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Blogging About Promotion is Inappropriate

As a kids karate teacher I am often trying to get my students to not focus on promotion. Don't get me wrong, a new color around your waist is an excellent motivator. But I hope the kids will ultimately come to class because they love karate , not just because they are punching the clock (so to speak) on their way to a new belt.

When I first started studying jiu jitsu it was all about the thrill of something new. I just wanted to learn how to do all these awkward techniques with their odd Brazilian names . I didn't care that I was a white belt, on the contrary I loved it. It had been a long time since I was a beginner.

About 8-10 months into my training a bunch of the people in my class got blue belts. I knew I wasn't ready for a promotion yet. But still, when the woman who was my partner almost every day got her new belt tied on right next to me I felt a little wierd. Ok fine, I was a bit envious. She was definitely better than me, but she was not that much better.

Still I was there for the learning, for the experience. Who cares about belts?  Back to drills class.

Some jiu jitsu schools make it really clear when you are up for your next rank. They give stripes , count classes, and have a clear syllabus for white belt, blue belt and purple belt. Every few months there is a promotion exam where candidates perform all the required chokes, arm locks, and takedowns. They get belts. Everyone cheers. My school is not like this. (Except for the cheering of course. We are not assholes.) I do not think anyone has any idea when they are up for promotion, they can only guess based on how long they have been at their current rank and who in the room they can beat up. Every six months or so there is a promotion day which is just a regular class where a bunch of students are surprised with a new belt. We have not had one of these in over six months and I don't know when the next one will be. In those six months something terrible has happened to me.

I want my blue belt.

Granted I have no idea if I am even in the next group. I do not know what the criteria for promotion is. I know that I have been a white belt for over a year. I am substantially better at jiu jitsu now than I used to be. I used to suck all the time. Now I suck half of the time. During the other half I manage to sweep someone or close my guard or do something else slightly cool. (Never completely cool. Only colored belts can be completely cool.)

I want my blue belt.
A lot.
It drives me crazy actually.

It is really hard to focus on learning anything when you are constantly looking around to see if the teacher is watching. (He usually isn't .) When I submit someone I think I hope he saw that and thinks I am ready for my blue belt. When I screw up I think, Oh No! Now he will think I suck and I will never get my blue belt.

Even as I write this blog my brain is going "I can't possibly publish this post. What if my teacher reads it and feels sorry for me and gives me a pity promotion. Or, even worse, what if he is angry at my presumptuousness and I never go!" 

In truth, I highly doubt anyone at my jui-jitsu school reads my blog, let alone the black belt instructor. (If any of you are reading this I swear am really really humble. I in no way think I am ready to be a blue belt. Or wait, maybe I do. I don't know. Is confidence good or bad?  But I love jiu-jitsu just for the beautiful art that it is. Belts are silly. And so on.)

This is a terrible way to train.

I don't want my blue belt so I can compete at a higher level or so I feel accomplished or so I can quit. I want my blue belt so I can go back to doing jiu jitsu .

In the traditional karate dojo where I trained for twenty years it was considered extremely inappropriate to ask about promotion. You would know you were going when your instructor told you. Otherwise you just keep coming to class. I have always liked this practice. (So why in the world am I talking about my blue belt on the INTERNET????)

I know that getting a blue belt will not make me any better at jiu-jitsu. I know that belts do not matter. I know that it is all about hard work and sweat and there are no magic tricks, let alone a magic color.


Hey, at least it isn't $400 shoes.


  1. You have perfectly encapsulated The Great Promotion Debate in this post, Sensei. ("I want it! But I don't want it! And it's okay if I don't get it! But it's driving me crazy that I don't have it! AAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!") Thank you for this....


  2. Sensei Jen, when you think that the teacher is not watching you he or had already seen you. When you think that you are ready he or she thinks that you are not. When you have the confidence to know hoow to execute the technique he or she will correct you. When you are patient and the teacher see's your love for the art he or she will promote you.
    Some very dear to me said this to the group at my color belt promotion some years ago.
    Shihan Monte Allen.

  3. This post got me thinking about my own progress at our school. Especially the line: "I do not think anyone has any idea when they are up for promotion, they can only guess based on how long they have been at their current rank and who in the room they can beat up." As hyperbole, it effectively cuts to the chase. Taken literally, a fellow classmate might feel a little shade being thrown on the program. I get a real sense of your ambivalence about your ambition here, and I love that you want to progress that bad. I support that 100%.

    I also worried about structure when I first started...really, really worried about being lost and not getting it. My response to this fluid environment was to be a better sponge. My progress has involved; relentlessly seeking advice, cultivating excellent training partners, taking privates, going to tournaments in support of our classmates and to observe what competition means to me.

    You think no one is watching you? EVERYONE is watching and our progress is being noted. I think the opinions of all of the instructors that run the drills, technique and white belt classes count towards who gets promoted or not. You are in good hands. Look towards who is above you. Our Blue belts are no joke. When it's my time, I'll be proud to be in their company and I won't wonder wether I deserve it or not because I'll already be a Blue belt in my actions. I'll be giving as much as I've taken and then some.

    Thank you for the food for thought,

    1. Merry, thank you for your thoughtful response. It is not so much that our place is doing something wrong but that it is hard to get a sense of how you are doing. It is not about the belt but just about the acknowledgment of progress. See you in class soon!

  4. Hi Jenn, I get it. I earned a black belt in Soo Bahk Do in 2004 and I'm also very used to a structured martial arts environment. In my style it is very consistent. What I need to know for promotion here is the same all over the world. At first I felt awkward being in such a laid back environment. What I appreciate about it is that you're left to prove through sparring that you're ready for it, which is quite different than many other styles. There's no hung/kata, no demos, weapons, board breaks or anything else used as a yardstick. We don't need belts, we know the truth about them, but there is something about getting to blue and I'm not sure what it is. Maybe it's suggestive that you know stuff, you're no longer a nOOb, no longer associated with the people who just came in and don't know an arm bar from a candy bar. The time you know when you should be promoted is around the time when you're giving blue and sometimes purple belts a run for their money. The ground game is hard, and you're a fish out of water, just keep swimming!

  5. Thanks Eric for your insight and thank you everyone for joining in the conversation! I appreciate all your opinions and encouragement. I just hope that no one took my post the wrong way. My intention was definitely not to offend anyone or to speak badly about my training, which I usually enjoy very much, or my school.

  6. A fish out of water... but keep swimming? See what happens when you post to a blog hung over?

  7. So this all reminds me of graduate school. Of course, everything reminds me of school! In medical school, you work like a crazy person but your requirements are clearcut. In a research PhD, it's all vague and all about getting some nod of approval from your advisor. Graduate school breeds insecurity. But it's more fun, because success, when it finally comes, is more individual, more about who you are as a person.

    The only martial art I've ever done is BJJ, but when I hear people talk about why they love BJJ, the talk about esthetics and individual expression. The loosy goosy promotion system feels like part and parcel of the same culture.

    1. Good point. People often say "my jiu jitsu game" rather than "the jiu jitsu game." I guess when you know hundreds of techniques you can pick and choose based on what works for you. As a tiny person I am clearly going to have to ultimately create a game that works for me. Like all good things, it takes forever to get there!':-)


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