Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Reputation and Rank

Rank is a big thing in the martial arts, isn't it?

Who's got which rank, and from whom, whether or not a person is worthy of the rank bestowed upon them (on in some cases, that they've purchased or conferred upon themselves), the privileges and responsibilities that rank implies, how we confer it upon each other, and what rank means in our style and the martial arts in general.

Heck, I write about it all the time here on this blog, don't I?


It's something deeply ingrained in our culture.  Even in arts that don't have "ranks" - they still have mechanisms that function as ranks (such as a fight record, or levels of instructorship) do in other styles.

One aspect of rank that I've been thinking about a lot is how it functions as a short-cut to creating a reputation for each of us.

That is, outside of the people that we train with on a daily basis, our rank is a way for other people to create judgments about us.   They can generally assess what skill level we might have, how much knowledge we might have, what we can and can't do on the mat.

Rank tells them what they expect from us and how much they can trust us and our ability and skill.

If I claim to be a high-degree black belt in a style, I better be able to prove it on the mat against skilled people in style, period.  It's expected that I can do so at a level that is markedly different than, say, a mid-kyu level belt or even an 1st degree black belt in my art.  Or, if I am injured or aged, I might not be able to do everything a younger or able bodied person can do physically, but I understand the deeper levels of my art and can at least articulate or teach it.

If I can't, my reputation (rightly) suffers.

That's important, because reputation goes hand-in-hand with rank in the martial arts.  It also affects those around us as well as ourselves directly.

I am a 1st Degree Black Belt in my style.  My skill level when playing with others is a reflection of my teacher and my training partners and those who signed off on my certificate as well as myself.  So it's important that I display the skill level my teacher says I have, because it's not just my own reputation on the line, it's his, too.

If a teacher or organization confers rank upon someone who doesn't seem to display the skill set or understanding that rank implies, then the teacher or organization's reputation will suffer in the wider martial arts world.

Or to put it in simpler terms: If I suck, it implies that my teacher does, too.

It's true, but I swear, it's NOT HIS FAULT!

This reputation and rank thing goes both ways, though.

If get my rank from someone well known and respected, my reputation is better than someone getting the same rank from someone unknown.  A black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from a Gracie family member is a much bigger deal than from Joe Schmoe in Nowhere, Kansas, right?

Of course it is.

So if I get my rank from a teacher or organization with a poor reputation - a black belt mill that sells rank - I could be the world's best martial artist ever but my reputation will always be tainted, and my rank always questioned because of the reputation of those who conferred it.

Over time, reputation can and does change. If you repeatedly prove yourself on the mat, regardless of your rank, you'll get the respect you've earned, maybe above (and regardless) that your official rank implies. Consequently, if you repeatedly epic fail in training, the benefit of the doubt you're given based on rank will be degraded.

After all, the proof is on the mat, isn't it?

One aside to this, and what got me thinking about it at all, is taking isolated instances and using them to judge a person's rank worthiness and reputation.  One instance - one fight - does not a martial artist make.

For example, I've had days where no matter how hard I worked and no matter what I did, my brain and body would not cooperate and I moved and looked like a beginner with no skill.  I've had other days where for some reason I was ON TOP OF EVERYTHING and looked like I really knew my stuff, way above the level I really am.

It takes time and repeated exposure to truly judge a martial artist's skill and "rank-worthiness". I don't think it's fair to damage (or enhance) a person's reputation based on a single outing or exposure, just like a short snippet of video is not enough to tell you much about a person or style's worthiness, either.

So how does rank and reputation go hand-in-hand in your style or art?  How is it earned or degraded?  I want to know what YOU think!