In the above link you will read about a five year old child who has a black belt. She is a cute kid, and is obviously being promoted by the instructor, but it is another case of black belt nonsense.
Earlier I mentioned that being a black belt used to mean something. There was a time when if you told someone that you were a black belt; that was impressive. Later, you needed more. The public at large knew a little about martial arts ranking. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to know that there were degrees to black belt. But if you told a person you were a 2nd or 3rd degree black belt – that was still pretty impressive.
Now, if you tell someone you are a 2nd or 3rd degree black belt you will get a polite but disappointed response. The public at large knows that the ranks go up to 10th degree. I have a person in the small town where I live who claims a 10th degree black belt, is the founder of his own style which combines arts as un-alloy-able as Muay Thai and Taijiquan! And, he has been training in martial arts fewer years than me, he is younger than me, but that is okay – he started his training at the age of three!
In the modern world, a black belt is just a piece of cloth given to a person who has kept paying their monthly dues for the prescribed length of time. Most of the public knows this, and therefore, no one cares if you are a black belt.
In the past, the black belt was the item we treasured. It was a goal that not everyone could reach. You had to earn it! Earning it meant sacrifice. You had to sacrifice time with your family. You had to sacrifice gallons and gallons of sweat. You had to sacrifice blood! Yes, we bled in training. Noses, knuckles, ears, if it had blood in it, the blood was probably gonna get knocked out of it. You had to sacrifice social time.
But it was worth it!
Those sacrifices are part of what made the goal so amazing and impressive. Not everyone could do it, not everyone would do it. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t even something everyone should do. But it was worth every second, every bump and bruise, every pulled and strained muscle, every stubbed or broken toes and finger, and noses. I would not trade those experiences for much.
And as if the training weren’t enough of a deterrent, there was the Black Belt Test!
Hours of time spent demonstrating everything you have been taught, proving your worth by utilizing the techniques in the controlled combat of sparring.
Most people would not willingly undergo the type of training the real Old School martial artists went through.
In the modern time, you see four and five year old black belts. You see people who don’t know a front kick from a hole in the ground who are black belts. A black belt now is just something you buy.
What is left once black belt has no meaning? Is it possible to restore the integrity once it is gone?
Once it is gone, for the most part, it is gone forever. It would take more than a generation to bring it back to the level of awe that it once had.
There are a few instructors left who still believe.
I still believe that martial arts are warrior arts. Many seem to have forgotten this point, but some still remember.
Most of the high profit martial arts schools watered down their systems for the sake of money. But in truth, a martial art encompasses all aspects of hand to hand interpersonal aggression. This includes being physically fit enough to fight, to handle the emotional pressures of combat, the techniques of combat, and emotionally dealing with the aftermath of the confrontation.
Black Belts train every day to become a better fighter.
I am in the minority, but I still hold that everyone who tests for a black belt from me will have to meet the same standard. I will not give you a black belt for trying. I will give you a black belt for succeeding.
In an effort to make up for the fact that the profit first martial arts schools were simply giving away black belts, they had to increase the number of under-belt ranks. So, more colors were added. Then all color belts had a second rank attached shown as a black stripe running the length of the belt. Eventually, we had situations where every martial arts school in your town was teaching a “new” style which had been founded by the 20 year old instructor. Since there were so many Soke out there, they had to come up with more titles to be higher than Soke (founder of a style/system). I stopped keeping track of this one-upmanship when we had great “masters” claiming that they were PhD’s in martial arts. The universities which gave these Doctorate’s were unaccredited.
And then there are the child black belts. Martial Arts are fighting arts.
As much as people like to say it is a sport, it is an art. The focus of the martial arts, properly taught, will be to stop an attacker as quickly as possible, with as little damage to you as possible.
Martial arts, properly approached are pretty heavy subject matter for children. While a child can perform the actions required on paper for a black belt, emotionally there is no 5 year old on earth qualified for black belt. One school owner I know set up his children’s ranking system so that there was an equivalent rank in the adult classes. So if a child trained to brown belt in his classes, upon becoming old enough to cross over into the adult classes, their rank would be green belt (or some such).
To award a black belt to a child is in as much as saying that the child is capable of making decisions that they are in no way mature enough to make – emotionally, physically, mentally, and even legally! This is fraud!
One step in recovering the lost honor of the rank is to only award the rank to adults. There are arguments against this, and most fall upon the line that if a person can do the material, they are a black belt. As stated above, this is clearly not so. Reserving the rank for adults would be a very positive step in the right direction. I would strongly advocate a separate ranking system for children, with a cap rank under black belt. Once the child reaches the cap rank, they would then wait until they turn eighteen years old to test for Black Belt as an adult.
Another point which could help would be if you set only one standard for the rank of Black Belt. This would mean that the same skills were required of every person testing for the rank, and this would elevate the value of the rank.
Sadly, however, there will never be any return to the former honor and dignity which went along with the Black Belt. There are some instructors who still stick to the old ways, but they are few, and poor.
The slick organizations have an undeniable edge in their massive numbers and huge bank accounts. And since they have the most schools, they can continue to lower the standards as they wish in order to get more and more students through the door.
In our overly litigious society, I expect to hear of some instructor getting sued because he won’t “give” someone’s kid a black belt.
As sad as this all may sound, it may do you good to be able to understand what rank means, especially high rank.
Within your school, rank is going to be worth a lot. With rank in the martial arts come a lot of privileges. You may be allowed to teach, other students have to call you sir or ma’am. In some schools, every time you enter the room the entire class has to stop and face you, and bow. It feels a little weird at first, but you learn quickly not to run in and out of the room making them do it over and over.
If your school is part of a larger organization, your rank will have a lot of meaning. As it get higher, you are looked to more and more within your organization as a leader.
To people outside of your school and/or organization, your rank will mean nothing, unless they happen to practice the same style you have trained in. But even then, your rank will not mean as much as you might like it to mean.
In the public at large, it is known that your rank is supposed to be a sign of your skill. Your rank will always mean more to you than it ever will to anyone else. My wife could not care less about my rank.
Basically, what rank means is, at best, subjective. But remember, how rank is earned is also very subjective as well.
In your school, as stated earlier, you should take the time to write out your rank requirements. Some things to consider are;
• Self defense
• Time in current rank
• Number of classes attended at current rank
Take several points from this list and create your requirements if you do not already have a list. Once you have a written rank requirement, give a copy to each student. Many instructors are afraid to do this as they fear they might not teach every student every technique on the list, but it will serve as a motivation for your students to attend classes regularly, and a motivation for you to actually write lesson plans. (Believe me, writing lesson plans is one thing that you can do that is worth every second of time spent doing it. You will not believe the results!). After every student has a copy (Give them to students as they sign up, and the new rank requirements after they pass each test) you must strictly enforce the requirements. If you do not enforce them, they are just a list.
There is a trend in the professional martial arts industry that I find disturbing. The idea is that if you give a student a rank they do not deserve, they will try to live up to your opinion of them. I have never seen this philosophy work. I put it in the category of all of the other “feel good karate” garbage out there. Set standards, and stick to them. Do not be one of the people promote anyone who tests.
I have fewer students than these people. So, they are fulfilling a financial goal for themselves. However, the students I produce are more skilled, better trained, and will better serve society. My black belts are all real black belts. The choice is an individual one.
Speaking in terms of how long martial arts have existed, the use of a belt system is still new, relatively speaking. The belt ranking system has really been in widespread use for little more than one hundred years. It has degraded into the mess we now have within the last five decades, and especially so within the last three decades.
Some “mastards” (I prefer to spell it this way) give rank to each other for no reason other than they both want higher rank!
A real and often overlooked issue is in the doubts created by students and potential students, as well as the public at large. What do people see when they look at a black belt today? They will see slobby-looking out of shape old men who tell others to do what they themselves cannot. They will see young hot shot loud-mouths doing gymnastics. The real Black Belts, and there are many, usually go unnoticed. They are the people who teach the classes, and train hard. They study the art. Often they work in their schools without being paid! And they do this out of love for their art. But they are not noticed. But an important point is also kept hidden as much as possible – without these real Black Belts, the martial arts industry would collapse at a rate unimaginable. The only things the real Black Belts want if for rank to mean something, and the art to be preserved.
There are those who claim that rank in the martial arts is not important. Usually these people were unable to reach the rank they feel they deserve. But rank is important to us. For rank to truly mean what it once did, and could mean again, integrity has to be reestablished, and sadly, this is a long shot. Instructors will have to stand on principle and face the business consequences that will inevitably come.
My two cents…