Posts Tagged ‘Schools and Instruction’

The colored belt ranking system is a commonplace feature of modern martial arts. It’s even a part of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), with colors like tan, grey, brown, green, and the ever-present black. Most other martial arts still use what have become the usual colors, with white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red, and black. I’ve even earned a camouflage belt in Taekwondo once. Every organization has their own order for the colors, as well as their own meaning. Some systems even assign meanings to the colors themselves (white means a blank slate, purity, and so on). What is clear is that, whatever you think of the current trend in belt ranks, it will probably be a feature of martial arts training for a long time.

As for Jiu-jitsu, I stumbled upon a nifty explanation for it’s belt system. The visual metaphor is effective and makes use of the popular martial arts visual of seeing techniques as tools. Read and tell me what you think…

A nifty visual for understanding the Jiu-jitsu belt system...

A nifty visual for understanding the Jiu-jitsu belt system…

How do you define your art’s belt system?


I’m a firm believer in the idea that it’s the most basic skills you learn that prove to be the most effective. This is especially true in the martial arts. Often, the most basic, low-level, white belt techniques are the ones with the highest success rates and the greatest efficiency of strength and stamina. Though every martial art is different in their approach to the basics, and some instructional systems take longer to teach them than others or perhaps don’t teach them quite so well, this is almost a universal constant in well-developed, mature fighting styles.

As a matter of fact, I have been taking this idea to heart over the past year. I am a sort of hoarder of martial arts instructional materials. Books, videos, magazines, and web sites. I love it all. I used to pour over anything labeled “black belt techniques”. But about a year ago, I competed at the NAGA tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah. I finished in second place in both gi and no-gi, and I knew it was my proficiency with the most basic techniques (or lack thereof), not the intermediate or advanced, that determined my performance. It was, of course, my first time competing, and so my performance could also be explained by nerves, inefficient energy usage, and immature strategies. But my need to revisit the most basic techniques was the lesson that most stood out to me.

So for the past year that’s exactly what I did. I drilled only the most basic techniques. Of course I did whatever my instructor told me to, but when I was doing my own private training, and when I rolled with my training partners, I tried to make the basics work best for me. And several things happened. I saw a dramatic improvement in my performance against all belt ranks. The basics, it appears, do not just work on the white belts. I also started to develop my own personal style. I discovered my game (turns out, I favor heavy stacking passes, scarf hold, and s-mount), which is totally different than I’d imagined myself having. Last of all my I grew in my confidence in my own fighting ability.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a white belt still struggling to earn your first stripe, or a black belt looking to elevate yourself to the highest levels of competition. I highly recommend mastering your basic techniques and strategies until you can do them without thinking. Below is a video showing one of my most favored techniques, the Trap and Roll, the most basic escape from the mount position. I’ve practiced this one until I could pull it off on almost every other student in my class, and I’ve discovered another thing: much of your success with this technique depends on your timing, often early, just as your opponent passes into the mount and before he bases out.

What basic techniques should every martial artist know?

There are some parts of martial arts culture that I will sometimes criticize, but naming your style after an animal will never be among them. I sometimes get jealous of the Kung fu guys that get to say they use crane or tiger or monkey technique (I would hate to fight monkey style, because chimpanzees scare me). Being a Gracie Jiu-jitsu practitioner, I kinda miss out on the whole animal mascot thing, but maybe it’s not too late to change. So that gets me thinking, which creature of the animal kingdom best represents Jiu-jitsu as I know it?

Snakes are okay, or maybe even great. They strike. They constrict. They’re definitely grapplers with potent striking power. But snakes have been done to death (thanks a lot, Kobra Kai Dojo). So what is another animal with a reputation for constricting and grappling with its prey?

This is what I want my opponents to see when I settle into side mount...

This is what I want my opponents to see when I settle into side mount…

Behold the mighty octopus! Seriously, I don’t think this real-life Krakken gets enough face time on martial arts tee shirts or academy logos. And if you think about it, this is an animal totally dedicated to grappling, and has a famous reputation for its stealth and intelligence. Though the Muay Thai guys might be miffed that I’m claiming a truly eight-limbed animal, I lay my claim to the wise, mighty octopus as the mascot of my Jiu-jitsu style!

What animal best represents your martial art?

Martial arts proficiency often requires a little more than simply showing up for class once or twice a week. Many great practitioners find that doing small exercises and drills at home accelerate their training progress. I agree with this. I find that doing little movements and even just exercising a little between classes keeps me fresh from previous classes and prevents me from forgetting things I recently learned. I believe it’s worth it to make a routine for daily or almost-daily drilling at home.

This video shows a few drills Jiu-jitsu practitioners can do by themselves at home. For those unfamiliar with Jiu-jitsu drills, these movements aren’t techniques, just the sort of warm up exercises BJJ practitioners do in the beginning of classes to help develop the movements we use in many of our techniques. You wouldn’t believe how many techniques could be improved by improving your Upa  (hip bridging) alone!

What kinds of daily drills help you with your training?

What should be a part of every white belt's training?

What should be a part of every white belt’s training?

Growing up, I moved every time my parents got stationed on a new Navy base. My adult life was even more transitive. That meant not staying at one dojo long enough to achieve any rank of consequence. As a result I’ve worn a lot of white belts over the course of my martial arts career. I think a Zen master would have something wise and positive to say about something like that, but I know, to many people, that the white belt status can feel a little low.

However, no matter how high we climb on the martial arts ladder, aren’t we all still white belts? Think of this: our belt ranks mean virtually nothing the moment we set foot outside of our gyms! A Jiu-jitsu master is a nobody as soon as he steps out of his own academy, and is nothing more than a white belt in the dojo of any other martial art.

That’s why I like to take the white belt rank very seriously. I’m even considering getting one embroidered! I think this is the rank where you learn the skills you will use every time you fight. Almost every good martial artists out there still goes back to some of those first techniques and concepts they learned years ago as a newbie. I certainly do.

In my humble opinion, and I surely hope this becomes a discussion in the comment section below, the white belt’s first priority is to survive. It is the first and foremost priority of any fighter in any situation, to survive long enough to complete your objectives. That of course means learning the instinctual fight patterns of most people (the US Army calls this the “Universal Fight Plan”), and learning how to beat it. It also means finding the safe places in a fight, which may mean safe distances, safe positions, blocks, postures, and stances. It also means learning to use some basic techniques that can achieve a variety of results (e.g. punching, kicking, submissions, falls). Most importantly, I feel this is the period where a normal, everyday person becomes, by nature, a fighter, which is a definition that could and probably will take up a whole post on its own.

I think the modern white belt makes up a very important part of the population of our martial arts training centers. They have, perhaps, the most useful curriculum material and the most down-to-earth perspectives. They often are able to spot problems in fight strategies and detect holes in our training (any Jiu-jitsu practitioner who’s ever rolled with a strong white belt can attest to that!). Perhaps we should make a habit of dusting off those old white belt curriculums every once in a while and see if we’ve forgotten any of those basic lessons.

What do you think should be a part of every white belt’s curriculum?