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New Belts for All!

When you run a dojo, there are a lot of things you have to think about. What classes you are going to offer. How much you are going to charge for tuition. What to do about that slowly leaking pipe that is directly above the mens changing room. (Seriously, can someone come and fix that!) What color gis should everyone wear. And if your students wear gis, they probably wear belts. And if they wear belts, you are probably going to have to figure out how and when to give them said belts. Which means some kind of promotion. 

I have promotion on my mind right now. We just planned a big kids one at our dojo for early October. In mid October, our style promotes black belts, for which we currently have 4 candidates. My BJJ school is promoting students tomorrow. All of that adds up to a lot of pieces of colored cloth.

There are many different ways to do belt promotions, and since I have been involved in multiple arts with gis over the years, I have witnessed a bunch of them.
  1. The promotion "exam". This is what most karate schools do. There is a specific day set aside for promotion and students are asked to come and participate in a special class where they demonstrate adequate knowledge of their required syllabus. Often this day includes a physical challenge as well, like multiple pushups. Sometimes sparring is required, and occasionally there is even a written test. When it is all over, you are rewarded with a new belt or stripe. Attendance at this testing day is usually by invitation only, and students rarely fail because they are only asked to go for promotion when their instructor feels they are ready. The good thing about this kind of promotion is that you always know when it is your turn to go. Also, the expectations are very clear. There is a syllabus for every rank and in some schools, a required amount of time and classes for each level. Students receive an invitation to attend promotion so there is never any confusion. Everyone who attends receives a new belt, no one feels left out. Since knowledge is required, however, it can sometimes take students who learn slowly a long time to get to their next level, which can be frustrating.
  2. The ceremony. Like the exam day, students are invited to attend this promotion but there is no testing portion. Often there is a giant class which everyone is welcome to attend, even those people who are not getting a new belt. At the end of the class, belts are awarded. Sometimes your progress is based purely on class numbers; other times it is more subjective, but either way you receive a letter ahead of time so you know you are receiving new rank that day. I have seen a few BJJ schools that promote this way. The ceremony feel makes for a fun event, however, some practitioners feel that the class counting method allows for less skilled students to achieve rank that they do not "deserve". 
  3. The "surprise" promotion day. My BJJ school does this. There is a specific day set aside for promotion, but no one knows ahead of time if they are receiving a new belt. Everyone in the school is invited to attend, and students are forced to guess if it is "their night" based on how they are doing in class, how long it has been since their last promotion, who got promoted last time, and anything else they can think of. (Does my instructor like my hair today???) There is no physical portion, although after new belts are tied on there is often an open mat where everyone trains together. Some schools do a form of "gauntlet" where you have to roll with everyone there, or a "belt whipping", which is what it sounds like and is, in my opinion, stupid and more than slightly offensive. The surprise promotion is very exciting but makes for some hurt feelings when students wrongfully thought they were getting a belt. There is also no chance to invite friends and family who might want to see you receive your rank, since you are never certain and no one wants that awkward moment. ("Thanks so much for coming grandma! I am sorry it wasn't my turn tonight. Can you leave the senior center again in 3 months?") 
  4. The surprise belt on a random day when you are least expecting it. This one is notorious in BJJ. You are rolling with your teacher and you are so busy defending the triangle choke that you do not notice he has replaced your blue belt with a purple one. (Thank you You Tube!) You just won the absolute division and on the podium are awarded both a shiny trophy and a brand new belt. Right before showing the move of the day, your teacher pulls a belt out of his gi and calls some shocked student forward. This method is really cool, except for those students who hate surprises. It it also torture to those of you who are obsessed with knowing where you are in the lineup, since on any given day someone could suddenly be awarded new rank. I am not sure what criteria teachers use to determine who they award belts to, but I imagine it is mostly based on class performance. 
These are the ones I have seen the most, but I am sure there are other ways to award students with new rank. In my opinion, it does not matter which one your school chooses, so long as it is a positive experience that makes students feel good. The only problem I see is when promotions are too stressful (ie: teachers are so tough on everyone they become insulting), or are used as excuses to reward only the top students while making others feel like they are being picked last for teams in gym class. New belts should be a reward for hard work, time put in, mental and physical effort. In other words, skill and sweat. 

Speaking of, it is time for me to go roll around on some mats!


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