The case for dividing classes by belt rank


My school Gracie Barra Clearwater moved to a new, bigger, nicer building in the last month of 2012. GBCW has been my home for the past decade, and it is where I have earned all my belts under my teacher Eduardo de Lima. This move has been a big step forward for us. It has been a lot of stress and hard work, but it’s also very exciting. My first class was in a bare bones warehouse, and now I’m a teacher in our professional training studio.

Along with the better facilities came changes to the class structure and membership plans as we fully adopted the modern Gracie Barra school model. I wanted to share my perspective on these with you, since many people seem interested in how this works. What you’ll read below comes from what I’ve shared with my students and teammates.

The GB model involves splitting classes into Fundamental (all belt levels, but especially white belts), Advanced (three strip white belts and higher), and Black Belt (blue belts and higher). It appears Marcelo Garcia and the Mendes brothers and other high level instructors use a similar class structures, and this is a growing trend if not already a standard practice.

At our old warehouse gym, we had half-heartedly tried running separate Fundamentals and Advanced classes, but we didn’t divide them well, and we didn’t keep track of who should be in which class, so eventually it fell apart and reverted back to “one big class for everyone.” So when I first learned about the plan to split the memberships up at the new school, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.


Like a lot of the long time students, I remember how when I started, I just got tossed into a group class before I even knew how to tie a belt, then had to bumble through warm-ups I didn’t know, do more push ups than I’d ever done in my life, then be put up against the higher belts to spar (while trying to not pass out from heat stroke). After class, it was left up to me to figure out how to pay for classes and how buy my first gi, then let to wander away, maybe to never return. (This is also after it took me three tries to find the old gym back in the warehouses.)

So I understand the old school pride and the “you kids have it easy these days” attitude of old timers. Many of you from the garage days have much gnarlier stories than I do, and I’m one of the kids who had it easy in your eyes. Those were special times to train and learn jiu-jitsu.

As we approached the opening of the new school and I got involved with the planning, I had my own concerns. Would we be “losing” something by splitting the classes up? Would we be “softening” or “dilluting” jiu-jitsu to appeal to a broader market? What if I liked our gym being “underground” because I’m a jiu-jitsu hipster who did it “before it was cool”? With all of these changes, would it be the same school I loved?


You may have your own answers to those questions, but for me, after teaching and training in the new classes, and seeing the new business practices in action, I am very happy to report that all of my concerns have disappeared. The changes have been for the best of the school, the students (even the crusty higher belts) and Eduardo. The new system has only raised the standards for training, and given the school a real chance to grow and attract new students.

After seeing the way the new classes run, and the other changes to the business operations of the school, here’s what I see us “losing”:

  • Getting to inflate our ego with the “pride” of being “too tough” for 90% of new people.
  • A needless risk of injury that often ended new students’ journeys into BJJ before they really started.
  • Classes where the instructor has to walk the tightrope between teaching green beginners and seasoned competitors, only to leave both disappointed.
  • The attitude that “jiu-jitsu just isn’t for everyone” that comes from not knowing how to give people the right kind of training they need in their personal development.

And, sorry, but the hair and lint tumbleweeds are no more thanks to heightened cleaning standards.

We aren’t cutting out sparring, we aren’t lowering the standards for earning belts, we aren’t selling belts, we aren’t “softening” the training for the experienced guys. In fact, I’ve had some of the toughest and most technical training in years at the new Black Belt classes, since Eduardo is now free to really let out the techniques he’s had to hold back not because he wants to but because he has to struggle with making the a single class “work” for everyone. We’ve been doing takedowns and sparring from standing in almost every class so far, and up to an hour of sparring. Like I’ve been telling the class every time I teach, by making a place for the beginners, we’ve opened up room at the top for the higher belts to get the training they need too.


When I was a white belt, Eduardo told me an analogy for jiu-jitsu that always stuck with me. He said the path to black belt was like climbing toward the summit of a tall mountain. You can see the goal far ahead of you, but you still have to take one step at a time and focus on making steady progress.

This mountain climbing metaphor offers us many valuable comparisons for how we think about training and learning this beautiful art. Let’s look at the new Fundamentals and Advanced classes we are launching at Gracie Barra Clearwater in this way.

New students doing the Fundamentals and Advanced classes are climbing the same mountain as every past student. All that has changed is the path being followed.

With the new curriculum, we have more clearly drawn the map, especially at the beginning of journey, so people can get their feet on the trail. Now we can steer new students in the right direction, making sure they see all the landmarks, and keep ourselves from veering off into unnecessary detours.

We used to send people right up against the sheer cliff faces of jiu-jitsu, even if they had no idea where they were going, leaving it to them to find the many pitfalls the hard way. That approach gives you “tough” fighters through survival of the fittest (or the stubbornest) but it also drives away students who had real potential but who needed a different introduction to the art. Some people love this rough path, and I can’t blame them because it’s fun it its own ways.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Jiu-jitsu doesn’t need any help being harder to learn. It is challenging enough on its own. That’s what makes it such a fun and interesting pursuit. An instructor’s big responsibility is to provide a path that each student can follow on their journey to black belt (and beyond) without getting hopelessly lost, seriously injured or quitting. The instructor’s goal is not to eliminate challenges, but to make the student ready to face the right challenges, ones that will further their personal growth.


With Gracie Barra’s new three levels of classes (Fundamentals, Advanced and Black Belt), we have a clear structure that both students and instructors can use to improve the quality of training. These programs don’t replace the insight and expertise of a skilled instructor, but they are useful tools. By the end of the Fundamentals program, both the instructors and the students can be sure that the major areas have been addressed. This frees the instructors in the Black Belt classes to take students further into the highly advanced and intricate topics without worrying about students who can’t keep up.

The mountain isn’t made any smaller by having a smoother path to its summit. Those who pioneered the way should be proud of their hard work, and those who are just beginning should be grateful they can benefit from their work too. What we want to create are intelligent, technical and determined martial artists, and to present them with challenges that bring them higher on their paths to jiu-jitsu mastery. We’ve never had a greater opportunity to do this than today!

I hope you are as excited about the changes at the new school as I am! See you on the mats!



What’s new since my last real post:

  1. I got my black belt.
  2. I did the Gracie Barra Instructor Certification Program.
  3. My school Gracie Barra Clearwater moved into a bigger, nicer space.

You’ll be hearing more about each of those soon. I’m teaching Fundmentals, Advanced, Women and No-gi classes at the new school, and I’m very excited to be helping in the school’s expansion.

You’ll also notice a new feature on my site. On the bottom right side of every page, I’ve got a slide up contact form asking for you to write to me. Send me your questions! This will be the basis of regular updates to the site.

Expect more updates soon!