Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Cult of Black Belt

Over at Martial Arts Mind, there was a great article posted challenging the mythology we build up around black belt in the martial arts world.  Take a moment and read it:   “Ordinary People Never Get Their Black Belts” (And Other Lies I’ve Been Told)

Specifically, the post is challenging this:

And this:

Long story short, the article makes the point that if only a very few people are making black belt - which is, generally, a simple measure of mastery of the BASICS of what we teach, for the most part - then we are failing our students.

Not that we should water down what we teach in order to have some arbitrary percentage of students - that's not what he means.  What he means is that this somewhat elitist attitude lets instructors blame students for their failures, not themselves.  In any other educational setting, the fail rate of 90% of students to "graduate" and master basics would be a scandal and we'd be asking serious questions about the competence of the teacher in question.

In the martial arts, we treat it like the norm.

The point, of course, isn't that we should lower our standards, it's that we should become better motivators and teachers of what we offer to our students. 

I think that we can also help with this problem by demystifying the rank of "black belt", and stop treating it as it's some far-off, incredibly difficult goal that most people can't and won't ever attain. 

I am somewhat ambivalent when it comes to ranking structures.  I understand the purpose and function and agree it's a necessary evil. BUT, I think we put far, far too much emphasis on it, and we end up confusing the belt or rank as the goal we're chasing, versus acquiring martial arts skill.

When it comes to black belt, we sure have built up a mythology around the black belt rank that just sticks in my admittedly-somewhat-egalitarian craw.

I mean, isn't is supposed to be just a measure of mastery of the basics?  Isn't it really just a high school diploma in the martial arts world?

Then why do we treat it as if it's some sort of incredibly difficult rank that only the very elite have any hope of attaining?  We don't have the same attitude when it comes to other educational endeavors.  We don't act like only a small percentage of students have the chance to earn a high school diploma, or a certificate of mastery in some other skill.

The pursuit of black belt, in a nutshell.

Why aren't we, as instructors, doing a better job of helping our students graduate?

Add in other trappings around black belt - special entrances to the mat, a culture of deference to black belts at all times, special changing rooms, special privileges (or exemption from tasks or work that we ask lower ranks to do)... it becomes cultish and insular and exclusionary.

Is that what we want?  Do we want mastery of basic skills in the martial arts to be so difficult that only a very small percentage of people have any hope of doing so?

I don't!  I want lots of people training, and I want them to know that if they stick with it, they, too, can master the basics.  That the martial arts is for all of us.

Do you think that black belt needs to be demystified a bit?  Or do you like the idea of black belt representing only the elite in your style?  Let me know in the comments!