You’ve heard all the motivational cliches: “A black belt is just a white belt that never gave up,” or “A white belt is the most important belt promotion” often pictured next to a men’s dress belt.
No matter how many memes are made about them, the importance of belts in BJJ should not be understated. While every gym, and indeed, every Jiu Jitsu practitioner, is different, a belt can be a deeply personal marker for progress and a powerful motivator.
Being promoted to a new rank can be one of the most rewarding and terrifying experiences. While it is great to have your coaches and peers recognize your progress, a promotion becomes time for you to prove that you deserve your new rank.
How Do People Get Belts In BJJ?
The answer to that question may change depending on the criteria your gym holds. However, there is one universal key to earning your belt: show up and train.
That simple phrase may be a cliche in Jiu Jitsu at this point, but it is an important reminder to a dedicated BJJ practitioner. In fact, these days the idea of the belt itself might be considered an archaic or meaningless gesture, as many practitioners are opting solely for no gi practice.
While it might sound avant-garde to claim belts are unimportant, they can be an important marker for progress that keeps practitioners on track.
As mentioned before, different affiliations and academies weigh things like mat time and performance in different ways. Consider competitors like Nicky Rodriguez. Although he is a world class competitor with wins over black belts like Cyborg, Rordriguez only received his purple belt in 2019. It suffices to say that the landscape for what the talent at each belt holds has changed over time.
Legends and prodigies aside, many gyms hold to a guideline that combines time and mat performance to determine belt promotion. Generally, the journey from white belt to black belt should take nearly 10 years. Stripes are also awarded incrementally at each belt to denote progression through a given level.
Many academies will make a student test for their new rank, but other gyms take a less ceremonial approach and simply award the belt when coaches feel that their criteria has been met.
BJJ Belt Promotion Requirements
While requirements among academies might vary, there is a general understanding of what each belt in Jiu Jitsu should represent. The following list is not exhaustive but should give you some ideas of what to strive for.
At face value, you may see your white belt as something of a “door prize” for signing up for Jiu Jitsu. However, this rank carries its own level of challenges, and earning each stripe is what you should focus on for white belt.
Assuming you have the goal of reaching black belt, your white belt is a good rank to set the tone for your journey. Carve out a routine training schedule and find a few key figures in your academy that can act as your mentors. Focus less on your promotion to the next rank and more on absorbing any knowledge you can, wherever you can.
To reach your blue belt you should have a fundamental understanding of the basics of Jiu Jitsu. You should be able to perform basic submissions like the arm bar, triangle, and kimura, and be able to impose positions like side control, mount, and back mount.
Much of your Jiu Jitsu will be piecemeal. You will learn to form connections and technique sequences later. If you think of it like grammar, the road to blue belt is a stage where you are rapidly learning vocabulary.
Tournaments are generally not a requirement for any belt, but they are a good metric for your skill if you become too accustomed to rolling with the same people. Try to do at least two tournaments to prepare yourself for blue belt.
Two major factors come into play to achieve your purple belt. First, is a more cerebral and methodical approach to your Jiu Jitsu. As you begin to represent a higher level of Jiu Jitsu, the clumsy and erratic nature of white belts, and even some blues, is no longer tolerable.
You should start to piece together singular techniques to create gameplans that suit your style. Your signature style will start to become clear as you will likely have rolled for a few years at this point.
Second, a greater degree of athleticism will be important to step into the rank of purple. Even if competition is not a goal of yours, for many of your purple peers any roll will have an element of competition as they also seek to confirm their ranks. You may consider increasing your mat time or intensity to keep up with the competitive demand.
By now, you have likely proven to your coaches and your peers that you are serious about your Jiu Jitsu. There is no secret criteria to attain your brown. However, a special focus should be paid to your style of Jiu Jitsu.
Although you will probably have your own style of Jiu Jitsu figured out by now, you will have to start expanding your knowledge. You should be able to tap into different techniques and styles of Jiu Jitsu that can complement and enhance your game when your usual style is not working.
By the time you are nearing your black belt promotion, you will have an extremely comprehensive understanding of BJJ. You should have a wide array of techniques and sequences at your disposal, in addition to athleticism, a consistent training schedule, competition experience, and the ability to teach the techniques you’ve learned.
The greatest key to earning your blackbelt is to refine all these principles and more. Demonstrate to your coaches that you are not only a student, but an authority figure within the academy.
The BJJ Belt Promotion Ceremony
Again, the ceremony that leads to and follows a belt promotion can differ depending on the academy. However informal it might be, your coaches will always try to make it special for you in some way.
For many schools, to even earn your promotion you must go through a test that usually involves performing a gamut of techniques that define your rank or you must face several intense rolls against all those in attendance.
Once you have received your belt, there is often a less formal yet still traditional way the new belt rank is commemorated. Often, those in attendance will form a line and congratulate their peers by performing a takedown on them or hitting them in the back with their own belts.
No matter what belt you rank up to, or what kind of ceremony your gym has, recognize your progress as its own reward.
What if You Don’t Get Promoted?
One unfortunate downside to a strict adherence to the belt system is using your rank as the only metric of your skill and value in BJJ. It’s important to note that the belt is only meant to be a reflection of your progress. Not receiving a belt when you think you should does not somehow halt the progress you are still making.
Unfortunately, becoming too focused on the cosmetics of your rank can stunt your growth. Instead of doing more to better yourself and your technique, you might find yourself asking questions like, “that person started at the same time as me, why are they getting promoted and I’m not?”
There is an element of trust in the promotion process. You trust your coaches enough to pay them monthly for your training. So, try to trust their judgement in who they promote. As a coach, they have a greater and wider perspective of what they look for in each rank, and who in the gym fulfills that brief.
You may check all the boxes in the technique aspect, but maybe your mat etiquette could use some work. Perhaps they would like to see you compete to put a sense of finality on your current rank. Or, perhaps, your coaches see your potential and want to see you be more than ready for the next rank, as opposed to fighting to survive.
Whatever the case may be, focus on your Jiu Jitsu above all else. The promotions will come if you stay on the mats.
Belt promotions are a fundamental aspect of Jiu Jitsu progress. Promotions are a momentous occasion for any Jiu Jitsu practitioner and bring with them a degree of responsibility.
Each rank has its own unique criteria to reach it, but generally consistency on the mat will help to fulfill all others. Every gym promotes its students differently, but it is important not to be discouraged when you aren’t promoted when you think you should be. A dedicated Jiu Jitsu practitioner will receive their promotion in due time.
Jeremy is brown belt and has a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, but he also enjoys creative writing. Originally from Connecticut, where he began his 11 years of Jiu Jitsu training.