Martial Arts in Portland Oregon, and belt testing

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Martial Arts in Portland Oregon have never been the same since SBG was founded over twenty years ago, in 1992.

The concept of a Mixed Martial Arts gym hadn’t been born yet. SBG was the first commercial location to do such a thing, the pioneers of the idea, forever changing the way Martial Arts in Portland Oregon would be viewed. Because we were first, and this was all new, a break with the old dead patterns of Martial Arts, the worn out superstitions and fantasy based training methods, was a must.

Titles, terminology and “belts” which had no connection to functional skill, were discarded.

We’ve discussed this topic before, click here to read:  martial arts in Portland Oregon and how the SBG views ‘belts’.

One thing remained the exception, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu belt system. Why? Because demonstrating skill in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is similiar to being able to speak spanish or play the guitar. It is a testable, empirically testable, functional skill. It cannot be faked.

This authenticity is what gives the ranking system in BJJ it’s meaning.

When it comes to martial arts in general, especially martial arts in Portland Oregon, the skill and high standards of SBG’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu athletes is renowned. But it isn’t just the martial arts community in Portland that recognizes this fact.

One of the things most impressive about SBG, is that we’ve been able to maintain our high standards for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu belt promotion, world wide. Not just within the Martial Arts of Portland Oregon community.
This letter recently written by SBG Master Instructor Steve Whittier, is a great example.
If you want to understand how we belt at the Portland Martial Arts SBG academy, then all you need to do is read this:
I got an email question this week and immediately thought it deserved an article onto itself as it relates to belt testing within the martial arts:
“We had belt testing this weekend and some of my fellow bjj’ers received stripes some their blue, purple etc. how do you deal or advise some of these white belt bjj’er that think they should  have more stripes or moved up a color? i will admit the mats this week have been violent and pecking order is being reset…lol. i enjoy watching the young guns gun for each other. i’m just a 40yr old with the passion and love of the art. this is just entertainment to me but i do have a lot of them voicing their disappointment to me.
it must be my calm yoda like jiujitsu you have been covering.”
This brings up a very, very common phenomenon in BJJ: rank promotions.

I have written about some of the pitfalls of ego-driven attitudes within martial arts, and many of the subtle ways they can manifest in individuals as well as in cliques within martial arts schools. Hand-in-hand with common problems like keeping score (who taps who) is where the student believes he or she should be with respect to rank.

I’ve seen a lot of this over the years.

And I do understand that some instructors within the martial arts, frankly, have some weird, inconsistent standards, play favorites, etc., and in some cases it’s understandable that these can lead to students being frustrated.

For me, however, I have to be 100% clear. When it comes to belt promotions, it is not a democracy. I have a clear criteria for what I’m looking for and do not compromise on those standards, period. This is true within the martial arts of Nexus, the UK, or the martial arts in Portland Oregon. It is true at all SBGs.

But no matter how explicit you make these martial arts criteria, there will be some whose egos and insecurities will get in the way. Often to the tune of “But I can tap that [higher rank] out, so I should be [that rank].”

Not necessarily. It all comes down to technical performance.

Just because, for example, a white belt can submit a blue belt sometimes, or is superior in one aspect of the game, such as a killer guard, does NOT make him a blue belt…

To be a blue belt, they have to have a technical blue belt game, meaning: blue belt guard, blue belt passing, blue belt defense and escapes, etc.

Another self-deception is how students will represent their use or non-use of attributes.

I’ve known some guys who were tough rolls, competed well, etc. and always boasted about how they used no strength, when it was very clear that their “A game” depended on just that.
Or on the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see some physically weaker individuals accuse anyone who stuffs their game as using too much strength, sometimes justified but often not.
One of the biggest reality checks is getting shut down by someone with a wrestling background (wrestling + BJJ is a great combination when the athlete is willing to embrace both on a technical level). I always find it amusing when this happens, and hear post training gripe about how someone is just using strength and no technique, when in this case the opponent in question is a technical wrestler who has a great base and tight positioning that just feels strong.
The next thing you know, the martial arts student who was complaining, will be avoiding rolling with wrestler and coming up with all kinds of justifications for it. And sometimes these people will move on to greener pastures to another instructor who grades on different criteria, and who will put up with such nonsense (which, by the way, is not good for the learning environment as a whole).An HONEST focus on technical performance as the standard eliminates all of this.Now I do not expect that a 50 year old who’s had two knee surgeries and a bum shoulder will have the same pace as the 25 year old “stud.” In fact the 25 year old may ultimately tap him every time. But if that 50 year old can play the martial arts game technically (meaning, without over-reliance on factors like strength and explosive speed) with the 25 year- olds of that rank, then he is that rank.

And as a side note, match-ups must always be considered in these evaluations as well.

Fact is, everyone has at least a style or two that, when they encounter it, is like a kind of kryptonite.

There are degrees to this, but the point is that just because Student A can easily beat Student B, and Student B can easily beat Student C, this does not mean that Student A will easily beat Student C. In the logic of Jiu-Jitsu, Student C could very well give Student A a hell of a run!Part of the process for creating a healthy culture is to make sure everyone realizes – and appreciates – the ranking criteria, and more importantly, why it is in their best interests to have these standards.

At my martial arts school, it’s a big deal when someone gets a belt promotion, even a blue belt. I know this is the case when it comes to the martial arts in Portland Oregon, or any of the other SBGs.

But the big deal isn’t in the status the new belt carries, it’s in the real, material technical ability that the belt color signifies!

 -Stephen Whittier, SBG East Coast Director

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That’s a great letter by Master Instructor Whittier.

If you are wondering how we feel about BJJ belts ranks as it relates to the Martial Arts in Portland Oregon SBG, that expressed it.

Coach Steve received quite a bit of follow up on the topic, which lead to this very insightful question and answer session:

This first set of questions comes from someone who trains martial arts at my friend’s gym (an SBG school, there are SBG’s all over the world, including the world headquarters located in Portland Oregon) and pointed out that the standards seemed much higher for belt ranks there, than at the school where he originally came from.
1) “Should a martial arts student moving to another gym always keep his/her belt? I think yes because it is the “honest” thing to do. What do you think?”
I agree. Standards will vary from place to place but you it is not up to the student which belt he or she wears, it’s up to the instructor. So I see no reason to penalize anyone for their rank. I would appreciate them for their training goals, contribution to the martial arts school’s positive training environment, and for putting in the work… over time the rank will take care of itself.
2) “Should a blue belt in Jiu jitsu “always” be able to roll w/wrestlers? What about purple belts? What Jujitsu belt would you compare a college level wrestler?”
There’s some wide variation to this answer. I’ve rolled with wrestlers who were very able to take me down and control top, but would still leave the window open for submission every time. But make no mistake, if you have a very good, technical collegiate level wrestler, that is an elite grappler. Meaning… a problem! I have the utmost respect for wrestling. And when you combine a D1 wrestler with a solid BJJ purple belt or above, you probably are looking at a monster.
3) “Is it harder to get promoted as an older guy? You need more “skill” to overcome the speed, strength and more hair that the younger guys have. Right? (specially the hair!)”
LOL! It can be harder, no doubt, for the reasons you mentioned. But also consider this. Is it harder for the 25 year old weakling to get promoted, or for the 100 lb. woman in a school
disproportionately full of men? Probably for them too, but focus on the elements we talk about all the time in this series — posture, timing, fundamentals, proper drilling and training methods — and the inevitable adaptations will take place.A weaker martial arts student is often seen as “tricky” or “very technical” for a reason… strength and power were never an option. They found another way, but also proved that the other way exists. And for what it’s worth, I recently awarded the fastest promotion to blue belt I have ever given… a 9 month white to blue for woman in my program, who weighs only about 115-120 lbs.Next question:
“I wanted also to ask you about the opposite problem where a guy who may be technically ready to advance (let’s say blue belt), but does NOT want to advance because he cannot tap those who would be junior to him (let’s say every white belt). I mean who wants to be humiliated by lower-ranking, less experienced students? For over-40 people or females, this is probably not uncommon. What do you tell them?”
I understand it, but again, we are not talking about martial arts performance only (who always wins) or martial arts technique only (“Oh, he’s so technical… but not very good” — doesn’t make sense, right?).

What we’re talking about is technical performance.

So, keeping in mind factors like physical attributes (which will often have a correlation
with age
) and stylistic matchups can have an impact on who actually beats the other person, we go by the standard I mentioned at the outset: can you play the martial arts game at a solid technical level with other people of that technical level, independent of reliance on physical attributes like strength and explosiveness?If that measure is kept honest both on an individual level and within the culture of the school, then this will be a non-issue. There will be no “give away” belts on the one hand, or making a student feel like a “second tier” team member for losing to a much faster, stronger, or more athletic opponent of a lower rank on the other.I know for a fact that even (or especially) in some of the most competition oriented martial arts team training environments, where the competitors are essentially training as professional athletes, that there is just about zero thought given to a lower belt tapping a higher belt.There are so many factors that play into this, that to focus on it would be counter-productive. In a great training environment worry about this kind of thing would be silly; the athletes are too busy trying to get better and help their teammates get better so they can win the tournament.In a healthy martial arts training environment, even if it’s not a competition team, this should be the standard. I can tell you from experience it’s not a standard everyone will be comfortable with, because it will be too uncomfortable for those whose egos are too fragile. They want to keep score of who they beat, and they must make excuses for why someone could possibly have gotten the better of them. As I’ve mentioned before, there are two motivations we talk about for training: image or performance.The image-motivated will rationalize that if they compete then they’re obviously about performance, but even that isn’t necessarily true.Plenty of martial arts athletes compete to fuel or chase an image of self they desperately want to attain. They will posture like a hero when they win, but set themselves up with excuses before a competition (setting up a reason for a possible loss) or after they lose (making an excuse for how they could possibly have lost, because clearly there has to be a reason – aside from the fact that the opponent scored more points or submitted them!).

On another angle, I’ve read posts on jiu-jitsu and martial arts forums where students have come on and said in order to be a black belt, for instance, you should be able to beat everyone at the belt below you. And this is an opinion shared even by existing brown belts!

Well, my school has very high standards, and we have a tough mat. But even given that, I hate to burst bubbles. As a purple belt BJ Penn would have wrecked most black belts out there. Roger Gracie sure was tearing through them long before he was awarded a black belt. Gunnar Nelson I’ve mentioned before, three years into training would handily
beat most black belts. How about Keenan Cornelius, recently awarded his brown belt? Yup, he would beat the vast majority of BJJ black belts walking the planet. And there are plenty more of these guys out there, a lot of them “name” players who are champion competitors, but some most have never heard of. Does this make everyone they can submit illegitimate at their rank?

 Of course not.
To distill it all down:

1) First and foremost, love jiu-jitsu.
2) Focus on performance rather than the voice in
your head
. You will get very good, maybe faster
than some and slower than others, but it will
3) Be honest. This game we play is about more than
the physical. Beating people up is easy after a
while. In it’s best form it’s about becoming a
better human being
.-Stephen Whittier, SBG East Coast Director

Martial Arts in Portland Oregon have not been the same since the creation of SBG over twenty years ago.

This is absolutely true. But rest assured, the martial arts world-wide, and especially the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community, will never be the same either. With Master Instructors like Stephen Whittier representing SBG, we just can’t help but push the evolution of our sport, even further.