When I say “paying for belts” I mean paying for the promotion either as a special class or as a fee you have to give to someone to “verify” your rank. I don’t mean getting a “technical blue belt” and I don’t mean actually purchasing a belt from a company like Scramble.
Typically when I think of paying for belts I think of the predetermined promotion nights where everyone who’s been there since at least the last promotion night can pay to attend and simply by virtue of having shown up for 3 months and having paid for the special promotion night gets a stripe. If you have no clue what I’m talking about – go to a kid’s karate school with the attendance sheets that mark off time until the next belt – they exist. You show up to class at least 2-3 nights per week and after a predetermined 2-3 months you get your next stripe or belt. I’m opposed to this. I’m opposed to most of the ways someone could be expected to pay for their belt. I’m opposed to having to pay processing fees to organizations to “verify” or “validate” your rank. Your rank was verified by your instructor before he gave you that piece of cloth, and was valid the second he tied it (or handed it to you, I guess it depends how old school your group is).
The reality is, we do pay for ranks in a certain sense anyway though. You pay the monthly fees to go to class, you pay for any privates you do, you pay for seminars, you pay for tournaments. Money opens a lot of doors for rapidly improving your jiu jitsu. It’s pretty rare that anyone has the means to give away BJJ, judo, or any other form of grappling. It’d be hard to do. You need to have a facility, you need to have insurance, and at the end of the day you still need to eat. None of those are free, even if the lessons are. The thing is, we all pay for those things whether or not we’re being promoted – it’s one cost of learning the art – paying for a belt is really paying for recognition though.
I’m currently training out of Foundations BJJ in Madison, and in addition to volunteering their time and keeping prices low, they don’t charge for belts/stripes. You get recognized when you’ve made progress. I think that’s pretty cool, and probably the way it should be, but I want to illustrate a couple of alternative situations where I think paying for a belt might actually be warranted. All of these situations have the same thing in common – you’re paying someone for their time to try to evaluate you outside of normal classes that you’ve already paid for.
The Seminar – in this model you’re training under someone who is not allowed to promote you or has chosen to defer doing so to an instructor above them. The instructor above them doesn’t see you as regularly and as such they’re operating on a combination of what your direct instructor has told them and how you perform at the seminar. The reality is – you have to pay to go to this seminar to get the next belt/stripe. It’s not an awesome setup, but it’s an understandable one. Hopefully you’re getting more out of the seminar than just the belt though.
The Private – in this model a private evaluation is necessary as part of rank advancement. Your instructor may have you buy a private when they think you’re ready and then evaluate you in a variety of positions. The really cool thing about this model is that they probably know you’re ready for the belt already, but want some 1-on-1 time to discuss what you need to start working on. For example, if you’re going from blue to purple they may take this to figure out what you’ll need to start working on as a purple and tell you that. Again, there’s no reason the private couldn’t be given away, but time on the mat costs money.
Considering I know of some schools that don’t promote without competition wins, both of these feel relatively fine to me. They’re not the ideal setup, but they’re the cases where I personally wouldn’t feel cheated when paying for my belt promotion because they come with other learning. Also, because they’re totally things that can be subsidized by others in the club so financial means don’t have to be limiting factors for them. You can charge a little bit more for a seminar so that you can offer scholarships for others. You can ask people to pay a little bit more per month so that you can throw in a private here and there for them.