Archive for rank dilution

Does an 8-year-old’s black belt reflect on mine?

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on June 21, 2009 by serpentstaff

It’s a much-discussed topic on forums, blogs, and in pubs after workout, whether the widespread awarding of black belts to children in some styles—and for that matter, the churning out of black belts of all ages by “black belt mill”-type schools—dilutes or cheapens the value of the black belts the rest of us feel we’ve legitimately earned.

I’ve always been of the “lighten up, don’t worry about it so much” school. Yes, of course we have our private opinions about the value or meaning of other people’s belts, our private opinions of how their training and skills compare to ours or our students’.

I certainly have those opinions, but I try to keep them in perspective. For one thing, no one else’s belt—not even one within my own school or style—can diminish the meaning or value of mine. Nor can it diminish the meaning or value of yours. The meaning of the belt lies in a combination of what it took to earn it, and what the wearer continues to do to live up to it. The value of a rank, if we have to assign a value, should have to do with how the wearer is looked up to within their own martial arts community, and the contributions they continue to make to that community.

Furthermore, my opinions of other people’s belts and skills—just like their opinions of mine—might well be based on imperfect, incomplete or biased information. There is a lot of chauvinism in the martial arts world (as in all human endeavors); we’ve all felt a bit of chauvinism about our chosen styles, at some time, to some degree. There are people who sneer at any rank earned in a style that doesn’t share whatever emphasis their own style happens to favor. But that sneering means nothing about the value of my rank or yours; it only reflects something about the sneerer’s attitude.

I also try to remember that innocent participants in “black belt mills” and children’s classes have, after all, worked hard at a set of skills for a sustained period of time, and their accomplishments surely deserve some respect. Okay, maybe the skill set was limited, and the period of time was brief by the standards of my own style—but the student didn’t know that at the time, and they were giving their best effort. I would prefer to judge them by their commitment and their willingness to continue learning, and not by comparing their skills and ranks to those of my own students.

But what about the opinions of the general public? Do child black belts and “black belt mills” reflect badly on the martial arts as a whole? Do they create suspicion and cynicism in the public toward the rest of us? To this I have to say that the general public is quite ignorant about martial arts, and although these types of schools may reinforce that ignorance in some cases, they aren’t the cause of it.

Something we sometimes forget—those of us who are so dedicated to martial arts—is that the vast majority of people just aren’t into martial arts; they don’t know or care much about it, outside what they encounter casually or in the media. So of course their views are distorted and their information is slightly off. Then, in some cases, it’s time to sign their kids up for sports, and they see it on the list of possible activities—in their minds, on a par with tee-ball. Or adults see all the kids in gis and doboks on their way to after-school programs, and assume martial arts is mainly for children. Or they’re a schoolteacher, and they see kids on the playground kicking at each other acting out movie scenes, and conclude martial arts teaches violence and should be discouraged.

The point here is that people need to be educated about the meaning of what we do—and the meaning of our ranks—before it makes sense to ask whether something reflects badly on us.

And it’s up to us to educate them.

Still, let’s take one more look at the 8-year-old black belt. I’ve been professing an attitude of laid-back tolerance toward other people’s standards—that they don’t reflect on us in any meaningful way, and we shouldn’t worry about it, but should do our part to educate people. But a part of me really isn’t that laid back. I know this because of a rise in blood pressure I experience sometimes.

I do teach children at my dojo, and I believe there’s much one can impart to children about traditional martial arts without compromising (I may blog about this subject in the future). But our curriculum is broad and complex, our attitude is serious, and bottom line: no child—not the most brilliant, not the most dedicated—can earn black belt before their mid-teens at best. For the younger kids, that means seven or eight years of devoted training and increasing maturity.

On the other hand, there are several taekwondo schools in the area that are filled with 8-year-old black belts. Many of my students have young friends who are black belts, and many parents are aware of this and expect it for their own child. Every time a youngster in one of my classes announces how their friend has a black belt, or a parent says little Johnny’s friend just got a black belt, so Johnny is excited about getting one too—my stomach churns and the edges of my vision start to go black.

I take a few breaths, because I don’t want to disrespect the friend or the friend’s dojang. I just have to educate this parent (and child) about what it is we offer at this dojo, and explain how it differs from what their friend does. But I also at times feel pressured to give a sales pitch about why what we offer is better—why they should look forward to investing four times as many years to get that belt. It walks the line of chauvinism—which I tried to disavow earlier—and it lures me toward speaking ill of other schools’ practices. I’ve slipped up a few times.

I guess my heart is not yet in harmony with my mind on this whole issue.