Sunday, November 20, 2011

Testing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is well known for its instructors giving belts to their students without a testing process. In many schools a student shows up one day and gets a surprise in front of the class by being awarded his next belt. I should know, I used to do this with my students. I now test each and every student for their belts.

“The following is my experience only and should not be taken as how I feel about other instructors. So don't get all bent out of shape. “

Here are the problems NOT TESTING caused ME (you might be feeling this way as a student too).

1. A number of students would continually get angry and resentful when a student they deemed not worthy of a new belt got one. They didn’t outwardly show it but behind the scenes they wondered why I gave the other person one when they tapped that guy out or he didn’t win a tournament and they did, especially if they had been there longer than the one getting the new belt. The backbiting was amazing.

2. Unhappy students questioned my standards behind what I thought was a blue belt or a purple belt.

3. They thought that the guys who were my buddies got a belt quicker than they did. In other words, I played favorites. Not the case, but I lost a number of promising students because of this.

4. No one knew the same material in the school. Their foundation had holes in it.

5. Students felt like they were doing their very best but didn’t know the criteria for advancement causing them to get discouraged easily.

6. Injuries went up because they felt they had to tap people in order to show they were worthy of advancement. Death Matches were rampant.

7. People took getting tapped out as personal failure and thought it would hurt their chances for advancement. They never tried or shared new moves because winning was required to get noticed. Everyone’s ego was on the line.

8. Many students questioned whether they deserve the new belt once they got it because they didn’t know what they knew. They had no reference.

Here is what’s good about NOT TESTING for ME (I'm not proud of this):

1. I got a lot of control over people and they did what I told them because of fear I would withhold a promotion.

2. I could be lazy and not have to make people understand the details about the techniques. They would never have to show them back to me.

3. I didn’t have to keep attendance because it was based on you tapping everyone or winning tournaments. Advancement wasn’t based on coming to class. I didn’t even know how many classes you attended.

4. If I thought a high ranking student was going to leave because he felt he wasn’t getting promoted fast enough I had an option to surprise him with a belt promotion and he would stay.

5. I could give belts at tournaments to reward you and to show what an able and benevolent instructor I was to the world.

6. Many students actually got promoted faster because they were athletic or had a wrestling background and could power their way to submissions. Maybe they had a great night and I was in a really great mood so let’s bring up the moral of the school with a promotion.

The following is what I do now. It’s not perfect but It works great for me and it's very fair for students.

1. You have to have a certain amount of hours of training for “most” students to be “eligible” to test. The more you come to class the faster you can test.

2. Since Attendance is important, I now know when you do and don’t come to class. I call you if I don’t see you. This way you know I care about your training.

3. You have to know basic moves for each belt level and you have to show them AT a high level or you fail. It’s called “a standard of performance.”

4. We are a self defense school first and a competition school second, so if you “choose” to be a competitor you can get striped (yes I stripe) faster at my discretion because I do feel that competition is important for you to find out what you’re made of. If you choose not to compete then you go strictly by hours of training. Everyone tests for a new belt though!

5. This is where I come in. If I feel your technique is not good enough or you don’t know the material but you have enough hours I let you know that you won’t test until you improve. Just because you can tap people out with your athleticism doesn’t mean you are ready for your next belt. I let excess hours transfer to your next belt once you do receive it.

6. I also have better quality instructors who know what they should be teaching in class. We are all on the same page.

7. I find that the more a student comes to class the more skill he gets and the more he taps people out. It's an amazing discovery.

The result?

I have very limited back biting, clearly defined goals for promotion, a way for competitors to progress faster then non competitors, students that are motivated to attend class, less injury, people who are not afraid to try new things and I insure that everyone has a proper foundation thus creating a better and happier student.*

The only real downside to this is that some people who want to get promoted super quickly might leave to another instructor who doesn’t test and will promote them faster. I don’t really care because I’m trying to create masters of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and not some dudes with black belts.

Last thing…

Could you see Harvard ,Yale or a Military Academy graduate people with no testing or curriculum standards? The Dean just walks up one day and says..You are ready to graduate? Do you really want your next belt without meeting any kind of preset concrete, in writing standard? I guess only you can answer that.

*Keith Owen Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu recently won the Team Title at the Northwest Submission Challenge held here in Boise Idaho.

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  1. I test/evaluate our students as well. AWESOME ARTICLE!!

    Josef "Ze Cobra" Manuel
    Nova Uniao Black Belt

    1. Is there any defined curriculum for White to bleue belt in NOVA UNIAO team? I am member of NOVA UNIAO,white belt and it seems to me that our teache ,A black belt from Brasil don't follow any pattern ,is very scrambled .

  2. There are advantages to having a belt test, the most obvious of which are that it provides a standardised set of criteria, as well as giving students clear goals to work towards.

    However, I think the negatives outweigh the positives. Many martial arts have been ruined by belt testing. The biggest problem is when people start charging for them. As soon as grading becomes a potential income stream for an instructor, standards slip, until you end up like taekwondo, where there are six year old children running around with black belts. I think that is the biggest thing that worries people in BJJ about schools that test (although it is becoming increasingly common, with even Alliance using them).

    Like many others, that is one of the reasons I was put off other martial arts: I was getting belts I didn't feel I had earned. Running through some techniques then handing over the cash doesn't prove anything about my ability to actually apply what I've learned.

    The meritocractic approach common in BJJ, where you receive your belt based on ability proved in sparring and validated in competition, is much more valuable. The key is resistance. Learning how to perform a set of techniques compliantly is basically kata: I could demonstrate a flying armbar in drilling, but that definitely doesn't mean I would be able to pull it off in sparring.

    If performance against full resistance is not a central part of promotion, the belt becomes meaningless. You can't fake ability on the mat, in the same way you can't fake knowing how to swim after being thrown in a swimming pool, or speaking Spanish after arriving in a Peruvian village: you can either do it or you can't.

    In terms of belt testing, Roy Dean probably has the best method, as he combines both options (described by Dean here). He offers a choice, because the belt test is optional: he's already decided you are ready for the belt. If you do go for the belt test, that does include compliant demonstration of techniques, but importantly there is also plenty of sparring. Most importantly, he doesn't charge the students anything for testing.

    So, two questions for you:

    1. Do you charge for belt tests?

    2. Is sparring a part of your belt tests, or just compliant demonstration of technique?

  3. Slidey,

    I charge 50 dollars for testing and they get a belt and certificate. Hardly making a mint =).

    Sparring is the main component in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you can't test unless your rolling is up to par. We don't take team titles because of our good looks.

    I'm not saying my way is the best. I just know I don't have anymore problems and neither do my students.

  4. slideyfoot - I'm a student at Pedro Sauer's main academy in VA. He also does belt testing based on a number of classes. There are a few points here that I don't think got brought up... and that's from the perspective of a student. When I was about 15 classes away from my blue belt, I was taking a serious look at my game and had to make sure that wearing the belt would be justified. I worked harder and looked at the criterea to make sure I was going to be ready. (Fortunately, that criterea pointed me in the right direction to get better) Had it been based purely on my performance beforehand, I might not have gotten the motivation to excel as quickly as I did right before my belt test. Believe me... no one wants a blue belt that doesn't deserve it. Actually, you'd be surprised at how many people refuse to test when they don't feel they are ready.

    When we test under Pedro, the first half of the test is demonstrating the techniques, and the second half is demonstrating them in situational sparring.

    In addressing your point about the TKD and the belt testing system, you are completely correct. I can't imagine that Jiu-Jitsu will fall pray to that. Jiu-Jitsu can be performed against ANY resisting opponent (So you can clearly measure the effectiveness of a person's technique). The real problem with the TKD system is the amount of belts and the short amount of time in which you can get them. I don't think you could make a case that a BJJ school is trying to get rich off of 4 $50 test fees over the 8-10 year period it takes to get a black belt.

  5. Now if schools started charging for stripes... then I'd be concerned. :)

  6. Great article. Testing is mandatory at my school. It forces the student
    Who is serious to improve his/her skills and learn about the history
    Of your art.
    Fred Louis
    Zenbei Judo Dojo
    Salt Lake City, Utah

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