Monday, May 10, 2010

Coloured Belt System - The Bad

In a previous post, I discussed what is good about the coloured belt system practiced in most martial arts today. See the article here.

That post mentioned that the belt system removed pre-existing class or social distinctions. That is a definite plus. Unfortunately, the belt system actually creates an all new dynamic. Will a blue belt take advice or constructive criticism from a yellow belt on a technique? A brown belt from a white? We'd all like to think that we're enlightened enough to keep an open mind, but in truth are we really able to do so? I mean, if you've paid your dues and put in your time, aren't you the more qualified of the two?

When I returned to training with my first Sensei on my current journey and donned a white belt for the first time in many years, it was an interesting experience. I trained for over a year without any mention of belt colour. In fact, it wasn't until other students joined that it came up at all. I didn't really care about belt colour, but it was necessary for me to be given a coloured belt to differentiate me from beginners. Without this, new students might have felt that they weren't catching on fast enough, comparing themselves to another white belt. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

Coloured belts can be a money grab in some clubs. I've noticed that a bunch of styles now have lots of different coloured belts. My particular style has white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. From what I've seen, this is a fairly traditional progression. I've now seen purple, pink, grey, any number of stripes and checkered patterns. In most, not all, there is a cost for testing for each new level. If these progressions are used as motivators for students, that's great. If it is to generate more money, that's a problem. Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with people running quality clubs and trying to make a profit. I do have a problem with people who charge money for 3 stripes per belt and create new belts to charge more and more to students.

Another difficulty is student jealousy. What if two people start training together at the same time? They each train twice a week. One learns faster than the other. Come grading time what happens? What happens to the student who either isn't tested or doesn't make it? Do they think they've failed? Do they quit? What if they both get tested and make it but one is clearly ahead of the other? Does the more advanced martial artist then feel the system is unfair?

Each person learns and progresses at a different rate. Some of the finest martial artists I know have struggled over the years. Often the people with the most raw talent aren't the ones who stick with it and persevere.

One last issue is with cross-training. If you attend a seminar, who do you get to work with? Belts tend to get paired with other belts of similar levels. Sometimes, different techniques are taught to different belts. This is often a good thing, the techniques being aimed at people with the necessary skill and control to carry them out. So does the white belt with 15 years experience get to learn the more advance technique or is he/she seated at the kids table?

I have made it very clear that we can all learn from everyone, but there are times when experience level may/should make a difference.

The coloured belt system clearly has it's good points and it's bad points. As with so many things in life, it's all about finding balance. The belt system can be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be used to motivate and to remove outside influences or it can be used to make money and create false or unnecessary barriers between students.

You've probably already heard the saying that a belt is only meant to hold your pants up. We can never lose sight of the fact that the true goal of martial arts is self-improvement. The colour of your belt only tells part of the story.

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