknown environment. The white belt, similar to all belts before black typically has 4 stripes that can be earned to show progression in the fundamentals of the sport before progressing to the next belt. The average person who does Jiu Jitsu as a hobby a few nights a week should expect to spend about two to two and a half years at this rank before moving on.
A common question, especially in the beginning days of training is “what should I be focusing on the most?”. A common response is “focus on the fundamentals”. The problem with this is that as a new student, you likely don’t know what the fundamentals are yet. Let’s break down what Professor Bernardo Faria says are the keys to success in the first year of training in his video What Every BJJ White Belt Should Focus In BJJ.
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Fundamentals aren’t always referencing a full technique. For example, learning to posture when you’re inside the guard is a crucial fundamental that ties into several guard passes. As you’re starting out, it makes sense to focus on two simple guard passes, one to go under the legs, and one to go over the legs. While drilling the passes, or any technique remember the point is not just to get through the repetitions, but to refine the movement and fine tune the details.
The next belt is not much easier. The next belt in the progression is the blue belt. The blue belt is the belt where we lose the most students. It is often said that once you reach the rank of blue belt you have the knowledge and skill set to handle the vast majority of the street self defense situations you may encounter. Is this why we lose so many people at this level? Who knows.
Personally, I think that blue belt is a really hard belt to stay engaged with. You’ve learned the fundamentals but haven’t perfected them and a lot of time is spent refining the details of the same techniques you have been doing for the last couple of years. I also think people start to be disengaged because they feel like they reached the point of being proficient in self defense, which while this isn’t completely untrue, there is certainly more ground to cover.
Being a blue belt certainly is not easy, but if you are able to persevere and stick with it through until your purple belt you will have proven to have more desire, resilience and ultimately self discipline than the vast majority of the people who start training Jiu Jitsu.
Like the white belt, the blue belt has 4 stripes that can / must be earned in order to progress to the next belt in the system. The average student doing Jiu Jitsu a few nights a week should expect to spend about 2 years as a blue belt receiving stripes periodically during this time, around every 6 months mark.
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The next belt in the Jiu Jitsu belt ranking system is the purple belt. Many instructors agree that this is where you start to build your game. This is the belt where typically you have a solid foundation, and know enough to be dangerous in developing your own game. As a white belt, or even blue belt it’s ridiculous to say things like “This move doesn’t work for my body type” (insert eye roll here). Listen, your job at these ranks is to do the move the best you can. What you will find is that your body is capable of a lot more than you think, the reality is you don’t know what you are capable of yet because you haven’t tried it yet. At purple belt you are starting to have a slight idea of what may or may not work for your game, however you should still not rule anything out.
The purple belt rank is certainly not an easy rank to achieve. I look at it as the metaphorical hump in the journey. While I don’t want to imply that getting your brown or black belt are easy by any stretch of the imagination, I do think there are some factors that are no longer in play that make it more likely for you to achieve these ranks.
The purple belt like the blue and white belts has 4 stripes that can be earned during your time in this rank. The average student should once again expect to spend about 2 years, maybe slightly less at this rank.
The next belt is the brown belt. My thoughts on this are simple, once you have achieved your brown belt, there is no reason besides death that you should not make it to your black belt. Making it to brown belt means you have dedicated roughly six to eight years to Jiu Jitsu. That’s enough time to go back to school and get a masters degree assuming you are starting with no degree at all. That’s the better part of a decade. How much has life changed in the last six to eight years for you? It’s likely it will continue to change. If you have kids your 10 year old is now driving and on their way to graduating high school. It’s important that we put into perspective the commitment it takes to get to this point. It’s not easy, but it is certainly worth it.
At this level it’s time to really dig in, what does your game look like? What is your strategy for each possible situation you may encounter in competition or in training? Now is the time to really work to develop your game. This is also the time to step up your contribution to Jiu Jitsu. Giving back to Jiu Jitsu is a crucial part of this journey. Think of it like a checking account, you have to make deposits in order to make withdraws, right? Jiu Jitsu is the same way, it will provide you with enormous benefits, but in return you need to be making deposits in the way of helping new students, cleaning the mats for the professor, helping out with the admin work, or the kids classes, anything you can do to help and add value. Be the reason someone comes back to train again tomorrow.
The brown belt, like the last 3 belts has 4 stripes that can and should be earned before progressing to black belt. This is the last belt in the system that has just 4 stripes. The average student once again should plan to spend about 2 years at this level before moving on to what many consider to be the final belt in Jiu Jitsu.
Next we have the black belt… The coveted black belt. At this point you have made it, you have arrived, you are now an expert at self defense and Jiu Jitsu and it’s finally time to take a break and stop working so hard….
Just kidding. At this level it’s been said many times that it is like starting over again. The difference between a black belt and a white belt is a black belt knows enough to know what he doesn’t know, whereas a white belt simply can not conceive the vastness of Jiu Jitsu therefore they set the black belt as a marker of success. Some set smaller goals like blue belt or purple, but let’s be real, don’t set yourself up to fail with a plan to only go 20 percent of the way there. Go big or go home.
It’s at this level that you can really spend time in the areas you choose, you can begin exploring different high level competitors games, you can teach classes if your professor allows you to, you can pursue your passion through Jiu Jitsu. The dedicated practitioner should expect to spend a minimum of 24 years as a black belt before receiving their coral belt which is essentially a 7th degree black belt. While stripes will be given during the 24 year period they will not be as frequent and will take roughly 3-5 years to earn each one.
Only some of the practitioner that start training make it to blue belt, of the ones who do roughly half or more quit as a blue belt. We continue to have fallout at the purple belt level and even moving into brown belt rank. Of those who make it to black belt, which is only an estimated 1% or the group that originally started training, only a very small percentage of these elite black belts will see the rank of coral belt.
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Somewhere along the way, and I think it’s different for everyone, but it stops being about the belt and becomes something much deeper. I remember wanting my blue belt so badly and looking back now, the belts are simply and indication of time invested and energy invested, nothing more. The rank doesn’t provide a shield that protects you from ever being tapped by a lower rank, it will happen, and if it’s not happening, you aren’t training properly. Tapping isn’t a bad thing, which is another thing you will learn along the journey. Tapping is an opportunity to learn, it’s not the end of the world like some make it out to be. If you are only training with people that can’t submit you, you are taking the easy road, and as you know the easy road never leads to success so get out there and train hard, get tapped, learn, grow, win.
What is the best way to ensure you make it from white belt to black belt and don’t fall through the cracks along the way? Study! Invest time and in some cases money into your craft so that you can study the techniques you like most or need the most help with from the best Jiu Jitsu practitioners in the world. BJJ Fanatics has an extensive library of video instructionals available to us. This library includes instruction from the best and most talented grapplers in the world on topics from techniques, to mindset, and everything in between. If you haven’t already, check them out. I would recommend starting with “The Road to Black Belt” by Tom DeBlass. Professor DeBlass breaks down the mental side of Jiu Jitsu and provides a more direct and in depth recommendations for coming up through the ranks.
Here are a few additional tools to get you started, keep you going, or reengage you, no matter which you need, Jiu Jitsu always provides. Sticking with the fundamentals theme “Pin Escapes & Turtle Escapes: BJJ Fundamentals – Go Further Faster” is available now on BJJ Fanatics. This was the first in the series, and I’m going to assume, knowing Danaher’s systematic approach to BJJ that this was released first on purpose, as he likely felt this was the best starting point, or the most important of the series. Obviously, that’s just my opinion, but it stands to reason none the less.
If you would prefer, the “Enter the System” series are all available as well, providing you with this same level of detailed systematic approach to the offense side of the game rather than the defensive side. My personal favorite is “Triangles: Enter the System” but I have to imagine they are all equally mind blowing averaging over 10 hours of content from one of the most detail oriented Jiu Jitsu instructors of all time.