Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What Does a Black Belt in Jiu Jitsu Really Mean?

Yesterday, I came across this excellent article by BJJ black belt Emily Kwok. It was timely given my last post about enjoying the lower belt experience. If you've read through any of my other writings on the topic (or discussed belt rank with me in person), you know I have mixed feelings about the whole belt rank system. While there are logical utilitarian uses for the system, it creates a host of problems.

One such problem is the disagreement on the meaning of a black belt. As Kwon discussed, what exactly should a black belt mean?

Does it mean the black belt is a good, moral person?

Does it mean they're a role model?

Does it mean they're a leader?

Does it mean they're a mystical badass with some kind of weird superpowers like walking on water or being able to shake exactly two Tylenol out of the bottle every time?

Or are they just jiu jitsu practitioners who, as the saying goes, are just white belts who never bothered giving up?

The longer I do this sport, the more convinced I am the latter explanation is far more accurate than we assume. In every conceivable way. While a back belt can be a good person, role model, leader, or a mystical badass who can breathe soup, they likely possessed those traits prior to stepping on the mat. Jiu jitsu isn't some magical fountain that causes people to grow a sense of morality. It's just a system of fighting based on rolling around on the ground in sweaty pajamas while simulating breaking limbs and murder with a little pomp and circumstance added for flair. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Sure, jiu jitsu can teach some life skills that could feasibly make you a better person (like humility or respect), but one has to be open to learning these lessons. And these lessons can be learned through all kinds of endeavors; jiu jitsu isn't special in this regard. 

The longer I do this sport (and the higher the rank I achieve), the more I realize belt rank really is nothing more than an indicator of an unwillingness to quit jiu jitsu. All the objective techniques, skills, and other "benefits" of higher ranks will eventually appear if you just keep training. While the path to mastery will take some people significantly longer than others, we'll all get there eventually if we stick with it. 

This is part of the reason I don't like using, nor do I recommend using "earn my black belt" as a motivator to keep training. Aside from external motivators being generally ineffective for long-term motivation, it's also just another somewhat arbitrary checkpoint among many arbitrary checkpoints checkpoints on the lifelong journey towards jiu jitsu mastery. There are far more effective goals we can set for ourselves (which will be a topic for another day.)

So how should we perceive any belt rank in general and black belts in particular?

Perceive them as individuals who have been training for however long their rank suggests. Nothing more; nothing less. 


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