Do Belts Matter? What the Science Says...
Join any Jiu Jitsu-related group on Facebook, Reddit, or some other social media platform and the debate will come up: Do belts/stripes matter?
Some participants will insist that, yes, they matter. Others will claim that they don’t need a belt or stripes to tell them how good their Jiu Jitsu is; they insist that the proof is on the mats.
My contribution to the debate will usually be a Dad Joke: “Of course we need belts! Since gis don’t have pockets, the belt gives us a place to put our hands!”
But my serious conviction is that, yes, belts do matter. And I have two reasons for believing so.
First, belts are a necessary guidepost to outsiders and to new Jiu Jitsu practitioners.
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When a new student steps on the mats for the first time, they are lost. They’re trying to orient themselves to a new world that they’ve never experienced before. For those new students—and, really, for anyone looking at the world of Jiu Jitsu from the outside—belts are a clear signpost. Belt color gives the newbie a clear sense of who is in charge in the class and of who they should ask for help when confused.
Once we’ve integrated ourselves into the Jiu Jitsu environment, we might forget how disorienting those first few months were. However, since most of us want to see Brazilian Jiu Jitsu thrive and grow, we should remember the importance of these signposts for new students and for the outside world.
Second, science does suggest that rewards spur internal motivation.
The problem with all of the online debate about whether belts or stripes matter is that it’s all completely anecdotal. Each person is speaking based on their own motivation—or, rather, their own perception of their own motivation.
And the truth is humans are not very good at recognizing their motivations for doing things. If, for instance, we were actually good at recognizing our motivations, advertisements would have no effect on us. But they do. And, typically, the people who protest that they are immune from the forces of advertising are the ones most susceptible to those forces.
So, we need to recognize that this isn’t an issue that will be solved through anecdotes. Rather than look at individual claims about whether belts and stripes matter, we should look at the science behind rewards and motivation.
Psychologists have spent considerable time trying to answer the question of whether and how rewards affect motivation. The results are not completely conclusive, but they do lean toward the conclusion that rewards are important in creating and fostering internal motivation.
Most research does show a correlation between rewards—even tiny rewards like a piece of tape—and internal motivation.
One study of students in a college classroom found that, overall, students were more likely to do extra work if offered a reward, even if they were only offered a negligible amount of extra credit. Interestingly, the students didn’t think that the offer had any effect on their decision to do extra work, but the data clearly shows that those students who were offered a tiny reward were more motivated to go the extra mile than those students who were offered nothing.*
Studies like this one explain why some people believe that they are not motivated by stripes or belt promotions. They’re just like the students who believed that the extra credit was a non-factor in their decision.
But this study shows that these rewards do, in fact, increase our internal motivation to continue to put in the work and time that our training requires.
And, honestly, if there’s even a chance that a strip of dyed material or a piece of tape will buck up a deserving student’s resolve to keep coming to class and keep working to improve, isn’t it worth it?
We don’t have anything to lose but we have a lot to gain.
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