19 posts / 0 new
Last post
Cataphract
Cataphract's picture
Do We Even Need Belts?

Belt gradings, that is. I read the kyu/dan ranks come from go via judo. Why not return to the old system, where belts darken from exposition to blood, sweat and tears? What's your opinion?

Elmar
Elmar's picture

I really doubt the myth of old belts darkening via blood, sweat and tears.  Before the kyu dan system there was the menkyo system, with perhaps 5 ranks total: beginner, advanced student, competent, mastery, and inheritor of the secrets and the system.  It is still used in some koryu sword schools.  "Belts" are nowhere to be seen at all.  And unless you are dealing with competition, which is why Kano-sensei used them, the kyu-dan system is a method of handicapping, so that matches could be more even, there is no need for them,s ave as a "revenue rainbow.".  I would like the old menkyo system, or perhaps even the Chinese system of simply years of continuous study, but then how do you keep a commercial dojo open with the majority of income coming from the kid's classes?

Cataphract
Cataphract's picture

Other, more popular forms of pugilistics work fine commercially without belts: mma, kick boxing, krav maga etc.

But you nailed it. There is a kid's class mentality that comes with belts. I'm for black belt when you're considered competent, and that's that.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

There’s a few prior threads on this:

https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/grade-belts-are-scam

https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/do-belts-work

This old podcast would be relevant too:

The Black Belt and the Grading System: https://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/black-belt-and-grading-system

For me, belts are a very useful tool when correctly employed. They can provide structure to a training program by requiring that competence is shown before new material is introduced. In that regard, it’s no different to any other form of education (qualifications in schools and universities, grades in music, etc). They are just internal makers within groups though and there can be no meaningful comparisons across groups i.e. not all 3rd dans are the same. We don’t want enforced mediocrity across all groups so that’s a good thing in my view.

In my dojo, it takes around a decade to get to 1st dan. We also do way more than most to get that rank. We like that and are totally OK with it. Any kind of enforcement of standards across the piece would see a drop in standards for us and I’m therefore opposed to it. Grades should be internal makers only.

Cataphract wrote:
I'm for black belt when you're considered competent, and that's that.

Stopping a 1st dan is way too soon in my view. There is a huge difference between my teachers (9th, 8th and 7th dans) and my 1st dan students. Anything that would obscure or deny that is problematic. I see no reason why we should deny progress beyond the basics. Nor do I see any good reason why a ranking system should fail to recognise this.

We don’t “need” ranks, but they can be useful. If we are going to have them, then they need to be done right.

All the best,

Iain

Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

Krav Maga has belts, at least all of the schools I've seen do. I wouldn't call myself experienced at all, but my rule of thumb in weighing up the relative "value" of black belts is to see how many hours of training a competent student would take to the reach the standard. There's no purpose in this by the way, it's just a mental exercise I enjoy. For example, where I used to train it would take someone training 4 - 6 hours a week plus in their own time between 4 and 5 years to get to a first dan. I'm basing this on both the school minimum session requirement and the actual volume of training people did, which was always more than the minimun. So let's say about 1,000 hours. Where I currently play at Krav Maga it would take more sessions but each session is shorter. A quick calculation suggests it would take about the same 1,000 hours to get to Expert 1. So, broadly comparable standards. Of course it is far more complicated than that and, like I said, just a bit of a game.

MCM180
MCM180's picture

I just heard a 9-year-old girl say she's almost a black belt at taekwondo. She does push all the other kids around a lot, so maybe her mcdojo rewards random violence.

So I'm pretty keen to kill belts this week.

I'll get over it.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

MCM180 wrote:
I just heard a 9-year-old girl say she's almost a black belt at taekwondo. She does push all the other kids around a lot, so maybe her mcdojo rewards random violence.

So I'm pretty keen to kill belts this week.

That’s not really a problem with the belt system. That’s a problem with the child, maybe her parenting, maybe her schooling, etc. Anyone who thinks it is OK to bully others should not be awarded a rank. However, it’s not the rank that’s the problem. Whatever is causing her to think it’s OK to throw her weight around is the problem.

Belts could be related in terms of excessive “self-esteem” building leading to a sense of entitlement and innate superiority; but even then, that’s not belts per se, but the way they are being enacted.

Used properly, rank can get people to accept shortcomings, work to actually overcome those shortcomings, and even to help others do the same. Used badly, rank can falsely keep telling people how awesome they are which will lead to arrogance and feelings of entitlement. Belts, a ranking structure, and the associated testing can be a good way to encourage honest self-reflection and humility. It can also be a good way to feed pockets and delusions of grandeur. It’s all down to how they are used and structured.

All the best,

Iain

MCM180
MCM180's picture

Yeah, I realize all that. I know her parents and that's where the problem lies regarding her behavior. But combining her bratty behavior with being 9 and someone wants to give her a black belt...well, I'm just grumpy about it all!

Cataphract
Cataphract's picture

Somehow there is quite some irrationality surrounding belts. Certain people just blow them totally out of proportion which leads to funny/weird/irritating situations.
I also feel that quite some potential karateka are put off by them. I've literally heard people saying they don't want to do "something with belts".

Beyond that, I'd fully subscribe to how Iain's podcast sums up the situation.

PASmith
PASmith's picture

To be honest...she won't be the first child black belt to act bratty. Seen plenty of child black belts who thought they were the dog's proverbials. One reason I'm not a fan of child black belts (amongst others) is I don't think many kids have the maturity to realise what it represents (or should represent). It can go to their heads basically. Although that could by bias talking...there are of course many bratty kids that never set foot in a dojo/dojang/kwoon/gym/academy.

Les Bubka
Les Bubka's picture

Bit off topic but the value of black belt will drop drastically soon, thanks to businesses like this one. Allegedly Okinawan Karate.

12 months certified Black Belt for $59 a month.

https://www.karateacademyonline.com/

Kind regards

Les

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Les Bubka wrote:
Bit off topic but the value of black belt will drop drastically soon, thanks to businesses like this one. Allegedly Okinawan Karate.

The webpage lists two “myths” … which to me are solid facts:

Myth #1: You Can't Learn Martial Arts Online

Myth #2: You Can't Earn Your Black Belt In 12 Months

There’s some other worrying things too:

Most of our students earn their Black Belt within 12 – 14 months from the time they begin training.

Will I Be Qualified to Teach?

Answer: Yes! Once you complete your Black Belt, you’ll be qualified to teach …

Black belts are internal markers only, but this strikes me as being one of the lowest markers I’ve seen. Having people put forth as a dan grade instructor after only 12 months of online training is a very low standard.

I know of “instructors” with less than 6 months training. One of my kyu grades went along to such a session locally (a legitimate fitness instructor, with no prior martial arts training, who had done a “instructors’ course”). The first time my friend hit a pad the instructor was right over interrogating him about what he’d done before, and then preceded to “correct” his jab in a way that my freind found laughable. It was clear the “instructor” didn’t have the first clue about mechanics or tactics. Needless to say, he never went back nor was he welcome back. But even in this scenario, at least the “instructor” has had some face to face “training”.

The individual who undertakes the online course does so with their eyes wide open, but the students of that individual may not.

We need to educate the general public to scrutinise potential instructors more thoroughly. They should ask:

Who awarded you your rank? And then research the standing of that group / individual.

If they did that in this case, they would find that their “instructor” had never set foot in a dojo and the “black belt” acquired was highly questionable.

I feel that education that not all black belts are equal is the key to solving this problem.

Nil desperandum!

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

My opinion with regards to the question, do we even need belts. Well, I think that's a personal thing. Some might like the clear rank system as a way to measure their own progress. Some might not. Fair enough. But I propose a slight twist on the question. What if we ask instead, who benefits from the belt system? In our club, we have very good instructors who get to know us personally. We also have a low turnover in that most students that start, tend to stick around for a long time. In that environment belts are pretty pointless for the most part. But we also fairly regularly have the honour of visits from more senior guest instructors. Those guest instructors can't really get to know us that well. They don't see us that often, and they visit a lot of clubs. Now imagine the scenario. Nobody has any indicator of experience. A visiting instructor wants to demonstrate a technique that, for example, involves trapping and redirecting a punch and throwing the attacker face first towards the floor. Remember, no indication of experience. He picks a random student, has said student attack, and applies the technique. Turns out, of all the people he could have picked at random, he's picked the new bloke that's only been coming for a couple of weeks. The student has no idea how to roll with it, he hasn't learned to break fall yet, and now his arm is hurt and his face has just hit the floor. He's gone. He isn't coming back next week. Worse, he now thinks martial arts is all about bullies. Now imagine the exact same scenario, only this time we all have different coloured belts. The visiting instructor knows the belt system. This time he sees that our random student is wearing a white belt. Now the instructor knows this person may not yet have the experience needed to receive the technique without breaking. So our guest instructor looks around for another random student. He sees someone in, say, a brown belt. The brown belt might look weaker than the white belt he looked at first, but the instructor knows that you can't get to brown belt without having learned to handle being thrown around a bit. This time nobody gets hurt and everybody is satisfied that the technique has been demonstrated well. So in summary, I personally think the belts are for the instructor more than the student. In that sense, I think they're still useful.

Les Bubka
Les Bubka's picture

Iain 

I feel that education that not all black belts are equal is the key to solving this problem.

I totaly agree, personally I never look at belts, but what is shown to me. 

Kind regards 

Les

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Anf,

Welcome to the forum and thanks for posting!

Anf wrote:
In our club, we have very good instructors who get to know us personally. We also have a low turnover in that most students that start, tend to stick around for a long time. In that environment belts are pretty pointless for the most part.

I have a pretty similar set up. 25 students or so, the majority of whom have been with me for a decade plus. We still find ranks very useful though. Not as a reminder to me of where the student is in their development – because I know that – but as a clear goal that the students have to aim for.

They won’t go on to learn the next step, until they have demonstrated sufficient competence with the skill they are currently learning. This “layering” will be a part of any kind of education (i.e. they won’t let you do a degree until you’ve demonstrated sufficient prior learning and qualifications) and that is needed irrespective of whether a belt is used to display progress to date. So you need some form of “grading” either way. I don’t believe it is possible to have structured learning without that.

What the belts mean is that everyone in the room knows where everyone else is (not just the instructors). So, it can help people quickly pair up to work on common material. I’d therefore not personally subscribe to the view that belts are primarily about reminders for instructors and hence would be pretty pointless if that was not required. I see many other benefits to them (when correctly employed).

Anf wrote:
But we also fairly regularly have the honour of visits from more senior guest instructors. Those guest instructors can't really get to know us that well. They don't see us that often, and they visit a lot of clubs. Now imagine the scenario. Nobody has any indicator of experience … Now imagine the exact same scenario, only this time we all have different coloured belts. The visiting instructor knows the belt system …

As someone who visits other dojo pretty much every week, I can’t say I find the ranking system useful in that way. I’d agree it makes sense to avoid the white belts; although it not uncommon for some dan grades to wear white belts when training with someone / in something that they are not personally graded in. I don’t think that’s needed, but I have seen some pretty skilled “white belts” on my travels.

The main issue though is that grades are internal markers only and I have learnt not to make any assumptions based on them. You’d think any person ranked 4th dan would make a great uke, but I have seen some 4th dans that I’d personally rank at around 6th kyu. I’ve also seen plenty of people who seem chronically under graded (normally as a result of internal politics). It also depends upon what they were graded in. A 5th dan in 3K karate (who has only ever worked at mid- to long-range) will be a far worse uke that the 3rd kyu in a more practical approach to karate who is used to getting “hands on”. So as a visiting instructor, belts are not that useful to me. If the visiting instructor is from the same association, then I can see how that would be the case. But when the details of the specific grading system are unknown, or you have a mix of people from differing groups, then the belt colour tells you very little.

Anf wrote:
So in summary, I personally think the belts are for the instructor more than the student. In that sense, I think they're still useful.

I agree they are useful, but more for the student and not for the instructor :-) I can see how both could be true though depending on the group … and this brings us back to the point that belts are internal makers only and we need to be clear amongst ourselves and with the general public that there is no universality. Nor do we want any if we are to avoid enforced mediocrity.

In truth, assuming all black belts are equal is a little like saying Usain Bolt and the winner of a school sports day egg & spoon race are equal because they both have “gold medals”.

The belt only means something within the group that awarded it.

All the best,

Iain

Barry O'Sullivan
Barry O'Sullivan's picture

To me belts are a good thing. They represent "goals" for the student, which I'm sure you would all agree that having goals are important for progress in the martial arts. Like mentioned already, they also act as a marker for the instructor to know what level an individual student is at. So for me it's a yes. Kind regards all 

Anf
Anf's picture

Hi Mr Abernethy. Thanks for the feedback on my comments. It's good to know what it's like from the teacher's side. Just to clarify my point though, the senior guest instructors I was referring to are indeed in the same association, so they know the criteria for each grade in our system. I hear what you say about experienced martial artists going back to white belt if they change styles. This makes perfect sense to me. Over the years I've trained a bit in several styles. I think I've found a style I really like now, but when I started, I never assumed my experience in other styles would transfer well. So it just made sense to start as a beginner.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Anf wrote:
Just to clarify my point though, the senior guest instructors I was referring to are indeed in the same association, so they know the criteria for each grade in our system.

Thanks for the clarification. That makes perfect sense. I can see how a common ranking structure within large groups can be used by instructors, in that same group, to instantly be aware of the level of each student. That’s once advantage belts have over other forms of modular instruction that are not visual. A good point.

All the best,

Iain

Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

It's amazing that people fall for this stuff. For any other physical activity would they buy it? For example, learn to swim using our online course, learn to play golf to master standard with our online course, be good enough for Wimbledon in 14 months with our online tennis training... people wouldn't buy it, so whuy believe it for  martial arts?