Discussion in 'General Martial Arts Discussion' started by OwlMAtt, Feb 11, 2012.

  1. OwlMAtt

    OwlMAtt Armed and Scrupulous

    I'm going to begin here by directing my few readers to a better and more widely-read internet writer than myself. This particular writer happens to have the same parents I have.

    My brother recently wrote a wonderful piece on The Inclusive about video games. Specifically, he aired his beef (shared by many of us who grew up on the NES, Sega Genesis, and SNES) with the kind of social games on Facebook and the iPhone that he calls "Villes" (think Farmville, Cityville, etc.). The purpose of these games, says my brother, is not be fun or interesting, but to hook players on a progression of increasingly difficult and expensive rewards. The goal in developing these games, he says, is to get a few gullible people so addicted that they're willing to pay real money for benefits that exist only in the imaginary world of the game.

    My brother compares these games to B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning chambers:
    My brother, mind you, has a much bigger and much more important point to make than his distaste for a particular kind of game; I encourage you to read the piece for yourself. But his grievance against the "Villes" got me thinking (as many things seem to these days) about the way we, as students, practice the martial arts.

    I train because I like to. Sure, in the back of my mind, I'm on a years-long hunt for an elusive treasure known as the Black Belt, but that destination wouldn't be worth anything to me if I wasn't enjoying the journey. The martial arts fascinate me; when I'm working my way through a new technique, the next rank is the last thing on my mind.

    But if you've ever been to an independent regional taekwondo or karate tournament, you've likely seen a very different attitude from mine about rank. You've seen cadres of "masters" who seem intensely proud of all the ranks and awards prominently displayed on their doboks and gis. You've seen children as young as nine who have already blazed through dozens of ranks to earn their black belts and are eagerly working on the next degree.

    My mind is boggled by this kind of thing. In my own discipline of aikido, many instructors are middle-aged men who have yet to move beyond their first dan. Most organizations have only six ranks between zero and black belt, and usually most of those ranks do not have corresponding belt colors. Testing at my club is done only once a year. Rank, in my experience of aikido, is a personal milestone and a tool for designating instructors, nothing more. The art is its own reward--ars gratia artis.

    Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone who's not doing rank the aikido way is doing it wrong. If I thought that, I never would have attempted my foray into taekwondo. What bothers me is a tendency I see among some martial arts schools to sell the next rank (for which there will of course be extra fees), rather than an experience, as their primary product, and worse, a tendency among students to buy it.

    The last time I went to a taekwondo tournament, I watched black belts compete who could not punch straight or kick above their waists. I watched a red belt compete in a wheelchair--a man who cannot kick is nearing his black belt in an art that is roughly 75% kicking. These peoples' ranks are not indicators of skill; they are rewards for investments of time and money.

    There are those who say that awarding ranks so freely makes a mockery of the martial arts. Personally, I couldn't care less about mockery. I put on long, white underwear and play with wooden swords with other grown men three times a week; the truth is already as funny as any mockery that might be made of it. What I do care about is the perception, fueled by people like the aforementioned tournament-goers, that the martial artist's purpose is to accumulate ranks rather than to practice an art.

    A martial arts experience shaped by this perception stops being about learning and enjoyment and becomes Karateville, an endless cycle of chasing the next little reward. This is, of course, good news for people trying to cash in on testing fees. It's bad news, though, for all of us who just like the martial arts because they're interesting and fun: we don't want to confine our training to the handful of things on the next test, and we don't want to train with people more concerned about colored pieces of cloth than well-executed technique or a good workout.

    Twice before (here and here) I have brought up Rob Redmond, writer of the excellent karate blog 24 Fighting Chickens. Redmond's take on rank is both cynical and iconoclastic. He goes so far in one piece as to suggest that the Karateville game is the only reason to have more than a few broad ranks:
    So what's a martial artist to do? Abandon rank altogether? I'm not going to advocate that here, though I do think the question of whether or not we really need rank in the martial arts is an interesting one. For now, I think we can ask some simpler questions of ourselves.

    Is my pursuit of rank helping me focus on my training or distracting me from it? How different am I really from a student one rank higher or lower than me? How much recognition do I really need for learning this new technique or form? Is there an obvious purpose behind all the ranks at my school?

    Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living. It naturally follows, I think, that the unexamined art is not worth practicing. If we only notice what we are awarded without ever asking questions about what we're really learning, we may be stumbling over the city limits into Karateville.

    (This article originally appeared in OwlMatt's martial arts blog The Young Grasshopper.)
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2012
  2. icemaster2340

    icemaster2340 New Member

    Interesting... I agree with what you say, especially since I've already gotten black belts in TKD and Karate, through that whole process. (I hope you'll take my word that I am in NO way one of those "money investors" you mentioned, I think I have earned my black belts).

    If I could make a few changes to the current "belt system", i would suggest that there's only 2 belts ranks: White, and Black. And similarly to kyokushin karate, I would like students to actually fight others (not as much as 100, but maybe a solid 20-30) and show their improvements. But ultimately, I think only black and white belts are needed. Black for the instructor and white for the student. Everything else in-between should be removed for simplicity and efficiency's sake.

    Another problem I want to bring up, which you have slightly mentioned, is the DANGERS of having a "invested" black belt. Because we like to think positively of ourselves, we won't want to think that we have a black belt through monetary means. Overtime, we develop this sense of eliticism as a black-belt that is very dangerous in the classroom and out because of arrogance. Arrogance, and ego in general, is a martial artist's number one enemy.

    When we unfortunately enter a street fight, this feeling of a black belt comfortably around our waist gives us an unwarranted confidence. While in most cases confidence is encouraged, this kind of confidence is more of a misplaced cockiness. We think that we are more skilled than another person because of our belt, and this tends to make people careless in a fight. In truth, being slightly scared and wary of the enemy tends to keep you alive more often than not.

    Finally, I would like to mention one of my sensei's favourite quotes. (This is why i still have some faith in karate and TKD)

    "A belt is simply something you use to tie your uniform together. The color of the belt doesn't really matter, the skill of the person wearing the belt does."

    -As a side note, I understood this first hand by going into a karate gym with a whiite belt, (i was TKD 1st dan then) and sparring on par with brown belts and black belts there.
  3. Giant Sea Panda

    Giant Sea Panda Valued Member

    Completely agree with you on that one, and I've been a chronic belt chaser in a past life. I've often wondered what would happen to the art as a whole if you were to remove the distraction entirely.
  4. Very nice article OwlMAtt, thank you :)

  5. OwlMAtt

    OwlMAtt Armed and Scrupulous

    Yeah, I didn't want this article to become a rant against rank, but I wonder sometimes if we all wouldn't be better off without it. I understand the appeal to children, but do grown ups really need to be collecting ranks like a Cub Scout?
  6. Seventh

    Seventh Super Sexy Sushi Time

    Interesting read mate! Definitely bookmarking this article.
  7. Quercus

    Quercus New Member

    Well written.

    I'm a beginner white belt in TSD, training alongside my young sons. There is not a great emphais placed on belts in the Dojang that I have joined, but I'm glad that there are little stripes to add to the belts as motivators for my 5 and 7 year old sons.

    I think it's good that they will see their progress as they earn a little stripe on their belts and then work up to the next belt. I'm not sure how much money it will cost to get these things, but if the instruction and atmosphere in the dojang are good-- I'm OK with paying money for what I do there.

    I've also heard the instructors focus on the belt that has already been achieved-- "I know you know better than that! Let's see an orange belt kick!" It can be a framework to talk about high expectations-- a framework for kids to understand and relate to.

    As for me, I'd prefer to see no change to my belt until I achieve a more obvious level of skill-- in my mind, I'm working towards the more traditional next step of green. I appreciate the symbolism of Winter/Spring/Summer/Autumn that lines up with White/Green/Red/Black(midnight blue).
  8. 47MartialMan

    47MartialMan Valued Member


    Although the rank is a motivational tool for kids, as for adults, we have our own motivation/expectation
  9. AndrewTheAndroid

    AndrewTheAndroid A hero for fun.

    I have to say that I disagree with you on this one point. You don't know what kind of effort that handicapped guy has put into learning his art. If he enjoys the art, works hard at it and is getting better at the 25% of the art that he can do, then I don't see any reason why he should be held back to lower ranks.
  10. OwlMAtt

    OwlMAtt Armed and Scrupulous

    Because he can't perform the art. I have great respect for martial artists with disabilities. Guys like Ole Kingston Jensen, for instance, have earned every honor they get. But Kingston Jensen is practicing an art whose techniques can be performed from a wheelchair. If you're not kicking, you're not doing taekwondo. Giving taekwondo ranks to someone who can't kick is like giving kendo ranks to someone who can't hold a sword.

    My beef here isn't with disabled martial artists; it's with martial arts clubs whose ranks are given in return for time and money rather than as indicators of ability.
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  11. MoneyKick

    MoneyKick New Member

    Many factors are in play in this very tricky situation. First off, the art does dictate what the focus is. If you can't kick and you're in a kicking art, it'd be a lie to say you're at a black belt level in a kicking art. However, other things to consider are principles of fairness, as well as plain old 'good business practices'. Keep in mind, a martial arts club or school is a paid organization; it's a business. a business can't afford bad PR such as anything remotely involving discrimination.
  12. Quercus

    Quercus New Member

    Ok, so I wrote that, but it's funny just how motivated I felt and proud of a month+ of work I was when I got my 9th gup this week! :bow1:

    Guess I'm not above that feeling of gratification, but if it's done right, I don't expect that it will be a bad thing.
  13. OwlMAtt

    OwlMAtt Armed and Scrupulous

    Rank can be done right. The article isn't intended to disparage rank. We just need to remember that rank is a signpost that points us at what is important; it's not important in and of itself.
  14. 47MartialMan

    47MartialMan Valued Member

    This is not entirely true.

    Rank is important to many martial artists.

    In fact, if you take away the rank, many students will quit
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2012
  15. Quercus

    Quercus New Member

    Yes. Questioning and disparaging are different things.

    Training at all-ages classes alongside my young sons, I can see that they were impressed by watching me receive a blue stripe on my belt and immediately saw it as "a signpost" as you say.

    Finer grades in rank also help me to process what I'm seeing among the orange and green belts, and to make more informed judgments of whose technique I should watch.

    At times I want to observe someone with only just a little more experience than I have, or sometimes I want to watch the most advanced red belt on the other side of the dojang to take in more general things about balance, pacing, breathing, and style.

    Sometimes the fact that I can see that rank is not always an exact indicator of achievement in technique-- well, that is a helpful reminder that it really IS about the art and not the rank.
  16. Quercus

    Quercus New Member

    As a newbie with a busy life outside of MA, I can report that MA is a real challenge. Rank can be a scaffold- a framework to help work through those challenges. I get the sense that rank is going to be a healthy part of my personal development in TSD.

    I'm lucky to have happened upon a school where rank is not the end, but part of a process with a deeper goal.
  17. OwlMAtt

    OwlMAtt Armed and Scrupulous

    The only thing important about rank is the growth it signifies.
  18. 47MartialMan

    47MartialMan Valued Member

    That is the best way to look at it.

    That said, people want the rank.

    They do not just desire their skill and the art is progressing, they desire a "symbol" of this.
  19. OwlMAtt

    OwlMAtt Armed and Scrupulous

    Which is fine, as long as we remember that a symbol is all it is. When it becomes a goal in and of itself rather than a symbol of that goal, rank starts creating more problems than it solves.
  20. Quercus

    Quercus New Member

    Re-Reading this, it sounds to me like I've absorbed this idea that many schools overemphasize rank or use it mainly as a money maker.

    The only other experiences I have with MA are that my brother in law in Faribanks once worked to a third degree black belt in shudokan (never really spoke with him about it at all), and that there is a TKD instructor who comes to my son's pre-school in part as an activity and in part as a promotion. (a good idea, I think-- that's the kind of advertising that benefits both the community and the business.) My little guy has clearly been exposed to technique, focus, and respect. He doesn't come home talking of belts and so on.

    So I have no reason to think that this Mc-Dojo thing that I do read about online is any kind of prevalent reality. Now that I think about it, I bet people are quick to disparage another school, especially on the internet. If the commentary on youtube MA is any guide...

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