The Case for Karate Belts

A young man I know is opening his first school in my town, and comes by sometimes to talk about it. I am no expert in the business of the martial arts, but I been around, doing the traditional thing, for a long time. He is Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do and does not want to go commercial. One of the things we talked about is his belt scheme.

I am against it. My younger siblings have tried to convince me over the years to adopt the idea of it. It’s even on my website (haven’t gotten a chance to take it off!) and we tried it a few times. I just don’t like it. But after talking to this very young man–he’s 22–I see his point, and I’d like to present how I think the belt system could better serve a teacher’s needs, if he does not have a lot of experience teaching. Hopefully, you might see something useful in my ideas.

First, let me first say this:  I’ve given him my opinion, that I believe he is too young to open a school, and certainly not experienced enough. Sounds hypocritical? It should! I opened my school at age 22. But both my teachers were dead, and I was hard-headed not to listen to advice (as is he). On the other hand, I had fought in 5 countries by that age and had traveled the world studying–even living with several masters. I recommended (without a selfish motive) that he study under me for a few years before attempting such an undertaking. At his age, he is still in need of guidance and instruction–outside of commercial classes. I am of the opinion that teaching careers should start at the end of a fighting career. One needs to literally sit at the feet of masters before attempting to have others base their martial education on what you’ve learned in 4 – 5 years of commercial dojo learning.

In his defense, he has done right by seeking advice of those more knowledgeable, and I think he is on the right track by keeping in contact with several teachers while he pursues this endeavor.

This is what I think should be done with his Belt system:

  • the belt system can be a structured way of organizing the curriculum you pass to the students: first you learn this, then you learn that, and when you’ve done this, this, and this, you can start practicing for your test
  • the test is a measuring tool for what has been learned, and is the motivator for students to practice and perfect what they have learned. it is the one time a student has to present what he’s learned
  • the pre-test is the time for the teacher to formally give feedback about what the student needs to do in order to pass a test. often, we correct, correct, correct, but the students still make the same mistake. but if you hand him a piece of paper saying: “this is what needs to be fixed, or you will fail” he might get the hint
  • belts will keep you from having to answer the question about “how long will it take me to get the Black Belt?”
  • the belt must be a strong indicator of who wears the pants in your school. if you award it, you’d better make sure they earned it! don’t have a green belter who can whip a black belter
  • i don’t think it’s necessary to have a ton of belts. five or six is sufficient from beginner to expert. give your students enough time between belts to really absorb and fully learn what is required for that level. where i think a lot of schools go wrong is that they promote as soon as a student “gets it”. have a period to learn the material, than a period to develop the material. fewer belts allow more time to practice what you know
  • get rid of the tabs and electrical tape. but if you use it, don’t charge for it
  • make a clear difference in skill and knowledge from one belt level to the next. rather than have requirements like “full split for green belt”, i think a percentage of improvement from where the student was when he arrived to that level should be used. if that’s the case, every 10 year old ex-gymnast/ballet dancer will automatically get a green belt
  • definitely have power/strength requirements for each level. knowledge without physical ability is useless
  • identify a specific set of skills and techniques to be functional for each belt level. when i say “functional”, i mean they must be able to spar with those techniques successfully before leaving the level
  • any form you teach (if you teach form) must be flawless before promotion
  • any technique you require for that level must be executed flawlessly as well
  • tests from one level to the next must become progressively more difficult. advance tests must be a grueling, near-death experience. after all, they only get to have that experience once! make em remember that day for the rest of their life
  • and finally, don’t have any student do what you can not. have an idea? test it on yourself first!

I think if you adopt these rules and implement them into your belt system, you should see major improvements.

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