What is a black belt really worth?

By Hali SerrianAthens Yoshukai Tournament Bow In

The ranking system is so ingrained in karate culture that most of us don’t even stop to question it. We line up by rank. We defer to higher ranks. We know a black belt should be better at karate than us. But take a step back and questions come to mind: who started the ranking system and when? How did it develop? Why do we have colored belts? If someone is a black belt, how good should they be?

As ancient as it seems, the colored belt/black belt ranking system has only been used in martial arts for a little more than 100 years. Jigaro Kano, founder of Judo, was the first one to Athens Yoshukai Soke Visitconfer black belts on his students in the 1880s. They were sashes rather than proper belts, as they wore kimono rather than dogi (these were developed later, also by Professor Kano). There were black belts and white belts, no in between. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the colored belts were added in between white and black.

Contrary to what the movies and assumption teach, having a black belt does not mean a martial arts practitioner is a walking weapon of destruction, ready to defeat anything that crosses his path. Rather black belt, or Shodan (which we know means “first”) denotes that a practitioner is competent in the basic techniques, philosophies and principles of his chosen style. If a martial arts journey is a flight of stairs, Shodan is the first step. All the kyu grades (the colored belts) are the landing leading to the stairs.

Does this mean the kyu grades are pointless? Of course not. You have to get to the stairs somehow. The kyu grades help those of us who haven’t been practicing martial arts for 30+ years a way to measure our progress, just as the degrees of black belt help to measure the progress of those more experienced. The kyu grades divide three years of material and study into manageable three to six month chunks. It allows more senior Athens Yoshukai Color Belt Teststudents to teach junior students (say a green belt teaching a yellow belt) with a certain amount of authority and confidence. It gives more externally motivated students a clear goal that they can strive for. And it allows incremental improvements to be made on various techniques, with a certain improvement to be made with each rank.

Just because someone is a black belt does not mean they are a super duper awesome martial artist in all aspects. There are fighters and kata folks and teachers and everywhere in between. But if a person does have a black belt, especially in our dojo, you can be assured they at least have a grasp of the basic concepts of Yoshukai. They are no longer a basic student; they are a true learner of the style, one who has put in great time and effort to achieve that rank. That is what a black belt really is; time and effort. Competency, and later excellence, comes when those two requirements are met.

For more information on the history of the ranking system, see this article: http://www.minrec.org/wilson/pdfs/History%20of%20Belts%20and%20Ranks.pdf

Or there’s also Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_belt_%28martial_arts%29

Athens Yoshukai Dawkins


Advancement Requirements

By Erik Hofmeister

The nuts and bolts of requirements for advancement are available in each style’s curriculum.  Usually, there is a combination of time in rank (i.e. number of months that has elapsed since last promotion), number of hours in class since last promotion, learning new techniques, and refinement of existing techniques.  Usually, each of these must be met at a minimum.  That is, you cannot have the minimum number of class hours and then test unless you also have the time in rank and KarateQuotePathadvancement of techniques.  Why, if you’ve learned all the material in a month, can you not just test and promote?

1) Dwell Time

This is the term I give for learning or improving material, and then time passing.  Maybe you practice that material, maybe you don’t.  After a period of time, trying the same techniques, you will have learned something, or developed.  Not as much as if you had been practicing, obviously, but the brain has had some time to process the information, integrate it into what it already knows, and evolve around that information.  Even if you practice your techniques every day for a month, you will learn something different if you practice the technique once a month for a quarter of a year.  I’m not advocating this as a way to actually learn the technique well- that requires actual practice.  But your knowledge and understanding will evolve just with time.  There is no substitute for time.

2) Giving Back

A student could just come to class and learn the material and soak it up in fewer class hours or fewer months than the minimum.  In doing so, though, they likely will not attend enough class to learn how to apply it (in sparring) or practice teaching it.  Teaching is a critical part of Athens Yoshukai.  It makes students better by improving their understanding, and allows students to give back to the dojo by helping more junior students learn in a smaller group setting.  If a student only learns techniques, their understanding will always be more limited than if they also teach those techniques.

3) Parity

Not all students are equal in athleticism, ability to learn material, ability to attend class, and many other variables.  The minimum requirements help maintain some equality among students.  No matter how many classes you attend or how long you hold a rank, you must learn the material for the next rank and spend the required necessary time in your current rank. If you are able to come to class every day, you must still have that minimum time in rank.  This helps to make sure that all students have a similar rate of opportunity to advance. Again, the more time you put in, the better.  But the minimums help maintain some equality among students.

In addition to the stated minimums and curriculum, there are other important intangibles that affect advancement.  Students should show that they follow the five precepts in the dojo.  Students who are resistant to instruction, who are not respectful to their peers, or have other attitude problems- even apparently minor ones- may not advance.  Yoshukai is not only about technique.  If it were, we would be a karate-jutsu.  Yoshukai is about a way of life and a philosophy.  The combination of time in rank, class hours, learning technique, improving technique, and intangibles are all necessary for advancement in this karate-do.  This is a traditional art, with traditional ideals.  For a more American, monetized way of doing things, try a different style.

A young boy encountered a Zen master on his travels.  “What do you wish from me?” the master asked.  “I wish to be your student and achieve enlightenment,” the boy replied “How long must I study?”  “At least ten years,” answered the master.  “What if I studied twice as hard?” asked the boy.  “Twenty years” replied the master.  “Twenty years!” “What if I practice day and night with all my effort?” the boy asked.  “Thirty years,” was the master’s reply.  “How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” the boy asked.  “The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.”