"Belts are only good for holding your pants."
The great master Helio Gracie, who for some time sported a blue belt on his waist, about the usefulness of belts.
Martial arts have been around forever, but when we talk about the modern structure of belts, we are talking about around 100 years. The purpose of this article is not to present the history and evolution of the belt system, but rather the conflict between the technical level and rank that we live in nowadays. For a concise history of the belt system, click here.
There is an old parable, told in many versions, about the beginner disciple who, annoyed by his clothing, tied a thin white belt around his waist to keep his training clothes in place. The more he trained, the more he stained his belt, and eventually, time passed, until his belt became black.
We don't know how true the illustration is, but we do know that the belts, initially white and black only, indicate the student's development and technical progression.
In all martial arts there have always been students above the curve, possessing technical skills above their rankings, and, for one reason or another, have not yet been promoted to the next belt.
Jiu Jitsu, which in the last decade has experienced the largest growth in popularity in history, has been dealing with the belt issue, trying to adapt to the challenges brought by the modern context. But what are these challenges?
The explosion of information available to everyone, at all times. While in the past we dreamed of maybe meeting a blue belt one day, or watching a VHS tape with someone teaching a basic technique, today with the technological advancement of the digital world, we can study any technique imaginable, at any time, with just a few clicks. Students of the Gentle Art around the world take advantage of this advancement and study deeply and frequently techniques above their ranking, as well as techniques at their level. This has caused, among other things, unprecedented technical growth. It is not unusual these days to find beginners with extremely advanced theoretical knowledge. But what about execution?
Theoretical knowledge of techniques, fundamentals, and history do not sweep, pass, take down, or finish anyone. Here lies another fundamental difference between today's practitioners and the practitioners of the past:
The abundance of available schools and schedules, and the variety of training partners.
Whereas in the past we were often more likely to see a unicorn than a purple belt, today we can walk into the gym at the most convenient times and roll with men and women of all belts, weight, and size. This variety of available rolls greatly promotes the technical growth and maturity of the practitioner.
Competitors - It is true that all practitioners benefit from this expansion, and only 3-5% of them identify themselves as competitors, but in recent times they have often demonstrated a higher technical level of combat than what was expected of them in the past. Nowadays we already see blue belts going toe to toe and even beating purple, brown, and even black belts.
Not so long ago such a scenario was inconceivable.
There was a technical abyss between the black belt and the colored belt.
The competitions have been awesome!. Super fight events and regional tournaments offer fights with technical depth previously only seen in the black belt levels.
But what about maturity outside the mats? What do we do with a 16-year-old, with stellar hormone levels, who has no control over his emotions yet, but is a fighting machine? Is it wise to award purple, brown, and black belts to these youngsters, knowing that beginners and children will possibly have them as role models? What if the immaturities are in other areas? Perhaps in the affections department, perhaps in relationships? Often timidity or arrogance still have to give way to self-confidence and humility, even when the game is on point.
How then shall we live?
Do we leave it as it is? Should we create a ranking system, indicated by belt or not, exclusively for competitions? The technical and technological advance is just beginning, and it is evident that the greatest growth in Jiu Jitsu is still to come. What to do then? Is our beloved art on the verge of drastic changes that will transform it into something completely different, as it's happened to other arts? Is micro-management of progress the solution?
These and other matters will haunt us, whether we like it or not, and it is up to the global community to address them. What challenges and dilemmas do you think Jiu Jitsu will face in the next decade?