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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

More on the Cult of Black Belt

I wrote this post some time ago: The Cult of Black Belt.

I ran across a comment recently that made me want to elaborate on the topic a bit more.

The quote that inspired this blog:

"Beware any club offering a "black belt package". No legit program offers a BB that can be earned in 2-4 years unless you train every day for four hours a day.

Too many programs giving out black belts and telling people they can defend themselves."

That's paraphrased, because I don't want the person I'm quoting to feel singled out, as this is a very, very commonly held opinion in the martial arts world.

I know that many of you that read this blog read that quote above and nodded your head.

And on one level, I'd agree.

"Black belt package" is just a marketing gimmick to get people to lock in to long-term club contracts. I'm not opposed to contracts and memberships in martial arts schools. Long-term memberships (several years, which is often what a "black belt club" membership is) can lock in tuition to a certain value (which might be a good deal in times of inflation, just saying).

Almost all "black belt packages" are aimed at kids (well, their parents, if we're being exact), and the "self defense" in that package is really about being physically fit and emotionally confident, y'know?

I mean, if you think most 8-year-olds are training karate or taekwondo or even BJJ for serious self defense... well...

What Gordo there said.

For kids, 99% of martial arts training is a sport that competes with soccer and baseball and swimming, not for training in serious self defense.

Self defense, REAL self defense, really applies to teens and adults. Yeah, if some school tries to sell a Black Belt Club membership to someone old enough to shave, I agree, that is silly and probably not the place to learn any serious self defense.

But let's back up a moment...

The person I quoted above is assuming that self defense the goal of all martial arts training.

Guess what?

Self defense isn't the only legitimate goal in martial arts training. Heck, I bet if we polled all adults training in all arts, "self defense" might not even be in the top 3 considerations.

Physical fitness and health would probably win, if we were polling folks. For adults in combat sports, "learning to fight" and "self defense" (nope, not the same thing) are probably right up there too.

But there are plenty of other reasons people train that don't involve self defense. Historical re-enactment and study. Community and friendship. Personal challenge and achievement. Cultural fandom & connection. The challenge of fighting someone skilled in fighting. As I already mentioned, physical fitness and health.

Me, I train to understand self defense, but also because it's damn fun and it engages my mind like few other things do. I started because doing martial arts is far less boring than going to a gym and picking up and putting down heavy objects and I had to do something.

Believing everyone trains for the same reasons is completely wrong.

Okay, but what does that have to do with "black belt" and what's legit and what isn't?

Well, if everyone isn't training for the same reasons, why would a black belt have any meaning from style to style and system to system?

I'm 100% sure, in fact.

Once more for people in the back:

"Black belt" (or any rank for that matter) has no objective meaning outside of your own style or system.

Thus, if people train for different reasons, and rank has no objective meaning, it follows that there is no standard time frame that is needed for someone to earn a "black belt".

Dude quoted above said it's not possible to earn a legit black belt in two to four years without a major daily training commitment most of us can't achieve.

Nonsense! It's absolutely possible to earn a legit black belt in a legit, useful-for-self-defense martial art style in 2 to 4 years, easy.

It very much depends on the martial art being studied, but it's totally achievable and you don't have to train 4 hours a day 7 days a week to do it.

For many styles, "black belt" is not an expert rank. In fact, it's often the equivalent of a high school diploma. Especially in modern times, we don't expect fresh high school graduates to have the level of knowledge or understanding or skills of people with a bachelor's degree or higher.

We expect people who want to be experts in a subject to take on additional study after high school, once they have mastered basic concepts and skills that makes that additional study and expertise development possible.

Thus it is with "black belt" rank. I know that's true in my style (see "They Ain't Lying About That "Black Belt is Just the Beginning" Thing" when that realization really hit home for me personally).

But there are styles that say that "black belt" IS some sort of an "expert" rank in their system.

OK, that's perfectly great, but those styles don't get to make the rules for everyone else.

In any case, let's just think about this idea that it takes years of study to be able to learn how to defend yourself or win a fight.


So it's impossible for teenage boys to win a fight with other teenage boys with without years of study?

Untrained women have NEVER successfully escaped from people trying to hurt them?

Cops, who encounter possible self defense and fighting scenarios on a daily basis, MUST to train for five to eight years before they can walk a beat?

Uh, sure, buddy.

Let's go back to the dictionary definition of "martial", which means "of, or relating to, or suited for war or a warrior."

Do you think it takes years and years and years of dedicated full-time practice to become a soldier or warrior?

NO. It doesn't - it can't. Not historically, and certainly not now.

Our ancestors didn't have that kind of time to learn that stuff. They were too busy trying not to starve to death, for one. Most of them, when they had to fight, did so with a pointy stick and not much more training than "stick the pointy end of that stick in the guy I tell you to when I tell you to" kind of directions.

Modern soldiers don't get radically better training than that, either, except their pointy stick explodes sometimes.

Specialized martial training like we have as a hobby today was almost always reserved for the upper classes (or more often, the lackeys of the upper classes), the ones who had time and energy to spend and had to justify their existence with combat sports, honor culture, and dueling.

YES, that takes a lot of practice and study, sometimes years and years of it.

Expert vs. expert, the highest possible levels of combat.

Which most of us training in martial arts schools will never achieve any more than most of us being able to be Olympians or play in professional sports.

So, yet again, I'm begging you guys to let go of the Cult of Black Belt, and to stop perpetuating these myths about what a black belt is and isn't.

We'll all be better for it.

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