A promotion to brown belt is a promotion to the elite level of jiu-jitsu. It signifies an advanced understanding of the art, and very few practitioners will achieve it.
You have developed your style and can confidently play from top and guard positions. The thousands of hours of mat time paid off, and your ego has taken a back seat to the desire to become better at the thing you have dedicated years to develop. A black belt is on the horizon, but don’t get too excited about that new strap. Because being a brown belt sucks.
The dream is so close you can taste it, but you will need a few more years of introspection before your journey is complete.
A brown belt has conquered the trails of jiu-jitsu’s rites of passage. White belt didn’t kill you, blue belt taught you to attack, and purple belt forced you to realize mastering the art takes more than winning every sparring session.
But something is still missing, and guess what? No one can tell you what it is. You have to find it for yourself to tap into the soul of the art.
I have many students that I coach at various levels, and by far, the most fun I have is helping brown belts get to the finish line. It’s my time to act like a Jedi master. My answers to their questions become more of a game for me. Because they already know the answers, they just don’t know they know.
Once a student reaches brown belt, there is not much more technique they can learn that they haven’t already seen. Very rarely will they be dazzled by new systems. They already understand that the endless barrage of Instagram clips and YouTube tutorials are just variations of concepts they’ve either disregarded or toyed with in the past.
They have also been around enough to see through the guru pedestal students place their instructors on. They understand now that the man behind the curtain is not the all-powerful Oz. He’s just some dude that’s good at jiu-jitsu.
And this disillusionment can be frustrating when their instructor smiles and answers their question about the guard pass we just learned with a ridiculous fable or metaphor. Because the answer they need to hear has nothing to do with the question asked, and appeasing them with what they think they want to hear only leads them further away from the true answer.
My head instructor and Royce Gracie’s first black belt Rob Kahn says, “Brown belt is a useless stop while you are waiting to get your Black Belt,” and this statement should be any brown belt’s mantra. A brown belt is already a black belt in every aspect of the art except believing they deserve to be one. But, finding that belief will be a process, and while I can’t tell you what to look for, I can tell you a few things to focus on while you are training. Just excuse me if the answers I give aren’t the ones you want to hear.
Go back to the basics. Focus on the day one jiu-jitsu fundamentals you learned as a white belt and remember why you learned them at the time; they kept you alive. The difference between life or death on the mat is often just winning an underhook or fighting for the correct grips. Push back the fun years of purple belt when attacking to the death in every roll made you feel like a ninja assassin. Concepts as simple as getting your feet back to the hips after a guard pass attempt must become so devoid of thought that they happen without recognition. They need to become a part of your DNA.
Once those concepts happen without your mental energy’s dedication, a brown belt can start to focus on more complicated techniques again, until eventually, they become a part of your subconscious as well. And so on until infinity.
A black belt connects to the art. They don’t just use it; they are a part of it. My good friend and fellow combat guru Rondell Benjamin would call this “flow.”
During this period, a brown belt will also rediscover old techniques thrown out as un-useful or “not for them” due to style conflicts or body-type constraints. This discovery occurs through their quest for mastery. As the brain becomes less and less inhibited by the mundane, a grappler’s mind can now dedicate its thoughts to revisiting the previously discarded and
Every technique works. It just requires insights into how and when. It is your responsibility to answer these questions. A black belt’s reply can never be, “That’s just not my thing.”
The abovementioned skills will be challenging to acquire, and you can only learn so much on the mats. So, a tool every brown belt should employ is teaching. Scholars much wiser than me have said for centuries that if you can’t explain how something works to someone else, then you don’t understand it yourself yet. Spend time sharing your knowledge with those that will be eager to learn from you. Take the time to help the lower belts along the tough times you know they are having. Because by explaining jiu-jitsu’s often complex processes, your understanding of them will also grow.
Being a Brown Belt sucks. There is an equal feeling of accomplishment in crossing the final step and an unnerving frustration from not understanding what you are working toward anymore. But the truth is that confusion doesn’t stop once you get your black belt; you just accept it as part of loving a thing you’ll spend a lifetime trying to master but never own completely. The only good news is once your instructor gives your that final belt, it won’t matter anymore.