Belts & Ranks in Martial Arts vs Self-Defense
Belt and Ranks are common in virtually every form of martial arts, including many self-defense systems. Is there really a purpose for them? Are they necessary?
Here is the thing, there are upsides and downsides to belts. One of the first major downsides that comes to mind is frequently there are students that will come along and that is their whole goal. They simply just want a ‘black belt’. They don’t really want to invest that much time, they just want a black belt. If obtaining a black belt is that important, then buy one. Why waste time and money, when you can just go purchase one? A belt or rank pursuit as someone’s primary goal is completely the wrong mindset. A belt does not make you a better fighter or any more capable of defending yourself. Do you really think if you were attacked by someone at knife point just yelling at him “I’m a black belt” will make the mugger turn tail and run? No, that is just absurd.
This isn’t to say having a goal to push as far as you can to better yourself is wrong. However, I would say is a belt really necessary to push yourself? There is an obvious difference between belt chasers and those looking to better themselves. Belt chasers have the sort of ‘millennial’ mindset of instant gratification. Personally, I am not interested in training with such individuals and they would not likely be interested in training with me. They will likely find their martial art home in some McDojo black belt factory, and that is fine. To each their own. However, those that have the mindset of primarily wanting to see growth in their skills, abilities, and fitness are exactly who I like to train with. If pursuit of a belt or rank comes secondarily, I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Belts and ranks when done properly are simply a physical manifestation of achievement. Essentially, they are just the next step in a line of goals to see betterment in oneself. They should be nothing more. Some students need that kind of feedback to help them stay motivated. I would say kids need this type of motivation more so than adults. This does bring up another point though. There are many schools handing out black belts to children. The purpose for many schools doing this is simple: money. These schools up-charge all sorts of fees for belt testing. Many have 9-10 belts and others have sub ranks within those belts. All to make as much money as possible. Let’s be honest, if a black belt is so easy a child could do it, is it really worth the pursuit? I’m not saying there aren’t talented children that have earned their black belts in some schools, but this has certainly diminished the meaning of earning a black belt as it would have been 20+ years ago. One system that has done a great job with belt ranks with kids is the majority of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools. They have their primary belts that only adults can earn (including black belt), and then they have a subset up belts from white to blue belt specifically for kids. This makes way more sense and is far more practical.
Now, what about belts or ranks within a self-defense system? This is something I have gone back and forth on with the Combatives program. If your goal is to learn how to defend yourself, a belt or rank should not be your goal; learning to effectively defend yourself should be. Once again, your attacker will not care whether you have a black belt or not. They will attempt to strike you, stab you, or shoot you all the same. A belt or rank can not save you on the street. Even black belts bleed.
What is worse, there are many self-defense schools out there that have converted to the way of the McDojos of the martial arts world. Most Krav Magi schools have become just this, which is something I have come to despise. They charge for tests to make more money. During tests they just want to see your retention of countless strikes and techniques. Show me this elbow, show me that elbow. That is in no way how you effectively learn to defend yourself from real life aggression. Many times these tests involve a review directly before the test where they show you everything they are going to ask you to show them back. It’s like taking an open book test in school. What purpose does it serve? Worse yet, many of these schools hold back moves and techniques for “advanced belts”. This is one of my biggest disagreements with most Krav schools. Self-defense skills by their very nature HAVE to be simple to learn. This includes often hidden techniques like gun and knife defense. If they are too complex to teach to a new student, they are too complex to accomplish under the duress of a REAL attack. This is just another one of those carrot on a stick things to keep students coming in. Earn rank 3 and we will teach you our secret moves. Become a black belt and we will teach you the super secret moves. That is just complete and total bullshit!
So then, you may ask why our Combatives system has ranks. Thing is, we don’t hide it. I tell everyone outright that our ranks mean nothing more than the fact that you sacked up and put yourself in a chaotic position to test your abilities. Let me explain further. For a while we removed ranks, once again because I saw the uselessness of them within self-defense. The only reason I brought them back is two fold. 1) Our students want to push themselves, so it was primarily for the testing process to push one’s own limits. 2) Our students with a new Rank have different t-shirts and this helps new students find someone other than the instructor that can help them out.
Our testing process is not like grade school, “show me x” or “show me y”. To give you an example, our Rank 2 test is quite simple. The test is to measure your willpower. It is a shark tank drill. We have numerous targets out on the floor that you have to continually strike when not being attacked. We have 3-4 attackers that continually initiate a limited skill set of attacks. You have an entire class of onlookers watching you, increasing the anxiety you feel. Lastly, it extends approximately 5-7 minutes. The timeframe really just comes down to the person. In this test we don’t expect perfect technique. We have only seen that maybe once. What we are doing is driving you to hit your own proverbial wall. Making it so hard to keep going that what you really want to do is just quit. Some students describe it as though they were so tired that they had to consciously keep telling themselves to hit, and that their body was starting to slow in response because of how tired they were. What we DO want is that even when you hit that wall, you DO NOT stop. In the test you may very well get stabbed by a trainer or knocked down. You may fumble your way through a defense or do it completely wrong. What we are looking for is how do you respond when you do. Do you stop or quit, or do you “Chin Down. Bite Down. Throw Down (Kembativz)”? Your attacker on the street doesn’t care if you just got out of the gym and your arms are fatigued. They don’t care if you had to work two shifts and haven’t slept for a day or two. They don’t care if you were out drinking and can barely stand. Criminals attack you when you least expect it. When you may not necessarily be in your prime. Furthermore, techniques can fail under stress. It is about how you respond (read Branch) when they do that makes the difference. When you have an adrenaline dump in a full blown assault, 30-60 seconds can feel like an eternity and you will hit your wall fast.
This is exactly why we do this test. Our first test isn’t even about performing perfect technique or strikes. We obviously want to see some semblance of skill, but this first test is simply to test your willpower. Do you have the drive and determination to say “fuck it” and do whatever it takes to survive until the end?
There is more to the testing process that we do. Our Ranks aren’t an “I’m better than you”. They aren’t something you get just so you can see ‘special techniques’ because we teach them to everyone, beginner or not. Our Rank exists to simply push you past any limitations you may have set for yourself; to further your goal to better defend yourself by any means necessary. If you achieve a Rank in our system it simply means you bit down and sacked up to do whatever it takes to survive. It just means you left blood, sweat and tears on that mat not to show me you have what it takes, but to show yourself you have what it takes!