Questions for BJJ newcomers with Warren Stout

Questions for BJJ newcomers with Warren Stout

Here are some questions our head instructor Warren Stout answered for an upcoming jiu jitsu book on how to get started. The  questions were answered in a general way, not specifically for Stout PGH and are mostly answered with new beginners in mind. Maybe some of you will get something from them. 


What is the rank and belt system in BJJ, and how long does it typically take to progress through the ranks?


A: The belt ranking system generally is White, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black. Some schools add a belt between white and Blue. There are stripes on belts, usually 4 stripes or degrees before progressing to the next belt. There is some variation on how these are used. For example in my schools we only use stripes on our white and blue belts. I use them as organizational tools to determine what classes  people are eligible for. How schools manage and decide promotions varies widely also. At my schools we base our belts loosely on the guidelines of the IBJJF The International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation.  It is the largest tournament organizer and the largest organization with detailed guidelines. We promote based primarily on instructor(s) assessment of whether the student is ready. The criteria we use is purposely not sharply defined and varies somewhat from individual to individual. We try to take into account the person’s goals, the time they have spent in classes, the skill they have developed, knowledge base, and age as some of the most important deciding factors. Since this is a very subjective judgment I’ll give an example. We may promote a 45 year old person with the primary goals of learning a form of self defense and staying in shape who has been training for 7 years to purple belt before we promote a 26 year old active competitor with roughly equal mat time who can always defeat the older practitioner. Some schools promote solely on attendance. I think this is a bit of a lazy way to promote. That said, we do pay attention to attendance and with a large school(s) it can be hard to evaluate everyone with the level of detail I would like to, especially at the lower belt levels. 

I want to say here without going too far into it that belt promotion standards vary widely and people should remember that it is mostly subjective. I think there are problems inherent in belt promotion including over concern with hierarchy. There are positive aspects like organizational clarity and competition. Jiu jitsu is a competitive activity and the mats supply comparison between people. Don’t use belts as a comparison tool between you and others. I always say it is mostly between you and your teacher(s). 

In my schools as a very general average the following times are guidelines for times at each belt. White to blue 10-18 months. Blue to purple 3-6 years. Purple to brown 3-4 years. Brown to black 2-5 years. You may see stripes or degrees on black belts. This is based on years as a black belt and generally only this. There are also a few belts such as coral and red belts. These are like honorary awards and are usually given to very long time practitioners who have contributed something to the sport and art over a lifetime. 

The history of belt promotions in jiu jitsu is not necessary to elaborate on here but it is something that has been created over the past 80 years primarily by the Gracie family and based on Judo belts. The Judo belt system was in turn created within the last 100 or so years. 


What are the qualifications and experience of the instructors at the BJJ school?


A: This is a tough question to answer but an important one for students to ask. I will answer by saying what is important and what I believe is not. I’ll also point out some red flags to be aware of. In addition it depends somewhat on your personal goals, what you want to get out of jiu jitsu. Two important things are if the instructor is a good teacher and if they get along with you. These things are hard to know until you experience them. This is why I recommend trying classes and if possible a couple of different schools. Some things to look for in a good teacher are: A coherent lesson that is not unconnected or haphazard, precise communication skills, ability to answer good questions and help direct students to ask good questions. Lineage or who the instructor learns from can be somewhat important.  The reason is that how the person learned and who they learned from influences their teaching methods. 

What is not important for many people is championships won. The exception can be those whose goal is to be competitive in sports of jiu jitsu or mma. Even for these people this can be less important. While I think  competition and the sport aspect of jiu jitsu is important to keep authenticity and help weed out  charlatans it does not directly bear on teaching ability. It may influence coaching ability though which are  two different things. This is why I believe competitors may look for instructor competition credentials as a consideration. Probably more important for competitors is the general school culture and having other competitors of similar mind to train with as well as structured training schedules. It’s worth keeping in mind that John Danaher, who I have had the opportunity to learn from over many years, and who is widely considered the current best coach in jiu jitsu and one of the best teachers, has never competed himself. 

Some red flags are arrogant attitudes around belt rank, listing on a website as a “World Champion ” without specifying the age group and organization the title came from, general boastful but vague statements like “most respected” and similar puffery. Sometimes too much emphasis on association vs the school’s own story or accomplishments can be a red flag to avoid also.