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What does belt rank mean?

To tell you how I feel about belt rank progression, I have to tell you about the one tattoo I’ve ever seriously considered getting. I also have to tell you something about Greek language.

If you’re still with me, oh how I love you. I promise it’ll be quick and painless.

We get our English word synecdoche from a Greek word, συνεκδοχή, that means “simultaneous understanding.” The word is used as a figure of speech or a metaphor.

You know how sometimes people say “50 head” meaning “a herd of 50 cattle,” or “three hands” meaning “three sailors”? Those are examples. A synecdoche is where the thing-in-itself (like a sailor) has the same meaning as something that represents that thing (like a hand). We understand that those two meanings exist simultaneously.

After the Mundials this past year, I started think about getting a tattoo of the Greek letters. The ink would be a reminder that, in life, we should consider both the thing-in-itself and what the thing represents. Also, Greek letters look pretty boss. That was a secondary consideration.

Why did the Mundials get me thinking about this? Because a jiu-jitsu belt is a synecdoche.

Before I got promoted, I spent a lot of time thinking about my next belt. It’ll be so rewarding, I thought, to be able to tie that around my waist every class.

But at the end of the day, it’s a piece of colored cloth. There’s that famous Royce Gracie quote that a belt only covers two inches of your ass, and the rest of it you have to cover on your own. It’s true.

As hard as we work for those promotions, a belt is just a thing, an object. It’s what that object represents that matters.

Discipline. Commitment. Loyalty. The respect you’ve earned from people that you respect (your instructors, your training partners). It might sound corny, but that’s what I think about when I think about promotions: a shared journey that, if done the right way, has spectacular rewards. The new addition to your wardrobe is lovely, but is it really anything compared to what the belt actually represents?

People do think about and talk about belt rank. It’s natural. When jiu-jitsu is a big part of your life, and BJJ people are a significant portion of your social circle, it’s only normal that you would talk about progression with your friends. And I do think that belts serve a purpose: they can be markers along the way of a long, long journey. My instructor is fond of pointing out that there are only five belts in BJJ, and everyone starts with one of them: promotions don’t happen often.

Sometimes, I hear folks get frustrated because they didn’t get a stripe from their instructor, or were passed over for promotion during the head of their school’s last visit. We all know people who have gotten frustrated about matters like these. Frankly, most of us have been those people at one time or another.

If you want a belt that’s a rank up from where you are, I’m sure you can find someone to give it to you. But what would that mean? You’d have the thing itself. You wouldn’t have what it represents. It wouldn’t be a synecdoche.

Training the right way — and doing so with patience and humility — allows you to have both the thing-in-itself and what the thing represents. I don’t want to cheat myself out of having both, and neither, I suspect, do you.


About Jeff

I write, work for social justice, listen to music and grapple. That's about it for now.

2 responses to “What does belt rank mean?

  1. Greek lettering does look pretty boss!

  2. Joe K ⋅

    I felt the same before I earned my blue, and went through a lot of the same internal conflict. Of course more experienced belts/players thought as we do now- ‘it will come when it’s ready, don’t rush.’ The one thing that really convinced me was when another white belt told me ‘it’s probably better to be the best white belt than the worst blue, right?’

    This hit home, and it changed the way I thought about the whole scenario. Of course, the next month, I was promoted to blue.

    I’m not sure if it was all due to the attitude, but I’d like to think at least part of it was.

    Thanks for another great post.

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