Getting Promoted In Martial Arts

Ranking in the martial arts has been a matter of contention for almost as long as martial artists have been using a ranking system. Should the students rank be based on technique, on fighting skills, on physical attributes or on the time dedicated to their training? With the ranking systems so skewed and many times confusing, it is often almost impossible to know if a member truly deserves their ranking.

Did the 32-year-old red belt that is the grandmaster of their own martial arts style truly earn that title? Does the 12 year old child running the BJJ class with a green belt with 50 very knowledgeable and dedicated students not deserve some type of promotion? Or more recently with all the talks about the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ranks being called into question, how does someone know what to be looking for and what to expect?

Recently professor Enson Inoue demoted himself because he has been out of the BJJ training circuit for several years. This had the martial arts world in an uproar. How can this ranked black belt remove his rank and what affect does that do to all the students that he promoted past that rank? In stark contrast, there have been countless martial artists that have self-promoted themselves either to a new belt or to the title of master/grandmaster. Even in my time here in South Carolina I have personally witnessed a third degree black belt create his own system and change his title to grandmaster.

Let me begin with stating that your rank within the world of martial arts needs to be determined by four key factors:

1. Your Attitude
2. Your Attendance
3. Your Performance
4. Your Knowledge

Each of these areas is important, and while some are able to be omitted or waived based on the instructor’s discretion, others are key to the growth and development of the martial arts and the individual’s character. No one factor should completely negate a members progress, however, depending on the area that needs improvement it is possible that one area will be the telling link to either other potential areas or to future possible problem areas.


1. Attitude

The member’s attitude for the class is very important. If the member has a bad attitude when coming to class, that attitude will likely rub off or at least make others in the class uncomfortable. This can be quite distracting to the growth and progress for everyone.

2. Attendance

Meanwhile, the student’s attendance can directly relate to the technical and physical growth within the martial arts. If the student is simply not there that often the member will likely not know and or retain the material required for promotion.  Attendance is important, however, the ranking system is not attendance based.  The attendance area is the one most likely to allow for variances in the rank system. There is always the possibility of a more natural athlete who is able to learn, retain, and apply the techniques yet not make the total number of classes required for attendance could get an early promotion based on the instructors recommendation.  Furthermore, just because a member might meet all the attendance requirements, that does not mean they are ready for promotion. If the technical requirements are not there, the idea that the student should gain their next rank due to the time invested will likely result in an issue further down the road. The attendance requirements should be used as a baseline for instructors and with the other attributes that can be shortened or extended as necessary.

3. Performance

This now takes us to the performance attribute. A potential student that is looking to move up the martial arts ranking system needs to demonstrate an adequate level of performance. This can be anywhere from technical expertise to competition performance. Neither is right or wrong, just what the individual instructor deems the measuring stick for the requirement.  Special cases in performance would likely need to be taken into account on a case-by-case basis. Examples would be potential medical reasons or physical limitations. These areas should not negate the member from being able to pursue ranking, although there may be specialized or additional training in order to meet the base line requirements. Depending on the situation, the need may also arise that the member would need to switch styles.

4. Knowledge

Finally, the last area of importance in the rank process is knowledge. There is more to the martial arts than just performing techniques or being a “good fighter”. The student that would like to attain the rank of black belt one day must be able to break down the material and show others what is being done.
Much like having the performance part being tied into the ranking system the knowledge s equally important. There have been many great martial arts competitors, fighters, or students that were unable to show these skills to others, yet attained the coveted black belt. The black belt is more than just a ranking – it is a rite of passage where the member realizes that there is so much more to learn.

A large part of the learning process comes from teaching the martial skills to others. The breaking down of techniques to help others make those techniques work, or the explanation of the science behind the techniques often requires further studies that only a true martial artist would venture.


Your martial arts rank is not just about fighting, or showing up to class. It is about growing as a person, as a martial artist, and as a member of society. The next time you look at that 8 year old black belt, think about these different attributes. Despite their young age they may actually possess the skills required to hold that rank. Just as that 35-year-old black belt ex-MMA fighter might not know the reasons to the techniques he or she does or why they work – they will likely tell you “It just does”.

Written by Shidoshi J.D. Olsen of the Keishidojo Martial Arts and Fitness Center.  J.D. is also the Managing Director of the Martial Arts Unlimited Association.