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Words: Dr. Rebecca Hill

Belts and gradings are a much debated topic in the world of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Experienced practitioners may tell you to forget about the belt, that it’s more about the journey than the destination. And they’re quite possibly right…but easier said than done! On the other hand, the very same practitioners spend years working their way through the ranks and feel extremely proud when they are awarded their black belts. So it is ok for us to be concerned about our next promotion? Like so many topics from a sport psychology point of view, the answer is, it depends….

After years of doing and teaching BJJ, many instructors realise that the best form of motivation is intrinsic – when you do jiu jitsu for the love of it. When athletes are intrinsically motivated they tend to enjoy the sport more, stay in it for the long haul and perform better over the long term. So intrinsic motivation is good motivation.

Sometimes belt promotions can act as an extrinsic reward and change an athlete’s motivation. When a jiu jitsu practitioner has the goal of achieving the next grade, a few different things might happen to their motivation. If they are promoted, this can lead to a drop in motivation because they have achieved their goal and the next belt seems so far away. On the other hand, it may spur them on to keep progressing.

Similarly, it can go one of two ways when an athlete thinks they may be ready for their next belt but the promotion isn’t forthcoming. It might drive them to work even harder to prove they are ready for the next level, or they may give up trying.

Whether it should be or not, a belt can be a motivating factor. But clearly not everyone responds in the same way. Motivation experts suggest that an extrinsic reward like a new stripe or belt can act as a form of positive feedback. At its best, being graded gives us some indication that we are making progress in our jiu jitsu, and that we’ve improved over the past few days, weeks, months and years. Essentially, it gives us feedback that we are increasingly competent at jiu jitsu. And because we have an innate human need to feel competent, this leaves us feeling happy, energised and positive about doing jiu jitsu.

Another basic human psychological need is the need for autonomy. That is, we want to feel that we have the freedom to make our own choices, and this includes choices in jiu jitsu. People endeavour to achieve the next belt for a variety of reasons. For example, some jiu jitsu participants may want the status and respect associated with a higher grade, while others may want to avoid criticism from their instructor, or to make their family proud. Reasons like these are more external than internal, and have a controlling effect on an athlete’s motivation and behaviour. This in turn undermines their sense of autonomy. These athletes don’t put in effort and persevere because they want to; they try hard because they feel they have to. And it’s a challenge to sustain this kind of motivation over the long term.

Instructors can do much to encourage a positive approach to belts. As professors we are responsible for the social environment that is created in the dojo and we influence how our students interpret a promotion. One helpful way to do this is to be clear with students about the criteria we use when judging whether a student is ready for the next level. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating a list of required techniques for each belt or introducing formal testing. It just means being transparent about what we’re expecting the student to work on and having open conversations with students. So when they do receive the next coveted promotion, it gives them valuable information about their progressing level of competence. If a student asks what they need to work on for their next belt, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are asking for a promotion or have an inflated ego.

As instructors, we also need to create an autonomy-supportive environment which supports our students’ sense of choice and encourages them to take the initiative in their own learning. At one time or another we’ve probably all come across martial arts environments which are authoritarian, pressuring and dictatorial. We should be careful to emphasise the link between belts and the athlete’s performance. Using promotions as a reward for loyalty to the instructor, an incentive for seminar attendance or as pressure to compete is not so helpful. In an ideal world, if students are loyal to their instructor, attend seminars or compete, it will be because they want to, not because they have to in order to achieve their next belt. At least, this should be the case if we want our athletes to be motivated in a positive, self-sustaining way over the long term.

So is a focus on working towards your next belt a bad thing? Well, not necessarily. As students of BJJ, we just need to make sure that our striving for the next belt is underpinned by healthy motives, such as the desire for competency and personal progress.

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July 08, 2016 — Jiu Jitsu Style