Motivation

Where we’re at: Blue tore the meniscus in his right knee while trying to spin out of a leg entanglement, and then it got way worse when he was rolling with Purple after. His knee is jammed and surgery isn’t scheduled right now until later in the month. White hasn’t been able to train as much, so Purple and I have really just been training with each other the last few sessions.

Purple’s A-Game is based around the Kimura Trap. He uses it as a defense against passing by allowing you into the half guard and trying to get the far arm, a defense against the back take by Sakuraba-ing and threatening the Kimura as he forces his shoulders up which prevents climbing the back to recover it without the gi, and as an attack from top side or N/S. He’s really good at it, but after rolling together for years I’ve also managed a fairly reasonable Kimura defense, so more often than not it’s a useful tool for positional stalling but not necessarily a submission that will get finished. He’s been focusing on guillotine variants as means of passing and preventing wrestling up, which was shutting down a lot of what I was doing our first few sessions since I so adamantly like to wrestle up as a solution to guard. I’d say his guillotine and D’Arce system is a solid B-Game at this point and he seems to have developed it really rapidly. He’s effectively spamming it as a means of trying to headlock pass or to force me to retreat back to the bottom if I don’t more assertively fight it earlier.

Because I’ve been unable to wrestle up without having to deal with the choke it’s been easier to play a more down game which has meant a lot more back-side 50/50, trying to play deep half guard, and trying for back-takes from the bottom. Closed guard seems to be the antithesis of Purple’s passing right now so we’ve ended up in triangle positions a lot. Due to the flexibility of his shoulders and general comfort being choked it’s really difficult to finish a triangle on him when he’s resisting even when it feels clean; invariably it ends up transitioning into some kind of wrist or arm lock from the triangle position. Honestly, I’m okay with that. I don’t care to finish someone with one submission come hell or high water if it’s just not there.

After a lot of drilling, positional rounds, and general rolling I just don’t feel like we’re making progress anymore. I feel like without a wider pool of folks we’re just getting into the grooves we know the other person will form.

Purple wants to work stand-up and passing so we start standing and I’ll force him into some form of turtle or he’ll get in on a single and I’ll defend it by pushing on his head until I can do some silly positional transition. Even when he finishes a takedown, I just end up turtling until I can reverse the position or recover guard. Or we start from seated guard and Purple is working passing but when I can’t maintain I end up turtling and until I can reverse the position or recover guard. When I’m attacking on bottom it’s a lot of leg locks and Purple, while comfortable with the base defenses, gives me time to get into a complex entanglement where his defense just gives me a different attack.

When roles are reversed and I’m on top Purple will force a half guard position and I’ll try to keep my left arm safe in various ways trying to pass and he’ll insert his left leg as a butterfly hook to try to mitigate the pass or he’ll successfully get a Kimura grip on the left arm and I’ll have to deal with that.

We’ve been working out together since at least 2015. We know each other’s patterns. We know when we fuck up how the other person will catch us. We can try small adjustments to get around the known issues, but ultimately it’s a pretty straightforward arms race focused on just a couple of areas because we’re both experienced enough to adapt between and across sessions.

So long story short I feel like I’m plateauing and all the stuff I’d normally do – brand new game, different focus, teach new things; they’re not here right now because of the pandemic. There’s not a pool of less experienced folks for me to build up a different game against. There’s not a new area we’ll end up because we’re both good at forcing exchanges into areas we’re strong so even if I try to go off the rails he’s still a purple belt who’s on the verge of brown and can force it back to an area he can play his game.

It’s not a lack of a challenge or that rolling is unenjoyable, and I think that’s the hardest part to convey to people. It’s not just restrict yourself to some arbitrary win condition or add a blindfold, it’s that progress, even if it’s happening, stops being visible when you’re only working with the same small group who adapts to you as you adapt to them. I’m not really interested in going out and finding the competitions that are happening despite the pandemic, going to the schools that are in flagrant violation of the county order, or pulling in another pod to double the available folks. Having said that, a larger pool of folks is what I know to leverage to deal with this kind of stuff. It’s just a matter of staying motivated until we can train in big groups again.

School Closures

This spring has been atypical to say the least. At the time of drafting this over 258,000 people have died of the coronavirus, almost 74,000 in the US alone. We’re socially distancing which is why I’m watching more videos than normal. All the gyms are closed. In the US, whether you support the lockdown to keep people safe or oppose it due to the economic damage it’s doing is becoming a political topic. Gross misinformation is spreading; people are comparing this to influenza, and whether they mean the 1918 Flu Epidemic or just seasonal influenza outbreaks largely depends which side of the political aisle they’re on. All at once we’re seeing a pandemic on the scale we haven’t in a century and a looming financial crash that’s looking more and more like another major recession if not a full on depression.

Calling for all academies to close has a strong foot in the science of the situation. About 25% of cases seem to be asymptomatic for the full duration of infection and even those who show symptoms tend not to for 5-6 days after being infected but can still spread the disease during that time. As young, healthy adults we’re individually unlikely to feel the truly negative effects of the virus, requiring hospitalization or even passing away from the complications. Rather, we’re likely the invisible carriers, the folks risking spreading the disease without a trace as we pass people in the supermarket or at work for those who have “essential” jobs. Congregating is of minimal risk to our health, but it poses a great risk to the vulnerable populations around us, including those we may not interact with directly as we may spread the disease to someone who spreads the disease to someone who interacts with a member of the at-risk population. This is the fundamental reason states and the community at large are calling for closures of non-essential businesses, especially places like jiu-jitsu gyms where close contact is a defining characteristic of the activities we would be participating in.

Given the concern for the community it’s easy to lose sight of the reality many are facing though. Gyms may not be around to open up when this is all over. Rents are still being collected. Bills still exist. In some cases owning or working at a gym is the principle livelihood of the head instructor. If those people have families they may be fearing for their finances, feeding their kids, even keeping their homes. There is an indisputable economic impact to this and the sad reality is capital-C Capitalism would see those folks choose between downplaying the risk to the community to eat or to accept that they are unessential and force them to find new work at a time where unemployment is higher than I think it’s ever been while I’ve been alive. The community is dismissing the concerns of these individuals as them being selfish or uncaring assholes. The reality is, they have legitimate concerns that we need to think about how to resolve as a society. Small business loans and unemployment are failing all around us, and yet we wouldn’t dismiss the folks who wish they could get back to other jobs but we do dismiss gym owners because some portion of gyms are able to be hobbies rather than full time jobs. The only crime these folks committed was following their passions rather than falling in line and getting employment that would be stable even in a crisis.

I don’t think, given the current body of evidence, that it’s safe for gyms to be open, but I think we as a community need to be better about understanding why there are people desperate to open back up. When someone says they miss rolling, yeah it sucks, but the safety of the community comes first. When someone says their business won’t last and they’ll be without income, that’s not something we should be dismissing so carelessly. Again, gyms should be closed, but we should be more compassionate in our discussions of why it’s the bullet we’re biting for some people to lose their businesses to potentially save tens of thousands of lives.

Planning What To Teach

The benefits of a curriculum are two fold:

  1. Students have a resource to review what has and will be shown
  2. Instructors have a defined guide for what to show that they can use for class planning

Historically I haven’t really taught to a curriculum. The basics have been the basics in terms of fundamentals class and I fundamentally believe a competition class should be geared toward positional drills rather than rote technique practice. As I review all of this instructional content, I’m starting to feel like I need more guidance for both of these classes though. I’m starting to put together a curriculum for fundamentals class that I’ll post here as I work through it, and I’m going to try to do better planning of comp class based on USA Wrestling’s practice planning tools. That’s further off, but I’ll probably post some practice plans with evaluations of how they went once we can get back on the mats.

I’m also thinking of finding videos or filming videos of the basics that I can use to make reference material for new students. Enumerated techniques can have specific video links so that they can see the details I show to remind themselves or even catch up on a missed class if they have the frame of reference for what I showed already. I’m not a black belt, I don’t expect to provide top of the line content covering all of the nuances, but I think having a freely available curriculum with videos would be good for fundamentals.

Gi vs No Gi

Let me preface this by saying, this isn’t a discussion of which is better or a recommendation that you need to do one, the other, or both. If forced to chose between gi and no gi, chose what you enjoy more. If doing both means more mat time, more mat time is better than less mat time, don’t be afraid of the modality you haven’t done before.

Most of my tenure in jiu-jitsu has been spent in the gi. Third Heaven had MMA classes that were no gi, but jiu-jitsu was pretty much always gi when I was there. Same at Wade’s. Fight Prime is the first time I can recall having a regularly scheduled no gi class that I attended. No gi was okay, it was a thing I did to get more class time, but I don’t really remember enjoying it as much as the gi. At Foundations, with Mike, is when I think I really fell in love with no gi. Late last autumn I did gi again for the first time in years. I now have a perspective on transitioning between them in each direction.

Jiu-jitsu, fundamentally, is about angles and frames. You need to build structures to manage distance, prevent getting taken in directions you don’t want to be taken, and compound the forces you’re applying. Some folks will talk “wedges” too – I think those are valid, but they’re fundamentally still a structure you’re building to apply a force in a specific direction, so I’m going to lump them in with angles and frames. Regardless of practicing gi or no gi, you will need to build frames and make angles.

The gi allows you to reinforce frames against cloth anchors. To defend an armbar you can grab your lapel and have a tight acute angle in your elbow that will be difficult to break and they’ll have to manage to break your grip not against your own hand where the mobility of your other arm can come into play, but against your jacket where the thickness of the fabric, how tight your jacket fits, and how you’re gripping it are the big factors. These reinforcements are what allow you to slow down a larger, faster opponent in the jacket using grips. The additional hand-holds and higher friction mean even someone who’s relatively new can get a grip and have a stiff, straight arm managing distance pretty effectively between them and their partner. The increased friction and grips generally mean you need to have a solid defense too. You’re unlikely to slip out even when sweaty, so prevention is more important than response as a rule of thumb in the gi.

No gi does not tolerate frames reinforced artificially by the uniform. Rather, the natural handles of the body such as the hips, lats, and traps must be used if you’re seeking to directly control the torso. Frames must be reinforced against yourself, your partner, or the ground – features which are available regardless of if you’re wearing a jacket or not. However, this means it’s much harder to learn to control that bigger, faster partner. If you’re not creating angles with your body and reinforced frames in the direction they’re trying to go they can really make use of their physicality. Getting to a good position fast matters more in a roll because if not, you’ll likely gas yourself just keeping yourself safe. When you hear folks talk about no gi being less technical, that’s what they’re referring to; the pace is generally faster than no gi by necessity because you need to move yourself to build frames to slow your opponent down and if you or your partner are not adept at building those frames efficiently then being more physically gifted than them is worth more. You also need to be on point with your attacks. Things get slippery and folks can slip out, you need structures blocking movement in those escape directions.

That speed is the thing I struggled to most with when going from gi to no gi. I had a grip-heavy game from years of gi and judo and being so married to those artificially reinforced frames. Folks will often talk about not being sure where to grip or what to do with their hands transitioning either gi to no gi or no gi to gi, but that takes all of a couple days to figure out and it’s a pretty straightforward question to answer in most cases. The speed and having to build frames with your body though, that’s a skillset that while you can learn in gi, no gi will absolutely force you to learn unless you’re the bigger, faster guy. Learning to deal with that speed made me more technical. It’s not that no gi is inherently any more technical, you should be making frames with your body and blocking escape routes even in the gi, it’s that I could cheat and use the gi so as to not have to learn those skills until no gi forced me to. Plenty of people who learned and use those details in the gi have no trouble at all transitioning to no gi.

Going back to the gi, the thing I struggled most with was how annoying grips could be. Years of not having to actively grip fight meant I wasn’t preventing grips for a couple of weeks when I went back to the gi. I just wasn’t used to having to. I could still get my positions, my grip strength was still there when I wanted to get a dominant grip and just hold it, but getting 90% to what you want and then having to deal with a grip you didn’t prevent en route can be disheartening. You know you can do this thing, you do it all the time in no gi. And those grips allow for more efficient economy of movement sometimes. Being able to grap a sleeve at the cuff and push off of it lets you both redirect your partner and lift yourself. It’s possible, but difficult in no gi where blocking and lifting are generally the best you’ll be able to do, so there are things that are more optimized for the gi to relearn. I’d argue these things tend to be “win more” effects – effects that help you win faster or more decisively, but that rarely, if ever, change the actual outcome. You’ll have to deal with your partner’s grips, but there’s nothing about the gi that forces you to use the gi grips, your no gi game will still work and if it’s honed should still work well; it just might not work as well as if you also took advantage of the lapels and sleeves.

Gi and no gi don’t need to be that different. Grips and different chokes being available is honestly all that really changes on an inherent level, and as discussed, those are relatively minor things. The notion that either is more technical is silly – both require you to use technique to overcome physical differences and both allow for you to do so provided you’re learning the right stuff. They just require different focuses if you’re playing optimized games where you take advantage of low friction in no gi or grips in the gi. As to which beginners should do first, I think you’ll learn better defenses in the gi, but you’ll learn to not rely on artificially reinforced frames in no gi, so it’s honestly a horse apiece.

Footnote: Recognizing that you may not be hip to Northern Midwestern idioms, I’ve included a link for what “a horse apiece” means rather than using a different phrase. If you’re not from Wisconsin, you now have a new way to describe when two things are more or less the same. You’re welcome.

Coaching vs Instructing

I said I might talk about this a bit, and then low and behold it came up on r/judo. Not everything that’s said there applies to BJJ – there’s no NGB giving NCEP certification for BJJ coaching in the US that I’m aware of, but it’s an interesting perspective and I agree with most of what was said. Still, as I mentioned in the previous post, NCEP certifications can be applicable and helpful to coaching any kind of grappling. I personally categorize folks as practitioners, instructors, and coaches.

Practitioners are everyone who’s practicing the grappling art in question. If you’re showing up to class and participating, no matter your other role(s) in the class, you’re a practitioner. The base goal of a practitioner is to improve their ability to execute the skills. Everyone, no matter what role, should be continuing to learn and improve their grappling skills to some degree. Whether that’s developing a deeper understanding, better timing, learning how to adapt it as you get older and more broken down, whatever, you continue learning the skillset.

Instructors are people who teach. If you show techniques as part of a formal class setting, I’d call you an instructor. Not all instructors need to be black belts or even high level practitioners. Not all instructors need to be able to execute what they’re showing in a live environment. Never feel like just because you’re teaching you have an obligation to be able to tap everyone who’s learning from you. Generally an instructor needs to really understand their game and the techniques they’ll be showing. You need to know it well enough to explain it in simple terms, show details that provide value, answer questions, and debug as folks struggle to perform what you’ve shown. It’s hard, and we’re all always learning how to teach better, which to me should be the goal of an instructor on top of their goals as a practitioner.

Coaches have higher expectations than instructors to me. Notably, instruction can stop with the how to do a technique, it can be all martial art. Coaching means understanding and helping with the sport side of things too. What does a good plan for weight management look like? What’s a reasonable lifting plan? What should periodization of comp practices look like leading up to a competition? Do you know how to corner someone during a match? Are you making sure your athletes have what they need to succeed mentally, physically, emotionally? Can you evaluate someone’s game and help them figure out where to grow next? Do you make the effort to be there for the athlete and try to coach them? Do you evaluate their matches and help them make gameplans? Coaches have to learn a lot of different areas to be effective, and their goal is ultimately to learn as much as possible to help their athletes.

I know plenty of good practitioners who would be lousy instructors, and plenty of instructors who are lousy as coaches, but I don’t know a good coach who’s a lousy instructor. There aren’t magical demarcations though. It’s not like only coaches care about the competitive success of the athletes they work with, or that only instructors help others learn. Ultimately, which of the three groups someone falls into will be what they aspire to do and want to call themselves. However, we can use these metrics to determine how good they are as that role and to try to figure out where we should be improving. I’d also advocate moving through the levels – don’t try to coach if you can’t teach, and don’t try to teach if you don’t know how to do.

Coaching Criteria Recommendations

This is a list of certifications/courses I recommend for coaching at a grappling gym. This list is targeting a US audience, but it’s probably worth looking into what kind of equivalents are available in your area. Hopefully you’ll agree that none of these are bad skills to have on-hand.

  1. SafeSport – a class that’s designed to help identify abuse and give guidance on how to address it. This is required by all NGBs that are members of Team USA, so if you’re getting certified as a judo or wrestling coach you’re already required to take this. It’s $20 if you don’t belong to an NGB.
    Caveat – this isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to fix abuse and I don’t want to bill it like that. You’ll find negative stuff about SafeSport if you look into it [1], [2]. I don’t want to discount any of that. Understand the shortcomings of SafeSport as a system, it’s still a good class for learning the signs and patterns of abuse. Still encourage victims of abuse to report their experiences to law enforcement and kick shitty personalities out of your gym.
  2. HEADS UP – materials designed to help increase awareness around concussions including helping you identify one and what to do if you suspect an athlete has one. This one is free for anyone, and again is required by all the NGBs that are members of Team USA. I’d recommend encouraging students and parents to take this too.
  3. An NGB coaching certification – note, these are on how to coach, not technical aspects of what to teach. They don’t indicate how good a grappler someone is, just to what extent they’ve studied coaching. However, they do cover stuff like training periodization, skin infection identification, and nutrition so I’d still say they’re immensely useful content.
    1. USA Wrestling NCEP Certification – USAW offers Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold certification levels. Copper is designed for folks coaching athletes 5-12 years of age, but also is the real intro to how to coach, I’d strongly recommend it for anyone coaching a kids class, but also anyone who’s interested in Bronze. Bronze is designed for folks coaching athletes who are 13 and older, so it’s still helpful for how to coach adults, but since wrestling is so geared toward a scholastic environment a lot of it will require some thought on how to translate it to a school that’s teaching hobbyist adults. Silver and Gold are for folks who are interested in improving their coaching skills to an advanced level. I’m hoping to get Silver sometime, especially as most of the its requirements are things I’d recommend anyway. Copper and Bronze can be completed entirely online which is cool.
    1. USA Judo Coach Development Program – I’m not certified in this, but all the judo coaches at Madison Judo are to the best of my knowledge. Looking at the overview this seems to be roughly equivalent in content to the wrestling coaching courses. The levels seem to be the same Local, Regional, National, International levels we have in the judo refereeing system and are managed by the state-level bodies as far as I can tell. The major disadvantage I’ve seen for these is there are no online offerings.
  4. CPR/AED Certification – you can get this through organizations like the Red Cross or AHA’s Heartsaver program. It’s better to know CPR and never have to use it in class than need to use it in class and not know it, plus this is required for USAW’s Silver level.
  5. First Aid Certification – generally this is more intense and goes beyond CPR/AED classes, covering things like how to dress wounds, treat burns, potentially how to splint a fracture. If you’re not a medical professional and tend not to have one around the gym to help, this can be really useful. You can generally pick this up the same places that offer CPR/AED certifications. NGBs tend not to require this because sanctioned events have to have medical personnel onsite and a lot of school sports programs will have a trainer or nurse available to deal with injuries, but let’s also agree it never hurts to better be able to help assess and treat an injury.
  6. Bloodborne Pathogen Training – okay, this is maybe a bit paranoid, but I had to take it when I was working at a hospital and it’s proved pretty useful. Knowing how to clean blood, what PPE you should be wearing to do so, and what to do if you’re exposed is hopefully overkill for you, but hear me out – blood happens in grappling and you don’t know what diseases other folks have. The Red Cross offers this as well as CPR and First Aid.
  7. Applicable belt rank – it has to be said. Each martial art has a minimum rank that’s expected before you know enough to teach, but if you’re a wrestling coach this probably seems silly. As a wrestling coach you’ll also have a pretty quick route to blue belt generally, which can be helpful knowledge to have for how to modify wrestling techniques to BJJ or Grappling contexts. Even for Sambo all the coaches I know have ranks in judo and/or BJJ.

Beyond these kind of classes, I’d also recommend going out and hitting up seminars, networking with other coaches in your area, and reading as much as you can on the subject. I picked up Dan Gable’s book for my USAW Silver book report when I get around to working on that set of criteria. Instructing is different than coaching is different from practicing, but we tend to expect the folks at the head of class in our grappling gyms be good coaches, good teachers, and skillful practitioners, so it’s important to keep working on all three aspects. I’ll probably talk about how instruction differs from coaching at some point in the future because a lot of people conflate the two.

The New Online Paradigm

Instructors are fallible. The entire pretense of a seminar is that a different instructor will likely be able to show you something different, and probably better, than what your instructor has shown you. Sometimes there’s a thing your instructor doesn’t know well, or there are deeper details that a more experienced instructor could/would show you. In most cases it’s pretty likely that a student’s growth will be limited by their instructor’s ability to help them. Instructors know that and every one I know works actively to keep learning themselves so they can keep helping their students improve too.

We’ve always had videos. The old Vale Tudo tapes that Justin used to talk about. The DVDs Marcello would sell at around $200 per series ($800-900 for all four series white to black). The Reilly Bodycomb videos to try to learn leg locks. These things were super important ways to get knowledge at a time where a lot of schools were against training multiple places and getting a seminar for a topic your coach wasn’t interested in would be a hard sell. The thing is, as the community has opened up way more and seminars have become way more prevalent, the importance of videos hasn’t decreased. If anything, they’re even more valuable today.

Videos tend to come in two flavors – series on specific positions/techniques and series designed to be more holistic. If I’m being honest, most of the holistic series I’ve seen are rough. They show super basic techniques, with minimal details and they blow through them pretty quickly. A lot of them feel like scattershot of techniques too. They present a bunch of good techniques, but with little to no discussion about when to attempt which or how to chain them. It’s the drilling without rolling model where you’ll figure it out with experience. Some of them probably took an attempt at it, but with so much content it’s hard to recall any given one that did so really well. Even Saulo Ribeiro’s Jiu-Jitsu Revolution, one of my all-time favorites to go back to for details, feels like a collection of techniques rather than a system. As I think back, I feel like that’s how jiu-jitsu has been taught to me for years too – here’s a technique of the week, maybe with some reference to the previous week’s technique, and maybe a context where it happens and 1-2 other things that pair with it, but making a full game out of that is left to the student to pick and choose their favorite techniques and link them. Specific videos are better because of the expectations – you already know where you’re working from – and most of them present chains explicitly for the one thing you’re watching them to get better at. But then you’re still cherry picking your favorite ones to build your own game, and not all of them pair well, some will even be contradictory.

John Danaher’s Enter The System and especially his Go Further Faster series feel different. He talks a lot about theory and philosophy to set you up (maybe even too much). He’s repetitive to the point of it becoming a meme. He talks incredibly slowly to the point that everyone I know watches his videos on 1.5-2x speed. But those things help retention. I can barely tell you what details Bernardo Faria shows in his Foundations Of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I remember feeling like he was showing the basics, he was showing good details for them, but I don’t have anything I really walked away from it with. Danaher’s system is different. He’ll show a minor thing that feels revolutionary, and he’ll hit on it again and again and again, progressively adding in details and showing it from various angles so you can really see what’s going on. The funny thing is, other than resolution increasing, video production quality hasn’t seem to come that far. Voices still sound echo-y and shadows can be a bit wonky on a lot of instructionals. The first release of Danaher’s leg lock series was riddled with audio problems that led to a reshoot. I don’t think he makes better videos in terms of quality than anyone else’s videos on Fanatics, Digitsu, or BudoVideos. But there’s something different about the pedagogy. He shows chains for each position in the GFF series and each submission in the ETS series. He talks about how the positions relate so if you had all of GFF you wouldn’t just have scattershot, you’d have a true system for positional advancement. His details are memorable because of how they’re presented. It is somehow a better video series than most of those that came before it. It feels like a polished, more updated version of the old Ryan Hall videos in a lot of ways.

None of that is to not to knock the value of the old videos, or downplay how essential it is to have an experienced coach who can give you in person help and correction, or even the benefit of position/submissions-specific instructionals. But I do think we’re in a new period for BJJ after the release of these series though. Everyone now has access to levels of detail to a degree that, for a lot of the techniques, I never learned in over a decade of practice. There’s a presentation of pedagogy that will likely change the way a lot of us teach as we become more savvy to it. There’s content from a coach who’s training top-level athletes that shows details a lot of us are going to need to know to be able to even keep up with our students as they buy these. I don’t want to fanboy out all over videos that have been out for awhile, but the amount of attention they get is warranted. Maybe as an advanced practitioner you’ll see them and just be annoyed by the repetition and how even at 2x speed you’re watching 5 hours on a position, and maybe they honestly have nothing to offer you personally; however, as I’m delving into them and trudging through the hours of content, I’m finding a lot of the details that I’ve been missing to make things work, and a lot of the “black belt details” to steal Justin’s phrasing that I feel like are what I’ve been missing to really have a mastery of these techniques.

We’re seeing an explosion in video content. It’s not just Danaher, and I’m sure other coaches will be putting out insanely good content. Ryan Hall is always teasing his “Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money” and I’d love to see updated versions of his content after seeing his updated 50/50 series. As students, picking the right instructionals will probably be the secret to faster advancement in jiu-jitsu. As instructors, we’re going to have to up our game and keep up with at least the best of the new stuff, since we’ll never be able to keep up with all of it. There’s a new paradigm for how to see techniques, and we’re going to have to adapt.

Ranks

I’m in a highly privileged position – I don’t promote folks; I don’t have plans to promote folks; the classes I teach are not an appropriate environment to even consider promoting folks in; Mike as head instructor gets to deal with that. Having said that, I still need to consider when to mention to Mike that someone is doing well and should be evaluated. Ranks are probably the most baffling aspect of jiu-jitsu, even as someone who’s been doing this for over a decade.

Ranks matter. They matter in competitions where they’re an approximation of skill for dividing folks. They matter in class where our position in the hierarchical line is effectively a status symbol within the group. They matter because we make a big deal about them when someone gets promoted – clapping, cheering, congratulating them. They matter because we all have expectations for people of a given rank that causes us to be upset when someone who doesn’t meet those expectations has been promoted or when someone who far exceeds them is still competing at a rank lower than we would expect (i.e. sandbagging). Those expectations drive impostor syndrome and you end up with skilled folks who explicitly don’t want to be promoted because it could be called into question if they’re “legit”.

Ranks are made up non-sense. They’re subjective to the instructor and any personal expectations or hang-ups you have are your own. There’s no objective test that everyone agrees on that if you pass you’re a blue belt and if you fail you’re not. They don’t represent who can beat whom, how much someone knows, or how long someone has been training – they’re at best proxies for those, and those are hopefully things that are considered when an instructor is promoting, but they’re not guarantees. Not all black belts have been training for over a decade. Not all black belts will be super knowledgeable in a given area of grappling. This is the pretense of the “ranks don’t matter” speech that you’ve either given or received at some point when discussing that controversial promotion.

Ranks are a useful tool. Hierarchy and stratification are useful tools. Having a new student be able to walk into a class and know the darker the belt the more likely that person can help answer a question is super useful. Having a system where you can know when you have been deemed to have enough experience to teach and potentially evaluate others for ranks is useful for maintaining the system. Having relatively accurate approximations of skill for the purposes of competitions is useful, and let’s face it, helps bring in more money by making the events accessible to a larger pool of people. Ranks give people relatively short-term goals to focus on and stripes (as a sub-rank) let instructors give someone a physical representation that they’re making progress to help them emotionally when they don’t feel or can’t see the progress they’re making.

We attach a lot to ranks; way more than they’re probably intended to represent, but that’s the rub – they mean what we let them mean, what we make them mean. We are emotionally invested, for better or worse. That’s why we tag our flair on reddit. That’s why we invest in the nice belts. That’s why everyone will be impatient when they join BeltChecker. Ranks are baffling – 1.5″ of stitched fabric determines who you compete against, what your place in the hierarchy of the gym is, what others knee-jerk expect from you, and how seriously someone is likely to take your opinion online, but what constitutes which color you wear is entirely subjective.

For the record: I think a blue belt is someone who can demonstrate chill and an application of the fundamentals; a purple belt is someone with enough knowledge of the fundamentals to confidently teach and begin debugging their own grappling; a brown belt doesn’t necessarily know all of grappling, but has an answer for any given situation and is just missing some details before they have a mastery-level knowledge; a black belt is someone who has a mastery-level knowledge. Those are all very purposely super broad. I don’t give a shit if you can demonstrate 1000 techniques if you can’t show chill when rolling. I’m also not in a position to promote, so I can be entirely wrong and everything will still work out fine.

Belt Duration

In 2013 Aesopian published the results of his gi survey. We finally had definitive numbers we could point to in terms of how long it took to get to each rank on average. Those numbers have been the ones the online BJJ community has seemed to lean on for the last seven years to answer that question. BeltChecker has its own stats now too. Unfortunately, I don’t have the raw data for either, so I can’t do a proper evaluation, but here’s a table comparing the two sources:

AesopianBelt CheckerBC #Difference
White -> Blue~ 2 years2y 11m 6d>2679~11 months
Blue -> Purple~3 years3y 1m 24d17270
Purple -> Brown~2.5 years3y 1m 10d1141~6 months
Brown -> Black~2.5 years2y 10m 8d710~4 months
White -> Black~10 years12y 0m 9d710~2 years
Table of data from Aesopian and BeltChecker.com

A couple of notes

  1. Aesopian didn’t give any hard numbers, so these are roughly the numbers from looking really hard at his graphs and what numbers he does say.
  2. The number of BeltChecker users counted are me manually adding the number of verified folks at or above the given belt at the time I pulled these numbers. I included it because knowing the sample size matters. We don’t have it for the Aesopian data unfortunately. Also, the white to blue could also be misleading as BeltChecker has it as time as a white belt, which could include the youth belts they have (grey, yellow, orange, green). There are only 36 individuals with youth belts on BeltChecker though, so I don’t think it could have skewed the data too much if at all.

If we add up the BC data for individual belts, we’d expect the white to black average to look something like 11 years, 11 months, which is pretty close to the 12 years calculated from black belt profiles, so I think this pool of folks is at least internally consistent with how long it seems to take. So, at least in 2020, it looks like it now takes around 12 years to get a black belt. It would be interesting to get the raw data to see if the average has just increased by 2 years in the last 7 years, or if there’s something in the data that would explain it. Notably, I’d love to see if there are differences in the BC data between folks promoted as of 2013 and the folks promoted in the last 7 years.

Even if you think belts don’t matter – this is an interesting thing to evaluate as a coach. How long on average do students take to get a given belt under you? Does that change over time? How do they compare to averages, including as averages change over time?