In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, your blue belt is only the first belt you’ll receive after white. Yet in contrast to almost all other traditional martial arts in which you can progress in rank very rapidly, it takes an incredible amount of time and effort to obtain even your first BJJ belt promotion. I had been training for about 2 years (about 3 – 4 times a week) when I tested for my blue belt, which is about average for a blue belt promotion.
Some associations (mine included) require formal belt testing before offering promotions. In these cases, you are usually required to demonstrate a certain number of techniques (in Pedro Sauer’s curriculum there are 88 techniques for blue belt), in addition to demonstrating technical proficiency in live sparring. Sometimes instructors encourage students to compete in tournaments in order to help gauge their proficiency before offering belt promotions. In less formal associations, a black belt instructor can simply award a student a new belt at any time based on a more subjective assessment of the student’s proficiency.
For many students, the promotion to blue belt is an unforgettable milestone – in many ways, it vindicates the amount of time you’ve put into training and provides an outward indicator of your proficiency. Sometimes, students are nervous about receiving a new belt; they feel as if they are undeserving or unskilled when compared to other students at their new belt level. I’ve often heard newly promoted practitioners say they feel as though they have a “target on their back,” because lower-ranked students (some of whom are approaching a belt promotion as well) want to prove their chops by tapping out a higher belt. Conversely, some students couldn’t care less about belt promotions.
I tested for my blue belt in January, 2011. I had trained extra hard in the days leading up to the testing – setting aside several extra hours every night to study and drill the 88 techniques on blue belt curriculum. On the day itself, I was extremely nervous. Sure, I knew that most people who test will receive their belt with no issues. Yet, all I could think about was that slight chance that I would end up being that one-in-a-hundred student who would completely embarrass themselves (and their instructor) by failing.
In a way, for me it was somewhat reminiscent of competition. I was as nervous for the test as I was for my first tournament – complete with dry mouth, churning stomach, and tunnel-vision. There was a 2 hour seminar before the test of which I remember almost nothing, which was entirely a result of my nervousness and not at all the fault of Pedro Sauer’s teaching abilities.
Just as in competition, I found myself sizing up other white-belts in the room. Everyone else looked more experienced than me. Looking at the faded stripes on the other students’ belts, I felt completely inadequate. Why was I here taking this test when I was so undeserving? And of course, as with competition, all I could imagine was the worst-case-scenario. To me, failing this test would be the competition-equivalent of getting my arm broken by a flying armbar 5 seconds into the match.
Of course, the belt test turned out to be nothing like the unmitigated parade of humiliation I had built up in my mind. The long hours of studying, training, and drilling paid off, and with only a few minor corrections on several techniques, I was awarded my blue belt by Pedro Sauer himself.
Carl and me (far left) after successfully testing for our blue belts. With Pedro Sauer and West Side Jiu Jitsu head instructor Mark Johnson.
Looking back on it, there are several things I realize I should have done differently (apart from improving upon the techniques themselves). Perhaps others can take something from my experience, and make their belt test more relaxing than it was for me. I have a long way to go before my next promotion, but when the time comes I intend to make it as enjoyable as possible.
1. Trust your instructor. They know what is required for a promotion, and they have likely promoted many students before. If they feel you are ready, then you almost certainly are.
2. Study. If you are required to demonstrate particular techniques during a formal belt test, ensure that you have studied the appropriate material. In addition, if there are specific names associated with the techniques, make sure you know them.
3. A belt test is not a competition. You do not need to prove that you are better than the other students who are taking the test with you. Focus on your own technique, and do not worry about how much the other students know.
4. Be gentle when demonstrating techniques. When I was testing, I saw one student using 100% of his strength when demonstrating submissions – much to the dismay of his partner, who was also taking the test. You are not competing against your partner (see number 3), and there is no reason to try and hurt them. Additionally, cranking submissions on a non-resisting partner will demonstrate your inexperience and cast serious doubt on whether you deserve a promotion.
5. Learn from your belt test. Accept corrections on the techniques that you are demonstrating. Treat the examination as an opportunity to learn from an experienced practitioner, and do not, under any circumstances, argue with the professor overseeing your belt test.