• Jackie Bradbury

Why Do Ranks Exist?

Most martial arts systems these days have some sort of ranking system, a tool that's used to measure and communicate status and progress in a martial arts system.


Some are pretty simple. They have some student ranks, a rank that permits one to teach the system basics, and then master ranks above that.


Others are complex. Some have ten or more student ranks and after you master basics - aka "black belt" - there's ranks after that, often with special titles attached (like Hanshi or Renshi).


This is, of course, a modern development. Most of us trace the belt system of ranking back to Judo, and a lot of other systems mimic that system using other tools or terms (such as sashes, or patches, or what have you).


In the modern world it seems that some sort of ranking method is needed, as most of us have them. The question is... why? Why do we need them at all? Why do ranks exist?


Here's why I think we need them.


To teach the martial arts, we have to obtain and maintain a place to teach, we have to manage our books and pay our bills, we have to create and maintain quality martial arts instruction, and we have to grow and retain our customer base, just like any small business must. Oh sure, we have our own quirks inherent to our business, but at the core, we are a small business, just like the restaurant or the accountant's office or the preschool or the gym.


"As you can see, gentlemen, our one-step performance is declining at an alarming rate."

Since we are a small business, we have to act like one. This means we have to grow and retain our customer base if we want to keep teaching the martial arts (aka, stay in business).


We can do this in a variety of ways:


✔ Competitive, fair, and transparent pricing.

✔ Well organized and quality curriculum.

✔ Good reputation and visibility in the community.

✔ Excellent customer service by being responsive and supportive of our student (and parent) community.

✔ Marketing to attract potential students and to keep existing students

✔ Keep a well maintained, clean, and orderly training space.


Another is by using one of the best methods in the marketing playbook - having a loyalty program.


Which brings me to ranks.  Oh boy, do we martial artists love discussing ranks.

Rank discussion invariably pops up on  just about every martial arts board or discussion forum you'll ever run across.


✔ Who deserves it and who doesn't

✔ What a person should look like at any given rank level

✔ What it takes to earn it

✔ What it means to hold certain ranks

✔ How many there should be, and why


One thing we really don't think about is how ranks function as a loyalty program in our small businesses. Yep, it acts just like those point systems for discounts using a credit card, or rewards for staying in a hotel so many times, or punch cards where you get a free service after so many visits.


Good loyalty programs typically have the following features:


✔ Incentives for frequent visitation

✔ Aspirational goals

✔ Rewards for engaging in certain preferred behaviors

✔ Clear and concise methods for achieving additional rank and rewards

✔ Tiers with increased rewards when new tiers are achieved

✔ Enhanced status within the program or community when tiers are achieved


When you think about it - doesn't this sound EXACTLY like ranks and how they function in martial arts schools?


Our students are often focused on achieving the next tier (or rank). It's easier to get that next tier if they attend classes often and practice a lot. We often grand privileges and responsibilities to higher ranking students as a reward and recognition of status. Higher rank students are often seen as leaders and higher status students than low rank students.


I'm a bit... ambivalent... about rank, personally. But I can't deny that ranking is a critical and important marketing tool in our martial arts small businesses. I think you shouldn't forget this, too.


What rewards and privileges do you award students as they move up in rank? What downsides do you think there are to our ranking systems? Let us know in the comments!

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