What does belt rank mean in Brazilian jiu jitsu? I had an interesting conversation with a fellow student today that helped crystallize some thoughts that had been brewing in the back of my head.
For context, this friend is a blue belt. He has just returned to training and – like most of us – is feeling the impact of a few months of covid-induced inactivity. As we were commiserating over the difficulty of last night’s end-of-class workout, he mentioned getting back into a “brown belt mentality” when training.
Given the name of this blog, you can understand why this piqued my interest! (Side note, but my friend was unaware of this coincidence, as I have not been telling people about it while I figure out how all of this works.)
To explain what he meant, my friend told me a story about someone who would routinely medal at tournaments (usually bronze) but never win. After one tournament they were promoted to a new belt, and then won gold at their next event.
From my friend’s perspective, this person had the skill to do well at a higher belt all along but needed the push of the promotion to prove that they could do better. Like they had a shift in mentality.
Makes sense right? It’s kind of like how after the 4-minute mile was achieved in 1954, a whole bunch of other people realized what was possible and then did it too. Now it’s a kind of standard.
My friend went on to explain that he sometimes feels defined by his belt. Or rather, that he lets it define the boundaries of his training. He wants to think more like a brown belt to motivate himself.
What does it mean to have a belt-rank based mindset in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
So what does it mean to let your belt define you (or your training)? I can certainly relate to this idea from personal experience. I remember being a blue belt and training with purple, brown, and black belts. I would go into a sparring round thinking that for sure they would submit me easily. It was a kind of mental defence to joke about it.
And the truth is that in a real contest, of course the higher belt would win. But that’s not what sparring in class is. It’s not a duel. It’s not a fight to the death and it’s not even a tournament match with some shiny medal at stake.
I see this now. When I roll with white belts I’m not trying to “win” the round. So if they are coming in with a mindset of having already lost, their chance to learn will suffer because it was never about winning or losing in the first place!
Another example of this way of thinking surfaces in drilling techniques. I recall being shown a technique during a seminar (I was either a white or blue belt at the time), and I felt it was too advanced for me. It was similar to a tomo nage, initiated from spider guard. My partner expressed the same so we didn’t really give it a real effort. We kind of did some adjacent positions but we basically substituted a very basic movement with which we were already comfortable.
Our mindset of “we’re not ready for this” really held us back. Granted, there is a spectrum of difficulty and not all techniques are for beginners. We should not have expected mastery, for sure. But by coming in with an attitude of “I’m too low of a belt for this” we missed the chance to learn the building blocks of something that would expand our knowledge – and really, isn’t that why we go to class in the first place? To learn?
The crux of this mindset is limiting yourself with thoughts that say “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” or “I’m not ready.”
How to reframe your mindset to better facilitate learning:
Continuing with the above “sort of tomo nage” example from the seminar, let’s look at what my partner and I could have done better in that moment.
We were daunted by the elaborate nature of the technique. It had a de la riva hook, spider guard sleeve grips, and a foot on the ground that later moved to the belly. Then we were supposed to not just lift the person’s weight, but be able to move it overhead without falling to one side or dropping them on our face or allowing some other disaster. It was complicated! And I definitely couldn’t have explained it in even that much detail at the time.
Instead of trying to understand all those moving parts, what if we had just focused on the entry? Get grips, get the leg position. We could have gotten good at those pieces, which would at a minimum reinforce other skills, but more likely add some new ones to our vocabulary.
That may not sound like a lot, but it really is. It would mean that when we next see a related position, we would have something familiar to connect it back to. When it comes to adult learning, connecting information to past experiences is a proven way to increase retention. (This is an area in which I have some extensive experience through work and school.)
So our shift in mindset should be from “I’m not worthy” to “what can I learn from this?”
Jiu Jitsu is about incremental growth.
My Sensei (Eudes Jose Monteiro) gave an end-of-class talk earlier this week about incremental improvement. The goal of coming to class, he said, is not to train hard and submit people. It is to leave better than when you arrived.
The broader context of Sensei Jose’s talk was around staying healthy and injury-free by coming to class with the intention of incremental improvement rather than being the person who submits everyone else and never taps.
What is a brown belt mindset?
Ok so mostly we’ve been talking about lower belts having a mindset that holds them back. And we looked at how to reframe that in a useful way. But is there utility in also considering what a brown belt mindset is? I think so.
A quick Google search about what the belts in BJJ mean will tell you that brown is about refinement. Many people consider the step from brown to black to be smaller than from purple to brown. A brown belt should be proficient in all areas of jiu jitsu, and is working on things like paths towards greater efficiency, finer details, and micro-positions.
This all makes sense. But it’s not especially useful for those aspiring towards brown belt. For the purposes of this discussion, I would also add two more elements: hunger, and humility.
Brown belts know enough about jiu jitsu to see that they’re close to achieving their black belt, which is an enormous accolade and milestone in life. For many, that comes with a driving sense of hunger. That hunger is useful. We can be a white belt and have that same hunger. Let it motivate you. It can be the voice in your head that says you should go to class even when you’re tired, or had a hard day. It can be the reason you start eating healthier food or spend a few extra minutes stretching after class.
As important is humility. Knowing that you are close to black belt inherently includes that you are not yet a black belt. You have more to learn. (And yes, black belt doesn’t mean you have nothing to learn, but it denotes a mastery of a certain level.) Embrace that humility and fuel it with your hunger to learn.
These three aspects of a brown belt, to me, represent what it means to train with a brown belt mentality:
- Hunger – never stop, never quit, always improve
- Refinement – constantly refine what you know, regardless of your level
- Humility – know that you are a student always, and approach every opportunity to learn
Anyone can have this mindset, not just brown belts. You can use it. Why not start?