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Belt system


When you first walk into a dojang, you notice that the students are wearing white uniforms and belts of various colors. You may wonder what’s the significance of the different color belts. The belt colors signify the approximate martial art skill levels of the wearers.

Purpose of belt system

The founder of one of the "realistic" martial arts says that "the claim that a belt is a certification of ability is the original sin of the martial arts community." In his opinion, if a karate belt was really a certification of ability, the holder would have to re-test at regular intervals; I guess this means your college degree is useless unless you re-test for it regularly. This founder, like other of his ilk, likes to quote Bruce Lee who said, "I don't hold a belt. A belt holds up my pants." Of the thousands of martial arts masters throughout the centuries who have left us innumerable words of wisdom, he quotes an entertainment celebrity who never competed where he had to prove his claims and who would probably have remained relatively unknown had it not been for the entertainment industry and other entertainers who were his students.

In a martial arts school, there is no age, gender, cultural, or racial barriers; all students begin their training at the lowest skill level, the white belt. Each student then trains and progresses at his or her own rate in accordance with his or her own desire and ability. During this training process, students develop proficiency in performing martial arts techniques, while also developing the physical characteristics of strength, stamina, quickness, flexibility, coordination, and balance. They develop the important mental characteristics of patience, humility, self-control, perseverance, concentration, and respect. They also gain knowledge about the martial art and its origin. As students develop these skills, the physical and mental characteristics, and the knowledge, they are awarded colored belts to signify their level of knowledge and proficiency.

A specific colored belt is awarded to a student based on his or her meeting the minimum requirements for the belt and for the demonstration of skills during a test that are substantially improved from his or her last belt test. Belts are awarded to students based on an improvement of their own personal skills. For this reason, belts give only a rough estimate of a student's actual martial arts skills. One red belt student may display extraordinary skills in comparison to another red belt student. It may appear that the lesser skilled red belt does not deserve the red belt, when actually, he or she trained an extraordinary number of hours and showed great progress to earn the belt in comparison to the more skilled red belt who was able to easily learn the skills in a short time.

More purposes of belt system

The final goal of the martial arts is supposed to be the "perfection of human character." However, many times this goal is forgotten. If you listen to martial arts students talk to each other, you would think the goal of their martial art is to make everyone a superb sparring competitor. If a student goes to every tournament and loses every match, some feel the student doesn’t deserve his or her present rank and should not be promoted. However, a student who persists and continues to improve his or her skills, is always congratulatory to the winners, and cheers for teammates, and is more deserving of promotion than a superb fighter who is self-congratulatory and neglects others. Rank is determined by many factors, having a true "warrior spirit" is foremost among them.

Anyone who is willing to make the commitment of time and effort may learn a martial art and advance through the belt system. For some, advancement may take longer than it does for others due to time conflicts with other phases of their lives, money problems, physical differences, physical or mental disabilities, or injuries. However, since belt advancement is awarded on personal improvement, anyone who perseveres may reach the black belt level. The secret to earning a black belt is simple—commitment and perseverance.

Colored belts signify the position/rank of each student in the school’s hierarchy. The higher the belt/rank, the higher the position and the more respect deserved. After years of studying and training, a student may reach the top of the belt/rank hierarchy, the black belt level. Since rank is awarded based on tenure, performing certain minimum skills, and on making a substantial personal improvement, it is a more a social and psychological status than it is an indicator of fighting ability. A higher rank many times only indicates the person has higher tenure in the school/organization, not necessarily that the person has a higher skill level than persons of lower rank. Skill level does not always equate to rank. Just because a young red belt may be able to consistently beat an older 6th degree while sparring, it does not demean the 6th degree nor raise the red belt's esteem.

"If you seek the answers long enough, you will find that they were always present at the beginning." Such is the martial arts belt system. As students near the end of their journey in the martial arts, they find the answers they were seeking were always present at the white belt level, they just were not aware of the answers at that point.

The practice of a martial art requires strict order and discipline, which comes from respect of the seniority of the belt system. The more respect a student has for the significance of the belt system, the more serious he or she may become in his or her martial arts training.

Benefits of belt system

Just as the "The sapling is hidden amongst the taller oak trees and must fight its way upward," students must struggle to achieve martial arts proficiency. The belt system rewards them for their struggle and perseverance and encourages them to develop their skills, discipline, and self-control so they may progress to even higher belt levels. Belt color denotes the proficiency level of the wearer and it is the outward expression of the wearer’s inner level of confidence and wisdom.

Belts also help an instructor properly manage a training class. From the front of a class, an instructor may quickly evaluate the training levels of the entire class by viewing the belts the students are wearing. An instructor may determine the following from the belts the students are wearing:
  • The overall skill level of the class, using the number of yellow belts, green belts, blue belts, etc.
  • The approximate skill level of each student.
  • The approximate physical fitness level of each student.
  • An approximate number of months/years each student has been training.
  • The approximate level of commitment of each student.
  • What patterns, step-sparring sequences, and techniques each student knows.
  • What patterns, step-sparring sequences, and techniques each student needs to learn.
  • Whether a student is allowed to free spar.
  • The approximate sparring ability of each student.
An instructor may glean all this information from the belts students are wearing, whether it is in the instructor's own class or in a class with which the instructor is unfamiliar. Therefore, a visiting instructor knows how to manage a class of students he or she has never seen before.

Philosophy of belt system

In eastern philosophy, the concept of Trinity (heaven, earth, and people) signifies the harmony of the universe. The parts of the martial arts uniform (jacket, pants, and belt) form a trinity. The jacket symbolizes heaven; the pants symbolize earth, and the belt symbolizes the "person" that ties it all together. The colors of the belt also form a trinity. If you think of a human being as a trinity (consisting of a head, the body, and the extremities) then the body is at the center of a human being, and the waist is at the center of the body. Tying the belt around the waist signifies the desire to organize one's self and to unite the human trinity.

The belt helps students develop their ki/chi (inner energy) through the process of collecting and dispersing energy within their bodies. As the student puts on the belt, it encircles the waist two times and then the two ends meet at the center of the waist (tanjon) where they are tied in a triangular shaped (trinity) knot that denotes the oneness of a person. The tanjon, considered the source of ki/life force/vital energy, is a point about three inches below the navel and deep inside the body and is thought to be the center of the self. As a practical matter, it the approximate center of balance of the body. Part of the knot usually touches the body in front of the tanjon, reminding the wearer of his or her personal source of ki or power. Thus, while putting on the belt, the student encircles and collects all energy from without and within into the tanjon and locks it there with a knot so he or she may disperse the energy freely throughout the body to achieve power, harmony, order, and enlightenment while practicing a martial art.

Criticism of belt system

Some criticize the belt rank system for a variety of reasons, most of which relate to the critic's lack of rank achievement or of any other status in society. Those who cannot reach the level others have reached by their own personal achievement tend to criticize, berate, and belittle achievers and their achievements in an effort to increase their own status. Their reasoning is, if I can’t reach the apple on a high limb and I’m too lazy to climb the tree, I’ll just cut the tree down.

Rank is used and has been used for millenniums throughout all societies of the world. When you need law enforcement advice, you know that a police sergeant has more knowledge and experience than a police corporal. When a soldier enters a room, he or she may immediately know the status of others in the room by their rank. When you enter a large corporation, you know the ones with the highest rank are those in offices on the highest floors in corner offices. High rank is difficult to achieve in any endeavor. It takes a lot of hard work, time, and perseverance. You may have to do things you don’t like to do or want to do, and act as if you enjoy it. Some would like to have rank, but they do not have what it takes to achieve it, so they criticize the ones who do.

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