Karate Belts? What colour are you?
"It is not what you wear ..... its what you do" - Master Chen
When the white belt becomes dirty and discoloured by years of hard training it turns to black, then after more years of dedicated practice the “dirty” belt becomes frayed.
The white cotton stitching is revealed thus returning the black belt to white and symbolising that however great the master there is always more to learn.
It’s a popular and romantic view but opinions about the value of karate belts are mixed.
I have had the great pleasure to practice with a truly authentic Grandmaster, Chen Xiaowang.
Although not specifically referring to karate belts, Master Chen made the point that your value as a martial artist was not determined by the colour of a piece of cloth.
The need to have a visual signpost illustrating the student’s current point along their karate path seems to have had its roots in the early 1930’s.
Many believe that Gichin Funakoshi the founder of modern karate was instructed to adopt the judo approach to rank if he wanted karate to be accepted as a main stream Japanese martial art.
Funakoshi agreed and the coloured karate belt system was introduced.
Today there are as many coloured karate belt systems as there are colours in the rainbow. Our dojo adopts a basic primary colour system.
Manufacturing improvements have resulted in not just bold primary coloured belt designs but also multi coloured striped belts, chequered belts and two tone belts.
So why the differences?
There appear to be two main schools of thought.
The first believes that the novice student should wear a white belt until when they are considered good enough to wear the coveted black belt.
Variations on this approach have resulted in some groups adopting an intermediary grade of brown belt before black.
The other more widespread view accepts that there is at least some value in having a coloured belt grading system. The precise colours of the belt vary from group to group but generally begin with white moving through to a black belt via six or seven other colours.
What are the benefits?
Personally, I subscribe to Master Chens’ view but I recognise there is value in an overt ranking structure coloured belt system.
Recently a mature student at my club successful after an assessment received a new karate belt. She remarked that it was the first time since leaving school that she had ever been publicly recognised for any type of achievement.
She went onto explain that this recognition had raised her sense of self worth and had profoundly impacted on her long standing acceptance that she would never achieve anything.
This may sound extreme but this type of acknowledgment resonates on some level with many ordinary people. When I talk about ordinary people I don’t mean to sound disparaging but I refer to the type of person who is never going to be an Olympic athlete, the silent majority who have to put family or work first before embarking on any physical challenge.
The setting of achievable goals or objectives is important for many people. These sign posts along the path to karate mastery can be a powerful motivator for the student.
Of course like most things there is a darker side.
Jealousy and desire linked to ambition and the acquisition of power can unfortunately result in a misuse of the belt ranking system.
Some clubs are run by professional instructors whose income is linked directly to student numbers. The subsequent use of coloured belt awards as rewards is not, in my opinion a reason to grade a person.
I have seen many such instructors unfortunately influenced by the likelihood of the student leaving if not awarded their new belt. For those leaders the temptation to reward and therefore retain the student must be a constant challenge.
Instructors, group leaders and those with this responsibility should also be alive to the impact promotion of a student to a new rank can have on the micro culture found in karate clubs.
On balance if managed correctly with integrity and appropriate value, the coloured karate belt system allows students to set meaningful goals and allows instructors and leaders to plan lessons more effectively and provides many students with a sense of context.
Keeping this perspective helps encourage achievement with challenge and healthy competition but at the end of the day a belt is just something to keep you trousers up!
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