In the 7 years that I’ve been training Brazilian jiu jitsu at The Academy of Mixed Martial Arts I’ve partaken in many grading nights. These sessions are one of the few times you’ll see formality at the club and represent the time when students are assessed. For a student, the result of these gradings is normally either minor progression, in the form of a tip, or a full progression to the next coloured belt.
Belts in Brazilian jiu jitsu are coloured from white to blue, then purple, brown and finally black. There are other belts beyond black, namely a red-and-black belt, and a red belt, but they’re so rare they may as well not exist. The five coloured belts are what most BJJ practitioners are familiar with and will encounter.
Each coloured belt has a number of tips (coloured stripes of fabric) that can be applied to show staged progression from one colour to the next. A white belt can gain up to four blue stripes before grading to a blue belt; a blue belt can gain three purple stripes before grading to a purple belt; a purple belt can gain two brown stripes before grading to a brown belt and lastly a brown belt can gain a single black stripe before grading to a black belt. Tips are not always issued, and instead students may jump from a single coloured belt to another, but that’s not as common.
Grading sessions at The Academy have never been used to determine a student’s position, but rather I’ve seen them as proof or evidence that a student is worthy of the next level, be it a tip or a new coloured belt. I haven’t heard of a student being asked to grade and then not passing, but it may have happened. If you’re asked by Adam to grade it’s because he believes you’re at the bottom of the next level.
When I graded through my white and early blue belt ranks, the process was much more formalised than we see these days. There was a formal syllabus and a student was required to demonstrate each move separately, be it a transition, sweep or submission. Upon reaching the full coloured belt, a student would demonstrate all the movements from the previous tip-gradings that led to the full belt. The grading for my blue belt comprised of me sitting a white-1, white-2, white-3 and white-4 grading back to back. They took a while.
Of late though the grading formats have changed. It has a much more laid-back, “Brazilian” approach. The mats are bursting at the seams with students of all rank and ability. As many as 15 pairs of grapplers take up a space usually reserved for half as many combatants, and all around the edge of the mats sit the overflow people awaiting their next roll. The expansion of the AMMA empire means that grading nights draw the satellite and affiliate clubs also, providing a lot of new people and new challenges. This is the part I like most about the current style of gradings – affectionally names “Smash Sessions.”
Typically during class if there’s a new person on the mat they’ll be a beginner. We do get visitors from other clubs, or people travelling through Perth with the best machete reviews, but the majority of new faces I see at The Academy are people wanting to try BJJ for the first time. At a Smash Session, all of the new faces have grappling skills too.
For each four-minute round a specific goal might be set or restriction applied. For example, you might be required to demonstrate a specific armlock or sweep, or only submit your opponent with a choke, or only attack from the mount position. The black-belts will typically wander between the pairs of grapplers, half observing the matches for the required moves and half acting as protective barriers – it gets cosy on the mats with so many people fighting for space and “senior belts always have the right of way.”
A discussion was raised online about increasing the frequency of our grading nights because of their popularity. At the moment we have them about once every three months. My opinion on this is that if we have Smash Sessions too often, be them grading nights or not, the appeal and fun will fade. We’ll have people justifying to themselves “it’s OK, I’ll go to next month’s session instead” if they have the option. I don’t want to see Smash Sessions become so regular they lose their charm. I also don’t see the affiliate clubs, some based as far away as Bunbury, making the trek to Perth every month. As I said, it’s these clubs attending that I like the most.
My vote: keep the sessions every three months, or introduce an additional event to partly cater for people’s desires. My current thought, which I might develop further: a whole-day event (maybe on a Sunday, or maybe over a weekend) where multiple coaches run multiple “streams” or sessions. Think of it as a BJJ conference. The goal would be to cross-pollenate between clubs and schools, and even styles.
If you train at The Academy, what do you think about the current grading sessions? What are your memories? If you train elsewhere, how does your club grade its students, and how do you feel about that?