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Meaningfulness of ranks and belts


Most all martial arts use ranks and belts to signify students' progression through the ranks. If you tell people you are a martial artist, their first question will be "What belt do you have?" Everyone is of aware of the martial art belt system, but how meaningful is a martial art rank?


Some of the people to which rank is meaningful:
  • To people in your school, it is very meaningful.
  • To people in your organization, it is meaningful.
  • To people in other schools and organizations within your art, it is somewhat meaningful.
  • To people in schools or organizations of other martial arts, it is practically meaningless.
  • To the public, it is only meaningful if they consider it meaningful, otherwise, it is meaningless to them.
Most people know that ranks are related to skills in the martial arts, but each person has a level of importance that he or she places upon the meaning of achieving a martial art rank. This makes the meaningfulness of ranks very subjective, which is understandable since the awarding of belt ranks is so subjective within the same school or organization and most certainly within the martial arts in general.

Awarding of rank is the way an instructor acknowledges and recognizes student accomplishment and progression through the martial art curriculum. Rank also signifies a student's position within the hierarchy of a school or organization. As in other areas of life, rank has its privileges, so higher rank students have more prestige within a school or organization. However, as in other areas of life, the significance given to rank is only important within that area; outside that area, rank has little significance. Outside of the martial arts, no one really cares about martial art rank. Try putting it on your job resume.

Value of rank

Within the martial arts, the value of rank is related to:
  • The organization that awarded the rank.
  • The school that awarded the rank.
  • The instructor who awarded the rank.
  • The requirements required to earn the rank.
  • The skills and character of the person possessing the rank.
Between individual martial artists, rank is important. When you meet pseudo-martial artists, the first thing they will tell you is their rank and then they will tell you all they have done. Rank is important to true martial artists, but when they meet, they are not as concerned with rank as they are with:
  • Your style.
  • How long you have studied it.
  • Who your instructor is.
  • What you can do now.
  • What you know.
Some schools and organizations have written requirements for rank that are strictly enforced, but for the most part, rank requirements, and whether they have been fulfilled, is a subjective decision made by the instructor. Thus, the skill level, attitude, effort, and conduct required for a rank do not have precise definitions and guidelines. Judgments made by an instructor reflect his or her age, experience, and what he or she is trying to accomplish within the school and the martial art.

Earning rank

To earn rank, you usually only must:
  • Come to the required number classes.
  • Follow the rules and try to do everything you are taught.
  • Take a test and satisfactorily perform minimum requirements for the rank.
  • Then, you start the process over again for the next belt.
Some organizations or schools have very tough requirements for rank and they strictly enforce the requirements, so rank is difficult to acquire. Other organizations and schools have limited requirements for rank and they are lax in enforcing the requirements, so acquiring rank is practically automatic.

Some of today’s instructors and organizations have a "student follows the rank" philosophy. They believe that if you give a student a rank, the student will then try to live up to the rank. They believe that, even if the student does not possess the qualities required of a rank at the present time, if the student is given the rank, the student will then want to acquire the required qualities. Thus, they promote practically all students who test.

Traditional instructors and organizations follow the "rank follows the student" philosophy. They believe that when a student possesses the qualities required of a rank, the student should be promoted to that rank. They only promote students who possess the qualities required of a rank, not students who merely desire the rank. Thus, students may test many times before they are awarded rank.

As discussed in the belt system topic, the belt ranking system is a relatively recent innovation in the martial arts; it has only been in effect for a little over a hundred years. No matter what the righteous reasons for beginning the rank system were, it has been corrupted over the decades. Nowadays, ranks are awarded for money, kinship, political reasons, business reasons, and for receiving other ranks in return.

These problems create doubt in students since they degrade the meaningfulness of their ranks. These problems also affect the meaningfulness of ranks in the minds of the public, especially the meaningfulness of the black belt ranks. People see fat, out of condition "so-called" black belts performing "tricks and stunts" or they see young, acrobatic black belts performing astounding acrobatic techniques, and they think that this is what black belts really are like.

The millions of other black belts that train hard, learn about all aspects of their arts, work in their schools and organizations for no pay or recognition, and demonstrate the exemplary character of true martial artists, go unnoticed and unappreciated. Without these black belts, the entire martial arts complex would collapse. The only thing these black belts ask in return for their efforts is that the sanctity of the rank structure is preserved so that future students may experience the intended benefits of the martial arts.

Is rank still important?

Some martial artists claim that rank is not important. These claimants fall into three groups:
  • Those who have been unable to achieve the rank they thought they deserved.
  • Those who have high rank and have had it so long that they have forgotten how important it once was to them.
  • Those who believe that rank forces students into social classes that limit their personal achievement.
  • Those in martial arts that have never used a rank structure.
As explained in other articles, whether you believe it or not, or whether you agree with it or not, rank is important to people. Social or business status (rank) is, and always has been, important in every culture in human history, and it is important in the martial arts. The level of importance that rank has within the martial arts and in society depends on the integrity of the rank system. When people believe the rank system is credible, rank will be meaningful to them. If they feel the system has been compromised, rank will be meaningless.

For rank to be meaningful, the integrity of the rank system must be maintained, regardless of the business consequences. Students may be lost when strict rank requirements are enforced, but the students that remain will be better martial artists and better people, and the martial arts, as well as society, will be the better for it.

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