Is the number of stripes on your belt an accurate representation of your skill level? I got the idea for this post from a poll at jiujitsuforums.com. Interestingly, the responses were fairly uniform, running the gamut from “completely meaningless” to “extremely accurate”. In addition, about 16% of respondents trained at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academies that didn’t use stripes.
So what exactly are belt stripes, and why are they used?
Belt stripes are often awarded to students as a means of within-belt-level ranking. Most commonly, practitioners at a particular belt level (except for black belt, at which point stripes become “degrees”) can obtain up to 4 belt stripes before receiving their next belt color. Consequently, the number of stripes on a practitioner’s belt offer a rough indication of their proficiency and experience in relation to other practitioners at the same belt level. These are often informally conferred upon students; rather than undergoing a formal test (though some schools don’t formally test for belts either), students will be awarded stripes at the instructor’s discretion.
In addition to providing an outward indication of a student’s experience level, stripes can be used to help motivate students. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, new belts often take years to obtain (it took me about 2 years to get my blue belt). Thus, getting stripes can often serve as motivational milestones in the interim.
Of course (as reflected in the poll results), there is a lot of variation in the way different schools utilize stripes. Some schools don’t use them at all. Others make extensive use of them – and these are the schools in which stripes are likely to be the most accurate. Some schools occasionally use the striping system, but not consistently. This is particularly true in schools taught by non-black-belt instructors. Since ranking/grading is only bestowed by black belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, students at these schools may not receive stripes until seminars from visiting black belts, if at all. In these cases, stripes are likely the least accurate means by which to gauge a practitioner’s level of experience.
My school falls into the latter category. Our head instructor is a brown belt, and as such, he defers ranking and grading to Pedro Sauer during his visits to Utah. Students will occasionally receive stripes during seminars, but often students will test for their next belt without having any stripes on their belt.
I do see value in the striping system within academies – especially if students require motivation to continue training. Personally though, I enjoy BJJ enough to continue training without needing stripes as motivation – I simply want to become a better practitioner of the art. Gaining a deeper understanding of the principles of jiu jitsu, and the proficiency in technique that comes with it, is my main focus. Getting stripes (or even new belts) along the way is secondary.