Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Black Belt is a Black Belt is a Black Belt?

A friend and I had a conversation the other day that amounted to the both of us expressing the opinion that basically, you're a black belt in a martial art, or you aren't.  All of the ranks before that rank - and all of the ranks after - are really not terribly necessary in the overall scheme of things.  In my opinion, the value of these ranks is mostly about marketing and loyalty more than anything else, and it's not always needed, depending on the style and the student body involved.

If a black belt rank in an art really is "someone who has mastered the basics" and now is skilled enough to do the real learning - and I believe this is true, at least in my case and in my ideal world - then yeah, after you earn a black belt, after that, it's just a matter of continuing to learn and grow after that.

I know that I am a different black belt now than I was when I was first promoted, that's for sure.

My friend is one of those folks more oriented to the combative sport arts - MMA, Muay Thai, BJJ, Boxing, and so forth.  Long-time readers know I am not one of those people - I don't really even watch UFC matches - and I tend to gravitate toward weapons based and traditional arts.

But both of us ended up with the same basic opinion.  You're a black belt, or you aren't.

Or you're Jim Kelly, and all bets are off.
Image found here.

Where we diverge, though, is that he is stuck on the idea that a black belt has an objective meaning.  He thinks that if you have a black belt, it should represent a certain standard (and one that, from his point of view, is oriented towards combative sports).

The problem is - it doesn't have an objective meaning, and it can't.

The big reason, of course, is that what "mastering the basics" means varies greatly from school to school and style to style.  When I earn my black belt in kobudo, it's a very different kind of black belt than the one I earned in Presas Arnis, or the one that my hubby earned in Pacific Archipelago Combatives or Goju-Shorei weapons systems.  While all are weapons arts, they're not the same thing(s).

The basics we learned in those weapons arts have bupkiss to do with, say, the basics that would be needed to have a black belt in BJJ.  Or what Older Daughter's black belt in Taekwondo required.

His real point, though, is that there ought to be some way, in the martial arts community, to have some sort of quality control.

This idea pops up from time to time in the martial arts community, usually in the wake of frustration of fake grandmasters, fraudulent lineages, or after yet another news story of a martial arts teacher engaging in criminal conduct (like Sensei Scumbag) - or all of the above.

As you know if you read this blog at all, I am VERY sympathetic to that frustration.

But I don't see an acceptable way to have this quality control.

There is an idea some quarters that there should be a governmental agency or process by which martial artists have to earn a certification from a governmental exam board, pass background checks,and so forth, in order to teach.  The immediate problem with this is that who decides what the standards are - for example, which version of taekwondo is "legit" in the eyes of the government?  And why?

I think this is an incredibly bad idea, and do not support it in any way, shape or form. Not only would it not be very effective (as most government licensing programs are not quality control anyway)...  how do you enforce it?  Will there be Dojo Cops storming underground dojos and arresting unlicensed teachers?  Is that what we want?  And if you think martial arts training is pricey NOW, just wait until the government gets involved!

Government efficiency FOR THE WIN!

I do support, however, the idea that I know is in development of doing background checks, maybe through an organization that would be similar to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in the martial arts world.  I would totally support that getting off the ground.

Other ways that my friend was thinking about quality control was in the ring itself - your win/loss record or something along those lines.  I don't think this works well either, as there are a number of factors that go into winning and losing a fight, and that would automatically make people who are not totally physically fit and healthy ineligible to earn the rank, even if they have all the knowledge necessary.  It would also be very, very difficult to do this for lots of the weapons arts.

So we're left with the fact that black belt is a subjective measure.  That "mastery" is also a subjective measure.  We have to accept the fact that the fakes and the belt mills that produce "inferior" black belts - whatever that means - exist and will continue to exist.

There is a reason we call it a martial art - because it is so subjective.  As an aside... you guys calling it martial science... I want to how you've validated what you are teaching using the scientific method, please, and your test results, against what kind of control group you maintained, thanks a bunch.

What does "black belt" mean to you?  Is there a way you think it can be more objective as a measure in the martial arts?  I want to know what you think!