What is the purpose of ranks and belts?

Often, prospective students ask me about the purpose of rank. It’s also a common topic of conversation between experienced martial artists in different arts. Some feel that ranks create standardization that’s important to an art, while others feel belts are a senseless conceit and distract from the purpose of training in martial arts.

I don’t agree with either view, nor do I always disagree with them. Is that all clear? Good!

Okay, I’ll expound. Grab a seat and let’s chat…

When I was developing the curriculum that came to be used at the Self-Defense Academy, one of the questions I asked myself was, “What do I want to do about ranks?” This was something I needed to be clear on before I started my own  program.

For those not familiar with how ranks are commonly used traditionally in martial arts, there are 3 basic approaches:

  • No ranks. Someone is the teacher. Everyone else is a student. Everyone knows the difference, and that’s good enough. This is common in western boxing, many Chinese arts, and Filipino arts.
  • Two ranks: white belt and black belt. In many cases, this is similar to the first approach, and students will all wear the white belts. In other cases, there will be a different method (usually stripes on the belt) to differentiate between advanced students and instructors,  since advanced students also wear black belts. This is seen in some Japanese arts, especially in some branches of Ueshiba Aikido.
  • Colored belts and black belts. In this system, students start with a white belt, and change their belt color several times before reaching black. Black belt might be reserved for instructors, or might include advanced students.

In all cases where ranks are used, someone has to decide who gets what rank. In most cases, this is done through some sort of formal testing (common in Nihon Goshin Aikido, my primary art). In a smaller number of schools and styles, there’s no testing – just a recognition of overall skill. This latter approach is common Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu (BJJ). In addition to  tww arts I mentioned, this is also common in most styles of Karate-do, as well as Judo and Taekwondo.

Which is better? 

In my opinion, they all work. I’ve listed arts and styles that use all of them. Most of my training was in schools that used the third method, with formal tests to advance to each next rank. That’s what I prefer, but I see advantages in each approach. In fact, I seriously considered each of the other two approaches when assembling the curriculum that became Shojin-ryu. I like the simplicity of no ranks (or just two).

Why did you decide to keep colored belts, student ranks, and formal tests?
I find they serve a useful role. Let me outline some of their usefulness.

Belts help students. When I go back to my instructor’s school to be a student for a day, I can step up and work with any student there, knowing approximately what their skill level is, and which techniques they have. I can tell by their belt color. That’s useful even for students within their own school, when training with someone they haven’t worked with before. This is particularly useful within an association (or even an art) that gives consistent meaning to the rank. Within the NGAA (Nihon Goshin Aikido Association) and most of the mainline of NGA, a blue belt means the student has been tested on the same first 20 classical techniques.

Belts help instructors. If I were to go teach at my instructor’s school, I could choose material just by quickly looking at what colors of belts were in the room. I can choose someone to work with a student on a new technique, being sure the partner I choose has already passed a test on that technique. This is less important in a smaller school or program.

Tests help students. Tests are generally more stressful than a standard class. They give students something specific to prepare for, and something to overcome. That last point is important. I want my students to get more than just defensive fighting ability, and tests help them develop in some important areas.

Tests help instructors. When I test students, I already know their general skill level. I should – I taught them. But the test gives me a chance to see every technique in a single sitting. It lets me look for errors that occur across techniques, specific attacks students have trouble with, and other issues that might not be as easily seen in a standard class. I use that to help the student move on to the next level in their development.

Okay, so why didn’t you use the same ranks as the mainline of the art?

Most importantly, I wanted to remove some of the focus on ranks and tests. By reducing the basic student ranks from 6 (white, yellow, blue, green, purple, brown) to 4 (white, yellow, orange, brown), I allow students to stay more focused on their physical ability than on their list of techniques. Some students will learn more techniques quickly, then need time to build competence in them. Others will progress slowly through the list, developing competency as they go. Neither is a better approach.

I also wanted to allow advanced students to choose whether to be instructors or not. In the NGAA, all students must train as instructors to get their black belt. Not everyone wants to go that route, and I saw some excellent students stuck at brown belt. So, I separated instructor certification from black belt ranking.

I also didn’t see much advantage in having a deep hierarchy among instructors. To me, there are two levels (not ranks, though the concept is similar) of instructors: those who can teach and promote students, and those who can teach and promote both students and instructors. In Shojin-ryu, there are only two instructor levels . After reaching black belt, a student can train for, test to, and be certified as an Instructor. After teaching for some time and developing new instructor candidates, an Instructor can request evaluation and certification for Senior Instructor. Teaching instructors is a different skill set from teaching students, so those should have different certifications. I don’t see much need for gradations between or beyond those two.

Gerry Seymour is the chief instructor for the Self-Defense Academy of Western North Carolina.

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