When you’re a white belt, improvement is easy. Knowing nothing, you add to your stock of BJJ knowledge every time you step on the mat. Your improvement consists almost entirely of learning new techniques, as well as developing basic fluency with how yours and others’ bodies move on the mat. It’s a very exciting time period in your training because you’re learning so much and getting better so quickly, and most of your problems in rolling can be solved (or at least mitigated) by simply learning new moves. To give an example that will be returned to several times, if you’re having problems passing half guard as a white belt it’s most likely because you don’t know any half guard passes, or you’re doing something fundamentally wrong on the one half guard pass you were taught. As such, you can feel an immense sense of personal improvement simply by being shown a half guard pass and then trying it out, even if it fails against anyone who is not a white belt. That most people progress relatively quickly from white to blue belt (and may be getting belt stripes every two months) also means that a high level of patience in terms of external recognition of your progress is not necessary for most new students.
As a blue belt the bulk of your skill gains remain the result of new learning, though now (in the majority of schools) the new skills tend to be more sport specific, advanced positions. You start delving more deeply into the open guard game, and it would not be unusual to play a different open guard every two months as you learn the moves and strategies used at the highest levels of competition. Returning to our example, if you’re having trouble passing half guard as a blue belt and ask your coach for advice you’re likely to be shown ways of passing advanced half guard variations like Z guard or deep half, or perhaps you’ll be shown refinements to the basic passes you learned as a white belt that make them more effective such as counters to common pass defenses. In either case, the solution to your problem of passing half is contextualized as adding new knowledge and chances are that as you continue to add knowledge you’ll feel increasingly more at home in the basic and advanced positions of BJJ. External recognition of progress slows down at blue belt, but at the same time you’re learning enough that by late blue belt you can consistently dominate white belts and newer blue belts on the basis of superior knowledge as well as greater overall grappling skill developed by virtue of more time on the mat. Progress is still very tangible over relatively short time periods in your training.
Late blue belt and purple belt represent a tangible shift in what it takes to continue improving. By purple you’re familiar with all the major positions and will have started to develop a personal game consisting of related positions in which you feel comfortable and wherein you have a set of go-to moves that allow you to beat lower belts easily. However, when you try to implement your game against brown and black belts, you’ll find that the senior students are able to shut you down with relative ease. When you go to your coach and asks what you can do to pass the half guard of the brown belt, you’ll find the answer has changed. Where before your coach might have shown you specific moves to add to your game, now the answer is likely to be ‘just keep training’, or ‘just keep working on move X’. There certainly will be technical refinements that you will learn, but on the whole improvement has shifted from new learning to getting better at techniques you already know.
This moment is a crucial time in your development because it requires a mindset shift that many people have a difficult time making (accounting for a lot of the attrition seen at blue belt). Learning new moves is a relatively fast way of improving, often resulting in linear gains in skill over the first few years of your career. In addition, it’s easier for many people to come to class each day knowing that they’ll learn something new, adding constantly to their technical arsenal than it is to show up day in and day out grinding on the same positions making incremental gains that are hard to quantify. You must accept that continued improvement is now a function of increasing overall grappling skill and refining well known positions until you knows what to do instantly in any given situation and can execute the necessary techniques fluently and powerfully (as well as transition between positions in a fluid and seamless manner). This sort of development is slow and laborious, but it represents the bulk of training for the upper belt.
The crux of this discussion is that there comes a point each of us needs to stop focusing primarily on learning more, and start focusing on simply getting better at what we already know how to do. That many fail to do so is something any upper belt can observe for themselves. I imagine almost any brown or black belt can quickly identify one or more students in his school, usually purple belts, who come in each week with something new they saw on YouTube or an instructional DVD that they want to try out in rolling. Just as quickly as this new concept is adopted it will be dropped for the next flavor of the week, with little overall improvement seen in the purple belt’s game over time. What these students need to be told very directly is that they’ve reach the point where increasing their technical breadth has become secondary to increasing their technical depth. Once you’ve acknowledged to yourself that getting better at what you already know is more important to your continued improvement than increasing the mere size of your repertoire, including the acceptance that this process takes much longer and is much slower than their initial phase of development, you’ve taken a very difficult step on the road to mastery.