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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Ranks, Belts, and Shenanigans

This post is about the shenanigans surrounding the whole idea of ranks and belts.

If I had the power, I'd seriously consider eliminating ranks, belts, and all the stuff that comes with it outright from the martial arts world.

It's unfortunate, because the concept of ranks and belts is a great one for honest students and honest people.  Within a system - and only within a system - it can work quite well, to help everyone understand what each student and teacher can and can't do within that system (generally speaking).

Wearing belts or some other indication of mastery of material - which is all rank really is supposed to be anyway - is an easy and convenient way for students to avoid asking a novice for help on an advanced technique in class, for example.  Or in large classes, it's easier for an instructor to group people of a similar skill level together for training.

The biggest strength, of course, of a ranking system that uses belts (or patches or whatever)  is that it is a visible measure of progress, and especially for children, that extra incentive they sometimes need to stay committed to studying the martial arts.

This is a well known phenomenon within loyalty marketing - people like to "game" things, and if there is another level to reach, people are more motivated to do what it takes to get to that next level than they are simply interested in the actual actions it takes to GET to that level.

To put it another way, people are willing to spend a lot of time doing relatively boring things in order to get to the next reward (like "grinding" for levels in video games, or marching up and down a mat punching the air...)

BUT, if I had the power, I'd eliminate that stuff in a heartbeat. Because too often, it's the rank, the certificate, the lineage, the color of a piece of fabric on your waist becomes somehow more important than what you can actually do.

Rank is, essentially, meaningless outside of a given organization. A black belt in Presas Arnis (even within the group I study with) is not even the same thing at all as a black belt in, say, Judo. We're both "black belts", but it's more akin to trying to translate a concept from one language to another language. It can be done, but the details and nuance of meaning changes, sometimes dramatically.

The other thing is that it's an easy-peasy way for some guy to strap on a black belt (or other high ranking colored belt like some systems use), put a million stripes on it, and claim the same rank as someone who has studied decades and is actually skilled.

As you long-time readers of this blog know, I really, really dislike that sort of thing.

It is utterly, completely disrespectful - in fact, downright contemptuous - of people who work hard and train hard, over years, to acquire the rank in the art(s) they study.  I'm just a lowly stick-swinger myself, but I have been blessed to have studied under, trained with, and known many highly skilled martial artists who have dedicated thousands and thousands of hours and years of their lives to martial arts training.

I really respect people who put in the work.

But there's just some folks out there that just can't and won't dedicate that time and effort, so they just gotta take a short cut, and once you take one, why not take another and another and another...

There are people out there who claim over 50 legitimate Black Belt or higher ranks. FIFTY.

Instead of the time and money and work investment to earn the skill, they order whatever belt they want online, mock up fake or home-made certificates, strap on that belt with as many stripes as possible, and call themselves 10th Dan Soke Grand Master Sensei in twelve different made-up (or even real) martial arts.

Nobody would know the difference. Well, except for one glaringly obvious thing.

Their skills.

This guy is a "Grand Master", folks.

I'd love to destroy the idea that having a list of ranks as long as your arm or wearing such-and-such colored belt means anything at all. The shortcut of some guy slapping on a belt they bought online and photoshopping up some rank certs just ticks me off on behalf of all the people I know who do train, and train hard, and have earned their ranks in a true demonstration of skill.

But I can't destroy it, so this is going to continue as long as there's people in the world who want the ego-stroke and unearned glory. The only consolation I have is that you'll eventually put out video of you doing your thing and we'll get to see it.

We'll all be entertained, at least.

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