What Does Your First Belt Promotion Mean… and What it Meant to Me?

A look at my journey in earning my blue belt and what I believe it should mean for you too, a true honor

Location: New Zealand

After almost 2 ½ years of training, with a few competitions, and blissfully few minor injuries here and there, I was invited by my Professor to prepare for our school’s blue belt grading process. I was immediately beset by a range of thoughts and feelings. Am I ready? Does my game measure up to a blue belt standard?

As a rather mature grappler, turning 56 this year, I found myself comparing my performance to some of my younger teammates. The talented and very motivated guys at my school are clearly on their way to developing a highly competitive game and can train far more often than my well-seasoned body can maintain.

At my school, the grading process is reasonably formal. Once you are invited to grade, you are given a list of techniques that you will have to demonstrate. For the blue belt test, this amounts to over 60 techniques. Six takedowns, four-guard passes, four submissions from mount, two sweeps from closed guard, and so on. In addition to demonstrating these techniques with clear control and an understanding of key details, you also perform a four-minute choreographed flow sequence. We are given a couple of months to prepare for this, generally with a training partner who is also taking their test.

I read about many different ideas people have on the subject of stripes, belts, and promotions. The more I read, the happier I was with not only my perception of my game but also with the grading process laid out in front of me.

At first, I was more than a little intimidated by this task. Over 60 techniques? Four minutes of well-executed and properly linked moves? It seemed like a daunting task. But a few sessions with my training partner revealed that we had most of the techniques stored in our memory already, even if we had to dust off a few. We also quickly identified the gaps in our knowledge that needed work to fill in. A couple of attempts at choreographing a flow sequence showed us that filling up a few minutes was not too difficult, especially when we slowed down enough to show that we had executed key details.

We scheduled a couple private lessons to refresh our retention of certain techniques and made sure we took note of their proper execution. We set out a schedule that would give us ample time to review and prepare to be ready for the grading weekend.

On Saturday, we will demonstrate the 60+ techniques in front of our Professor. On Sunday, we will perform the flow sequence in front of the whole school, as well as a few visiting BJJ students, instructors, and professors from other academies. Finally, we will enjoy a classic shark tank roll and receive our new blue belt.

This process, which has taken about 2/12 months to prepare for, defines, for me, the difference between where I am right now as a 4-stripe white belt and (hopefully) where I will soon be as a new blue belt.

The grading process allows me to not only be examined by others, but also to examine and work on my game in a structured and goal-orientated manner. It forces me to look at my strengths and my weaknesses. I had to identify gaps in my knowledge and fill them with sufficient ability to properly execute techniques to my Professor’s satisfaction. I get to demonstrate the techniques I use all the time, but also to step up and become more proficient with techniques that I rarely (if ever) use.

So, what does my looming promotion to blue belt mean to me? It means that my Professor thinks I am ready to engage with the preparation process in a productive manner that will result in a demonstration of that level of proficiency. It means that I get to work with a great training partner who is also going through this experience. It means that I will have the opportunity to confirm for myself that I have ticked off all the boxes that our school requires for promotion.

I recognize that there are many different traditions for grading. I make no assertion of the superiority of one over another. No matter how a promotion is obtained under the supervision of a professor, it was gained with hard work and long-term dedication. But I am grateful that my school has taken the approach that I am now preparing for. I feel like I will receive my blue belt with a foundation that will set me well on the road towards earning the first stripe on that new belt. I feel ready for it.

See you on the mats!

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