Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Martial Arts - Business vs. Tradition

More and more frequently, I come across young children who receive black belts. Adults and children both, have been attaining the rank of black belt after only a couple of years of training. So I took a moment and began to form the usual questions in my head (e.g. Did they have prior experience?) Then I stopped myself and thought "A 7-year old girl with a black belt?" What possible prior experience could she have?

Here is why I take issue with this situation. I am not saying that it's impossible to attain a black belt in a few years. I'm sure many have done it especially if they had prior experience. What disturbs me about giving a young child a black belt, is that a black belt denotes a certain level or proficiency. In essence a shodan (first degree black belt) says that you are now ready to begin serious training. It also implies a certain level of maturity and the ability to impart, at least on a basic level, the techniques that you, as a black belt have learned. When you attain the rank of black belt you are also viewed as a senior in the class, in which the ranks before you look to you and at you for instruction and some guidance.

By awarding a black belt to such a young child, all of the above is pretty much null and void. As an adult studying a martial art I have a hard time grasping the concept of a 7 year old being effective as my senior. I question the ability of ayoung child to have enough of a grasp of language to instruct and teach others the techniques that exist in most martial arts. As far as maturity goes, while I have seen some very mature children, I have not seen any at that age to be mature enough to understand the responsibilities that go along with the rank of black belt.

The real question is why does this happen? I'm sure this is not some isolated incident. My opinion is that the black belt is now more of a marketing ploy than anything else. There is a prestige associated with being a black belt. The marketing ploy ensures that the child (and his parent) stay at the school. Schools have twenty or so ranks (belts). Let me elaborate. When I first started training as a teenager the school I first went to had three ranks: White, Brown, Black belts. I understand now that school was very outdated and that instructor was adhering to a very old way of ranking. I didn't realize it wasn't the norm until I took up training much later at another school.

Then I found out about the schools that use promotions as method to increase revenue. These are the schools that have four ranks for white belt (white belt , white belt one stripe, white belt two stripes etc.), and four or five ranks for each subsequent belt. When it gets to this level it becomes silly and pretty meaningless. Each promotion requires the parents' monetary investment.

Are martial arts schools a business? Absolutely. The key is that they should be run with integrity and honesty.

I feel you can do both. Have a school that adheres to a fair ranking system while covering your overhead as a business. When the balance is tipped to either side (business vs. tradition) the students, instructor and the style can suffer.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

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