The belt doesn’t lie. Or does it?

The belt doesn’t lie. Or does it?

No one dared to tell the Emperor that he was stark naked.

Or that’s how it’s told in the children’s fable, ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’; the people of the Royal court unwilling to tell him the truth in fear of losing favour.

Eventually it is up to a little boy, guarded by innocence, to point out the obvious; to tell the Emperor that the royal garments commissioned for him are not what they appear. They are, in fact, a lie…

If we are honest, we’re all a little guilty of similar traits: making false assumptions and ignoring what is plain to see; rarely done with malice or intent, just mental blind spots that come, free of charge, with a discerning mind.

Although, sometimes, we need to speak up and tell the boss that they have no pants on!

In our art, a surreptitious glance at a stranger’s belt, whether a new comer to our academy or an opponent we have not been drawn against before, reveals volumes about them and their BJJ.

 In that 4cm wide (and various lengths, depending on how much you’ve eaten) strip of waist hugging material, a litany of information is available about the hurt, or not, that you are about to receive.

The colour and stripes tell us what techniques they are likely to know, approximately how long they have trained (barring prolonged injury and time out), if their aggression is rude or innocent and if we should go easy, heavy or middling. Myriad unuttered secrets, revealed to us via their belt, are essential for how we play the upcoming game.

But how many of us have been utterly surprised by the mismatch of belt to skills, either positively or negatively?

Have we not all rolled with a white belt, preparing to ‘go easy’, only to find ourselves in the grasps of a rear naked choke and our lives fading to black? Have we not also, at the opposite end of the spectrum, geared ourselves up to take on the high grade and wondered (only to ourselves, of course), “Who the hell gave this guy his brown belt, Mickey Mouse?”

At tournaments it is the same scenario but within a single belt range (making exceptions for the obvious experience difference between, for example, a new blue belt and one with four stripes.) 

Let’s say we lined up ten students with identical belt and stripe rank, one by one, and tested their skills. We are likely to find quite a discrepancy in standard between them all.

Now don’t go all ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ on me; don’t disappear into a shell of denial. We all know that it is an unsaid fact.

But why?

Aside from the fact that life is inexact and filled with variables that make it impossible to pigeonhole (weeds will always find a way through manicured patio, thank heaven), there is a deeper problem.

 Martial arts is one of the most far reaching education outlets that still remains unregulated and standardised by a singular and appointed governing body, all agreeing on standard practice and means of assessing it. 

Basically, every art, every club and every academy does its ‘own thing’. We wouldn’t accept it from our academic schools, colleges or universities, so why do we from our other sources of education?

Now, to be fair, in some ways standardisation is attempted at some BJJ academies. An academy charter is often implemented at the main school and its sub-academies/franchises so that everyone is singing off of the same song sheet, so to speak. They are usually set out on large boards of rules, etiquette and guiding philosophy located on a wall just before you step onto the mats. Adherence to the charter, attendance and achievement of technical skills are represented by the colour of the belt awarded, ultimately. In this way, parallels with academic teaching practice can be made.

 But who is regulating the information on these charters?  Who decided upon the original, and who, now, decides on improvements and updates to it? Who is ensuring its successful implementation? Who is ensuring that implementation is happening across the board, academy to academy? Who is responsible for a testing system that is consistent, accurate and appropriately represents the expected standards? 

Of course, we know the answer. No one.

Standardisation is both a minefield and, at this point in time for BJJ, it raises more questions than it answers; but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be embraced or at least considered.

What is standardisation?

Before we continue with a possible route forward, please allow me to offer one dictionaries definition of ‘standardisation’:

  1. The act of checking or adjusting (by comparison with a standard) the accuracy of a measuring instrument [for us, our belt colour is the instrument]
  2. The imposition of standards and regulations 
  3. The condition in which a standard has been successfully established

What standardisation aims to achieve

Ultimately, its purpose is to provide the highest possible education standards, for all, by utilising the following:

  1. A national curriculum designed to provide high quality, consistent and coherent education to all students
  2.  Health and safety procedures and systems designed to protect the students 
  3.  Accurate and reliable tests and measures to ensure that students needs are being met
  4. Accurate and reliable tests and measures so that students can offer credible proof to future employees and educators of their previous experience and qualifications gained.

The Dangers of not being standardised

BJJ is a new art and an even newer sport, the issue of standardisation has never been one before. As the art continues to grow, however, and raises its sights to possible Olympic status, Elite Junior programmes, in-school curriculum classes and, in some regards, professional status, standardisation will need to be seriously considered. 

Whether we like it or not, BJJ has grown beyond the freewheeling self expressive fight mats of Brazil, and has entered main stream countries that insist on high and consistent quality from its education resources; academic, recreational or otherwise. 

Just as traditional education in the UK and Europe had to pull up its socks and succumb to standardisation in the early 19thcentury, high level sports educators should expect to do the same here in the 21st

Without standardisation we risk:

  1. Losing credibility through inconsistent standards
  2. Litigation directed at injuries caused through inconsistent standards
  3. Litigation caused through injuries sustained through inadequate health and safety codes of practice 
  4. Haphazard and unstructured teaching practice leading to under realised student potential

Fears of standardisation

Many are threatened by standard codes. Fear of diminishing individuality a genuine concern for those who enjoy free expression, creativity and resist, quite rightly, automaton. 

Are these misplaced fears though? Does regulation need to stifle creative flow and individuality? It is easy to imagine the same fears cited as resistance to the standardisation of academia, decades ago.  For all its flaws, it has worked out beneficially for schools, and we can all agree that we would prefer to send our children to schools with regulation, than ones without.

Of course it is possible to find examples of those flailing to find their individual voice within the homogeny of regulation, but this speaks more about lacks in individual educators imaginations than the system in which they operate.

For all its weaknesses, regulation and standardisation are, I propose, better than none; but it is a massive and complicated job.  And where on earth would we start?

Here is a possible five-step plan:

  1. Board of representatives

The first job would be to assemble a board of representatives. These would be the head instructors/directors/owners of the most well established academies (both in time operating and size of active student base- e.g. Established for three years or more with a student base of one hundred plus.)

Smaller, new and independent clubs would be represented by the more established until they have reached the requirements necessary to gain their own representative seat.

  • Health and safety

The board’s first job would be to vote and decide upon a health and safety policy designed to protect BJJ: both its students and instructors.

The policy would also demand effective risk assessment structure and procedure. Dull as this may all be, as BJJ grows, and with it the intention to be taken seriously on a global and possible professional platform, numbers of participants will swell drastically.

With higher participant numbers comes higher risk of injury, malpractice and possible litigation. Strategies need to be in place to limit this.

  • Curriculum

One of the things we all love about BJJ is its ‘Brazilianess’. We love the cool and relaxed approach, many of us finding it a refreshing change to the starchy formality of 1970s and 80s karate.

But the laissez faire approach can lead to haphazard and spontaneous (read: made up) lessons with no nexus.

An art and sport wanting the limelight will need to show that it can help teach its participants as efficiently (in both time and resources) and effectively as possible. This will need a curriculum, syllabus and detailed linked lesson plans.

  • Consistent examination/grading/assessment of standard 

Whether an academy chooses to examine students on an exam day, assess them over months of class or use some alternative method, the criteria, set by the curriculum, should lead to an agreed and consistent standard.

In short: a belt colour should mean the same in every academy.

Now, of course, provisions will have to be made, just as they are at competitions (differing age categories for instance); clearly, the expectations of a fifty year old business owner will be different to those of a twenty year old full time athlete- the curriculum should provide for this and other scenarios.

Irrespective, belt standard and consistency should remain a goal: the fifty year blue belt with two stripes should know what to expect when she drives to Ireland and competes, or trains, with another fifty year old blue two stripe.

  • Inspection

Independent non-biased authorities inspect all credible education establishments regularly. Both OFSTED and ISI provide this valuable and vital role in the inspection of state and private schools, and BJJ would do well to follow their lead.

Although daunting at first, and sometimes resisted, inspection is the way forward if standards are to be genuine, consistent and duplicable.

Resistance to such measures is often from those least confident about their skills. For those struggling to reach criteria standards, a curriculum will help guide them to success.

In this way, inspection becomes a tool for helping raise standards and supporting those in need, rather than exposing ‘fake teachers’ in that ludicrous way demonstrated so egocentrically across social media at present.

Although a simple plan, it is not an easy one. History books are filled with the reported challenges of attempted unification; but it is a worthy goal never the less.

Standardised, organised , structured and ‘joined up’ conjoining of BJJ factions could propel our beloved sport into the proverbial  stratosphere; heights disparity could never reach.

But, if we can’t achieve this, if we are unable to coordinate our skills and teaching and then inspect them to ensure consistent belt standard, well, we could always revert to that other great use for a BJJ belt: Whipping each other.

Matt Jardine is a writer and author and martial arts teacher. Follow him on FaceBook@

Published by Matt Jardine

Author, writer, teacher and Martial artist

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