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You Are a Purple Belt: But What Does That Mean?

You Are a Purple Belt: But What Does That Mean?


By the time you've been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for four or maybe in some cases five years, one of the best and most challenging things that can happen to you will happen one day.  You've stuck around through the sometimes painfully uncomfortable white belt period.  You've learned how to tie your jiu jitsu belt, hopefully you've answered the important questions of why and how to wash your BJJ belt, and you have a general understanding BJJ stripes and BJJ belt meanings.

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Finding Yourself A Purple Belt

Not only have you survived the white belt period filled with hundreds of hours of trying to re-teach your body to move while not holding your breath, you've met all of your instructor and academy's requirements and added the white belt moves to your arsenal and finally got yourself promoted to blue belt. 

Check out Roy Dean's Purple Belt Requirements available from!

purple belt jiu jitsu

You went into the blue belt knowing that you're not part of a huge cliche.  The blue belt is when most people pack it in, either letting life or themselves get in the way of the progression towards their black belt.  Not you, you stuck with it and swam with the sharks in the deep water of blue belt.  Maybe you competed a time or two.  Maybe you've started helping with kids classes or become your instructor's go to uke.  Though it's only been a few years, you're looked at as a seasoned veteran although deep down, you're probably not confident that you can pull off any of the moves you "know" against an unwilling opponent.

Then bang!  It happens. Maybe you knew it was coming.  Maybe you didn't.  Probably best if you didn't. One day you walk in as a 4 stripe blue belt and after class or promotion night, you walk out as a no stripe purple belt!  You just got promoted to one of the most prestigious belts on the way to black belt.

The purple belt is the point of no return. You've passed muster and survived the cliched quitting time of blue belt and now you're instructor sees you as a purple belt.  A serious veteran. A skilled jiu jitsu practitioner. Wait, what?  A skilled jiu jitsu practitioner? Yes, that's what we said. 

It has been said that a purple belt has the same knowledge as a black belt, but simply lack the experience and refinement that comes with years upon years on the mats. Let that sink in a minute.

My First Roll With a Purple Belt

As a white belt, I remember the first time that I ever trained with a purple belt.  I was nervous.  The owner of the academy I attended had just received his purple belt to put things into perspective. Jiu Jitsu was relatively young in the rust belt straddling Pennsylvania and Ohio. This purple belt was visiting from the main academy we were affiliated with.

As we rotated partners, it became my turn to roll with this purple belt.  Let's break down some of the positive and negative takeaways from the experience, as both, I believe are extremely important.  Even so many years later, that roll at the lessons I've pulled from it still shape my training and instruction as a black belt.

The Good Things I Learned Rolling With the Purple Belt

Let's take a look at the positive takeaways that came from that roll back in 2008.

  • Every Move He Made Was Effortless 

One of my most enduring memories from this roll so long ago was the calm look on his face.  There was no strain at all and almost no expression at all.  I was bigger than him in size and he would find himself underneath of me, not because of my doing, but as a part of his nefarious plan for me and it was like we were rolling on the moon and the lack of gravity made me weightless and about to float away from the mats.

Looking back, I realized that he simply knew way more than me.  He knew what I was going to do before I did it.  As I made a move, he wasn't chasing me at all.  He was waiting there for me to fall into his trap.  Every offensive move I made seemed to actually be guided by the purple belt, like some sort of puppet master.

  • Every Move I Made Was A Seemingly Insurmountable Task

Most of us have had dreams where we as the protagonists feel like we're moving in slow motion.  Perhaps some crazed madman is chasing us or we need to get somewhere quickly and our legs don't seem to work.  Everything feels like we're moving through thick, viscous, invisible molasses.  The dream usually ends for me at some climatic moment and I wake up in bed heart racing and gasping for air.

Similarly, this roll had the same feel.  Everything was heavy and slow for me.  And in my mind, he was going at hyperspeed.

Looking back, this purple belt's use of angles, grips and misdirection kept me off kilter and discombobulated.  I was placed in a constant state of chaos and could not find my footing and balance.

  • He Never Seemed To Be Directly In Front Of Me

One of the most frustrating aspects of this purple belts game was that I could never square myself up with him.  In my mind, I was trying to apply pressure to try to slow him down or maybe miraculously stop him for a moment to give me time to catch my breath, process where I'm at, and do something offensive.  But it never happened.  Every time I expected him to be in front of me, I would find him on either side of me, out-flanking me and easily picking off my attempts at offense like a sniper hidden out of sight.

It was clear that his goal was to never feel any pressure, to never be caught in a position where his movement or inability to move was my doing.  As I came forward, he would use my momentum against me, unbalancing me and effortlessly moving to either side of my body, tipping me over or attempting a submission from the shadows.

  • I Kept Sliding Off Of His "Force Field"

At the time, I was probably 230-240 lbs and this purple belt was no more than 175.  I had naively and very briefly thought in my mind that perhaps I was going to be too strong for him and should maybe hold something back.  Boy was I mistaken.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get more than the smallest connections to him.  I might grab the fabric of his gi at the sleeve or pants for a moment, but I could never connect my hips to him or apply the pressure of my chest to him.  It was as if he was protected by a force field that kept me in the sliding off the spherical energy that seemed to surround him.

In hindsight, he was very good at keeping his elbows and knees close together.  He was already a master at using frames to prevent the sloppy onslaught of what I knew as pressure as a white belt and direct it away from him, or even more frustratingly use my own pressure against me by creating 'trap doors' to fall into when he removed the frames made by his arms and my clumsy body fell into them.  This was usually followed by some sort of submission attack.  Over the years, I've finally realized that the best submission attacks are dynamic and not as successful on static opponents.

  • The Submissions He Caught Me In Were Only Vaguely Familiar

Part of me wishes I could remember exactly how many times I tapped during that 5 or 6 minutes rolling with the purple belt, but I honestly can't.  In my mind, it feels like dozens.  His skills were so far ahead of mine that I now realize he was moving almost effortlessly from submission to submission, catching them and letting me go relatively quickly.

I was choked multiple times, found myself in a variety of armbars from different angles.  The submission that stands out the most was a triangle, but it felt different.  The only triangle I knew was the classic triangle from closed guard where my partner "allows" me to push their hand closed to their chest and torso so I can jump my legs up and around their shoulders.  Then by pressuring my hamstrings downward I am able to lift my hips and move their isolated arm across their body ideally below their chin.  I then reach for the shin of one of my legs and bring it across their shoulders just below their neck.  If the angle is correct, I should be able to bring my leg over my instep of the leg across their shoulders forming a triangle that hopefully should submit my drilling partner.

In this purple belt's case, I found him behind me wrapping his legs around my head from behind.  Even though I had never seen or experienced this technique before, I knew it was a triangle by the way he grabbed for his shin and began adjusting his angle.  The next few seconds were the last that I remember before my head felt like it was being dunked into a bucket of black tar, slowly.

I had been triangled from the back and simply had no idea where it was coming, when it was coming and how to stop it.  I was powerless as he effortlessly strangled me with his thighs.  It was exhilarating and disheartening all at the same time.  Thus was life as a white belt.

Summary of Positive Outcomes

Over time I have revisited this roll and many others in my head trying to distill lessons that could benefit me or the student's I share my knowledge with.  One of the first things I tell anyone is to relax and breathe.  The premise of jiu jitsu that was initially presented to me was that the art allowed the smaller person to prevail over the larger, stronger person.  Therefore, it's important to work smarter, not harder.  A practitioner must conserve their energy and strength until they absolutely need it.  If you strain and over exert yourself early in a match or training session, you will have nothing left when you need it.

Another thing that I attempt to do when I'm rolling is make my opponent uncomfortable by making them carry as much of my weight as possible, even when I'm on the bottom.  By using grips and angles, I am able to make the opponent pay dearly for every move they try to make.

Using angles and framing have been integral life saving techniques in my training and teaching.  Effectively flanking the opponent vastly decreases the force they are able to use while they are being offensive.  It makes them vulnerable to attacks, because it typically decreases the amount of defensive weapons they can employ.  Frames like arms across collar bones or knees against torsos create strong structures that can support tremendous amounts of weight, frustrating opponents and also creating traps for the opponent to fall into.

The last positive takeaway from the roll was the fact that the triangle I learned in class, was just one of the nearly infinite variations of triangle choke that can be applied.  This got me thinking that each move is usually based on some core principles, but that the actual application and arrival at that move, could come with endless combinations of set ups and variations.

     The Bad Things I Learned from This Purple Belt Roll

    Overtime, the positives of the experience have far outweighed any negatives that were experienced during the roll.  And even better, any negatives have been turned into lessons that continue to inform my BJJ today.

    • This Purple Belt KNEW He Was Better

    Martial arts allegedly works to soften someone's ego.  The longer you train, the more you will realize that the ego is a double edged sword.  It is the ego that drives us to train and learn, striving to get better or working towards competition goals, but left unchecked the ego can show itself as arrogance and as someone develops their jiu jitsu skills, there's a danger of coming across as a jerk--which this guy did.  Despite all of the positive I was able to pull out of the roll, there was a definite sense of arrogance and "Why am I rolling with this pitiful whitebelt?"  I've also discussed this with other students from that time who had similar experiences with this person.  It wasn't just my pitiful white belt perspective.  He was an arrogant person to multiple people I know.

    • There Was No Closure Or Follow Up

    At the end of most rolls, I thank my partner for rolling with me and if there's an opportunity to chat a moment or two after, I'll usually ask a question about something they did.  Even as a black belt today, I look for new ideas or perspectives that may add something to my game.  This purple belt quickly dispatched me and never said a word to me.

    Turning Negatives Into Purple Positives

    After training for nearly a decade and a half, I've learned that the ego is a necessary thing, but that it must be tempered and checked occasionally to keep oneself grounded and on a path of constant improvement.  In addition, whether I'm rolling or teaching a technique to a classroom, I've adopted a philosophy that both believes that the white belt or least experienced student is one of the most important in the room, if not THE most important.  It is my goal that when I roll or teach a technique that EVERYONE in the room feels somewhat successful about something.  It could be anything and is not limited to how they perform the technique.

    All of these ideas that I now have started germinating that day nearly 15 years ago when I was a measly white belt rolling with this purple belt.  I came away feeling that purple belts walked on water, but I was also smart enough to realize that he was a bit of cocky person.  I vowed no matter how far I progressed or how skilled I became, I would strive to never make any white belts or less experienced students feel that way.

    So take the lessons I've shared and now that you find yourself promoted to that beautiful purple belt, take what you can use and hopefully you can make your game better.  And be nice to people and help them out along the way.  Before you know it, the black belt promotion will be here.  Enjoy your time at purple.  It's a watershed belt which will find you refining your BJJ and shaping yourself into a better practitioner in more ways than you'll ever know.

    For more about purple belt checkpoints, check out Roy Dean's Purple Belt Requirements.

    bjj purple belt

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