Editor’s note:  this is a follow-up to this widely read article:
How Long Will it Take Me to Get a Blue Belt in BJJ?

I have a confession to make: I care a lot about belts.

I know that this is not the most popular thing to say in BJJ.  If a person asks about the importance of belts, the typical response is that belts are of minimal importance, if any at all.  They are certainly nothing that a student should care about.

But I disagree with that point of view.  Let me tell you why.

It’s not that belts are a goal of BJJ in and of themselves.  They are colored pieces of cloth, and they do not collect your knowledge or your hard work or any of that nonsense.  The most significant things they collect are microbes from training.

That being said, the belts of BJJ are great indicators of the true goal of BJJ – progress along your own journey of personal improvement.  While belts are not the path, earning belts reminds you that you are on the path.

But if you know that you are improving anyway, do you even need a belt to indicate that?  The answer is no, not necessarily. Martial arts have not historically used belts for very long, and even now most martial arts still do not use belts.  These martial arts still follow the same path of personal improvement without belts.

However, since BJJ is an art that has chosen to use belts, they should be heeded as important indicators of progress.  To ignore them completely is to take the measurement of your progress entirely into your own hands – a situation in which you are in danger of self-deception.

Consider the commonly used hypothetical scenario of the ten year white belt that is so skilled that he beats black belts. However, he still wears a white belt simply because he has never been promoted.  This is a common scenario used to justify the unimportance of belts.

The flaw with this scenario is that it almost never exists in reality.  In fact, I have never seen it, nor have I ever known anyone who has.  If someone wears a white belt and beats a black belt, he likely has significant training in an art other than BJJ. Never have I seen nor heard of someone training seriously in BJJ for more than a decade, defeating black belts regularly, yet still wearing a white belt.

Another scenario that I have seen, albeit rarely, is the scenario of someone training seriously in BJJ for more than a decade, still struggling with other white belts regularly, and still wearing a white belt.  This scenario occurs due to a serious flaw in training.  Regardless of whether the training has been inconsistent, focused on the wrong aspects, or any other reason, it is a symptom of a serious flaw.  The lack of belt progress is helpful as a clear indicator of the underlying flaw.

If you have trained for a while but have not seen any belt progression, which scenario most closely describes your training?  Is it even possible for you to know yourself without asking others for their opinions?

I do not believe that most of us are impartial enough to evaluate the progress of our own training objectively.  We should always strive to, but in reality, we can miss flaws in ourselves that others can see.  As such, it would be wise to keep a close relationship with our instructors and ensure that we are on the path to the next belt.  If there seems to be no progress, we should ask what we need to change in our own training in order to make progress.  Otherwise, we may simply run in circles and never progress towards our goals.

To use analogy, belts are landmarks on a journey.  They are not the journey itself or the destination, but they serve as good indicators that you are on the right track.  If you walk for years but don’t see the landmark you were expecting, it would be wise to stop and ask for directions.  If you keep walking because you don’t care about landmarks, you might be on the wrong track and never make it any closer to the destination.

As for me, I plan to stop and ask for directions if I don’t see a landmark.  And that is why I confess that I do care a lot about belts.

By Randy Jones

The author has been involved in various martial arts for 21 years.  He started training BJJ in 2004 and is currently a purple belt.