Subject: 7 – What Not To Look For
Some years ago a movie came out: They Call Me Bruce! In this comedy, an Asian man made his way through a number of people who thought he was a great martial arts Master simply because he was Asian, triumphing in the end. The moral is clear and directly applicable. Do not assume that because the instructor of a given school is Asian that he is, in some way, superior to the instructor of another school who is not. Skill in martial arts is not inherent to any given “race.” Likewise, do not make the same mistake concerning the sex of an instructor. There are many very talented female instructors.
Don’t let yourself be distracted by a fancy school or unrelated goodies such as weight machines or saunas. A well kept, safe training area is one thing but extraneous features, though nice, ultimately only add to the expenses of the school. There are a good number of excellent instructors teaching out of their garages, basements, and back yards.
Don’t get distracted by uniforms either. Many Asian martial arts wear the traditional “white uniforms” while other martial arts have different uniforms and some, no uniform at all, preferring instead “street clothes” or comfortable, loose fitting training clothes.
Also, don’t pay too much attention to numerous trophies and medals. Trophies are easy to come by in martial arts competitions. On top of that they are inexpensive and easily purchased by unscrupulous scam artists from the local trophy store. Though this practice is uncommon, it has been known to happen.
Don’t judge a school or instructor by how much they charge. It’s human nature to assume that a higher priced product is going to be somehow better, yet this is not always true in the world of Martial Arts. Some instructors are simply teaching for the joy of teaching and not trying to make a living or any real money from it. Some arts and Organizations discourage their instructors from trying to make money from instruction and will therefore be inherently less expensive. Yet other arts are the flavor du jour and suffer from higher demand than there are available instructors, thus making them more expensive. As long as the price of instruction falls within the range that you are willing to pay, don’t worry too much about it.
Further, don’t pay too much attention to lots of certificates in Asian script decorating the wall, particularly if you don’t read the language they’re written in. Most instructors will display only the rank certificate of their top rank (or the top rank they hold in each art they’re ranked in if they are ranked in more then one). In general, this should mean that there aren’t many certificates displayed. With the state of current computer technology, it is easy to produce impressive looking certificates that say anything you wish them to say, even that the bearer is a high ranking martial artist.
Finally, don’t be overly concerned with the rank of the instructor. While in the early stages of training in your new art (say the first 10 years) you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between a 3rd Degree Black Belt and a 9th Degree Black Belt.
Subject: 8 – Rank
One of the most misunderstood things about martial arts is rank. Different people in the martial arts world have different feelings about the use of ranking in the martial arts. Some feel it is all important, some that it is of no import whatsoever, and others that it is a valuable tool not to be given too much weight outside of its limited context. What you should know is that most martial arts have a ranking system but many do not and that rank within one system does not equate to skill within another system even though the systems may be similar. Just because you know how to drive a car doesn’t mean you know how to operate a back hoe.
The most common ranking systems are:
The Japanese systems start with sub-“Black Belt” or Kyu ranks and work from highest to lowest as skill increases, typically from 10th Kyu up to 1st Kyu and then “Black Belt” or Dan rankings, from 1st Dan and going up to 9th Dan. 9th Dan is typically reserved for the (one) highest ranking instructor of the art, usually in Japan.
The Korean system works much the same way, simply substitute “Gup” for “Kyu.”
The Turkish system (Sayokan) works much the same way except colored belts (white, blue, yellow, red, multi colored) used up to “Black Belt” and SAN is used instead of DAN degrees.
You should also know that some Occidental systems have a rank system, but, when they do, they usually do not follow the 10th-1st sub-black belt then 1st Dan-9th Dan ranking that Asian systems do. Frequently Occidental systems will rank a practitioner by number of wins in competition or a combination of skill level rankings and competition wins. Savate schools will typically operate in this manner. Other Occidental arts use an archaic ranking system that includes 4 or 5 ranks starting with “Scolaire” (Scholar) and culminating with “Maestro” (Master).
Be aware that the color of a belt as a rank in one system does not translate to the same rank in another system. A “Green Belt” in one system is usually not the same rank as a “Green Belt” in another system. The same goes for Kyu/Gup ranks. As stated earlier, a Kyu/Gup rank in one system does not equate to the same skill as an equally numbered Kyu/Gup rank in another system. Simply put, you can not compare a 5th Kyu in “Karate” with a 5th Gup in “Taekwondo” and they probably wear different colored belts.
At this point, it should go without saying that a “Black Belt” in one system isn’t really comparable with a “Black Belt” in any other system. It only represents a certain level of skill obtained within that system; exactly what skill level that represents is entirely up to the instructors who define that system.
Again, don’t be overly concerned with the rank of the instructor. You likely will be unable to differentiate between a 3rd Degree Black Belt and a 9th Degree Black Belt for many years. Further, it is held by many in the martial arts world that you can learn a lesson from anyone, even the lowliest practitioner. Learn the lessons that the instructor has to offer.
A final word of warning on the rank of the instructor. Beware claims of inflated or high rank. It is not unheard of for a martial artist to break away from his parent organization or instructor and award himself “9th Dan” and “create” his own art. More then one instructor has made the leap for 3rd Dan to 9th Dan in this way with no real increase in his skill or teaching ability. Further, some organizations have been known to grant additional rank to instructors for “services to the art” such as opening a school in an area previously unreached by that art or for some other notable promotion of the art.
Beware any school where the instructor seems uneasy about you talking to the students without the instructor standing right there. It’s also not a good sign if the instructor seems nervous, self-conscious, or hostile, about you watching him/her teach, or if the students themselves seem fearful or nervous around the instructor.
Finally, the natural question asked is, “How fast?” …How soon will you get your coveted Black Belt? How long before you can “defend” yourself? How much time before you can kill everyone in your neighborhood without breaking a sweat?
….We don’t know…
Or rather, to be more precise, it depends. Each statement is a different goal, though they all seem to be related. Again, a “Black Belt” means different things to different martial arts systems. To some it means “you’ve got the basics and are now ready for a little bit of a challenge.” To others, “You are competent in the system enough to be let out without a chaperone.” To others still, “you know enough to be able to defend against the unskilled or moderately skilled.” And to others yet, “you’re an ‘expert’ in the same way that a new trade skill grad is an ‘expert’ but not the same as a 20 years experience ‘expert’.” Remember, “Black Belt” is only meaningful within the context of the system you’re studying.
That being said, it is not unreasonable to expect that, with modest effort, the coveted “Black Belt” may be achieved within 4 to 7 years of practice. Many systems track, even require minimums of training or “mat” time between promotions. It is thought to be more meaningful to talk of the number of hours spent “on the mat” (ie, training), than to speak of the “number of years.” Simply put, if Dick spends 2 hours a day, twice a week, training to achieve “Black Belt”, and Jane spends 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, then Dick is going to sweat for five long years to rack up 1040 total hours of training, but Jane will have done that by the end of her first year.
As to the issue of being able to “defend yourself,” that all depends upon the skill level of the person or persons attacking you, your skill level, weapons involved, and a myriad of other variables. The stories of students with one class under their belts defending themselves are true, likewise the stories of “Black Belts” being beaten up. There are just so many variables involved that the question is near meaningless. However, the more diligently you train and the more time you put into your training, the more likely that, if the unhappy time ever comes, you will be able to successfully “defend” yourself.