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Belt Ranking in Martial Arts is Ridiculous.... Or is it?

Belt ranking in the martial arts feels timeless.  It’s really not that old of a tradition, however.  And it feels like it’s already on its way out.  In our modern age, with the onslaught of MMA training and certain “modern” martial arts, people are becoming less enchanted with belt ranking.  It should be noted there is still value in a visible grading system, like belt ranking.  The goal is to look objectively at the situation and also weigh the importance of tradition in respective practices.  Tradition can connect us with those that came before us, but it can also bind us if we put too much emphasis on the past.

Below are a few Pros, other than traditional values, and Cons to consider:

Pro

Monitor Progress – You and your instructor can use belt ranks as a tool to monitor progress.  Stuck at a certain rank for a while?  What’s keeping you there?  Is it mind, body, or spirit that needs the boost?

Con

Fixated on Progress – Are you only concerned about the next belt and learning its required material?  Stop right there.  Focus on where you are currently, not ahead.  Work hard on the material you have and your dedication will pay off.  If you have an eye on the obtaining the next belt, that’s one less eye on your current step of the journey – that can only prolong and hinder progress.

Pro 

Indicator of to Whom Questions Should be Directed – It’s incredibly helpful for lower belt ranks to be able to spot, without watching technique, someone that can help and guide them.  Seeing a higher belt rank communicates to a lower belt rank that a person likely has had the same material for a longer period and should be able to provide input or answer minor questions.  Note to lower belt ranks: don’t take every answer or piece of input as personal or as gospel.  Higher belt ranks can be wrong too…..

Con

Ego and Pride – Pride in a person’s hard work isn’t a sin, but thinking too highly of yourself is.  When lower ranks ask higher ranks questions, it can easily (and inaccurately) inflate one’s head.  Note to higher belt ranks: don’t get cocky, stay humble.  Higher belt ranks can be wrong too…..

Pro

Recognition of Hard Work – In our school, we practice a branch of Kajukenbo called Kajukenbo Tum Pai.  One of the principles that we stress in Kajukenbo schools is the spirit of ‘ohana (Hawaiian for family – not necessarily blood-related.  Can be intentional/chosen, or adoptive).  The spirit of ‘ohana is evident in our belt rank promotions (what we call Ho’opi’i in our school).  We party after the ho’opi’i with food and talk.  It’s a day of celebration and recognition for the hard work that students put forth in the months/years leading up to that particular day.  People should feel accomplished and motivated (assuming the student passes the test).

Con

False Sense of Mastery/Invincibility – This is a dangerous and alluring problem.  Confidence should be building, but feeding the pride too much and you fall in to a false sense that you can handle anyone/anything.  Guess what, there is always someone better than you.  Maybe you don’t train with that person yet, but poke the wrong bear and you’ll soon find out that the bear is more skilled than you.

Pro

Instructor Knows Material You Have – This is a simple one, not very glamourous.  Belt rank tells your instructor which form/kata, self-defense techniques, fighting principles, etc. you’re learning.  In a large class, your instructor may not be able to remember who’s learning what at any given time.  Belt ranks are a clean and visible way to fix that problem.

Con 

Target – Your belt is something your opponent can grab onto.  This is one reason (there are several) why Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ) practitioners often practice with and without a gi/belt (traditional uniform) and why, in Kajukenbo systems, we regularly train in street clothes.  No gi sparring gives very little to your opponent to grip and leverage against you other than your own body.  Also, if you’re wearing your belt outside of class, you’re asking to be a target.  That applies if you’re literally wearing your belt out and about (…what in the world are you thinking?) or figuratively by talking about what belt you are or how long you’ve been training.  People, particularly men, feel the need to challenge someone when they find out someone trains in martial arts.  It can be hard to not talk about something you’re excited about, I know.  But, if you share that information in a social situation, you should expect to be challenged.  I know, because it happened to me.  Martial artists’ goal is to not have to fight.  This is one situation where it can easily be avoided. 

You’ll notice, many of the pros and cons are closely related, not dissimilar from a coin having two sides.  Do you struggle with any of these?  Do you positively identify with any of the pros?  Be honest with yourself.  If you’re feeling brave, share which pros you feel accomplished in and cons you struggle with.  Also, feel free to share/comment with other pros and cons, or how your school handles ranking (if it even does).


Sifu Caleb Hood is a martial arts instructor at Hood's Martial Arts Academy in Salem, Oregon. He currently offers classes in Kajukenbo Tum Pai and Yang style Tai Chi. He has experience training people from all age groups and ability levels. He is always eager to share the arts he practices with anyone that has a good attitude and a willingness to work hard. In addition to teaching self-defense through martial arts, Sifu Hood also promotes a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing healthy physical habits, as well as healthy mental habits. To learn more about the classes offered by Sifu Hood, or about the art of Kajukenbo Tum Pai or Tai Chi, visit the Hood's Martial Arts Academy website here