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Martial Arts Belt Ranking Systems – Good or Bad?

Having studied martial arts in several different schools myself, both with and without belt ranking systems, the question has been asked of me whether or not such systems should be used. Unfortunately, the answer is not so cut and dried, but I’ll do my best to shed some insight into my own experience and perhaps help you decide whether your own school should use belts or not.

Karate Belt Ranking Systems

karate belts ranking system

Okay, so let’s start with the most common martial arts in America – karate and taekwondo. I’m going to go ahead and say unequivocally that yes, these sports should definitely have belts. It’s expected, and they are point-centric tournament sports that rely on using belts and weight classes to match people up against appropriate opponents. They tend to have a ton of kids in class that need the belts to stay focused and give them a sense of accomplishment.

These sports (at least the westernized versions of them) are meant for fun and exercise and need the trappings to make money. Without belts and trophies, they wouldn’t survive here. That’s just the reality of the black belt business that is American karate and taekwondo. You pay for belts and trophies, so that’s what you get.

 

I’m not trying to disparage these sports; they are great exercise and a fun way to play, so they make really good hobbies (especially for children) as long as it’s understood that that’s what they are. Ranking systems for the martial arts based American sport fighting business – yes.  Of course.

Kung fu ranking systems

Okay, so this one’s highly dependent upon the purpose of the school. Now, I’ve studied at a couple of kung fu schools – one with belts (well, actually silk sashes) and one without. School 1 had two different systems being taught. One was more for sport, and one was actually taught by a sil lum monk.

Both used ranks, but they were vastly different. The sport kung fu started (of course) with a white sash, then yellow, green, and so on. The temple system started with no sash then green, then yellow, and a few others after. The curriculum to earn the sashes in one was just like many of the karate schools out there, which was to attract a broader student base. This was the primary business model, which makes total sense. You can’t run a business if you don’t provide what most customers (students) expect.

The temple system was, again, very different. Sashes were earned by showing a depth of aptitude I’d never seen at any dojo or kwoon before. You really  had to work hard to earn them, and there weren’t that many. It took a long time to advance because you had to be very, very good at each level before you could move on. You couldn’t just show basic proficiency; you had to show mastery – or at least a very advanced level of proficiency since the next stuff was going to be impossible if you didn’t have things nailed down.

Onto school 2. No ranks, no uniforms, no trappings at all. No formal curriculum, just a mix of Chinese and Tibetan martial arts including tai chi, bagua, choy li fut kung fu, Tibetan hop gar, and hsing i. Our measure was not rank-based; it was based on the question “how do you compare to you 100 days ago?” It was one of my favorite schools I ever attended. Hands down. We worked our asses off and we got good. We made our own equipment and fought outside in the dirt. We hit telephone poles and posted (standing meditation for extended periods, sometimes and hour or more), beat each other with no pads, and learned the skill of fa jing – exploding power. What would we have done with belts? When we were ready to learn more, we were ready to learn more. Period. It’s kind of hard to break all that down into belt levels, especially when all of the different branches were taught together and integrated.

Long and short – school 1 needed the sashes. It helped us know what to learn next and what we needed to focus on for the time being. School 2 would have been hurt by trying to use belt ranks because it would have simply limited our ability to move on. There was too much to try to assign a curriculum to. We all got different things from it, but we all got good in our own ways.

Aikido ranking systems

Aikido is a much newer art. In fact, here’s a video of O Sensei Ueshiba in 1960 with his son, grandson, and other students for you to enjoy…

Man, you just don’t get much cooler than that, do you? Okay, with that out of the way (alright, I’ll give you a few minutes to watch that again…), NOW with that out of the way, there’s something really interesting about ranking in the hombu aikido system, at least as I learned and understand it. There are several ranks but only two belts – white and black. When I studied under Sensei Bill Lynch (student of Sensei Yoshimitsu Yamada, one of the most important and influential aikido masters that wasn’t Ueshiba), that was how we were taught. We had 6 levels of white belt then 7 levels of black at the time. Lynch Sensei moved before I could advance too far, so I lost my tie to hombu aikido. What a shame. :'(

Anyway, there weren’t exactly tests; you just got recognized for having a level of skill that was beyond where you once were. Then you would test for your black belt. It was really kind of cool. It worked for the art, as aikido is not really complicated, at least not physically. It was the mental and spiritual side, the energy redirection side, that was so damn hard.

Ninjutsu/Bujutsu

This is what I do now (Kazan Ryu Bujutsu – not many pics of me there, but there are some of both my kids, Alaina and Lorenzo). Yep, we have belts. Yep, it’s some of the best training I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like how our curriculum is divided and the way we earn rank. We don’t always test; sometimes Dai Sensei just calls us out before closing to award us a new rank. You just never know.

One thing that I recently learned – or figured out – changed my view of one thing in particular. I’ve been studying there for about 9 months. We start with no belt as a candidate. We have to earn our white belt, which is pretty cool. I’m currently a yellow belt and I mentioned to Sensei that I would not make it out of the summer with the same belt. The first thing he asked me was, “when did you earn your yellow belt?”

Wait, what? Why does that matter? If I’m ready, I’m ready!

Ah, but there is a reason for this limitation to advancement: patience. Although I’m clearly not “yellow belt material”, I showed impatience to move on, as if I were not able to be content with mastering what I already have on my plate. And let’s not mince words; I’m pretty damn good, but I have not mastered my material. I can move on, but I can also improve what I already have – and the fundamentals are always the most important material, aren’t they?

Yes, our belts are important, as well! I never really thought of it before, but I have a new appreciation for why we have them. Not only do they keep our curriculum in order (each level builds on the previous), they keep us focused on what we are currently studying so we don’t jump ahead. They keep us patient and humble. There is nothing that will bring a martial artist down faster than his own pride and arrogance.

I’ve given some examples when ranking systems have been both beneficial and detrimental to different martial arts disciplines. What do you think? Do you have ranks in your school? What are they, and do they tend to help or hurt? If you run a school yourself, does this article make you think about your own approach? Let us know!

 

Steve

I'm Steve D'Agostino, founder of Martial Arts Weapons and Training. Thanks for visiting and reading my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Steve

    You have covered a lot and given a great insight into the reasons for various styles of teaching, belt or not and the reasons for training schools to operate in the way they need to, primarily to make money.

    I found the reasons behind not advancing too quickly to be very enlightening. I would have never equated slow repetitive style of training to becoming a better artist in any form of schooling. The methodology appears sound and highlights one thing that we do not focus on in our current society, patience and understanding.

    Would have liked to see more comments on the skills required to advance to a new level where the virtues of patience and understanding were key, perhaps in another post.

    I look forward to reading more about this exciting sport and vocation.

    • Steve

      Thank you for your comments, Steve. Yes, sometimes it takes going through a process before understanding its importance (being “held back” or having your advancement controlled). As far as patience-based skills are concerned, that wasn’t the focus of this post, but yes, it is a good idea for another one for sure.

      The type of long-term patience I’m referring to in this particular post has less to do with specific skills and more to do with the humility necessary to realize that you are not always going to get what you want when you want it. When one advances too quickly (even when they have physical skills), they can often become arrogant, which leads to all kinds of problems. That arrogance often leads to bullying, a loss of respect for the practitioner (which can lead to a loss of respect for the school from others), and the kind of over-confidence that ultimately ruins one’s practice – or at least leads to complacency, which hinders improvement.

      Thanks for the idea for a new post. I’m always looking for ways to add value for my readers, and it’s a great thought!

  • https://howtoreducestressnaturally.com Linda

    It was interesting to read, and it reminded me of the time when I trained in Taekwondo. I guess there was a typical ranking system, and I have a blue belt. Either way, it was a great time. I became more self-confident, and I felt safer than before. In fact, I still feel the same. 🙂 I would love to go to Aikido, and I want that for a long time. Maybe I could do that in another life. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Steve

      Oh, yeah, I would LOVE to train in aikido again. Fortunately, we practice aiki-jujutsu in our school, so many of the same skills are there.

      Self-confidence and a feeling of personal safety are paramount to happiness, IMO, and martial arts have given me that, as well.

      I’m so glad to hear from other practitioners about their experiences, so thank you for your comment!

  • Deep

    Never knew there were so many belt ranks for all these martial art practices. Always love learning new things, and I was able to do that through this very helpful post. Thanks for sharing, enjoyed it.

    • Steve

      Thanks, Deep. Yep, there are so many different approaches to how schools rank their students. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. It just depends on how the skills are taught and what is being accomplished.