In a recent post, I discussed the inherently social and contrastive nature of promotions in jiu jitsu. I think that anyone who denies that promotions be looked at in this way is unmoored from reality (or perhaps they simply fail to understand some important features of human psychology—e.g., how keenly attentive we are to how our peers rank in relation to ourselves). Given the ineliminably social and contrastive nature of promotions, they are to be taken very seriously indeed by instructors (which lamentably is often not the case). Unless and until an instructor is prepared to provide guidance to those who are not promoted—especially in the wake of others having been promoted—he should hold off on giving promotions.
This is not just a matter of managing the sour grapes among those who are held back, it’s a function of how to properly and adequately do one’s job as an instructor—i.e., as an educator. The key is the ability to provide actionable guidance to those who need and/or ask for it. It’s a dereliction of duty to leave it to students to figure things out on their own. If the black belt really is like the Ph.D. of belts (or perhaps even a post-doctoral fellowship), then by the time someone achieves the rank, they should have a pretty firm sense of the standards they will use in determining the rank of their students (and they should be able to articulate these expectations). It’s not enough to simply “wing it”—or so it seems to me as a professional ethicist and educator.
So, what kinds of standards might one adopt? Here is a long list of candidates for consideration:
- Attitude: Does the student have the right attitude? What counts? Is the student selfish? Does he roll with ego? Does he care just about himself (or does he work equally hard to improve others)? Does he do what the coaches tell him to do? Does he happily (vs. begrudgingly) help when asked? Is he respectful to visitors (whether they are white belts or black belts)?
- Knowledge: Lots of issues are packed into this category. Has the student mastered a certain set of fixed or formal techniques for each belt level? Has the student mastered the salient part of the self-defense curriculum? Has the student mastered stand-up techniques (from both wrestling and judo)? Has the student been familiarized with training in the gi and without the gi?
- Competition: Has the student competed? If so, how did he do against his peers from different academies? If the student has competed several times, has he made progress between each competition? Is the student coachable—that is, at tournaments, does the student listen to the coach’s instructions?
- Teaching: How much experience teaching does the student have? How good is he at breaking down techniques and conveying them clearly to less experienced students? How happy is he to teach—does he view it as an honor and a privilege or a burden?
- Rolling: How well does the student roll with students of his same rank. How does he roll with students who hold a lower (or a higher) rank? Does the student roll respectfully (with lower and upper belts alike)? Is the student always trying to “win” rolls or is he more focused simply on trying to improve?
- Contributions to Gym: Does the student help with the gym—e.g., does he manage the social media? Does the student volunteer when he's needed—e.g., to help give a public demonstration to the local community? Does the student help clean the mats and tidy up the gym without being asked to do so?
- Background Experience: Does the student have a background in a relevant martial art—e.g., wrestling, judo, akido, or even stand up arts such as karate? Is the student able to incorporate this past experience into his approach to jiu jitsu? Is the student’s past experience an impediment to his success in jiu jitsu (as is often the case with wrestlers—at least in my experience)?
- Ambassadorship: Is the student a good ambassador for the gym? Does he help portray the gym in a favorable light? Does the student recruit people to try jiu jitsu? Does the student help the gym grow? Does the student’s attitude turn off new students who are just trying jiu jitsu for the first time?
These are just some of the factors that come to mind. I think each of these factors ought to play a role—but I am admittedly just a lowly four-stripe purple belt, so what do I know? As an ethicist and moral psychologist by training and trade, however, I can say that some standards are bound to create inequity, unfairness, double-standards, and frustrations.
For instance, some instructors I have known and trained with insist that their only criterion is how a particular students “feels” when rolling. This is bad, pedagogically speaking, for multiple reasons. First, feelings are too subjective and too susceptible to biases such as favoritism, etc. Second, if one student rolls harder than he should while another student rolls more respectfully, the former student may “feel” better—but this is just an artifact of how hard the students chose to roll. Had the latter student rolled just as hard as the former student, he, too, would have “felt” better. Third, relying on this as one’s sole criterion also makes the entire promotion system opaque and mysterious. After all, how a student “feels” to one instructor may differ from how he “feels” to another instructor—even if these instructors happen to be at the very same academy. Fourth, if “feeling while rolling” is going to be the only criterion, then it is important that the rolls not always occur from the knees—which is very artificial as far as it goes. While one student may seem like a world beater from the knees, he may be completely lost on the feet. As such, if these students were forced to start from the feet, they may “feel” far less technical or good when rolling.
Needless to say, I think the “feeling” criterion is not very reliable—especially when it is the sole criterion. When coupled with some of the criteria I mentioned above, it both could and should play a role. But it’s not a good measure in and of itself.
That said, notice I haven’t even gotten into what the different belts are supposed to mean (far less what individual stripes are supposed to mean). Here, too, there is a wide variety of opinions both within schools and between schools. In general, I think most people would agree with the following categorization: (a) Beginner belts: White and Blue, (b) Intermediate belt: Purple, and (c) Expert belts: Brown and black. But the standards for distinguishing between beginners, intermediates, and experts once again vary widely—which only adds to students’ frustrations (especially students like me who have moved around and belonged to a number of schools, each of which had its own standards and conventions).
This is partly why I think schools should have a formal curriculum—which can serve as a semi-objective measure. But that is a post for another day! For now, I just wanted to get a conversation going about what should (and what should not) count when it comes to promotions. Thoughts?