Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Black Belt Paradox

A couple of weeks ago I received a comment to one of my posts in which the commentator SCB said: "I hear "time in grade" references; I hear "syllabus" and other such things that cause me concern as to what black belt means so would like to see you post on that subject, "What black belt means to me?"".

I think that the subtext behind this comment is what do I think about the concept of a syllabus focused kyu grading system with the acquisition of coloured belts and the coveted black belt?

When I started this blog nearly two years ago I was a purple belt (4th kyu). At that point in my training the idea of ‘journeying to black belt’ seemed like a reasonable target to pursue in a martial art. Isn’t that what every martial artist wants? I then became aware through listening to other more experienced martial artists and through my own personal development that ‘it isn’t about getting a black belt – it’s about the training’.

I have also become aware that many people don't agree with the coloured belt ranking system and prefer a system that observes the more traditional training method whereby students wear a white belt until their sensei deems them proficient enough in the mental and physical aspects of their art to be awarded the black belt. Do I agree with these view points? Err..yes and!

Yes I agree that it’s not just about getting the black belt. I don’t want to follow some watered down syllabus that fast tracks me to shodan. I want to immerse myself more fully in the physical, mental and cultural aspects of martial arts and I need time to do that properly. BUT… I like my brown belt and I liked all the coloured belts I had before – they are markers of my progress, they help me put my new found skills and knowledge into context, they motivate me. They are like mini rewards for the effort I have made. And yes, I want that black belt.

Lets look at the origins of the kyu/dan grading system and what its inventor, Professor Jigoro Kano the 'Father of judo', was trying to achieve with his system. The kyu/dan grading system was introduced into judo in 1883. Initially it was just a white belt for ungraded students and a black belt for graded students.

Prior to this a student would train under a master for many years learning only the few techniques and kata that he wanted to teach. After several years a few trusted students may be taught some more dangerous 'hidden techniques'. Many students would train for years with a master, learning only a limited range of techniques and if they left they would have nothing to show for all their efforts. Occasionally the master may issue them with a scroll which listed the techniques they had learnt. It was very difficult for most students to learn a complete system of fighting - only the trusted and dedicated few would achieve this honour. Martial arts had a 'closed shop' mentality.

All this changed with Kano's introduction of the belt ranking system. He extended the white/black belt approach to include a range of coloured belts and introduced the concept of a systematised syllabus that gradually built up from elementary moves to increasingly more difficult concepts as the students skill and knowledge developed. Each stage of the process was marked with awarding the student the next coloured belt. Once all the techniques of the entire syllabus had been learnt the student was awarded the black belt to signify they now knew all the basics of their art.

The advantage of the belt ranking system was that all students now had the opportunity to learn an entire fighting method in a logical and systematised way. Judo had now become an 'open shop' allowing many more students to train. Gichin Funakoshi soon saw the potential of the belt ranking system for karate as he introduced karate to Japan. Adopting the belt system made karate more acceptable to the Japanese government and allowed Funakoshi to propagate it within the Japanese university network. From there it spread to the world.

If you are a critic of the coloured belt ranking system remember that without it Eastern martial arts may never have spread around the world and may still be the preserve of small secretive dojos training only handfuls of students. Instead hundreds of thousands of people around the world are able to participate and enjoy the benefits of learning Eastern martial arts.

However, I accept that the belt ranking system has its drawbacks. It has been abused by many clubs or organisations who have developed a very narrow syllabus that does not teach a complete fighting method. This goes against Kano's original aim of enabling all students to access a complete fighting system. A martial arts system is only going to be as good as its syllabus so if the syllabus is incomplete then so will the resulting martial art be. This does not mean that the principle of the belt grading system is flawed, only the martial arts system that is using it incorrectly.

The other problem of the belt ranking system is that it can focus the student's attention to much on the next grading rather than on the process of training. Again, if this is happening it is the fault of the instructor rather than the belt ranking system. In our club we are not syllabus focused all the time. Many students do not even access their syllabus from the website trusting that through their training they will be taught the things they need to know.

Karate often avoids the pitfalls of being over focused on syllabus by engaging in whole class teaching. In our club, the only time we split into grade groups is to practice kata but even then we often do kata practice as a class - revising more junior kata and trying to copy more senior kata from more senior students. Learning is circular in karate and this is reflected in our syllabus. We are tested on some of the same material every grade - obviously we are expected to perform it at a more proficient level as we progress.

I think the belt ranking system is a positive introduction to martial arts, allowing it to be accessible to a much wider number of students. Any faults that one can level at it are generally faults of its application rather than its principle. It is up to the student to find a club that applies the principle well so that they learn a complete and comprehensive martial art system. The belt ranking system does not mean that the belt is more important than the training - the training will always be the most important thing but students in the junior ranks need external motivators, need structure and order and this is provided by the ranking system. As you become more experienced then motivation internalises more and you become less dependent on rank. This takes experience and wisdom to understand.

When I look at who it is that tells me it’s not about the black belt or that we don’t need coloured belts, I realise that they are all (no dis-respect is meant here) – black belts! It seems to me one needs to acquire the wisdom and experience of a black belt to realise that getting the black belt is not important and only really represents the beginning. I can ‘know’ this but it remains precisely that – knowledge, not wisdom. I have to go through the process myself of converting this knowledge into wisdom through practice, learning and experience and to help me do this I need my belts, all of them! I call this the Black Belt Paradox – you need to acquire a black belt in order to truly understand that ‘it’s not about the black belt’.
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Jon Law said...

I believe the belt ranking system is a great way to keep people motivated and especially for kids it can provide a great carrot.

It can be abused as you say but if not it has great value.

As well as the paradox you talk about there is the black belt conundrum! Which is, after getting your black belt there is the inevitable

"what next" moment. You can be so focussed on the BB that everything can be a little mundane afterwards....

Anonymous said...

It depends on the quality of instruction and sincerity coupled with natural ability on the part of the student. Belts mean little if you can't apply what you've learned in stressful situations, even tests do not represent reality accurately so passing is hardly proof you're mentally and physically able to fight if needed. To me a belt signifies that you've mastered certain techniques in a safe and comfortable setting, nothing more and nothing less. From the standpoint of a dojo owner getting a lot of students is a good thing and a certain logic in the teaching method is necessary but what I fear is that martial arts training becomes about learning tricks and filling up the bag instead of sticking to a few tried and tested techniques that win fights and mastering them to the level they become a part of you and come as natural as walking around. To me this is true mastery and such individual is worth 10 or more blackbelts. Of course the aim of training changed a lot from the old days: then they trained for combat and their life depended on their skill, now there is no pressing need for learning combat and hence the level of actual ability is usually poor. Even amongst the supposed elite: the black belts. A lot of mainstream arts and dojos have become commercialised and hence profit and everything that facilitated profit became the main thing, this is why it's a good idea to go to the land of origin for your chosen art and train there for at least a few months. Then you'll see what your belt is worth and to what degree you've actually become a capable fighter and martial artist instead of a glorified dilletant. The standard civilian who regards martial arts as a hobby and who gets his belt by training two times a week for a few years, thinking a piece of clothing means a lot while it won't impress anyone but the gullible and the inexperienced. It's comparable to getting a masters degree at some third rate university as compared to Yale or Oxford.

In short: it doesn't matter which system one uses for grading, it's all about the quality of training and instruction. If you need a carrot dangling in front of you to keep at it you have no idea what martial arts are about (the history and values behind them) and you might as wel do something else in which you can get awards, medals, certificates... My goal is still mental transformation and acquiring true skills, what everyone else thinks about it is of little importance unless they actually know what they're talking about. In judging someone's level just look at the way they move (even in everyday life), not at the colour of their belt. True experts are usually quite humble people (they are skillful, they have nothing to prove to anyone), something I'm clearly not. Not yet anyway. I'll only be satisfied until I reach that level, mere demonstration of technique is actually quite easy once you get the hang of it. Yet to some people it seems to be of great importance. There's always the next level and the next: no one knows everything and learning is only impossible for the closed-minded. It's all about the journey not the result since in the strictest sense there is no real result (like the horizon shifting as you walk towards it), only a mummified idea of reality muddled by emotion.

John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,

I think from a simplistic point of view because the only thing important to me when I started (and now) is fighting. Becoming a black belt equated to being a good fighter.

When I was learning karate I found out that white (and other colored belts) were just beginning rankings, brown belt meant intermediate (mechanical moves/skill sets) and black belt meant expert level (more fluid moves) fighting.

So I became a black belt to be a good fighter.

To me there is no paradox as all of the rest of the skills in karate are to supplement fighting.

So I guess I don't care if a belt is awarded or "earned" because the result should be the same from a good instructor.

By the way my first black belt was a "fighting black belt" where I had to fight 10 black belts in a row with a good showing to earn it.

I did this so I could fight black belt level early in tournaments.

John Vesia said...

There's one version of Kano's grading system -- when he traveled from school to school he would encounter students he didn't know. When performing ukemi he didn't want to throw a beginner like an expert. So he thought up colored belts to indicate who he was dealing with.

Goal settings are important in any endeavor. But whether it's a job promotion or retirement or whatever, crossing that finish line can be a bit anti-climatic. So karateka should be process-oriented. It's all in the here-and-now no matter what your rank is. (Of course, having that BB is very nice also.)

Charles James said...

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)

Well said and some excellent points. I must say that I am impressed.

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)

Journeyman said...

You've summed it up quite nicely. I discussed paradox in one of my posts, but as it applied to learning technique. As it seems, you and I often discuss similar concepts and I love the parallels.

My post is here if you're interested.

I also think it's interesting how after a student works towards and finally gets his/her black belt, the elation of the achievement is often followed by what I like to call the black belt hangover.

Another great post, Sue.

Sue C said...

Jon, I've heard a lot of people talk about being a little down after getting the black belt or feeling that they don't deserve it and being uncomfortable wearing it for a few months. I suppose I should prepare for feeling like that too! Thanks for visiting my blog.

Anon, you have highlighted a lot of the negative aspects of modern martial arts which can occur whether you follow a grading system or not. You are right to state that the level of training and instruction is the most important thing and it is up to the student to identify whether they are receiving that or not (very tricky when you first start out). I'm not sure black belts are meant to be the 'elite', at least not at first dan level - after all this just means you've learnt the basics. I also think that the aim is to master an 'art' not just learn to fight(unless you are in a reality based system). However, even though our own personal goals in marital arts may differ from each other, I think we both agree that it's all about the journey...

Hi John (Z), I respect your viewpoint, I don't necessarily share it but I respect it. If it were just about fighting then I think there would be even less women doing martial arts than there are now. However, that doesn't mean I don't like a good sparring match now and again!

Hi John (V), thanks for the extra fact about kano's grading system. I see I'm going to have to prepare myself for the anti-climatic finish, it seems to be a theme that keeps coming up!

Charles, what can I say? thank you :-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-):-)

Journeyman, well they do say that great minds think alike!

'The black belt hangover'? You're the third person to mention it, I think I'll take some alka seltzer now! Perhaps the hair of the dog is what is needed to cure such a hangover? My husband certainly had such a hangover when he got his black belt in jujitsu a few years ago, it took him months to get over it. As for our 3 new blackbelts in my club - we haven't seen them back in class yet! They must be hungover still.

John Coles said...

Hi Sue. All the best for Christmas and the new year. Another thought provoking (and controversial) blog as always. The only thing I'll contribute to the discussion is that the introduction of the coloured belts for the kyu grades is largely attributed to Mikonosuke Kawaishi, the so-called 'father of French judo'. An extract from the first draft of one of the chapters in my book on this matter:

'He is said to have adapted his teaching of judo to the Western/European culture which he expressed in the maxim: "Judo is like corn or rice, it must be adapted to its soil." One of the innovations he is attributed with is the introduction of the use of coloured belts to recognise advancement in judo. Kano introduced the black belt and Kawaishi introduced white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, and brown before black. He felt that Western students would show greater progress if they had a visible system of many coloured belts recognising achievement and providing regular incentives. The coloured belt system is now synonymous with nearly all martial arts.'


Sue C said...

Hi John, Thanks for the additional information and have a great christmas and new year yourself :-)

Nick Guinn said...


I really like the post. I would add that the colored belt system and the adoption of the uniforms in Karate are mentioned in a transcription of notes from a meeting of the Karate Masters in 1936.

The book this comes from is called: Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi, Vol. 2 by Patrick McCarthy.

People like Chojun Miyagi, Kenwa Mabuni, and many others were all present and discussed these points as a means to classify students so that they could compete. That competition was meant to stimulate the dying art of Karate. As was noted in the meeting, many young men found the competition more interesting in Judo than the self defense aspects of Karate taught to that point. For better or worse here we are...

From a motivational stand point I agree completely that a rank system of some sort needs to be used to show progress. Especially for younger students. Honestly, it doesn't matter what system you use so long as you have the simple components that the existing system offers.

A visual and social award that demonstrates progress toward a goal or goals. A method of organizing the material that needs to be learned in bite sized parts. And those are just for starters.

Example: Imagine getting a college degree where the instructor takes you to a room full of all the textbooks and supplies one would need to complete a college degree and is then told, Good luck. Learn it all and perform all the necessary projects and assignments to complete the degree. With no other instruction than that few might do it. Others would give up before they started.

My favorite quote about a black belt it that it represents one thing. You are now officially...a student of the martial arts. Black belt is little more than an acknowledgment of progress. One more link in the chain. Although this one is a little like coming of age and being allowed to vote or drive. It is a milestone. We will all have the post-black-belt hangover if we go into it thinking that it is the ultimate or end-all. I went into mine having already started cross training into another style and knew full well that this new style was going to take me years more. Thus I never experienced the hangover since I knew I had so much more to learn.

Anyway, I will be adding the Black Belt Paradox to my terms. Very useful.

Nick Guinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Guinn said...

Sorry Sue, accidentally posted twice.

Sue C said...

Hi Nick, I suppose one of the downsides of the belt grading system is that it did allow karate to develop as a sport. I don't have a problem with karate as a sport as long as people realise that sports karate is not 'real' karate and is not effective as self-defence (at least not the way we do sparring - which is minimal contact point scoring). I think a lot of karate systems lost their way a little after turning to sport. However, overall I think the belt grading system has been very positive for karate and other martial arts.


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