Why Jiu Jitsu Rank Obsession Makes Me Feel Ill

One of my goals when I first started training jiu jitsu, was to achieve the rank of blackbelt. For me the blackbelt represented a real badge of badassery that you just couldn’t get any other way. Mind you this was the late 90s and everyone who I saw fighting mixed martial arts who were blackbelts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, were very tough guys.

I always thought the real measure of a blackbelt was in the vale tudo or mixed martial arts arena. So my other goal was to test myself in professional mixed martial arts. Maybe or maybe not coincidence but I earned my blackbelt a week after I made my pro mma debut. Interestingly I never wore my blackbelt to train until I was already a first degree blackbelt.

I coveted the knowledge associated with it not the external feedback coming from others. Granted it is a good feeling to be in an elite club, but I honestly felt like a beginner when I got my blackbelt. Turns out that is exactly what blackbelt, or Shodan in Japanese, means. It means you can now begin your training.

I have the students in my gym line up in lines based upon their ranks when we do gi training. When we do no gi training I let them all stay on the same line. I don’t give stripes and I don’t give belts.

I did give stripes for a bit with white belts and I realized if a piece of tape is what keeps you coming back to my gym, I would rather you quit and go someplace else. Making people wear rashguards that are their belt color is even more absurd in my opinion. For me the worst by far is having students wear their belts in muay thai, kickboxing, boxing, no gi grappling, or mma. It is absurd! The belt is in the ring is what they say in muay thai. I think the same for any other real system.

Martial arts should instill confidence and all qualities of the self. Self discipline, reliance, confidence, esteem, defense, honesty, etc. This obsession over rank to make people feel a false sense of all of that is the exact antithesis of what we are trying to develop in our students. If they need pieces of tape or a different color on their belt to keep training, they aren’t doing it for the reasons I teach.

It is the same as someone having a degree without the required knowledge. And even if the person has the knowledge it would be obnoxious if they always had to display their phd for you to see. It screams insecurity. It screams I want you to notice me. It screams I’m not sure about my skills so let me make sure you are aware of how skilled I am.

The blackbelt should be the only belt that matters. It should be easier to obtain then the degrees should really represent an increase in skill rather than an increase in age. Going through hell to get a blackbelt only to stop training and then sit and talk about the meaning of the blackbelt is really strange to me. Then continue to grade the person higher and higher although they are physically capable of less and less.

Everyone is free to run their gym as they please. I will continue to sign people to non binding contracts, so they can leave when they want. I will continue to not give stripes or belts for time. I will continue to kick people out if they don’t add to the culture. I will continue to roll my eyes when I see a room full of people kickboxing or sub grappling with shorts, t shirts, and belts around their waists.