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Black belt prestige


Who are you going to call when you or your family are threatened? Maybe that eight-year-old black belt who lives next door will defend you.

The information in this article is controversial. It is based on logic and reason, not capitalism, political correctness, and sentimentality.

If you believe the martial arts should give people what they want so they will pay more to train and train longer, thus allowing the organizations, schools, and instructors to make more money, then you should not read this article since it will probably upset you.

If you believe the martial arts are just sports in which everyone who tries, regardless of skills, age, gender, or physical, mental, or emotional capabilities, may participate and earn a black belt, then you should not read this article since it will probably upset you.

However, if you believe the martial arts are fighting, combat, “martial” arts that train warriors, and are not sports; and if you believe that the black belt, which once held a position of prestige as a symbol of a warrior, has been degraded to the point that it is considered just another rank; and if you believe that this loss of prestige  was brought about by commercial schools giving black belts  to the undeserving so they might gain and retain more students and make more money, then read on.

Old days

In the past, the black belt was the elusive, ultimate goal of all martial arts practitioners. It marked a person as a warrior who had endured years of arduous training and hours of tough testing administered by a group of seasoned masters. Black belts used to be rare; partially because there were not many martial art schools around, but mainly because the requirements for black belt were so high that most people did not want to put in the time, effort, and pain it took to earn one (in the past, money was not a limitation since instructors charged little to nothing for their time).

The black belt once held a position of high prestige. Everyone wanted one, but few were able to earn one. However, times have changed!

Current days

Now, in most martial art schools, anyone, no matter their age, gender, or physical, mental, or emotional capabilities, may become a black belt. The philosophy is that, if the person comes to class and tries, then the person should be promoted, even to the black belt level. Go to any grade school and you will find numerous children with black belts. At any large gathering of adults, you will find numerous current black belts (usually not ones earned during the old days), even among the unfit or physically or mentally challenged. Nowadays, the black belt no longer holds a position of high prestige. Its position is not necessarily one of low prestige; it is more one of no prestige. No one cares anymore, one way or the other.

In the past, when you said you were a black belt, people would say, “Wow!” Now they say, “Oh, my little girl has one of those.” A black belt used to be considered the consummate warrior who could, and would, fight for the right, no matter the consequences. The reason this was expected of them was that—this was what black belts did. They were hand-to-hand combat experts who fought for the right. Now black belts are just athletes who play the sport of "martial arts.”

If you are a doctor or a nurse and a person on the street falls unconscious, the public expects you to spring forward and take control. Most will, and most will be able to handle the situation since that is what they trained to do. If you are a black belt and a person on the street is being attacked, the public expects you to spring forward and take control. A few will and, of the few, only a few will be able to handle the situation since most black belts have no idea of what to do since they are sportspersons, and of the ones who do know what to do, few are capable of actually doing it.

What happened?

Once prestige has been lost, it is difficult, if not impossible, to regain. Some of us in the martial arts community believe that the giving away of black belts has irreparably damaged the prestige of the black belt. The black belt is now considered just a reward for paying on time, attendance, and perseverance. It has little prestige.

Some of us believe that the “martial” part of the martial arts has been forgotten, or it has just been eliminated to make the martial arts more palatable and profitable. A martial art involves all aspects of hand-to-hand combat, including being able to physically fight, mentally compete against others, deal with the emotions that arise during life or death confrontations, doing anything that is necessary in a confrontation, dealing with the aftermath; and being able to do all these things while living a seemingly normal life. This is the life of a black belt. Black belts do not go to class to socialize and “work out;” they go to hone their fighting skills.

Some of us believe that before being awarded a black belt, all testees must meet a single set of requirements and high standards and that all testees must physically and emotionally be able to do, and what may be required of a black belt in a self-defense or combat situation. To us, the black belt is a goal that must be attained, not a reward for trying to attain it.

In a self-defense situation, black belts, either in their own defense or in defense of another, are legally held to a greater standard than ordinary citizens and, as such, they may be more morally, criminally, or civilly liable. A black belt best be a true black belt or his or her actions on the street may end up with him or her being dead, in jail, or bankrupt.

One of the side effects of lowering the requirements and standards for attaining a black belt is that the meaning of the black belt has also been lowered. To compensate for this, more levels of black belts, other belt colors (such as red/white sectioned belts and extra wide belts), and other titles (such as supreme master and ethereal master) have been created. When it reached the point where there was a soke (founder of a martial art) on every corner, the sokes began claiming high ranks and master status in numerous other martial arts. When it reached the point that all masters were “super sokes,” the masters began claiming Ph.D.’s in the martial arts (from bogus universities they create). What will come next?

In the Navy, chief (E-7) used to be the highest enlisted rank, and chiefs ruled the Navy. Then, to keep more sailors in the Navy, more of them were promoted to chief, until there were too many chiefs. To fix the problem, they created the senior chief (E-8) and then the master chief (E-9) and congressional limits were placed on the number of senior and masters chief that could serve in the Navy. These extra ranks gave the chiefs an opportunity to increase their rank, but the extra ranks lessened the status of the chief. The same thing has happened to black belts. To compensate for creating so many black belts and provide the better ones with a way to increase their prestige, more ranks and titles have been added, which has reduced the prestige of the black belt. The black belt is now just another rank.

Honorary black belts

Another reason for the black belt’s loss of prestige was the degrading of the belt by giving of “honorary” black belts to celebrities, politicians, and people in positions of power. This was supposedly done to publicize the martial arts and help them gain more legitimacy. It may have done that, but at what cost.
Children black belts Since a martial art is a fighting art (not a sport, not a hobby, not a physical training activity) whose primary purpose is to stop, incapacitate, injure, or kill an attacker or a potential attacker, it involves complex problem solving, deep feelings, life or death decision making, and a thinking process that only come through maturity. A child may be physically able to perform the motions of a black belt, but they cannot think as a black belt since their brains have not matured enough to deal with the situations that a black belt is expected to handle. Therefore, only an adult may become an actual black belt. Just as children may think they are adults and may pretend to be adults, black belt children only think and pretend they are black belts.

Just because one outwardly appears to be a black belt, that does make the person a black belt. A junior police cadet who has completed police officer training and was the first in her class is not a police officer, even if she wears a police officer uniform. She must wait until she is 21 years old before she will even be considered by a police department. Decisions about the use of deadly force cannot be entrusted to the immature since the immature cannot make proper decisions in highly volatile, emotions situations. Yet, there are those who see no problem in teaching deadly force to children.

A child cannot vote or legally enter into a contract (including a contract with a martial art school) until he or she is 18 years of age because of immaturity. Parents are legally responsible for the well-being and actions of their immature children until the children reach 18 years of age. Yet some martial art organizations, schools, and instructors, award black belts to children. In effect, they are saying the children are capable of making adult life or death decisions, that the children have the proven legal, physical, mental, and emotional ability to do what it takes to be a warrior and an expert in hand-to-hand combat. This is a fraud that is being perpetrated not only against the public but also against the martial arts community.

The 60 Minutes television show recently ran a piece on a child music prodigy who, at 10 years old, composes symphonies. The boy said he hears music in his head and writes it down, and that what he hears is perfect and never needs to be changed. Beethoven and Mozart made so many changes to their symphonies that some were never finished. That is the difference between immaturity and maturity. Adults realize they may be wrong, children always think they are right. That is why we do not let them carry guns and knives no matter how well trained they are in their usage; it should also be why we do not teach them how to seriously injure, maim, or kill.

In many martial art schools, you may find a child teaching a class of children, or even teaching a class of adults. In what other endeavors will you find adults paying to be instructed by a child, or paying to have their child taught by another child?

For example, one day your boss tells you that you must attend a seminar about how to deal with problem employees. She says the seminar will cover how to be more understanding of employee problems, how to help them solve their problems, and how to discipline them if necessary, and that the seminar will be taught by a “certified” expert in the field of employee relations. You think, “This sounds great! I think it will help me be a better supervisor.” Then your boss says that you will have to pay for the class yourself. At first, this upsets you, but, after some thought, you agree that the training may be worth the money. When you get to the seminar, you find it is being taught by a 16-year-old boy who has been “certified” as an expert by his instructor’s “organization,” which is operated by the instructor’s instructor. What would you do? Would you stay for the seminar and believe what a child tells you about complex employee relations, or would you leave and demand your money back?

If your young child asks if he or she can be a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, or an electrician in the next few years, you would say no; you must be an adult to do those things. However, if your child asks if he or she can become a black belt expert in an ancient hand-to-hand fighting martial art in the next few years, you could say, “Certainly you can! You do not need to be an adult to become a highly qualified and responsible martial art black belt.” Even though your child cannot speak in complete sentences or write a meaningful paragraph, has never been attacked by a person intent on harming him or her, or never stuck another with the intent to harm, still sleeps with a nightlight, and knows nothing about life, the child may still easily be awarded a martial art black belt.

To be a black belt, a person must know how to fight, must know how to seriously injure or, if necessary, kill and must have the maturity to know when it is necessary, must be emotionally capable of seriously injuring or killing another person, and then black belt must be able to deal with the emotional aftermath. A martial art is not a sport—it is martial art!

A person under the age of 18 may still train in the martial arts and earn rank, but for the black belt to maintain its prestige, it must be reserved for adults. Children may have their own ranking system with the top belt being something other than a black belt; say a gray belt. Then the child stays at that belt level until he or she reaches 18 years of age, at which time the adult may test for black belt. If the child reaches the top belt level at a young age, then it will be many years before the child may test again. If the child is truly black belt material, he or she will keep training and wait until his or her 18th birthday. If the child waits, he or she will be a well-respected black belt; if the child can’t wait, then so be it.

Women black belts

If all black belts are considered equal and if the sexes are really equal, then all persons testing for a black belt should have to meet the same requirements and standards. Men and women must meet the same requirements to be doctors, lawyers, Ph.D.’s, etc., why not to be black belts.

For example, if a man is required to break a certain number of boards, then a woman should be required to break the same number of boards. If you lower the number of boards a woman must break, then the black belts are not equal. You should either require women to meet the same requirements as men, lower the men’s requirement to the same level as the women’s requirement, lower the prestige and benefits of women black belts, or award women something other than, and subordinate to, a black belt. The black belt should be a lofty goal, with the same requirements for everyone.

People demand equal pay for equal work. Why is there not also a demand for equal work for equal pay? If you want to be paid equally, you must perform equally. If you consider all black belts equal and give then all the same prestige and benefits, then you should expect all black belts to meet the same requirements for becoming a black belt. If they do not, then not all black belts are equal; some are less than equal.

Disabled black belts

Should a physically or mentally disabled person be awarded a black belt because it is not their fault that they are physically or mentally disabled? Some think so.

I love to sing. I sing around the house, in the car, and while walking my dog. However, there is one problem, I cannot carry a tune and my voice cracks. However, this does not deter me, I keep singing; I just do not sing where anyone can hear me. Should I be awarded a Grammy because of my perseverance at singing, because I really want to sing, or because I try so hard to sing? After all, it is not my fault I was born into a family with no musical talent in the gene pool. Is anyone doing me a service by telling me I can sing, by telling me I should pursue my dream of singing, or by rewarding me for singing? Or, is it best that people tell me I cannot sing, then lead me toward a goal I am better suited for, and which I may reasonably attain.

Why is this simple logic not applied to the martial arts? Why do people encourage others to be black belts when it is obvious they are not suited to be black belts and do not have the physical, mental, or emotional abilities to become a true black belt? Why do martial art organizations, schools, and instructors award these people black belts? Any reason they give to justify their awarding the black belts should also be a reason that I should be awarded a Grammy.

If you want to create some other ranking system for people who cannot physically, mentally, or emotionally meet the requirements to be a black belt, then it is an option; just do not call them black belts or equate them with black belts. You might even create a separate fighting system for them that uses techniques they can perform; just do not water down your martial art’s black belt requirements to help a specific group of people and then consider them real black belts. The Special Olympics are for people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are not able to compete in the Olympics; however, their medals, while they hold high prestige within the Special Olympic community, are not Olympics medals and do not hold the same prestige as Olympic medals.

Old black belts

Why is it that senior citizens are given a break when they test for black belt? You either can do what is required for a black belt, or you cannot.

Everyone reaches an age or a condition in life when they cannot perform tasks they may have been able to perform at a younger age. A person should not be awarded a black belt based upon what the person did, or may have been able to do, in the past; a black belt should be awarded based upon what the person is able to do now.

A black belt testee must meet the requirements; the requirement should not be lowered to meet the testee. Not everyone is able to walk, kick, remember a sequence of movements (such as a pattern), or perform at the level of a black belt. That is life!

If you want to recognize the efforts of lesser able persons, then create some special belt system for them or create some other type of self-defense program for them, such as in done in the Senior Olympics. Just do not award them black belts if they cannot perform at the level of a black belt.

Once you start making exceptions to the standards, it never stops; everyone wants a special exception. This is not like archery where you get points for coming close to the bulls-eye; it is more like basketball where you only get points when you make the basket.

Over the hill black belts

Once you are awarded an Olympic medal for the 5000 meters, you will always be an Olympic 5000 meters medal winner, even if you are now too old to run at all. Once you are a black belt, you will always be a black belt, even if you are too old to kick a bucket.

The martial arts community and the public have an opinion as to what a black belt is and an expectation as to what a black belt should be able to do. Although these expectations may be lower for an older black belt, the expectations are still high. An older black belt may not be expected to perform as a younger black belt, but they are expected to perform much better than nonblack belt people of the same age. Age does not make black belts unfit or fat. Barring any legitimate medical reasons, they become unfit and fat because they do not want to do what it takes to be fit or trim.

If a black belt does not care enough about his or her black belt status to stay fit and trim and performing at a level greater than do nonblack belts of the same age, then the prestige of the person’s black belt drops and the prestige of all black belts, in general, will suffer. Sometimes black belts cannot do, but they talk about when they once could do; some cannot do because they never could do.

Once you cannot maintain the standards of a black belt, do not appear in public in uniform as a black belt. I am a retired U. S. Navy master chief petty officer and as such, I am still permitted to the wear the uniform at special occasions, which I did for years. However, now, even though I am still fit and trim, when I wear the uniform I look like an old man who is trying to relive the past, so I don’t wear it. I still retain the rank of a master chief petty officer but I do not pretend that I am still able to perform the duties as of active duty master chief petty officer. Once you cannot maintain the standards of a black belt, stay behind the scenes and pass your wisdom on to others.

What can we do?

There should be just one set of black belt requirements and standards, not a series of requirement and standards that accommodate various ages, genders, and physical or mental abilities. When we lower standards to accommodate certain ages, genders, or levels of physical or mental abilities so everyone may attain a black belt, we degrade the value of the black belt for everyone. To be awarded a black belt, a person must be able to meet or exceed all the requirements for a black belt. If the person cannot meet these requirements, it does not mean the person is not a dedicated martial artist, it just means the person does not, or cannot, meet the standards required of a black belt. They may have reached the limit of their abilities and will always remain at their current rank.

Is black belt prestige gone forever?

Regrettably, yes! There are still some organizations, schools, and instructors that still regard the black belt as a vaulted position of honor that must be preserved. They have high requirements and standards that each person must meet to attain a black belt and they do not bend them to allow lesser-qualified persons to attain a black belt. Their black belt testing is long, arduous, and only offered to a select few; and only a few make it. In these organizations and schools, the black belt still has prestige and it is still considered a major milestone in a martial artist’s life, not just another rank. These black belts realize the awesome responsibilities that come with a black belt and they behave accordingly.

However, these organizations, schools, and instructors have become relics of the past. Today, money rules! To make more money, organizations, schools, and instructors award black belts to everyone. To be politically correct, they have adopted the philosophy that anyone who “pays and stays” will get a black belt. The days of the warrior black belt are passé.

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