In this post, I’m going to address two assumptions that are common in the world of martial arts:

(1) That a black belt rank or a high rank equates to a high level of skill.
(2) That having studied martial arts for “x years” means that the practitioner is highly skilled.

Both of these assumptions/statements can be rather dubious.

Let’s start with the issue of rank. It is my opinion that rank has been abused and corrupted to the point where it has become meaningless. Simply put, too many people are chasing after rank rather than focusing on the acquisition and perfection of martial skill. It is generally accepted that the modern origins of rank in the martial arts can be attributed to Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. Kano was apparently influenced by the western educational system of promoting students from grade to grade (as Japan was going through rapid Westernization during Kano’s lifetime). Besides systematizing various styles of Japanese jiu jitsu into Judo, he also instituted rank in Judo as a way of delineating which students had learned the various aspects of Judo. Kano’s idea had enormous influence on other martial arts styles as other martial arts adopted Kano’s method.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, rank has been corrupted in various ways in the last quarter century. First, it appears that many practitioners have now focused on rank rather than focusing on skill. The commercialization of martial arts does not help. it is common to see various martial arts schools to “guarantee” a black belt in a set period of time, usually for a hefty fee. Secondly, there is the problem of martial arts instructors who have fallen into the trap of surrounding himself/herself with as many black belts as possible and inflating the instructor’s ego in the process. “Oh, look at me….I’ve trained X number of people to black belt. I’m an awesome instructor blah blah blah.”

With respect to instructors, the problem is the focus on rank rather than the quality of the students. In my opinion, the best martial arts instructors/grandmasters etc are those who have developed great martial artists among their students, regardless of rank. They are more concerned with helping their students acquire and develop great martial skill. Many of these folks are usually quite honorable when it comes to the issue of rank. Not so for others. I know of one prominent martial artist who has stooped to giving out 4th or 5th degree black belt certificates after meeting them only two or three times. It appears that this person does not want to put in the time to develop great students and is resorting to the instant gratification of surrounding himself with “high ranking” students.

Then there are those who believe that either being a black belt or having high rank equates to a high level of skill. Not so. I’ll give an example. I remember attending one of Professor Presas’s seminars at a kung fu school (not in Ohio) where there was a large number of black belts under the head instructor. At first glance, the sight of the large number of black belts was quite impressive. You would think that these black belts would at least know how to walk and chew gum at the same time, eh? Not in this case. I’m not talking about unfamiliarity with the art of Modern Arnis. I am talking about folks with atrociously bad eye/hand coordination or athleticism. If it sounds harsh, so be it. It became evident as the seminar moved along, that these black belt students did not have the basic functional personal protection skills.

I think that, for many, chasing rank has caused an erosion in the desire to refine their martial art/self defense skills. This is unfortunate.

Then there are those who believe that, because they have spent an X number of years in the martial arts, equates to a high level of proficiency. Some go so far as to believe that they don’t need to train anymore.

An example of this mentality that I encountered is when I attended a seminar at Dan McConnell’s school in Columbus a few years ago. It was being taught by Dan and Ken Smith in place of Professor Presas, who was ill at this time. Dan was contacted by a martial artist who expressed a desire to attend the seminar and e-mailed his martial arts resume. The resume was quite impressive and documented a nearly 50 year history of involvement in the martial arts. According to this resume, this fella had studied various arts such as Judo, karate, boxing etc since the 1950’s. He came to the seminar. Unfortunately, he struggled with the basic moves of Modern Arnis. Let me tell ya, this guy could not walk and chew gum at the same time. He lacked basic eye hand coordination. Harsh? Maybe. But it’s the truth.

The point is that rank or “X years in the martial arts” really does not mean squat. Acquisition of skill is the real key/goal in the martial arts and it is from this that a martial artist should derive satisfaction, rather than some external motivator.

To be sure, in most cases, the more years that a person has spent in the martial arts, the more likely that he or she will have some level of expertise. But it’s not always the case.

In any case, rank has its place but I believe that, by and large, it has been abused in various ways in today’s world, both by instructors and students alike. Instructors have fallen into the trap of placing more importance on rank promotion rather than skill. Ditto for students who have become “rank chasers.” I often wonder “what about the satisfaction that comes from working hard to improve your skills or going through a difficult test ?” I have no doubt that many martial artists do derive intrinsic satisfaction from their hard work. Unfortunately, there are those who want it quick and easy. And there are those who delude themselves into thinking that they do not need to train or put in very minimal training because they have put in an “x” number of years.

In the next post, I will address the issue of “globalization of martial arts” which will relate to the issues raised in this entry.

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