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Belt Testing

February 1, 2008

Below is a post from Brazilian Jiu-jitsu instructor, and one of my favorite writers online, Roy Dean. He’s also on my list of links – right side of my blog – if you didn’t notice it before. Yeah, I have links.

Now before I let Roy take it away I feel I should say a few things about him. I do not know him personally, but I find I would very much like to meet him and shake his hand. I’ve read all his articles and I find his views insightful and his message to be simply inspiring. He is an absolutely refreshing presence in the martial world. Thanks for being there, Roy!

The martial arts are already far too full of politics and in-house fighting and unnecessary feuds. I’ve dealt with it first hand in Hawaii. And it’s sad because Hawaii is such a small place to begin with, we don’t need extra feuds going around. But it’s there. And belt promotions have a lot to do with it.

Enter belt testing. I had heard of belt testing before within other martial arts but never in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. That appealed to me when I was starting out. I was given my blue after seven or eight months of diligent training. My first degree after my first tournament – even though I lost, everyone told me I showed great heart and that I was up on points before I gassed out.

Then there’s the incredible video of Jimmy DeSilva taking his purple belt examination and that was the first time I encountered belt testing in BJJ. Roy does it in his academy, his teacher Roy Harris tests as well, and even his teacher’s teacher – Joe Moreira – also does testing. I think I addressed this in an earlier post but I’ll say it again; it is impressive. The video, Jimmy’s performance, belt testing, Roy Dean… everything’s impressive. Stop with the being impressive already.

Say what you will about the subject, about belt testing, whether it be good or bad, but I believe it comes down to accomplishment. Being promoted is a mark of accomplishment, testing puts it into the spotlight, and all accomplishments should be noted and celebrated.

So without further ado the post.

Many people find the subject of belt testing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu controversial.

My personal approach is this. Although I give the student the option of doing a public demonstration, or “test”, I do not charge for them. Every student that does a demonstration is already at the level they are testing for. It is not a stretch. I have already deemed them worthy, through close observation, and personally feeling their technique. I will present them with their belt in class if they don’t want the public display. The “test” is a chance for them to experience a rite of passage, a goal that they’ve geared their training towards, an event that they can share with their friends and family, on and off the mat. The demonstration is an optional activity, and is a way of creating an experience that enhances your training. Just like a tournament, your focus on training changes leading up to the event. The blade is gradually honed.

Competition is one way of testing your skills, and is an important accelerator for those that are serious about training in the art. It will alert you to holes in your game like nothing else, and I have personally benefitted from competition. Competitions are an important component of training, but they are only a portion of the whole. They can be a great experience, or a horrible extension of the art. I have been to many a crap tournament running hours behind schedule, with absent minded officials, and inadequate facilities. Some of these competitions are expensive to travel to, costly to enter, and may only give you a five minute experience of what you’ve trained years to learn how to do. Your opponent may get 2 points for a takedown and stall for the win. You may only have to win one match in your division for the gold medal. Or, if you’re a middleweight blue belt, it’s likely you’ll fight four or five times before clinching a medal. The quality of experience can vary dramatically.

These demonstrations are a way of creating a sustained martial experience. I work my students during the test. Not everything is shown in the condensed video versions. Blue belt exams are about 45 minutes. The purple is over an hour. I chose to edit out the part of Jimmy dry heaving on the mat as Mr. Harris applied pressure, or the people lifting him to his feet after it was over. That’s part of it, but the pain isn’t appealing to everyone, and I really want these videos to inspire people to train, not create an aversion to the art by fear of suffering. Spouses have felt uncomfortable, and perhaps even shed a tear in my dojo, watching their loved one suffer in sidemount. I take them to a very controlled point of exhaustion, appropriate for their age and physical condition.

Under Mr. Harris, the tests definitely get more intense as the belt gets darker. My brown belt was rough. The black was a crucifixion. Three and a half hours of sparring, teaching, and technical demonstration. Exhaustion beyond belief. Pressure. Exhilaration. Emotion. Few people will ever go through that kind of crucible in their lives, requiring such a high level mix of skill, athleticism, and heart. It took me 6 months to fully heal from the exam, and I certainly would never inflict something like that on my new students. That will come later. It takes years to build up to something like that. That test, for me, was the culmination of 15 years of dedicated martial training. A one year blue belt should not have to take the full monty.

A blue belt demonstration should temper the spirit, not break it. Twist it, turn it, torture it a little, but leave it intact so that it can grow stronger. And it will. The techniques you’ve programmed into your body are good. Positional escapes are emphasized, laying the foundation of a solid BJJ game. Takedowns and headlock escapes are also required, plus basic submissions. This is machine code: low level programming that is not particularly powerful in and of itself, but really turns into something amazing once higher level programming languages (concepts, combinations, tactics and strategy) build upon it. But the machine must be programmed first.

In the blue belt demonstration, students show that they can execute the techniques with very little power. That’s what’s apparent to the trained eye. Do they have the angles worked out, and where to place their knees, hands, and feet? Are they smooth in their movement, or are they stuttering and second guessing themselves? You have to be smooth and confident to get a submission in the small window of opportunity against an actively resisting opponent. You have to have the angles worked out, and not rely on power, if you go against a much stronger or larger opponent. The question is: how little energy can you use to get the job done?

After the technical portion, we get live. 20 minutes of sparring for the blue belt. That’s the equivalent of 4 competition matches. Against blue belts and above. It’s not easy with all eyes on you. But the most meaningful accomplishments are never easy.

It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. In martial arts, in life. Anyone can punch, it’s how you punch. The mechanics of a choke are not difficult, but figuring out how to enter into it, against all body types, martial backgrounds, and levels of intent, is the path to mastery. A test can sell an art short, or it can be a transformational experience for those watching, and the person participating.

It’s all in how you do it.

Roy Dean

Thank you, Roy Dean. For that and so much more.

Let’s keep on training.

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