I want to talk to you a little about rank in martial arts. I have heard many times, as I’m sure many of you have, “belt color is not important, a belt is only used to keep your gi closed!” I will admit, I have even said that, but when I have said it, I was talking to a student who was worried about fighting someone who was wearing a black belt. My point was that just because they are wearing a black belt doesn’t mean they are great fighters. I have also come to learn over the years, it doesn’t actually mean they are any good at [your favorite martial art here]. I use to say that the black belt just means that he or she has just been doing judo for a while, and may know a lot of techniques, but it does not mean they are necessarily a good fighter or coach. Unfortunately I have also come to discover over the years that it doesn’t even always mean that they know a lot about judo.
Oh and before I go on, if someone has an 8th degree black belt in judo, an 8th degree black belt in karate, an 11th degree black belt in tang su do, and a 99th degree in a “style” they invented last year, I have trouble taking them seriously about anything, much less judo and rank. Although I have been thinking about creating my own “style” of something and calling it albin-do and making myself a 21st degree black belt with 8 gold stars on my belt! If you know me, you’ll get it. If you don’t get it, send me a message and I’ll explain it to you. If you are offended by it, get over yourself, it’s a joke.
Ok, back to the article!
The more time I spend in judo the more I realize that rank or belt color is not always equal to the skill or knowledge of the person wearing it. I will even give myself as an example. I was a Nidan (2nd degree black belt) from 1995-2001. The Colorado Judo League promoted me to Sandan (3rd degree black belt) in 2001 for winning the gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000. It was actually pretty cool because they did it at the Denver Classic, which is the tournament run by my club, Denver Judo. After that, I had not given any thought to going for my next rank until Warren Agena, head Sensei of Northglenn Judo, who I have a great amount of respect for, both for his skill as a judoka and his knowledge of judo, wrote a letter to the Colorado Judo League saying that he believe Heidi and I should be promoted for all our accomplishments in judo and for our service to the judo community. I was honored but still didn’t know if I would test, but we put in our applications and were approved and promoted in 2008. I also realized that as we gain more students with black belts it was important for us to advance so we could recommend them for higher promotions when they were ready.
In 2013, Heidi asked what I thought about putting in our applications for Godan (5th degree black belt). We thought about it for a while and decided to go ahead and do it. I believe we were promoted mostly for our work with and the success of the Paralympic Judo program in London in 2012. Plus, I had to go up if she was! I can’t give her even more power over me than she already has! Do I think my skill and knowledge of judo is equal to my rank? Probably not, but it is not from a lack of desire to learn and grow in the sport. Do I think my rank is deserved? I honestly do not know, but I will say that it was granted to me by people of higher rank and years in judo, and knowledge and skill than myself. They felt it was deserved either for my skill and knowledge of judo or for my contribution to the judo community, or a combination of the two. I am sure it will be a long time before I am promoted again and I am ok with that.
Ok, now on to the point of this article. Even though it is possible that I am higher in rank than maybe I should be, or maybe not, I do believe that people do often put way too much importance on rank and belt color. When I started judo, I didn’t go into it thinking about getting a black belt. I went into it thinking abut competing because I had been a wrestler and thought it was similar so it would be fun. That was it. I’ll admit that the first time I put my gi on and went to class with all the other white belts and saw my Sensei standing in front of the class with her black belt, I did think it would be pretty cool to get a black belt some day. Of course I had to start with getting my yellow belt and then working my way through the ranks. My more immediate concern was getting good enough to beat the green belt who kept choking me and the brown belt who kept arm-barring me.
Back then I didn’t think about rank. I tested when my Sensei told me to test. As a matter of fact, when I was a Shodan (1st degree black belt) she told me she wanted me to test for my Nidan (2nd degree black belt) and I told her I didn’t think I was ready to go up in rank and she told me, “I didn’t ask your opinion, I said I want to test for your Nidan!” So, I tested for my Nidan a few weeks later.
Don’t get me wrong, I was proud to sport my orange belt or whatever color I got, but honestly I was more proud that my Sensei thought I was doing well enough to go up to the next rank. I will admit I was proud the first time I put on my black belt. It was a sense of accomplishment. Don’t misunderstand; I have been honored and proud of each rank after that too.
I get a little annoyed when people worry so much about rank; they get promoted then almost right away ask when they can test again. We have a decent sized club, so we do rank testing a few times a year, but you don’t get promoted every time there is a test. We ask our other instructors who they feel should be promoted from their classes and then Heidi and I are the final say on who gets promoted and we, along with some of the other black belts form the promotion board.
It’s not just students that are worried about promotion. Instructors are guilty of this as well. I might even be guilty of this from time to time. If a student is doing really well in competition and works really hard in practice and helping others and the dojo, I enjoy rewarding their work with a promotion. Granted I will not promote someone to the next rank if they have just been promoted or if they do not have the technical skill and knowledge required. We do require time-in-grade before we promote, but if someone is doing all the things I talked about we may give then a batsugan (instantaneous promotion) without testing them. We do still require them to learn the techniques for their new rank that they may not know, but it is rare that they do not already know the techniques.
If you have been reading my blog for a while you will know that I am a thug and not a purest, but for me it is important that my students not only know how to fight but also understand judo, and it is my greater hope that they will grow to love judo as Heidi and I do and that it will become a life long passion as it is for us. I’ll talk about that more in another article.
From a competitive standpoint, I feel it is important for a competitor to get as much experience as possible and that means going to as many tournaments and getting as many matches as possible. If I have a student who is doing really well in the novice division, I will have then fight up in the senior divisions if I feel they can handle it and not get hurt. I want them to challenge themselves, but I will not push them out of the novice division the first time they get a first place trophy. I always think the more matches the better. If I promote someone to brown belt (for seniors) they are no longer allowed to fight in the novice division. Having a brown or black belt does not mean someone is any good, as I said before, but taking someone who is at an orange belt level and putting them in a position where all the can fight is black or brown belts is not a good idea. For example, if someone is a yellow or orange belt and doing well in local novice divisions, I do not think it is a good idea to send them to a national competition and have them fight in the senior divisions. It can be discouraging but also dangerous.
If you have to be a brown belt or higher to go to a tournament, there is probably a reason for that and maybe your athlete should just want a year or so. It’s one thing to put them in a situation that challenges them, but another thing all together when by the rank you give them you are putting them in a situation they are completely unprepared for. Of course there are some people who will never be successful at competition or just aren’t interested in competition, and I am certainly not saying they should not be promoted just because they do not win at tournaments. Judo is so much bigger than just competition. I’m just saying that if you have someone who is competing regularly, their promotions should coincide with their ability, at least when going from novice to senior. Some people will move up more quickly and some more slowly. There is no one rule that fits everyone.
On the other side of the coin, there are some coaches who are so obsessed with winning that they hold their students back, or sandbag, so they can continue to dominate the novice division rather than risk having them not win in the advanced division. After all it looks better for my club if my students are winning, right? Not if you have someone who has been doing judo for 20 years still wearing a yellow belt just so they can keep winning. Of course I am exaggerating with the 20 years but you get my point. If you have an athlete who is doing well in the novice division and they move up to the senior division and struggle, it’s ok. That’s the way it should be!
We have a student who was dominating the novice division as a white and yellow belt, never losing a match and never going more than a minute with anyone, so we jumped him up to brown belt. He wasn’t learning anything killing all the novice players. And now, while he doesn’t win every event he enters, he is challenged, is learning more, and has goals to strive for. I want my athletes to be successful too but having a kid who has been doing judo for 2 years wearing a white belt is ridiculous. It does not make you look good to be beat up on a bunch of true beginners if you have been doing judo for a few years, challenge yourself and move up. We have a young lady in our club who has been doing judo for several months. She is a junior so moving up from yellow belt to orange belt will move her from the novice to the advanced division. At her age and weigh in our area, there are a couple of really tough girls in the advanced division. We discussed this with her and she decided to go ahead and test for her orange belt because she wanted to challenge herself against the better girls, not just be happy beating other novice players. We are very proud of her. She may lose more matches than she wins for a while, but overall moving up is going to help her improve much more quickly.
Of course I am talking about this from a Western perspective. In Japan Shodan doesn’t mean the same thing as it has come to mean in the West. As I have always understood it, in Japan, Shodan just means you know how to fall and know enough to be ready to be considered a student of judo.
I guess my overall point to this article is rank should not be the defining factor in your judo training and coaching. Challenge your students but don’t push them beyond their ability and don’t hold them back so they can keep wining. Judo is about challenging yourself, and as Kano Sensei put it, the “perfection of the human spirit.” There is no one size fits all standard for rank, but coaches should have minimum criteria for rank and stick to it.
Of course this is just my opinion. Ok, I have to go get a bite to eat and start writing my syllabus for albin-do.
As always, thanks for reading.
I’ll talk to you soon…