To Spar or Not to Spar? That is the Question

12:33 AM Moo 0 Comments

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A point of much contention in the BJJ community has always been about whether one can improve without sparring. There are many schools who say they focus on self defense and as a result do not allow their students to spar....the logic seems more than flawed. Sure we've all rolled with that brand spanking new white belt who spazzes all over the mat and is a nightmare to roll with. This is part of the journey: learning how to control the uncontrolled, starting from that point and becoming greater than you were, testing yourself with opponents of all shapes, sizes and training backgrounds.This morning BJJE posted an article about a man who earned his blue belt without ever sparring. In the article they quote Kron Gracie who has heavily criticized the system his cousins use, saying:

"It’s a shame the way the Jiu-Jitsu is being sold. I am ashamed to say that Ryron and Rener teach classes online, and that you can get a belt from a Gracie over the internet. I am sad to know that it’s happening now. Unfortunately, I can not do anything. I do not own the world, I can only control what I do. Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art. You need to put your blood in the gym, hang out with your teacher and earn the belt. It’s something you do not get with time, experience for money and friendship"

 So just what is the issue with not sparring?

1. Self defense broken down to it's most fundamental level is about being able to protect yourself during an attack. People say…"well BJJ only teaches sport self defense. I'm not going to go to the ground.” How do you know? How many videos have you seen on world star hip hop where a person is knocked down, mounted and has no idea what to do to escape? It's saddening, it's infuriating and it is ultimately avoidable.

2. How do you become better at jiu jitsu if you never test the things you learn?  
This should be a given. Drilling is fine and essential of course, but everyone who has set foot on a mat for even a small amount of time knows that there is a massive difference between drilling and the actual live scenarios/sparring time. Of course I can pull off a move while I am drilling, my partner is relaxed and allowing me to do so. In a live roll scenario I want to know that what I'm learning is transferring, so I can make adjustments, see how my partner counters, work harder and test myself.

3. How in the world can one receive a promotion with no actual sparring? This is the most heavily debated area and everyone has their own opinions, but it is an extremely valid question. When asked what made him so good, Roger Gracie once said "I built my game off a solid defense. I first made it almost impossible for anybody to tap me out.”  How would he know had he never rolled? How do we gage our level of improvement without seeing where we stand? A promotion without testing skills is like winning a medal without ever running a race.

4. Some of these "Schools" are only in it for the money. Learning your self defense strictly from the internet is becoming a growing trend. It's the fastest way to reach a large base of people who are extremely busy, but it is also the fastest way to reach those who are uncomfortable with social situations or those who are afraid of public failure. Sure we have all used youtube videos to learn techniques and improve, but then we go out into the world or onto the mat and try what we have learned. Trial and error is essential in all aspects of life where we are hoping for improvement and to better ourselves.  If you fear failure, you have missed one of the most fundamental aspects of martial arts. 
5. It send a false sense of security to those who believe their performance level matches that of the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community.  I had never considered this point, but discussed it with an upper belt at the gym. Each individual is unique and therefore performances will vary. If you take the average 4 stripe white belt that trains at a Brazilian jiu jitsu school, who averages 2 hours a day or at least 8 hours a week, half of that time being sparring time and knowledge supported by a black belt vs. someone who doesn't spar but is knowledge based without the physical performance- there is a massive difference. I've experienced it and felt the difference while rolling with those who never sparred at white belt. Most white belts have paid their dues, overcome that horrific spastic phase, been smashed, rolled- had victories and defeats and arrived at blue belt feeling prepared and at least (semi) confident in that belt. They know it has been earned through hard work, sweat and blood and through the help of their training partners.

When it comes down to it, each person's BJJ journey is their own, but don't expect this controversy to be settled anytime soon! What are you thoughts? What are the positives of no sparring schools?


The Belt Demotion That Broke The Internet

9:54 PM Moo 2 Comments

"A black belt only covers two inches of your ass, you have to cover the rest"- Royce Gracie

This quote is well known and often repeated by practitioners of all levels and yet belts have so much meaning to many practitioners. We often hear people say "it's just a belt" but it is so much more than that.  It's not about status or bragging rights. It represents hard work, progress, overcoming adversity and the efforts of our team mates and professors. Recently, a well known purple belt and blogger who goes by Megjitsu announced that after 10 years of training she was demoting herself to white belt and joining a Gracie Jiu Jitsu gym (she, however, does not see this as a demotion, but rather an additional branch of her training). You can find the original post here. Needless to say, this didn't sit well with many in the Jiu Jitsu community and the internet exploded!  I asked practitioners in the two Countries where I've trained, for their thoughts on the topic.

Jes, South Korea, Purple Belt:  I feel she is demeaning her past instructor and trainer by doing this also, I think she is setting a bad precedent for schools to be more divisive and doubt the validity of others belts. Women are already putting up with enough but to maybe hear well "you're not a blue belt promoted by me so your training isn't good enough" is an issue.

Chapa, South Korea, Purple Belt: I definitely wouldn't do that....I work so hard...balancing a HIGH demanding profession...a young family at the issues with my former marriage to earn my purple belt and to demote myself just to get into what I call no Sparring section of the art. It makes no sense to me.Now I also practice Army Combatives which is the Armys version of MMA it doesn't have a belt system but I know that my skills from BJJ are respected. I watched and respect the Gracies and Gracie university but I see their videos where they travel to schools or Gracie garages and some heading those programs have BJJ belts and their rank gets recognized so no need to demote yourself. Self defense vs. sport is a myth. It's silly to think think that Cyborg & Buchecha can't defend themselves because they're world champs of BJJ.

Jiu Jiu, USA, Blue Belt: I wrote abut this on my blog. In general, it's very difficult to be an upper belt, join a new gym with an entirely new curriculum, and be behind everyone else. Putting on a white belt in some ways is much easier because you have zero expectations, whereas upper belts have a lot of expectations and eyeballs on them. In my case, I kept my belt, but chose to catch up in my training. I think it would feel disingenuous to find out that a white belt was actually a purple belt, out of perceived humility. However - a black belt in Japanese Jiu Jitsu wears a white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - is Gracie Jiu Jitsu actually a different animal, or simply a different brand?

Steven, USA, White Belt: I don't see anything too wrong with it as long as she's not sandbagging for tournaments. Belts don't mean a whole lot outside of competition and gauging your progress in the eyes of your peers, right?

Matt, South Korea, Brown Belt:  It doesn't matter what color your belt is, your skills on the mats will speak for themselves. Embrace your weakness, suck that shit up and get better in your weak areas....BOOM done deal!!! Be proud of your lineage, because this, in my book, is what separates us from other martial arts...the pride and respect we have to those that came before us in this sport. Meg could have rolled right in there as a purple belt and just started over learning the self defense aspect of the sport without giving up her hard earned belts along the way.

Randy, South Korea, Blue Belt: I'm ok with it as long as she isn't trying to compete or anything. She is a purple belt, but she is a white belt in THAT specific system that she is training. Until she achieves their specific criteria to progress. I think she is only showing respect.

Toya, USA, Whitebelt: In a way it's a slap in the face to people who helped her get where she is. What did the other professor teach her? Does it mean nothing? On the other hand, if she's learning under a whole new system it's kind of like the slate is wiped clean.

Gillian, USA, Purple BeltI don't care unless she intends to compete at the rank of white belt and then I think it becomes a severe ethics issue. Regardless of the differences in the curriculum, her mat time alone makes her better than your standard white belt. If she doesn't plan to compete, then it's a personal decision. But, even though I don't put significant stock into belt color, I would personally not go train under a blue belt of any discipline if I already had some level of experience (unless they had other established credentials that applied to that same art -- example blue belt in BJJ, but black belt in Judo, then there is a lot of knowledge about the ground in that individual regardless of the blue belt rank). I think we can call it humble for sure, but I have to sit back and question what would motivate someone to abandon their rank AND train under someone who in the same discipline holds a lower rank than the one they abandoned? At the end of the day, the choice was hers and provided she doesn't compete at white belt it doesn't really affect anyone else.

Laka, USA, Blue Belt:
Miyagi sensei says " Belt good for hold up pants." Bwahahaha! I say different system equals different belt same as any karate, judo, bobby lee Kwon do, or ameri-do-te. Same roots with different styles. She did right by old school of thought. It's respectful for a new student to be humble in the new dojo to wear a white belt then change if told it's ok. It just means that she may progress quicker in the Gracie style than a new jujitsu player would.

Mike, USA, Purple Belt: It is offensive. BJJ is considered a individual sport, but it's progression is based on how you train in your academy/gym with your teammates, where you are given guidance and direction. Your professor puts in a lot of work to build you up and to establish a foundation from where you can grow. Your teammates sacrifice there time and knowledge, and allow you to test your abilities on them at a 100%. With that said a promotion is not all about you and how you perform, but what you and your teammates had to endure with you to make it worth achieving. It is offensive to her previous professor/teammates. I wouldn't be where I'm at today if it was not for my support system.

Anna, South Korea, Blue Belt: I like how she says that her new belt is in addition to, rather than a replacement of, her purple belt. I think that's a good point. At the same time, it seems silly to go all the way back to white when she basically already knows Gracie JJ, according to her former instructor. But then again, since she already has a strong background in it, she should be able to advance through the new belt system relatively quickly and be right back at purple, legitimately through their system. I don't like how they don't let white belts spar, though...she's going to lose some of her skill, I'm sure. I don't know...I'm really on the fence about this right now.

Rilla, USA, Purple Belt:
I came from a traditional Chinese MA background where it was considered the height of scandalous, inappropriate rude ego to wear a belt from one school into another school. Once (years ago) when I went into another BJJ school, I put on a white belt. That teacher knew I was a blue belt elsewhere at the time, and was like "Did you forget your belt?" I said, "I thought it would be disrespectful to YOUR school to come in here wearing a belt from a different school," Teacher rolled eyes and said, "Just wear your belt." I am aware now that the teacher who gave me my purple would consider it a grave professional and personal insult if I went anywhere with a white belt on. I'd love to stay a white belt forever- less pressure- but you have to wear what your teacher tells you to wear, whether you agree with it or not. I think to do otherwise is telling your teacher that you think you know better than them... and *I* for one am not going to stand in front of my teacher and tell them that!!!!

Terry, USA, White Belt: I feel that a belt does not define someone's skills or abilities, however it is used as a ranking system. Now if it was done out of respect why did she return back to a white belt instead of a blue? Respect should work both ways- down and up.

J, USA, Black BeltI think it's ok to do that. A training partner of mine a million years ago was a solid purple belt who moved to LA and joined Rickson's school when he was still open. They made him start over because he was not proficient with the self defense portion of the curriculum. Rickson let him compete as a purple but was a white belt in the academy. He didn't stay a white belt that long. Frankly it shouldn't matter that she started over. It definitely shows a sign of respect to her new instructor, but may cause a her old one to have a bruised ego.

Mark, USA, Black Belt: It's disrespectful  to the belt, it's disrespectful to the professor and overall it is very disrespectful to the art. Maybe I am from the old school way of thinking but my students know the sacrifice that goes into those belts. They are rank, yes, but they are also the culmination of every bit of hard work they have ever done. By purple belt she should know better. My suspicion is that this is source material to generate views for her blog.

Whatever the reason or your feelings on the topic, this has generated some excellent conversation on the worth of our belts, performance and the expectations we must uphold as practitioners. It has also raised many questions on systems that involve little or no sparring. Stay tuned for a post on that in the near future. Thank you for all those who contributed! What about you, reader ? What are your thoughts?