Exploring the Map: On The Journey Through the Belt System

An essay on the journey through the belt system of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ originally published in 2004

One of the most common questions I am asked when I travel and teach is this: ”What do I need to work on?” As a coach, you will need to get used to being asked this. It is part of the job.

The answer to this question will, of course, be individualized to a great degree. Over the last ten years of coaching BJJ I have become aware of certain patterns that most athletes will follow in one form or another. It’s the journey all BJJ players undertake and to explain my own personal vision of it as a coach and teacher, I often use a map analogy.
Imagine for a moment that the art and science of BJJ is all diagramed out on a large map. Your job as a teacher and coach is to help the student to first be able to read and navigate on the map, and then to begin to explore the map. As the individual becomes more adept at traveling the territory of the map, they begin to gain greater degrees of performance skill and understanding of the art of BJJ.

Using that metaphor, here are some of the major steps I often see:

White to Blue

The journey of white belt to blue belt in BJJ is one of familiarization.

Using the map analogy, it’s where you learn to read the map; this is North, South, East, West, etc. It’s also, where you learn what the major areas of the map are (neighborhoods). The combination of the two in BJJ terms is that you need to learn what and where all the major positions are (neighborhoods), and what the major routes is that connects those positions/neighborhoods; those major roads are the fundamental objectives. As an example, the five point passing game that we teach covers the basic objectives you are looking to accomplish as you try and pass the guard.

In short, the journey from white to blue is where the athlete learns the basic rules of the road, learns to play the game.

What to work on

As a teacher, your major focus is best spent on the basic positions, principles, and objectives of BJJ. You want the athlete to first be able to recognize what the major positions are, and secondly to understand what their major objectives are when they find themselves in these positions. The sooner the student learns these two things the sooner they can begin to play the game, i.e.: explore the map. So, a good teacher will keep it basic, clear and concise, and create an environment where a newbie can start to roll on day one without feeling overwhelmed or confused by the tasks at hand.

As a student at this level your major objectives are simple, familiarize yourself with the major positions and fundamental movements. Secondly, relax.

Keeping it very simple and staying very relaxed will accelerate your game faster then any piece of advise I could offer a white belt. Who taps you out or doesn’t tap you out is completely irrelevant at this level. What’s important is that you enjoy yourself, and allow your body the time to familiarize itself with the mechanics of a roll.

Things to avoid

As a coach the major errors at this stage involve two things. The first is straying too far from solid fundamental movements/ positions. Teaching lock flows, elaborate submission set ups, or too many techniques in a single class will only confuse and slow down the progress of most white belts.

The second is straying too far from solid coaching methods. The ‘here is a few new techniques, now lets roll’ method, or the ’let’s do 500 dead repetitions of this move’, are sure fire ways to slow down the learning curve of any new athlete.

These mistakes remain a constant throughout the athlete’s progress, and solid fundamentals combined with good ‘I’ method classes are a must throughout the athlete’s career. They are an absolute deal breaker at the white belt level. Intermediate to advance BJJ athletes can still learn and grow, even from poor coaches who don’t really know how to run a proper class or workout. Beginners will find themselves completely lost, and may eventually become turned off to the entire activity in that kind of environment.

As an athlete the thing to watch out for at this level is frustration because you may often find yourself in an unfamiliar position when rolling and be unsure of exactly what you should even be trying to do. Frustration can often get the best of you. The single best piece of advice I can offer at this level is this: just relax. BJJ takes time, so just enjoy yourself as much as possible. It’s not a race.

Blue to Purple

The journey from blue to purple is one of detail.

If an individual has no previous background in wrestling, then a lot of BJJ can seem like magic when you first learn it. There is a stage as a beginner where knowledge of a new technique can become that crucial edge that allows you to survive or even beat, a large, strong peer who may have previously smashed you on the mat. So it’s normal that as one comes out of that white belt stage and begins to play the game as an early blue belt, the idea that accumulation of technique equals learning becomes a natural assumption. This is why the blue belt stage is where you gather your instructional DVD collection. It’s also one of the traps of the blue belt. We will talk more about this further down.
Using the map analogy, it’s where you really start to explore the different neighborhoods. You are past the stage of learning to identify North, South, East, West, and the major neighborhoods/positions, and you’re fully engaged in exploring these areas. No matter what position a coach calls out, a solid blue belt should have no problem identifying it, and having a good basic idea of what they should be doing from there. Becoming ‘good’ at playing in those different positions is what the stage of blue belt is all about.

What to work on

As a teacher, your major focus is best spent on drilling positions. Submission should be kept to the minimum, solid core moves but the emphasis should always be kept on holding, controlling and escaping from positions. This is, of course, the case for all levels of athlete but I think this rule becomes particularly important at the blue belt phase, because the coach needs to bring the student out of the technique-based mode, into a broader positional perspective.
I believe that blue belt is the where the open guard should really start to be fleshed out. Open guard is the heart and soul of BJJ and, by starting people with the open guard, as opposed to the closed guard; you encourage the development of excellent hip movement. Nothing in BJJ is more important than that.

As a student, work your open guard! Learn to play an active and aggressive guard game. Treat it as an offensive position, with the mindset that, regardless of who they are, they will not pass your guard. Work your escapes from bottom game. Your emphasis on open guard will help here, as you will be developing solid hip movement and, as always, stick to developing your positional skills and thinking in broader concepts.

  • Why does BJJ work the way it does?
  • What are the top three things you are trying to accomplish in any given position?
  • What is the best priority for those things?

Find the answers for yourself to questions like this. Now that you can play the game it’s time to begin that lifelong process of simplifying the principles and concepts that the game is composed of.

Things to avoid

As a coach, the biggest thing to remember when coaching blue belts is patience. Patience is always important no matter who you are coaching, but it can be particularly trying with blue belts because, as mentioned previously, they may still be caught in that accumulation phase. The belief that getting better must mean learning a new submission, or a new move, is a phase that many blue belts go through. As a good coach, you need to be patient with them and create an environment where they are guided towards a bigger picture perspective.

As always, sticking with core fundamentals in every class helps facilitate this process.

As an athlete and a blue belt, the thing to watch for, is the tendency to be distracted from the fundamentals by some flash, or an overly complicated game plan. Learning to differentiate between movements, which really are core fundamentals, and those that are not, is a skill, which may not be fully developed yet. Just because you see a very good competitor or black belt execute that movement or game doesn’t mean it’s something you need to be working on right now.

  • How is your elbow escape?
  • Head and arm escapes?
  • Crosssides escapes?
  • Base & posture in the closed guard?
  • By sticking to core fundamentals you will grow much faster.

Purple to Brown

The journey of purple to brown is one of intense refinement.

There are two belts in BJJ that are the hardest to get. The second hardest belt to achieve is, the purple belt.

Most people that study BJJ for more then a few Years will at some point receive a blue belt. But a purple belt is a different matter. A purple belt means that not only can you play the game (a blue belt) but you can play it really well. Many people will quit BJJ before receiving their purple belt.

But, the hardest belt to achieve is without a doubt, the brown belt. A brown belt doesn’t just play the game well, they play it so well that they are dangerous to everyone they roll with, black belt, world champion, everyone. The step from brown to black (if the brown belt was legitimate to begin with) is always a short hop. So although most people will be purple belts for many Years, the brown belt stage is often quite shorter. This is what makes the brown belt so hard to achieve, and this is why you will most likely be a purple belt longer then you will a white, blue, or brown.

Purple belt is your hump belt, it’s the belt where you put it all the hard work. The time for learning a lot of new technique has passed. There will always be new movements to learn. There is no end to the amount of techniques and counters that will develop in an Alive art like BJJ.

BJJ evolves, like everything else living but, for the most part, these things will be variations of root movements you are already familiar with. By now you will know full well that being good at BJJ is not a process of accumulation, but rather one of timing and that timing is only acquired when you roll and drill Alive. You will have to have thousands of matches. Spend thousands of hours drilling positions, working escapes, working guard passing, playing guard, playing top, and fleshing out your entire game.

As a purple belt no position can go unlearned. It is impossible to be a legitimate brown belt and have a “poor guard”, or “bad escape game”. You need to be good in every position, top, bottom, guard, half guard, and quarter positions and all this takes time.

Going back to our map analogy, if the journey from white to blue was about learning to read the map and travel along the main routes, and the journey from blue to purple was about becoming familiar with all the neighborhoods, then the journey from purple to brown is one of deep refinement.

You are learning to ‘Google Earth’ at this stage.

Not only can you get around the map and know all the major neighborhoods well, but also you are fleshing out all the streets in each and every separate square block. It’s tiring work because nobody can give you a short cut here. If you really want to develop that true understanding of the entire game of BJJ (and I know you do because you are smart enough to be reading this) then you have to get out onto the mat and walk every single city block on the map. Getting better as a purple belt is about rolling, and drilling positions Alive, over and over again.

What to work on

As a teacher your major focus is on helping this athlete flesh out his/her game. This means they need to be exposed to athletes of different shapes, sizes, and styles of play. If you have done a good job as a head coach then you have already created an environment where that can occur. By focusing always on fundamentals you have allowed an entire room of athletes to develop their own unique games, while at the same time making sure they are all highly technical and skilled. Now it’s time to let that room do its work.

You have to honor the process, and you do that by guiding purple belts through the ups and downs of being a competitive athlete.

(Whether they compete publicly or not doesn’t matter here. All purples belts will be constantly matching their game against others in daily, competitive matches within the gym. As such, they will experience the highs and lows that come with these types of performance activities).

Having specific classes and times where the purple belts and more competitive athletes in your gym can train together and drill at a more intense and aggressive pace, is one of the single most important thing you can do to help as their coach.

1996 – SBG Competition Team 98 Portland OR
includes Robert Follis, Tom Oberhue,
Nate Quarry, Jeff Wassom, and Eric Hemphill.

As a student, don’t become too attached to any specific position or game. If you have a good coach who really cares about you, then you will be a purple belt for a long time. Over those years you will have a certain set of positions and routes that you will prefer over others. A type of game you may feel suits you best but understand this, as a purple belt, that game is not only subject to change, it’s guaranteed to!

You have a lot of work ahead of you at this belt. You have to flesh out the details of every single position that can occur on the mat. It’s not enough to just be ‘ok’ at certain positions anymore, while being ‘good’ at others. You now have to learn to be good at all the positions. As your body goes through this process, it will, of its own accord, discover exactly what positions it favors, and those it doesn’t. However, you won’t exactly know until the entire map is fleshed out what that game may be like in its final phases. You may spend a few years being known primarily as a ‘guard guy’. Then, within the span of a few days, switch completely to playing more of a passing and top game style. You may discover that your left butterfly hook completely changes how you work your old half guard or that your ever-developing top game also tends to change your preferred guard passing method.

All these changes are positive. It’s completely natural to play one type of game for a few years, and another for a few more after that. That is how your body learns. You have to go through this process in order to develop that completely fleshed out, well-rounded, game. That Google Earth map is the purple belt process. Just go with it, and let your body play.

Things to avoid

As a Coach, just as with blue belts, being very patient with purple belts will become a needed skill. It’s a slightly different thing, though. Whereas blue belts tend to become attached to learning new ‘moves’, purple belts tend to become attached to playing certain types of games, or ‘styles’.

As I have stated above, most people will be purple belts for a long time. Because of that, there can be a huge difference between a brand new purple belt, and an athlete that has been a purple belt for five or six years. As a beginner purple belt, style can make a massive difference in certain matches. One purple belt may meet another one and completely dominate, not because they are so much better then the other athlete, but more so because the two styles of the athletes just didn’t match up well. Likewise, they may find themselves smashed when working against a particular individual, and become very discouraged. This is because although they are good, there are still parts of the map that need a lot of detailing out as a young purple belt. If they get caught on one of those blocks that has not been fleshed out yet, and that happens to be a neighborhood their opponents knows well, they can find themselves tapping much faster then expected.

An advanced purple belt won’t experience such a drastic change in performance based solely on their opponent’s style of play. That’s because they have filled in the detail on the majority of the map. So, no matter where their opponent may take them, they can still usually put up a decent fight. Understanding this, as a coach, allows you to witness when an athlete may be moving out of the purple belt phase, and into a brown belt. Until that occurs, you, as a coach, have to maintain the patience required to continually remind the athlete that although the game they are playing now is really good, don’t they still have a few positions, or neighborhoods that they could be detailing out a bit more?

The single best question you can ask a purple belt is this: where are you weakest? You have to create an environment where the athlete is forced to work their weak positions, while at the same time they are still able to play competitively and develop their strengths.

When the purple belt comes to you, sure that they have sorted out their own style, be patient, smile, and send them back onto the mat for more work.

As an athlete and purple belt, the thing to watch for is exactly what I described above. your attachment to any single game, or style of play. Understand that your job at this belt is to really learn to play well at every single position that occurs within BJJ. This doesn’t just take time, it also means that as your body is given time to work from these positions your own personal game and style of play will change. Its okay to work on developing you’re ‘A’ game, just remember that today’s A game may become tomorrows B game, and enjoy the process along the way.

Brown to Black

The journey of brown to black is one of simplification.

If the process described above was fully traveled, and the athlete had a coach who cared enough about them to keep them at each belt until they were ready, then, by the time you reach the stage of a legitimate brown belt, you will pose a threat to ever person you touch hands with.

You won’t have any holes in your game. As I mentioned above, it’s impossible to be a legitimate brown belt and have a “poor guard”, or “bad escape game”. You won’t just know every position on the mat; you will be good at every position. “Style” will still make a difference when you roll, but it won’t play nearly as large a part as it does when you are a brand new purple belt. By this stage of learning, even if you are taken out of the positions you prefer to play in, you will still bring plenty of game.

As a student, it’s time to push yourself more then you ever have before in BJJ. If you have never played a serious competitive sport before, then you may be pushing yourself more then you ever have in your lifetime. It’s only in that pressure cooker that your game will finely condense into a working reflection of your own unique self and that is perfect.

Things to avoid

As a coach, you need to avoid the trap of needing to always be the ‘expert’. By this time you have probably spent a number of years being the primary person this athlete has turned to for advice, information, and direction. Now you have to be willing to let go of that role and begin to acknowledge the athlete as more of an equal. Your relationship with them will change, and you can serve as a useful guide in matters of belt evaluations, teaching, and overall thoughts regarding the game. However, you can’t try and hold onto to the same teacher – student dynamic you may have had when this athlete was a white or blue belt.

For the coach, this stage brings up all kinds of issues regarding attachment to self-image and that’s perfect, as well.

What to work on

At brown belt, the answer to this should be very simple. It’s now time to be very competitive. It’s time to get in shape, push your body, and push your game. The only way to sharpen those routes, to test those specific directions you have for the map is to wrestle competitively against as many people as possible. You need to spend sometime matching your “style” against other styles. You need to pressure test your game.

As a brown belt, you need to be willing to roll with anyone that walks into the gym and you have to enter the roll expecting to win.

In order to do this you will need to be an athlete. You will never know how your game works under pressure unless you’re capable of pushing yourself past the point where most people tire out. If you don’t ever experience that level of conditioning, then you may never reach those points where your game becomes tested the way it should be.
You have mastered the fundamentals already. You know the technique. Now it is time to see just how good your body can perform those mechanics. Just how can you be?

Matt with Randy Couture and Jeff Munson 2000

As a student it’s time to push yourself more then you ever have before in BJJ. And if you have never played a serious competitive sport before, then you may be pushing yourself more then you ever have in your lifetime. It’s only in that pressure cooker that your game will finely condense into a working reflection of your own unique self. And that is perfect.

Things to avoid

As a Coach you need to avoid the trap of needing to always be the ‘expert’. By this time you have probably spent a number of Years being the primary person this athlete has turned to for advise, information, and direction. Now you have to be willing to let go of that role and begin to acknowledge the athlete as more of an equal. Your relationship with them will change, and you can serve as a useful guide in matters of belt evaluations, teaching, and overall thoughts regarding the game. But, you can’t try and hold onto to the same teacher – student dynamic you may have had when this athlete was a white or blue belt.

For the Coach this stage brings up all kinds of issues regarding attachment to self image. And that’s perfect as well.

As an athlete, don’t burn out. Be competitive, but keep it fun. Take care of your body, your health, and your overall well-being. Make sure you don’t over-train, or find yourself mentally drained.
The confidence you gain as a brown belt is invaluable, and it can’t be faked.

No amount of pop psychology nonsense, self-hypnosis, or Tony Robbins car salesman insincerity will ever serve as a useful substitute for the true development that takes place when you fully honor the process.

Authenticity can’t be bought, sold, or even taught. It’s only ever found and you can only ever do it for yourself.

The brown belt stage shouldn’t last more then a couple years. If your coach did his job regarding measurement, then you developed the meat of your game as a purple belt. Being a brown belt was a formality of refinement, testing, and self-knowledge.

By the end of that time you will have a solid understanding of the entire map. And you will also have your own specific routes, details, “style”, which will be a direct reflection of your own unique persona. This means you are now a black belt.

After black belt?

This is a broad topic. There are many issues that arise after the black belt. You will have to deal with things like measurement, coaching, and teaching (see the post on belts below), as well a lifelong process of simplicity that never stops evolving. You will learn to get heavier, and intangibles like base, timing, and transitional skills continue to be honed.

I will deal with many of these subjects in future articles.For now, the single most important thing I can say regards being a black belt is this: when it comes time for you to help guide others through this same process, you need to make sure you go back to teaching the entire map, and guiding your own future students through their own exploration of that map.

You must avoid the pitfall of teaching your own specific routes.

This doesn’t mean you need to keep secrets, far from it, but, by focusing only on the fundamentals, you allow athletes the needed space and information required so they can develop their own unique games, while also making sure they are all highly technical and skilled. When you teach just your own style, you rob them of that same process.

The Process of BJJ itself is a very powerful form of yoga. And when I use yoga in this context I am referring to it in the older, original sense of the word. All of us involved in this process can feel a deep sense of gratitude for it. It’s a real blessing, privilege, and joy.

“Religions are founded by what mystics say when they come back; but what the mystics say is not the same as what happened to them.”

Carve your own path


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