Almost everyone gets nervous before a test. Some of us get butterflies in our stomachs. Some people get nauseated or struggle with words. If you’re going to be doing jiu jitsu for a while, you better get used to belt gradings!
I’ve seen my share of promotion ceremonies, stripe tests, and belt gradings. Both my own and in helping others prepare. My hope is that sharing some experiences and tips will help others better prepare for their own tests.
Whether you’re new to martial arts or have been around a while but still get those butterflies, I think you’ll find something useful in this post.
For those who don’t know me (and why should you? I’m not a big deal), I have been training since 2009 and received my brown belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu in 2018. I have taught around a thousand hours of jiu jitsu classes and I’ve helped with belt evaluations up to and including purple belts.
You can read more about the start of my jiu jitsu journey here.
The following ideas are drawn from my experience and analysis, and I am not claiming any kind of final authority here. I know my place as a brown belt! I’m just hoping that sharing my experience will help others in their own respective journeys.
So all of that said, let’s look at three concepts that can help you prepare for your grading:
- Level of Detail
Formal vs Informal Testing
How formal you expect the grading to be should really change how (or if!) you prepare for it. Will you be closely scrutinized in a formal setting? Given a list of techniques to study and perform when asked? Or is everyone just showing up to do some casual rounds and have a promotion ceremony afterwards?
If it’s a “show up, have a great time, and get your promotion” kind of event then there shouldn’t be any pressure. Just have fun! If you think this might be your gym’s style but aren’t sure, ask some more senior students how the day will go. Let’s assume we’re expecting a more formal test so we have things to talk about.
The gym I trained at for my first 9 years did formal testing early on. We were given a full list of techniques ahead of time. Our professor’s demeanour on the day was somber and intense – a marked change from his usual friendly manner. Looking back, I think this was to put the students in a stressful environment to help us become accustomed to dealing with pressure (an important skill in BJJ, to be sure!). Their style evolved over the years to match the tone of the gym; it got very casual for a while, and then swung back to semi-formal where students were evaluated but without the same all-eyes-on-you intensity.
So how do you prepare for a formal test? My strategy was to address the source of the nerves I was feeling ahead of the test. A lot of us are anxious about the unknown, and that’s natural. Fortunately, it’s also pretty easy to address in this circumstance by focusing on what we can control.
Think of it like an exam at school. People get anxious about what will – and won’t – be on the test. You can’t control that part. However, most of the time in BJJ you’ll be given a list of techniques in advance, which is just like being told the test questions! Sure, maybe they won’t ask you about everything on the list but there shouldn’t be any surprises.
So now, like with a school exam, you just need to study the content. But you have the advantage of knowing exactly which content to study! And odds are you have time to prepare. Your instructor and higher belt students are your friends here. They can fill in the gaps or explain anything with which you are unfamiliar.
Once you know the “test questions” and the corresponding answers (i.e. how to physically do the things) it’s a matter of practice makes perfect.
Pay Attention to Detail!
This brings us nicely to the second factor. What are the key details that you will be expected to know for each technique?
The amount of detail you’ll need to know usually increases with your belt rank. It is very common to learn basic forms or simpler versions of techniques and positions and then refine them as you spend more time on the mats. I still use techniques I learned in my first week (first day, even) but I have picked up many details over the years that make them more effective.
For your first stripe on a white belt, your instructor probably isn’t expecting perfect, fluid motions that maximize efficiency and appear effortless. But they may want to see certain details that were taught in class, like whether you’re using the right grip on the gi for a certain move or whether your knees are pinching together properly to finish an arm bar. If your instructor emphasized something during class, you can be sure they’ll be looking for it on the test!
In fact, you should assume that anything taught to you in class is something you should expect to demonstrate on the test. Your instructor knows how to teach to your skill level, which means they probably aren’t showing minor finesse adjustments to white belts and expecting to see them come test time. But if you’re testing for say your purple belt, they’ll be looking for more refined movements.
The best advice I can give you for keeping track of the many details you’ll learn is to take notes after class. Label them with the technique name and the date so you can find what you need when you’re preparing for test time. A lot of people use pen & paper journals, but I always favoured tools like Evernote for organizing my notes.
And speaking of technique names, you may be asked to learn terminology. Often that’s in your local language, and some moves have Portuguese names. Some schools – like The Academy where I train – will also expect you to learn some Japanese. Our curriculum sheets for testing are literally just a list of techniques in Japanese! That might seem daunting but honestly I wish I’d learned the Japanese names from the beginning. It’s a cool part of the history of the sport and comes in handy when you’re training on vacation and aren’t fluent in the local language.
Flash cards, mnemonic devices, and pop quizzes from friends are my preferred method of learning Japanese. At our yellow belt test for Judo, anything written on the curriculum sheet was fair game (including category names, which I personally did not see coming!).
Belt Gradings Are Not Gladiatorial Combat
The last point I wanted to touch on is the intensity level of training on testing days. My advice here is to relax, and take it easy. For schools that do sparring rounds on test day (or “randori”), it’s usually at the end. Make sure you save some energy.
But also don’t go overboard, because your training partners might not have prepared like you did and may still be feeling the nerves. Not everyone copes with stress and evaluation the same way, and the last thing you want is to injure someone who’s not feeling their best.
Now, if your school does a shark tank or ruler-of-the-hill style games you may want to dial things up a bit. But in general, treat it more like an exhibition game than life or death combat.
For non-sparring techniques, definitely err on the side of precision over force. Show that you can control yourself and display the technique properly. Especially because your partner isn’t likely to be resisting you in any way, there is no need to go hard. Your muscles will tire and your technique will get worse – not a good look for a test!
If you’re nervous about an upcoming test, the best thing you can do is find out what it will be like ahead of time. How formal is it? What techniques and knowledge will you need? If you don’t know some of those things, who can help you learn them? And lastly, expend your energy appropriately.
Oh, and it’s usually a long day and sometimes there are speeches. Bring snacks. And if you want to make friends, bring extra snacks. You’ll be glad you did.