One thing that differentiates Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from other forms of martial arts is the belt system. Most eastern martial arts have some form of ranking system and these ranks are usually represented in the form of belts. These belts range in color from simple white and black to pink to camouflage. Jiu-Jitsu has had a fairly standard belt system for close to 50 years. Adults follow the progression of white, blue, purple, brown, and black. Kids go from white to yellow to orange to green. Green belt is the highest belt that a child can receive under the age of 16. Some academies and federations have added in additional in between belts for children. Grandmaster Helio Gracie personally approved a ten belt system for kids:
The IBJJF has also approved a ten belt system for kids and added in a grey belt:
Since the late 1960’s Jiu-Jitsu has had a clear separation between belts for adults and belts for children. Today this line is being blurred by certain academies and certain associations. The purpose of this article is not to specifically target these people. However I do think it is crucial for Jiu-Jitsu to keep this clear separation and I will not support any blurring of this line.
The purpose of this article is to talk about the things that are considered for promotions in Jiu-Jitsu and to briefly talk about the meaning of each belt rank. Every academy and every team have their own guidelines and traditions for promotions, and it is crucial to avoid criticizing promotions because they are different from the ones that you use at your own academy. What matters is that each instructor is consistent within his own academy or association in the way he handles promotions.
Kids’ promotions should only have two factors: consistency and effort. When teaching kids, the most important thing for an instructor is to make the kids fall in love with jiu-jitsu. Regardless of which variation of the kids belt system that you use, you must reward the kids that are consistently in class and putting forth effort. At my academy, we do this through the use of attendance cards. Each belt has a clearly set number of classes for each stripe and each promotion. If you help a kid fall in love with jiu-jitsu and they continue to train into adulthood, their skills on the mat will develop naturally over time. Kids have lots of different levels of coordination and abilities so kids should never be judged based on who taps out who.
The promotion to blue belt is the first belt promotion that an adult will face. The promotion to blue belt takes between a year and a year and a half for an average student with no previous grappling background. Someone who trains consistently and has previous wrestling or judo experience might get promoted faster. Someone who trains inconsistently will obviously take longer. I would highly scrutinize anyone who claims to have gotten their blue belt in under six months. Generally speaking a blue belt represents someone who has shown that they are dedicated to training and they know the basics. That’s about it. The ability to tap people out isn’t highly relevant at this stage but the new blue belt should be generally tapping out people less experienced than himself and holding his own with the lower level blue belts. More important than rolling ability is that the student shows a good attitude on the mat and embraces the culture of the team they represent. Some schools focus more on self-defense and some more on competition. Some schools bow and some schools fist bump. Whatever the culture of that school is should be embraced before promotion to blue belt. Students who are disruptive or who endanger their training partners should never be promoted at all.
The promotion from blue to purple belt is the jump to an advanced level of training. Generally speaking, white belts are seen as beginners, blue belts are seen as intermediate students, and purple belts are seen as an advanced skill level. The length of time at this belt level can vary wildly based on consistency of training. The average student training two to three days per week consistently can probably expect to spend 3-5 years as a blue belt before receiving their purple belt. Once again, a prior grappling background and lots of training time can speed up the promotion process. (I wrestled for five years prior to training jiu-jitsu and trained twice a day every day and received my blue belt in six months then my purple belt just under two years later.) A good, legit purple belt should know almost everything that a black belt knows in terms of techniques. Generally promotion to purple belt requires an extremely high level of dedication and the knowledge of a broad range of techniques. By the time a student is promoted to purple belt, they should be easily handling anyone who walks into the academy without a prior grappling background. They should be consistently beating the low level blue belts and holding their own against low level purple belts. At this level, it is generally a good idea to see the higher level blue belts testing themselves in at least one or two competitions to see how they match up against students outside of their own academy (Though this is not always necessary). Purple belts should be capable of helping new students that come in. You should be able to take a new student to a purple belt and that purple belt should be able to help guide the new student through their first few classes. Instructors must consider that, as an advanced student, a purple belt is a major representative of their academy and of their team. So Instructors should definitely begin to consider the moral character and off the mat behavior of anyone they feel is ready for promotion to purple belt.
The promotion from blue to purple belt is the point that you separate those that truly love jiu-jitsu, however the promotion to brown belt is where you separate those who simply love the art from the future black belts. In my experience, this promotion is the most difficult to achieve and takes the longest amount of time. Promotion to brown belt usually requires between three and five years of consistent training. A student training two days a week might take significantly longer than five years to reach brown belt, if they reach it at all. The transition from purple to brown belt is often where students have to make a choice: is jiu-jitsu a hobby that I enjoy or is it something that I will truly dedicate myself to? From a technical perspective, this phase is when students must take all of the things they learned as a white and blue belt and find their own personal game. They must become largely self-taught. The role of an instructor is largely no longer relevant to a purple belt. The instructor becomes a coach who helps guide the student along their own path of self-discovery. By the time a student is promoted to brown belt, they should be able to roll with absolutely anyone. A four stripe purple belt or a new brown belt may not necessarily be expected to tap black belts, but they should be able to hold their own. There should be a clearly separation between a high level purple belt/almost brown belt and all of the blue belts at the school. The brown belt is an incredibly senior rank and a brown belt should be a true representative of the academy and team. Off the mat behavior should be closely monitored before promotion to brown belt. Is it acceptable at your academy to go out and drink at clubs and bars? Should the team be represented by someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day? These types of things should be considered prior to the brown belt promotion.
Once a student is promoted to brown belt, it is a relatively short jump to black belt. Usually only two or three years. The brown belt is the most fun belt in jiu-jitsu. You possess an incredibly high level of skill and can roll with anyone, but there is always a buffer. If you get tapped or if you make a mistake, you’re only a brown belt. The brown belt must simply polish the game he developed as a purple belt and fill in any holes that are missing. Brown belts should undergo a thorough evaluation of their skills on the mat and their behavior off the mat. For a black belt, jiu-jitsu is who they are. It is not a hobby. It is not a sport. It connects everything that they do every minute of every day. No one is perfect and everyone has their vices, but any major issues need to be addressed and corrected before promotion to black belt. A black belt is no longer simply a representative of their own school, they are a representative of jiu-jitsu as a whole. If someone outside of our community has a bad experience with a blue, purple, or brown belt they will most likely chalk it up to that one individual, but if a black belt gets drunk at a bar and causes problems it will reflect on the entire art. When you receive a black belt, it is with you all the time, not just on the mat.
One of my favorite analogies for the process of learning in jiu-jitsu is that of a puzzle (Stolen from Master Rorion Gracie): if you have a thousand piece puzzle (jiu-jitsu is easily a thousand pieces), and you simply dump the pieces out on the floor and start trying to connect them, you’ll never get the thing done. What you do is to find all the edge pieces, if it doesn’t have a flat edge you don’t even mess with it, and you connect the border of the puzzle. Connecting the edges is the transition from white to blue belt. After the border is complete, you need to go through and flip over each and every one of the pieces and start separating them out. You put the red ones over here and the blue ones over there and so forth. Once you have all the pieces flipped over and separated, you’re ready for purple belt. Then you must construct the individual sections of the puzzle. So you put together the little cottage and the mountain and the stream and finally you can really see the whole puzzle, even though it isn’t finished yet. That is the brown belt. Then it’s simply a matter of putting the stream next to the cottage and the cottage in front of the mountain and pretty soon the whole thing is done and you’re wearing a black belt.
Each promotion in jiu-jitsu requires a higher degree of skill. Each promotion requires a higher degree of commitment. Each promotion carries a heavier burden of responsibility. The darker the belt gets, the more efficient you should be on the mat. The darker the belt gets, the more humble you should become, the gentler you should become, the more helpful you should become. The difference between a “do” art, such as aikido or judo, and a “jitsu” art is the focus of training. In a “do” art, the development of the human spirit is the main goal and the techniques are merely a tool to facilitate the process of self-realization. In a “jitsu” art, the functionality of the techniques is the main goal, but that does not mean that the practice of functional techniques should not have an impact on who you are as a person.
For more on the history and meaning of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu belt system, watch this excellent by our friends the Valente Brothers: