Roy Harris is an accomplished American martial artist, known in the BJJ community for being a black belt under Joe Moreira. He is also known as one of the first instructors to publicly publish formal testing criteria for jiu-jitsu, formalizing his promotion tests from white belt to black belt.
The following article was written by Roy and originally published at royharris.com. It has inspired us and informed us so much, that we had to republish it here at BJJ Universe in its original form. In our opinion, it is one of the best articles on BJJ belt progression ever written. And it’s quite long, so take your time and enjoy!
Allow me to share with you my personal observations of the progression through the different belt levels in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I believe this will help you to understand where you are now and where you are headed with your journey in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I hope you enjoy this article!
This is the belt of paying your dues. This is the belt where you will spend most of your time on your back. You usually end up doing most of the tapping as well.
Your ability to grapple successfully will depend largely on three things:
- your previous martial arts experience, (a grappling background helps a lot)
- your current fitness level, (a higher level of fitness help tremendously)
- your ability to learn visually (visual learners adapt and absorb information more quickly)
Students who come from a wrestling background seem to adapt very well to the slight change in grappling methods. Students who come from an athletic background also seem to adapt quite well.
Those who come from a striking background sometimes have a difficult time adapting. Many have become so accustomed to visually grabbing onto the vertical and horizontal lines of the walls, doorways and ropes to stabilize their equilibrium that they feel very uncomfortable with the diagonal world of grappling. They quickly learn that the ground has not been their friend, and, that they must take some time to acquaint themselves with this new perspective.
The most frustrating part about being a white belt (especially if you have no experience on the ground) is the fact that most of the advanced students will make you tap, or at least positionally dominate you. (I remember feeling frustrated as a white belt.) This frustration usually leads to white belts asking questions like, “How do I get on top of these guys? How do I escape the side or full mount? How do I tap out the blue and purple belts?”
Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do right now to immediately change the tables in your favor. Get used to the blue and purple belts tapping you out. Get used to having them positionally dominating you. Consider tapping as a “form of learning”, a way of “paying your dues.” I remember when I was a white belt. I remember feeling like a rag doll in the hands of the blue and purple belts. I wish there would have been something I could have done to prevent it from feeling like that, but there wasn’t. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is just one of those “time in service” things. You simply have to put your time in. There are no short cuts!
The only encouragement that I can give to you is this, “Keep training! Your day is coming. The day will come when you will no longer be a white belt. The day is coming when you will be able to escape from any position with finesse and ease. Then, it will be your turn to watch the frustration of the new white belts that enter your school. Then, it will be your turn to encourage them as I have encouraged you!”
White belts are expected to rely on speed, power, strength, and explosiveness. For that is all they know. However, once a person gets a “blue belt”, the world of Jiu-Jitsu suddenly changes.
This is the belt of survival. It is the belt where the focus of your training must be on escaping from most of the inferior positions (the mount, the guard, the side mount, the wrestler’s cradle and headlocks). Having the ability to escape from most inferior positions is paramount to having the ability to get on top of a person, positionally dominate them and making them tap.
I know that there are a number of submissions from inferior positions (not necessarily the guard), but these submissions require a high level of speed, power and explosiveness. The reason why these submissions require speed, power and explosiveness is because your body, when placed in an inferior position, can not effectively apply leverage.
To compensate for the inability to apply leverage, you substitute it with speed, power, and explosiveness to affect the lock. (Anyone who tells you any different is either purposely misleading you or is very unknowledgeable with grappling! I know that some may argue this point, but I stand by this point.)
Not only do you have an inability to apply leverage from an inferior position, but you also do not have control of your opponent’s body! So now, do you see why escapes are so important to building a firm foundation in grappling?
When you can easily escape the tightest pin (from just about anyone), you will find yourself on top more often. When you find yourself on top, you have more chances for submission. However, you should not jump right into submission just yet because you have not developed the skill to hold someone down with finesses and ease.
I have seen too many blue belts begin their journey into submission too soon and often become frustrated because they just can’t finish their opponent. They get so close, but they often fail at finishing their opponent. This usually leads the blue belt to seeking out more and more submission techniques. He thinks that the “new” and “sneaky” techniques will make him more skilled at submissions.
However, what he doesn’t realize is that his inability to finish his opponent is directly related to his inability to positionally dominate him. The blue belt feels good when he has escaped a hold down and has landed on top. However, he also feels like he has ONE SHOT at sinking in the submission. He knows if he fails, he will end up on his back and have to fight for the top position again. So, he usually stalls, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake so he can hopefully capitalize on it.
Once the blue belt has a firm grip on positional escapes, he should then move on to positional dominance: which is “the ability to control an opponent.” When the blue belt can readily escape from most of the bottom positions, he should focus his training on learning how to control his opponent with greater ease and finesse. Although anyone can control their opponent if they can use all of their strength for short periods of time. It will take some time before a person can effortlessly hold down their opponent.
Once the blue belt has a good grip on these two aspects, he should then begin to develop a few good submissions. Still, he should not be consumed with them because there are still a few more areas to train before a lengthy period of time should be spent on submissions. (Yes, yes, yes, I know that submissions are the more enjoyable part of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I am not saying that you should not train them at all. However, all I am saying is this, “Don’t focus on them quite yet. Wait until you are a high purple belt!”)
The blue belt should have a large repertoire of positional and submission techniques. However, his depth of knowledge of these techniques is very limited because of his experience level. And because of his limited experience, he will still require a good amount of speed, power and explosiveness to effect most of his techniques. This is to be expected.
Another interesting thing happens at the blue belt level: the bar of performance raises itself to highly competitive levels. I remember when I was a white belt, it felt OK to tap to everyone because hey, I was a white belt. However, once I was promoted to blue belt, many of the bigger, stronger and more talented white belts began to set their cross-hair on me. What once was a shared journey of joy and frustration suddenly became a field of itchy trigger fingered snipers.
Many of the white belts who were once fellow sojourners now wanted the privilege of being able to say, “I made a blue belt tap!” It seemed like overnight the game of Jiu-Jitsu suddenly became very competitive. Well, if you think the game was interesting at the blue belt level, wait until you hear about the highly regarded purple belt!
This is the belt of momentum and combinations. This is the belt level where the amount of energy you expend to accomplish a specific task should be considerably lower than it was when you were a white belt. Your game should have a certain amount of grace and finesse to it. Your game should not have rely on speed, power and explosiveness to get you into positions or out of positions. Your repertoire of techniques should be very high.
However, you should begin to focus your training on your depth of knowledge. The white and blue belts are the belts where you accumulate techniques. The purple belt is the first belt where you must begin to refine your techniques. It is also the belt where you learn to put the basic techniques together into various two technique and three technique combinations, with the use of momentum.
Because you become more reliant upon combinations and momentum, the amount of speed and power required to effect your technique decreases. This is not something a white or blue belt can do just yet because of their limited amount of knowledge and experience.
As a purple belt, you must begin to focus your training on the use momentum. You must train your entire body to FEEL momentum. Up until this point in time, most everything was visual. You must develop a high level of sensitivity so that you can flow with your opponent instead of forcing techniques with speed and power, especially when you grappled people who are much bigger and stronger than you are.
Pushing an opponent’s dead weight around is exhausting if you do not have a firm foundation in escapes and positioning. You will need to learn to use the momentum that your opponent gives to you, as well as create momentum when his body is not in motion. Momentum will help you to lower the amount of strength you use to perform your techniques.
Your training should also begin to use the basic techniques together into two, three and sometimes five technique combinations. Notice I said “basic” techniques. The purple belt mentality is very different from the white and blue belt mentality. White and blue belts think the answer to their problems is learning more techniques. The purple belt thinks to himself: “I need to refine the techniques I already know and then learn how to reflexively put the appropriate techniques together into flowing combinations.”
For example, when I first learned the triangle, I thought it was just a matter of throwing my legs over their head and shoulder and squeezing my legs together. Then as I matured in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I noticed that there were a specific set of components that made up the technique (20 to be exact!). Then, I noticed that these components could be broken down even further into sub-categories. Now (as a black belt), the triangle is no longer a simple technique with three or four movements. It is now a myriad of over twenty (20) different (and subtle) moving parts that must be put together in a specific order so they can all work together towards one common goal: apply pressure to the neck.
Once I had mastered the triangle, I needed to put it together with other basic techniques like the arm lock, the hip bump, the sweep, the kimura, a knee lock, etc. Knowing how to combine the triangle with other basic techniques was very important to my development in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! Once I could combine techniques together and use them in conjunction with momentum, I now felt ready to take on the world. I’ve noticed the same in many students, both in seminars, at my school and other schools.
The purple belt’s mindset should be on the refinement of his current knowledge and the use of momentum and combinations. The purple belt is able to do this because he already has a wide base of knowledge in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I know that white and blue belts want to learn how to do this, but they simply aren’t ready for it just yet.
This mindset, along with some rapidly developing skills by the purple belts usually sets the stage for some highly charged matches, especially amongst new purple belts. Why? Because the some of the “veteran” blue belts want to make a purple belt tap. Plus, a number of students who get their purple belts go through a period which I call “testing their wares.” They want to see just how they compare to the older, more experienced purple belts, especially those who are about to be promoted to brown belt.
This is the belt of mastery of ALL the basics and something I call “at-will grappling.” This is also the belt where submissions play a big part in the training. When I decide that someone is about ready for their brown belt, I tell them in advance that they are about 9 months to a year away from their brown belt. I give them a schedule of tasks that I want them to work on.
First, they must master each and every escape. I want them to be able to escape every position with the use of their hands AND without the use of their hands (they must know how to push and pull, lift and lower with every portion of their anatomy.). I want them to be able to hold other students down with their hands and without their hands. I want to see them use all of the basic techniques in three and five technique combinations. I also want them to begin to refine their submissions.
This is where I begin to use the “at-will grappling” training method. I will tell the student, “for the next thirty days, all I want you to do is apply straight arm locks when you grapple with the other students. No chokes or leg locks. Just arm locks.” Then, a month later, I will tell them, “for the next month, all I want you to do are leg locks. Then a month later, I will tell them to choke the other students. So, for each month, they have been given a specific task to master.
Because they tell the other students, “All I am going to do is arm lock you today,” the student knows what the purple belt is going for. This forces the student to be creative in setting up the arm lock because his opponent knows that he will not try a different submission. Setting up an opponent is a difficult task, however, it is one that needs to be learned at this belt level. (I know the lower belt levels want to learn this stuff, but again, they are simply not ready for it.)
Once the student has gotten pretty good at arm locks, leg locks or choke, I will have him narrow the scope of his training. Now, he must focus on one specific limb. I will tell him, “for the next month, all I want you to do is arm lock your opponent’s left arm.” This really forces the student to develop a multiplicity of ways to enter into the straight arm lock on his opponent’s left arm. The student has the confidence to go for all of these submissions because he has a foundation in positional escapes and positional dominance. If he did not have this foundation, he would be timid to go for the submission because he would not want to end up on the bottom again.
However, because he can easily escape from any position, and because he can readily hold down and control his opponent, he can repeatedly try for these submissions time and time again! This is why I do not place a lot of emphasis on submissions until the purple or brown belt levels. Position and control are the most important tools to develop at first.
Once a student has a firm grip on the mastery of his basics, I will promote him to brown belt. Once he has been promoted to brown belt, he must continue to refine his game. He must seek out his weak areas and focus on them. He must also find his strengths and focus on them for an extended period of time because these will define his character as a black belt. Most black belts have a specialty. Some are good at throws. Others are good at collar chokes. I happen to be good at leg locks. I want my brown belts to find their sweet spot and train it like crazy!
This is the belt where a person focuses his training on counters and placing his or her signature on the art. First, let’s talk about the signature. Some black belts develop an affinity for leg locks (like myself). Others tend to focus on throws or take downs. Some are exceptional at arm locks. While others are magicians at collar chokes. This is also the belt where you really begin to refine and redefine the art. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu takes on a more personal look to it.
The new black belt begins to realize that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. He also begin to notice how certain things work for some people while others don’t. (Now, let me qualify that last statement: all of these things apply to the black belt who is still refining, growing, learning and adapting. They do not apply to the black belt who is stuck in his old ways, paralyzed by his resistance to change!)
At the black belt level, the learning process starts over again. If a new black belt is honest with him or herself, they realize they know very little about their chosen art. They will also know that there is a difference between a new black belt and a black belt who has consistently been training “as a black belt” for the past ten years. For example, I am a relatively new black belt, someone you might call “a white belt amongst other black belts.”
I’ve had my black belt for two years now. Then there’s Royler Gracie. He’s had his black belt for several years. As a matter of fact, he had his black belt before I even thought about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Plus, he has so many more hundreds of hours competing, teaching and training that there’s no way to compare my black belt with his black belt. So, as a new black belt, I am introduced to a new journey, one that is as long and hard as the one I just traveled. However, because I have already traveled a similar road, I am ready to take on this new one!
At the black belt level, a person’s technical expertise is very high. However, his ability to skillfully perform all of his technical knowledge will not be as good as some might think. The black belt will obviously have some favorite moves that he does most of the time. However, over time (if he continues to train with the same intensity as he did in the earlier belts), his skill level will continue to increase.
The only thing that will be different is that his game will become much smaller. He will not concern himself with “NEW” techniques, but the refining and redefining of the old ones. He will work on the small subtle movements that will make the art much easier and more enjoyable to practice. He will begin to make smaller movements to accomplish the same objectives as the other belt.
For example, to a black belt, the difference between escaping and being held down is often the difference between a hip movement of less than one inch. YES, I SAID “ONE INCH!” The black belt’s feel and sensitivity of the game is so much higher than the white, blue or even purple belt’s game. The black belt begins to move like a shadow. He flows effortlessly around his opponent’s movement and follows the path they set. He finds his opponent’s weakness and then exploits it. The game is very small and tactile!
Finally, the black belt’s knowledge and ability to execute counters will be much higher. For example, when a student performs a basic technique, the black belt is already three or four moves ahead of him. The black belt knows that for every move, there are several counters. For every counter, there are several more counters. Let me show this to you another way:
We will call the bridge and roll escape from the mount (Upa), technique “A”. Technique “A” has ten (10) counters to it:
A.1 straight arm lock
A.2 catch your balance with your head
A.3 catch your balance with your right foot
A.4 catch your balance with you left foot
A.5 catch your balance with your far arm
A.6 spin to knee on stomach
A.7 spin to side mount
A.8 turn onto your side
A.9 roll and sweep to mountA.10 triangle
“A.1” is the first counter to technique “A”, the bridge and roll escape from the mount position. “A.1” also has ten (10) counters to it:
A.1.1 heel hook
A.1.2 sit up and crush escape
A.1.3 sit up and crush escape to knee lock
A.1.4 sit up and remove leg off face
A.1.5 sit up and spin to opposite side
A.1.6 roll over shoulder escape
A.1.7 basic elbow/knee escape
A.1.8 basic elbow/knee escape, go to the back
A.1.9 basic elbow/knee escape
Now, do you see how I could keep going on and on with counters? I could list the ten counters for A.2 and A.3 and so on, and then I could begin to list the counters for A.1.1 and A.1.2 and so on and so on.
Do you now see and understand the progression from white to black belt? The process of becoming skilled at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is frustrating, very time consuming and nerve racking, however, it is always rewarding!
I wish you continued success in your journey. Keep training hard and smart!