Why do people tend to quit at blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

I’ve talked a little bit about this topic on Quora and even made a video on YouTube about the high attrition rate of blue belt students in their practice.

Video link:

But I think it’s worth examining again. Especially for a lot of my readers that are not familiar this fact. Most practitioners will not progress to blue belt and even less move on from blue belt.

Jiu Jitsu is not easy

Jiu Jitsu is not an easy art or sport. It takes a lot of time, dedication, and humility to progress in the ranks.

In the past, there was this running joke online and on many of the major grappling/mma chat rooms and forums that a Bjj blue belt was all that was needed in order to beat Mike Tyson in his prime.

I’m not sure where it originated but it shows just how much influence and notoriety that Jiu Jitsu gained in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

During that time period in the U.S. there was this hunger for Jiu Jitsu even though there were not enough instructors or higher belts to fill that demand.

Being a blue belt was rare.

They were looked upon as demi-gods among men.

Fast forward to today, and blue belts and all other belts have become significantly more common place.

Yet, I’m sure the trials and tribulations from white to blue are still the same.

Going from unconscious incompetence or wrong intuition to conscious incompetence or wrong analysis.

Blue belt is the stage where you realize that you really don’t know Jiu Jitsu.

You know some Jiu Jitsu techniques and even a few concepts but not how everything fits together and flows.

At white belt you’re ignorant of this fact. Every day you train. You learn something new and get better without trying. Just being able to recall a few moves is a big accomplishment when you first start out.

But starting at blue belt, you have to put more effort into your training and studying techniques. That feeling of leveling up after every session is quickly replaced with plateaus and working toward developing your own style of Jiu Jitsu.

As a blue belt you will need more awareness of your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Of course, your instructor will be there to guide you by showing you techniques and giving you advice. But as you progress, your instructor’s guidance will be less hands on so you will have to be more proactive in training.

That could mean taking private lessons, studying competition videos, competing, etc.

Expectations

As a white belt there’s no expectation on you to do well in training or competition. Just by showing up consistently most white belts will see exponential progress.

I’m happy when my beginner students can remember past techniques and have the fundamental techniques such as shrimping, rolling (backwards and forwards), and can tie their belt properly. I could care less how they roll in sparring or how many times they get tapped out.

So they actually end up doing better because there is no pressure on them to do well or to have the techniques down one hundred percent.

But at blue belt, you have more experience under your belt. You’re no longer an innocent white belt. Your instructor has higher expectations on you to learn and demonstrate your technique(s) as well as you being able to effectively transmit that technique to newer students.

Many times during my classes, I will pair a newer student with a blue belt (or more advanced belt) with the hope and expectation that they will be able to guide the student in our fundamental techniques or to help them along with more advanced movements.

You represent your academy

Newer guys coming in to your academy are going to look towards you as a representative of your school as well as a target so you will want to do well against them, and higher belts are going to use more advanced techniques and attributes on you like strength and timing as you become more proficient and a tougher training partner.

Or as I like to say. They’re going to take your lunch money but there’s nothing you can do about it but just learn.

The experiential belt

As a blue belt, you will have a few go to techniques but no overall developed game. That’s why many blue belt students spend most of their time experimenting.

Experimenting with different types of guards, passing styles, and submissions. It’s no surprise that many blue belts will go through a phase when they will only use a single technique or style of Jiu Jitsu like berimbolo or wormguard.

Slave to trends

The most experiential belt is also the one that most follows the trends in the sport of Jiu Jitsu.

I remember when I was a blue belt and Eduardo Telles’ turtle guard was popular at the time. Of course, like any fan boy I added it to my game and relied heavily upon it for the majority of my time as a blue belt.

There’s nothing wrong with following the trends in Jiu Jitsu. It’s very important to keep you skills and knowledge updated but many blue belts fall into the trap of building their entire game around that one technique that they saw online.

There will always be this cycle of new techniques or strategies that become popular but then they are replaced by an older move or a technique that was “forgotten” but then rediscovered.

I think a lot of people’s time and energy would be better used by continually developing their fundamental techniques in addition to experimenting with the new guards and passing styles.

You should aim to be well rounded in all the major areas of Jiu Jitsu including: self defense, sport techniques, takedowns, leg locks, escapes, attacks, etc.

You’ve achieved the desired skill level

One argument that I haven’t fully explored in my writing or videos is the fact that many practitioners are happy with the skill level that they’ve developed at blue belt and decide to pursue other goals.

Again, Jiu Jitsu takes a lot of time and study commitment in order to progress. I can see how an blue belt could feel like they’re good enough. If you train at a good academy, then the average blue belt should be able to handle themselves both in a self defense situation against most untrained individuals.

Blue belt blues

If I think about it, being a blue belt is very much like being the unpopular kid in high school. You just have to put in your time and work until your skill level rises and you begin to develop confidence in your game.

My advice to you is that if your practice of Jiu Jitsu is meaningful to you. Then keep at it.

But if you don’t feel that training has any value on your life. Find something that does bring meaning and value. Then pursue that wholeheartedly.

You have to decide.

Developing your guard to the next level

Playing guard for a beginning student isn’t easy.

In fact, starting a new activity or study comes with a lot of trial and error. In Jiu Jitsu, that means a lot of tapping.

From Giving feedback:

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

I think that’s why it’s important to study instructors and competitors at high levels of mastery.

Study how it seems like they know all the possible outcomes that can occur from their guard(s).

All of the defenses.

All of the attacks.

Developing a good guard yourself is a challenging task.
Throughout your entire life, whether that included other sporting activities or just sitting at a desk studying. The movements of Jiu Jitsu on the ground are strange and foreign.

Getting down the basic movements like shrimping, rolling, and bridging will keep you preoccupied for a few months (or years).

In the beginning, you will get passed a lot. There’s just no other way. You don’t have the coordination or the experience yet.

So many beginners and intermediate students become afraid of playing on bottom.

They become afraid of having their guard passed and being crushed or being put into an even worse position.

Guard Development

Guard development usually begins in earnest at the blue belt level but I’m starting to witness more and more people putting off developing their guards until higher belt levels. Much to their own disservice. And it’s this observation that I want to focus on in this post.

I’ve been there before as well.

When I was a blue belt I didn’t have a guard. I was okay on top. Tough and athletic.

But if I was on bottom. It was only a matter of time before a decent passer would slide through my guard like a hot knife through butter.

My solution at the time?

I couldn’t get my guard passed if I turtled.

And this strategy worked for a while. At least until I went up against someone with really good back control or someone bigger that could stop me from rolling to turtle.

So I didn’t really solve my problem of not having a guard. I just kept putting it off.

Listen.

No matter how good you are on top. If you don’t have a comparatively good bottom guard. You will never be able to tap into your true potential.

It’s not a coincidence that the best guard passers in the world also have great guards.

Leandro Lo

Rafa Mendes

Lucas Lepri

Having confidence in your guard makes your passing that much better. You can commit 100% of your focus on passing and if your opponent manages to sweep you. It’s okay.

But if you don’t have that duality.

Being good on top and bottom. Then the fear of being swept or just the fear of playing on bottom will always be in that back of your head and it will cause you to hesitate. Especially when you go up against a tough guard player.

There is no right or wrong here, but I believe that if you want to be good at Jiu Jitsu. Whether or not that includes competing. You will need to develop a workable guard and the earlier you start to build that foundation up, the better off you will be in the long run.

It’s better to put in the ground work now (at lower belts) than to have to address your guard game at a higher belt. Because at that point you will be far behind your peers.

Body type

Your body type will play a major role in your guard development.

Your body type won’t limit the guard(s) you will play but it will determine which guards you will be able to do easily.

Much like an IQ test.

Your body type represents your potential to play certain guards and not your actual success in playing those guards.

EX. Short guys that play spider guards or tall guys that play butterfly.

A useful guide is to find a competitor, higher belt, or an instructor with the same or similar body type as you and study their game. Then try to add elements of their style to your own game.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an often overlooked factor in the development of a guard. A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to play guard.

While this is not the case. Being flexible does make playing guard easier.

With flexibility, you will be able to get into the right positions faster and have more strength in those positions.

Even if you’re not naturally flexible you can work on it and after a few sessions it will payoff.

Constant Study

This is more for advanced guard players.

Jiu Jitsu is constantly evolving so you will need to keep updating your toolset/guard game.

If you get to the point where the majority of your training partners cannot pass your guard. Then that is a sign that you need to start developing the other aspects of your guard.

If you have a great half guard. Maybe try working on closed guard or an open guard.

But if you find that everyone you roll with gives you a hard time when you play on bottom or everyone passes your guard. Then you will need to invest more time and effort in studying the bottom game.

Studying can mean watching competition footage of really good guard players.

Studying could be taking a private lesson.

Studying could be meeting a few times a week with a partner to positional spar.

Whatever the case, Jiu Jitsu is very democratic. You get back what you put into it.

Mindful Practice

If you want to develop an effective guard you’re going to have to put in the work.

Even if you have the best instructors and training partners in the world, and access to private lessons and online tools.

That can only take you so far.

Eventually, there will come a time when your instructor will no longer have to hold your hands through techniques and instead become more of a motivator and mentor.

When that time comes, it will be up to you to take charge of your training.

You will have to take the initiative in learning new positions.

You will have to decide what techniques you will need to improve upon.

You will have to push yourself in creating a game unique to yourself.

Very much like a role playing game (rpg), the more time and energy that you invest in your Jiu Jitsu the quicker you will be able to level up and learn other skills.

Developing your own guard game

The ultimate expression of Jiu Jitsu is the creation of your own style.

Only you will be able to master your unique body type.

From my own personal experience. I was only able start developing my own guard game when I acknowledge that my guard was a weakness of mine. Then I had to make the conscious decision to actively work on it.

Even if it meant starting on bottom or pulling guard.

Of course, I got my guard passed a lot.

But I was able to work my side mount escapes and my guard recomposing. Eventually being able to hold better guard positions and advance from there.

Build better relationships with your students

You work really hard to build your martial arts academy.

Finding the right location.

Training staff.

Teaching classes.

Marketing your programs.

It’s a lot of work. Especially in the beginning when you might have to fill in for a lot of roles.

From my own personal experience I’ve had the opportunity to be the janitor, the instructor, lead salesperson, staff manager, social media specialist, and much more.

Especially, in the beginning when you might be a one man show. Hopefully, adding more and more students to your program(s).

However, many academy owners put so much time and effort in trying to grow their academies by adding more students that they often forget about maintaining one of their biggest resources and best assets.

Their current, and loyal membership base.

Student retention

Many instructors think that by adding more students. All their financial worries will be met. To a degree, they are correct.

Your business does need students to survive. And a steady number of new prospects is a sign of a healthy academy.

But it costs a lot of time, energy, and money to find those new prospects and convert them into paying members. This is where I see a lot of academies fall short. When you need a constant influx of new students in order to replace the members that you lose each month or year. Then there is problem somewhere within your business model.

Much like an unseen hole on a boat at sea. If the problem persist then the boat might take on too much water and sink.

If your business is at risk. Don’t be a bystander or a victim. Look for solutions that will help keep your boat afloat and eventually sailing the high seas.

There’s no quick fix or hack that will increase your retention overnight. Each academy is a unique business with it’s own set of challenges.

But there are a few commonalities that I’ve found with academies that have great student retention from the rest.
Retention building factors

1 Setting Boundaries

There is a time and place for you to communicate with your students or the staff.

I was originally going to start off with communication, but in retrospect, setting healthy boundaries between yourself as an instructor and your students is what will support all the other factors in determining your student retention.

How can setting boundaries possibly help you retain more students you’re wondering?

Well, setting boundaries is the foundation of every relationship. Even the relationship between students and instructors.

By having clearly defined boundaries it will allow you to be more effective in communicating with your students, and both parties will feel more positive about the experience.

Boundaries like not dating students.

This one should be self explanatory. Don’t date your students. It almost always leads to drama and is not good for business.

Boundaries like not taking part in vices (in the presence of your students at least).

This should be self explanatory too but your interactions with students should lean more towards appropriate and safe and less toward inappropriate and dangerous.

Boundaries like having specific times and days in which your students have you full and undivided attention.

It’s easy to believe that you will have unlimited time and energy with which to teach multiple classes per day, coach, lesson plan, teach private lessons, train, and mentor.

But the reality of it is far different.

I know outside looking in it seems like an easy profession being able to train and roll all day.

But when you teach for a living, especially in the beginning when you’re always at your academy. It’s not productive for you to always be at the beck and call of your students. No matter how much you want to be.

I’m not saying that you should ignore your students but you should have a system in place for yourself and your students.

I’m really big on email and messenger whenever students have questions. Since it’s easier for me to communicate that way and I have time to think before saying something stupid.

While other instructors might set aside time either before or after class specifically to interact with students.

From Impressionable students

Having the title of instructor or even being a senior student will indubitably have an effect on the character, development, and behavior of lower belt students. While having this influence can be alluring, it also comes with shouldering a lot of responsibility. Students will constantly be looking at you to set a good example both on and off of the mats. When my school first brought a well-known competitor to teach at our academy, most students only trained 3-4 times a week, even during tournament season. Our world champion instructor started training with us 5-6 times a week, often twice a day. As students, we learned very quickly that if we wanted to reach the next level and win at major tournaments like our instructor, we would also need to dedicate more time and effort to our training.

As an instructor, your views and actions have a lot of influence over your students. So in order for your students to respect your boundaries it’s important that you are worthy of that respect.

I think this is one reason why many instructors are very disciplined. Eat healthy, train hard, and are respectful on and off the mats.
It’s very much a do as I do type of philosophy.

2 Communication

Experts always talk about communication being the key to successful relationships and at the risk of sounding cliche. I believe this is true.

How do you communicate with your students?

I don’t believe that a lot of instructors/academy owners really think about the ways in which they communicate with their students and whether or not it’s constructive communication.

It’s easy as an instructor to get so used to the hierarchy that is built in to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

You bow to your instructors.

You line up behind the more senior students.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I believe that it does instill a sense of discipline and accountability that is missing in a lot of social interactions.

But it can be taken too far, especially when off of the mats and outside of the academy.

I’ve seen many instructors abuse the authority that they had by taking advantage of their students in asking for one sided favors, getting free or below cost labor, not treating students with respect, and talking down to students because they weren’t as good at Jiu Jitsu.

This isn’t conducive to creating an environment of open communication and instead breeds more blind compliance and yes man(ing) that is more characteristic of a cult than a martial arts academy.

Equal Ground

Constructive, open communication comes from a level playing field.

In hierarchies, it’s really hard to voice one’s opinion when you’ve only been taught to defer to the more experienced, higher ranking party.

As an instructor you have to create an environment in which your students have a proper outlet in order to communicate with you. One where you are not your rank but a fellow person taking part in a fun and interactive activity.

Prescriptive

One thing that I like to do whenever I teach is to set aside time right before the end of my classes. Where I invite all of the students to ask me any questions they may have. Whether it concerns any of the moves that I covered or any general Jiu Jitsu questions.

It doesn’t take much time but you will be surprised by how many questions that arise during a class or even after a hard training session.

Instructors get so caught up in their classes and trying to stay within the allotted time slot or covering a certain amount of techniques that they often hurry from one thing to the next. Until, the class is over and they have to move on to another class or they become too exhausted or busy to give the student(s) their full attention.

I know that I’ve been guilty of this. That’s why if I’m really busy or short on energy. I will suggest that a student hit me up through other means of communication when I can devote more time to them.

Being the instructor, you have to lead the way by creating (multiple) opportunities for your students to interact with you. Show your students that they can come to you, and that you’re willing to hear them out and help them out.

3 Keep bringing value

Complacency in relationships is a big problem.

When you become complacent in running your academy the same way that you’ve always ran it. You open yourself up to stagnation.

Bring value to your programs by continually updating techniques and movements.

You would be surprised by the number of academies that still show how to pass on the knees and other outdated movements that have been improved upon by modern Jiu Jitsu.

Bring value by adding classes and programs that your students want.

If your students have been pushing for a conditioning class or more no gi classes. Instead of sticking to your current schedule. Try to fit in the new class(es) even on a trial basis and see how it does. Worst case scenario, the class doesn’t do well so you move back to the regular schedule.

Revamping your curriculum is an easy, low investment way to bring new energy into your academy. Making students want to attend. Happy to attend in fact. That’s what retention is all about.

Bring value to your academy by adding small touches and amenities like changing the color scheme, adding new furniture to your reception area, free wifi, or newer mats. Even small changes will be well received.

There is no limit to what you can do. Just by showing that you are willing to continue improving your academy you demonstrate to your students that you value their support and they will reward you in turn with their loyalty.

4 Motivate

Motivate your students.

It’s as simple as that. When they’re doing well and making progress help them to reach new levels in their techniques, conditioning, etc.

When they are feeling burned out and don’t think that they’re improving. Motivate them to continue training and help them get through those tough times.

Some of the most successful academies aren’t successful just because of the techniques that they show, or because they have a really good instructor or even top notch facilities. They’re successful because the environment of the school helped pushed the students, no matter their level or ability, to reach their goals.

5 Keep it fun

Don’t take yourself nor your position too seriously.

At the end of the day, Jiu Jitsu should be fun and students should look forward to attending classes and training with their friends.

An easy way to build fun is by doing activities outside of the academy with your students. Going out to eat, movies, and other types of events.

6 Positive environment

Having a fun and positive environment is what keeps students training.

Many people see Jiu Jitsu and academies as an oasis from the burden of everyday life. One that often involves long hours at work and busy family lives.

Make the environment at your academy one that students will look forward to throughout their day. A safe space.

If your environment is off you could be unintentionally letting students fall through the cracks. The complete opposite of retention.

Signs of a bad environment
*Lots of drama
*Lots of injuries
*Fighting
*Arguments
*Exodus of students

The list goes on and on but the old saying, “where there is smoke, there is fire”, rings true. If left uncontrolled, could lead to much bigger problems.

As the instructor it is your responsibility to ensure that there is a positive environment for your students since you ultimately set the standard for your academy.

Retention, Retention, Retention

Building positive relationships and retaining students goes hand and hand.

As instructors, we like to focus on how hard we have it and all of the sacrifices that we’ve made to get to the point where we could run an entire academy, but in what way does that help your students?

When you decided to open your own academy, you made a conscious decision to put the training and progression of your students above your own.

It’s hard for many instructors to understand this, but it’s the truth.

You have to develop clear boundaries and systems so that you and your students are able to communicate effectively.

You have to make it easy and convenient for your students to interact with you. Especially, when they’re having a tough time.

You have to make the environment of the academy fun and positive. And keep bringing value.

Being an instructor isn’t easy. No one said it would be. But it is fulfilling and never boring.