It didn’t take me long at the gym to realize that some of the belts had pieces of tape on them. It didn’t matter what color the belt was, it seemed we had someone at every level (except black) with at least 1 stripe on their belt. As I asked, I found out to even be considered for the next belt, you have to have 4 stripes. Getting 4 stripes doesn’t mean you’ll get a new belt in a week, but rather the coaches will start evaluating for the next belt.
There are a few ways to get a stripe at our gym. One that’s common accross all belt colors is competition. Another way for white & blue belts to get a stripe is to do a stripe test. It’s something that they offer every 3-4 months, and there was one coming up in October.
I asked one of my coaches if he thought I should test for the stripe or wait until the next time. I’d only been there about 6-8 weeks when they announced the testing date. His response was “Take the test. There is no failing. There is passing, and there is learning. Same with tournaments. There is no losing, there is winning and learning.” He even told me that the first 2 times he took the stripe test he failed.
Based on his encouragment I decided I’d take the test. They had a sheet of things we had to know. It was all about technique. There were a series of positions we had to show escapes from, and other positions we had to show attacks from.
I was a bit nervous because some of the things we seemed to have done a lot (armbars from guard) and others we hadn’t done much of (escaping side control.) But the two coaches for the beginners class spent the 2 weeks leading up to the exam going through the sheet. One teacher, Charles, even came in on a Saturday morning to go over the test for anyone who wanted to take it. For whatever reason, I was the only one to show up that morning. Then the next day, the teacher who conducts the test offered a class to go over how he’d run the test. Again, I was the only one to show up. So in a way, I got 2 private lessons a week before the test.
The Saturday of the test, our other intro-class coach Scott showed up an hour early to help anyone with last minute tips. At first there were only 2 or 3 people there. By the time the test started there were 15 people. We divided up into pairs and tested in front of 2 higher belts. They’d say “Let me see your armbar from guard” and then stop by each group and see both of us do it. After every 2 or 3 moves we’d stop and our brown belt, Anthony, would walk through what it was they were looking for, in a fairly detailed explanation. Things like “I start with my hand here, put my foot here, swing there etc.”
As the test progressed I saw more and more things that I knew I didn’t do exactly right. I can’t remember details right now, but I’d see Anthony slide his hips at a certain point, and I’d realize I didn’t do that.
After the hour long test, we were lined up as our graders left the room to disucss who passed and who didn’t. When Anthony came back in, he said he’d just go down the list in the order of how we signed in that morning. I thought back and realized that I signed up right after my testing partner, Steven. After testing with hiim, I was pretty sure he passed, so I was just going to listen for his name. Sure enough after about 6 other names, they called Steven. He walked up to the front, got a stripe from our black belt, shook hands with the brown belt and the 2 graders. As he got back in line I thought “Either my name will get called now, or I’ll take the test again.” They called out “Nate” and for about 2 seconds it didn’t register. I thought “I wonder who that is,” still thinking I missed too many little things to pass.
It was at the same time encouraging and humbling. I’m encouraged because it means I’m progressing & learning. And it’s humbling because my knowledge is still so incredibly small compared to the higher belts. BJJ is a long road, and the first stripe of the white belt is just a first step.