The Case Against Belts: Do we even need them?

Belts in martial arts and especially BJJ are a touchy subject.  It seems pretty common that you’ll see some article on a BJJ website about some crazy person promoting themselves, their kid or a cat to Black Belt.  Whenever this happens the entire BJJ community gets up in arms.  As a BJJ Black Belt myself, who spent 13 years at brown belt, I totally understand the excitement and emotional energy around belts.  Earning a BJJ Black Belt is not an easy task.  It took me twenty years to earn mine.

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Kanō Jigorō training Judo

I recently began to think about martial arts and the belt system and wonder is it all really necessary?  What’s interesting is that the use of belts in martial arts schools is really a modern tradition.  I know we’ve all heard the legend about how back in the day you started with a white belt and as it got dirty with grass stains, and blood and dirt it eventually got darker and became a black belt!  That’s a great little story…but it’s only a story. The first use of belts in martial arts wasn’t until the 1880’s in Japan.  In 1882 Jigaro Kano created Judo.  Initially Judo students wore an obi which was essentially a large sash which kept the top closed (it looked more like a giant ribbon and less like the belts we wear today).  In 1886 Kano adopted the Japanese swimming system of tying a black ribbon around the waste to signify proficiency.  He awarded his first two “black belts” to Tsunejiro Tomita and Shiro Saigo in 1886.  Their names appear on the first two lines of the enrollment book for the Kodakan (headquarters of the worldwide Judo community).

Tomita-Tsunejiro

Saigo-Shiro

In BJJ we traditionally have four colored belts:  Blue – Purple – Brown and Black.  The use of the colored belt system in martial arts didn’t happen until 1935 and not in Japan, but rather Paris.  Mikonosuke Kawaishi was teaching Judo in Paris in the 1930’s and is generally regarded as the creator of the colored belt system.  He believed that western students would show greater progress if they had a visible reward system versus the traditional white and black belt used in Judo.  The use of the colored belt system in France gained popularity and was eventually adopted in most martial arts systems.

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Mikonosuke Kawaishi

What is the purpose of the belt?  If you want to get technical it’s to keep the gi top closed, which it barely does a decent job doing.  I feel like I spend way more time tying my belt when I roll… than rolling.  So for functionality I would have to give it a big old thumbs down.  So if it’s really not for keeping the gi closed then why do we use a belt?  I think we all know the answer, it’s just as Mikonosuke Kawaishi had envisioned….it’s an incentive tool.  But that incentive tool can easily be misused as we’ve seen in other martial arts.  (Especially the runoff of “McDojo” type schools that became popular in the 1980’s for awarding just about anyone, any age a black belt)

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What is a tool?  Well it’s a device that assists you in solving a problem.  The key word is ‘assist’.  The tool doesn’t do the work for you it requires your hand…your effort…your work!  The belt is a motivational tool that helps you work towards something.  But working towards what?  Think about why you started your Jiu-Jitsu journey.  It was probably to learn something new, lose weight, meet people, learn self-defense…that sort of thing.  It wasn’t until you became entrenched in the Jiu-Jitsu lifestyle that the belts became even slightly important.  Remember, the reward is only relative to the experience.  In other words, your Jiu-Jitsu belt only matters at Jiu-Jitsu.  If you don’t believe me, take it to work tomorrow and take it out in the break room and watch how unimpressed everyone will be.  You might even get a comment that someone’s nephew is 9 and he’s a 3rd degree black belt.  This doesn’t mean you that you have to completely let go of the belts.  Think of them more as a road sign and less as a stopping point.  You don’t work your ass off to stay at blue belt.  You get your blue belt to become a purple belt and so on.

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When the tool becomes a crutch.  When an instructor relies too heavily on the use of belts as a “motivational” tool the relationship often becomes toxic.  I’ve seen instructors over the years that will purposely hold back students for years without promoting them often forcing them to quit.  If you use the “carrot on the stick” method of motivation then at some point they have to get to the carrot or they’ll just stop trying.  Conversely if you reward your dog with a treat every time they do something good they’ll expect it every time you walk in the room.  With the action / reward system you and the dog become a slave to the treat…nothing gets done without the presence of the treat.  If you took away the belts altogether how would instructors motivate students?  The presentation of the material would have to be compelling and focused enough that students would take a keen interest in the act of learning and practicing it.  The instructor would be forced to move past mere motivation towards inspiration.  They would have to give their students a higher purpose that transcends beyond cloth belts.  If you take away the crutch you will be forced to adapt or die.  As a whole I don’t personally think the belts should go away.  I do think it’s time that both students and teachers put far less emphasis on achieving belts and more emphasis on becoming a better martial artist.  I joked earlier about bringing your belt to work to share it with your coworkers.   Instead of telling everyone about your new belt…live your life as the ‘martial artist’.  Wherever you go leave everyone wondering, “whats so different about him or her”…they’ll say to themselves, “I can’t put my finger on it…they’re so focused and disciplined…there’s something different about them.”  The secret will be that you’re a martial artist not because of the belt you wear at Jiu-Jitsu, but by the way you live in the real world!

This is my journey to Black Belt with all its twists & turns…


Tips if you’re stuck at a Belt!

  1. Talk to your professor – Seek the advice of your teachers.  Don’t ask where’s my belt or stripe?  The real question is, “What are the things I need to do to reach my goal?” This will open the doors of communication and help you create a dialogue with your teacher.
  2. Schedule a private lesson – A private lesson is the perfect environment to address specific training needs, set goals and create a path moving toward. This will help strengthen your relationship with your instructor and get you both on the same page.
  3. Focus on YOUR Path – Remember, this is your path…your martial arts journey.  Don’t compare your progress to anyone else.  Jiu-Jitsu is an individual thing.  The only place you can measure your progress against is your former self.  Instead of worrying about anyone else…put all of your focus on being the best version of you on and off the mats!
  4. Change everything up!  – It’s really easy to fall into a routine as we are all creatures of habit.  If you feel stuck then maybe it’s time to shake everything up.  If your school offers different class times or instructors then try changing your whole schedule up.  This will give you new faces to train with and whole new perspective to start from. If you feel like your current school isn’t the right environment, then maybe it’s time to consider a new start with a new school.

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