By Aaron K. Bowen
Let’s discuss rank belts and their function within the sphere of the martial arts.
There are two things that I strongly believe should be true about a rank-belt within the confines of a dojo, gym, or other organization that teachers the martial arts: firstly, a student wearing the colored rank belt should be able, in relatively short order, to be able to peg a definition to the belt in such a way that an uninitiated person understood its meaning. In other words, if a stranger to the dojo were to walk in the door (note, I didn’t say a person with no training), and were to ask about the significance of the wearer’s rank, then that person should be able to expound upon the meaning of the belt in a digestible, understandable way. Further, this explanation should not merely list a series of techniques, exercises and physical fitness requirements, but explain the larger goal of those techniques, exercises, and physical fitness requirements. In other words, toward what do you struggle? If the rank belt marks progress, then what is it progress toward? What step, specifically, does that belt signify? If you are a practitioner of an art that awards colored rank belts, ask yourself if you, yourself, could speak to the meaning of each level of progression.
It is important for us, in any endeavor, to understand the over-arching schema by which we measure our progress. We, theoretically, have an end-goal in mind when we begin any journey of self-improvement (and no matter what martial arts organization a person joins, surely we can agree that self-improvement of some variety is the motive). An instructional facility may emphasize tournament-competition of a particular style such as that of Kyokushin or Tae-Kwon Do, or perhaps participation in a combat-sport, such as Kickboxing, MMA, Western Boxing, or Muy-Thai, or even pure self-defense preparation like that offered by Krav-Maga schools. In any event, a student of that school should, by the time they earn the first promotion in rank (if rank is offered by the gym or organization with which he or she has affiliated) have identified that advancement in context to the end-goal of the type of training offered there.
Allow me to offer an example: at CNUDojo, we train for unarmed combat. A great deal of what we practice should apply to the sport / MMA environment, but we emphasize self-defense from the outset, with the martial-artist’s horizons broadening from there until he or she could be said to be educated across the spectrum (if not in the extreme particulars) of what is represented by virtually any martial way.
Any student of our school (of any rank) should be able to articulate the end-goal of his or her studies in our dojo. In general, the goal is to be competent in all reasonable spheres of unarmed combat. Obviously, each individual person may have finer goals within that sphere, but the overarching goal is what concerns me at the moment, as it is the objective on which every lesson is predicated.
So, turning back to the subject of rank belts: what, then, would be the first step on such a journey, and what should the first belt represent?
We, the instructors at CNUDojo agreed that the first rank we award in our full program, which is available only to people above the age of twelve to thirteen, should represent basic competence against an untrained attacker; the student ought to understand the fundamentals of how to nullify the advantages of size and strength (to a reasonable degree) through the application of an effective combination of technique and strategy. Our first rank, realistically, will take more than a year’s worth of study and rigorous practice for the student to achieve, and represent a great deal of drilling and pressure-testing.
Of course, we are not unique in this way, and it is not my intent to mislead in this regard, as many Jiu-Jitsu schools express the promotion to the blue belt in language that is almost identical to ours, but I do intend to say that such clarity is a good thing.
As a professional educator, I can tell you that students are far more amenable to instruction that has clear, practical objectives than to one which is nebulous in its purpose, relying, instead, on a kind of “because I’m the parent and I said so” methodology. Students want to know why what they are learning matters within the larger context of their lives. I’ve known many English teachers (I am a high-school English teacher myself) that expressed frustration with a student’s impatience with the material, but also could provide no good explanation or philosophy behind why the material was significant. All too often, such a teacher didn’t even believe in the material at all and was simply recycling ineffective teaching practices initially experienced when he or she was a student, and this simply because he or she could not think of a more authentic, meaningful way to approach the subject.
Applied to the martial arts, belt colors are awarded by instructors, often, because it is how the system was structured by a previous instructor, usually viewed as a higher authority. Despite the fact that the logic behind that previous instructor’s structuring of the ranking system is, almost universally, not actually known or understood, by subsequent instructors, they perpetuate the system but are unable to authentically justify it to the students.
So, at last comes the crux: if the belts are symbolic marks of progression, but the student cannot articulate what they actually represent in any authentic way, then the belt, itself, becomes the overarching goal. The purple belt is a mark of progress toward the next belt which is, itself, a mark of progress toward some other belt.
In my experience, this parade of promotion does actually function as a point of motivation for students, but one whose life is quite limited. Without an authentic justification for the belt, students often find the supposed mountain-top climax of promotion to be rather hollow. The motivation of the belt, therefore, undermines itself and robs the student of meaning, rather than giving it to them.
Earlier, I referenced the belt structure of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In 2017, Rickson Gracie was awarded the red belt for his art (Gracie Jiu-Jitsu) by his brother, Rorion. This achievement represented the 9th-degree post-black rank. He was, however, reluctant to wear the belt for several legitimate reasons, and one that resonates with me, significantly: his comments suggested that past a certain point of progression, the awarding of ranks in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was (my words, not his) rather arbitrary. He believed (and probably still does) that the awarding of rank ought to be done by committee, and according to specific criteria. During the ranking ceremony, he even stated that he would be content to wear any belt.
So many practitioners speak in a similar way, that they have grown beyond the belt rank. That is not to say that they are superior to another person’s perception of their skill, but, rather, that their internal motivation is no longer tied to the ranking system which, given the previous discussion about lack of authentic symbolism, makes sense. These practitioners understand that their goals are not belts or ranks, but some overarching, greater idea that exists apart, divorced from the system of promotion within the art to which they subscribe.
I have known a great many high-ranking martial artists who have experienced imposter syndrome associated with, typically, the receipt of a black belt. They do not feel worthy of the rank, believing that it was gifted to them, and that they have not truly “arrived.” Aside from the fact that imposter syndrome is a rather widespread problem in modern society, associated with any job or position in which some symbol of achievement is awarded, like a degree or certificate, I suspect that the source of this disenchantment is more closely tied to the fact that the individual never really, concretely knew what the belt symbolized, and therefore is incapable of feeling worthy of it.
If that is the case for you, then ask yourself a few fundamental questions:
Do I value what I’ve been taught? If so, then the journey to the belt was worth it. Perhaps the belt represents that journey more than anything else.
Do I trust my instructors? Sometimes we are simply too short-sighted and self-critical to really be able to make a fair judgment of our own competence. If you trust the awarding instructor, then trust your worthiness of the belt.
Am I mistaking receiving a black belt for the end of learning? There’s no end to any martial art; refinement can be a life’s pursuit, no matter the discipline (martial or otherwise). As such, there is only ever relative expertise, and the fact that we have so far to go in our studies should comfort rather dismay.