Belts and ranks do not make a martial artist…they don’t improve their skills, they don’t magically teach them forbidden secrets… a belt means next to nothing, other than to hold your gi closed. Okay well, a belt is supposed to denote a specific level a student has advanced to, but this isn’t always the case. A black belt, for instance, the individual makes the belt mean something, they make the belt show their skill level, instead of the belt denoting such.
I’ve been a martial artist for 29 years… if I put on and only wore a white belt, would my skill level be any different? Would the white belt mean that somehow all 29 years of my training were worthless and I have ascertained nothing? Or would the belt, merely be a piece of cloth around my gi?
In the western world especially, belts are emphasized and overdramatized with romanticism a plenty, where every student vies for the coveted black belt… but few vie for the skill or hard work it takes to get there. It has been taken over by instant gratification, whereas the belt is more the prize than the knowledge and skills and this is where we get black belt mills and McDojos. Everyone wants to get the next belt, no one wants to perfect and hone their art and tools anymore…this is indeed what killed the golden era of traditional martial arts.
Today, the traditional martial arts flounder, while modern sport-oriented martial arts prosper, this is not to detract from the modern arts, but to make a point…. it isn’t the modern arts, MMA, etc… that has hurt traditional martial arts….it’s traditional martial arts!
Having twenty belts, stretching the time it takes to learn certain facets, holding belts over students’ heads like carrots, and detracting from the actual developed skill and knowledge of the arts themselves. Making classes all about reaching for the belt instead of reaching for self-mastery, self-control, self-discipline, character building, health, self-defense…. that is why the classical martial arts are in a death spiral. The classical martial arts will never die, but this is of no help by those intent on making it more of a business of belts, than a business of teaching and developing actual martial ability.
When I begin teaching a student and they ask how long it’ll take to get a black belt, I tell them the cost of purchasing one right now and say…you can buy a black belt and wear it right now…or you can be a black belt after earning the skills and knowledge. I refuse to say 1-2-3-5 years etc…. because, in all honesty, it is up to the student’s level of dedication and aptitude.
Let’s bring the traditional/classical martial arts back to its former glory and its former purpose (hint: it’s not about belts) and I can guarantee that it will begin to take its rightful place in the order of things. We can in fact bring the traditional arts back into a new golden era, but it will take a lot of dedication to erasing the ego-driven desire for money and belts.