Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Let Transferring Students Keep Their Belts

How much is your taekwon-do belt rank worth to you?

I once made a huge mistake when assigning a student’s rank. I made a third degree black belt wear a white belt. He agreed to it at the time, but it became a sore point. Rank was worth something to him.

More on that story later…

I’ve said that rank is not a transferable currency. It’s a tool; an agreement between an instructor and a student. But lucky for us, belt rank is recognized almost universally among Ch’ang Hon taekwon-do clubs.

One instructor may not have the same expectations for a green belt as another. And one club may not teach things quite the same way—or even teach quite the same things—as another club. But we’ll still recognize someone else’s rank if they transfer from club to club. Because we all teach essentially the same thing.

Except it doesn’t always happen that way.

I’ve heard of instructors demoting students who transferred to a new club or who started training again after some time away from taekwon-do. I’ve seen an instructor let a student keep his black belt when transferring, but gradually re-test him on every pattern from white belt up—at the same exams as other students testing for those same belt levels. I suspect the only reason the instructor let the student keep his rank is because his black belt had already been registered with the ITF.

Why do these things happen? Because every instructor has different expectations and different levels of knowledge.

Perhaps you think that demoting a student doesn’t sound so bad if he or she doesn’t meet the new instructor’s expectations; if they need to improve. The problem is that it’s demotivational. That student has worked hard to get that rank. They’re proud of it. Moreover, a new instructor doesn’t yet know a new student’s potential. Maybe the student has improved leaps and bounds to get where they are. Telling that student that they don’t deserve their rank tells them that what they’ve done so far is worthless. Maybe they’ll stick around and get better. Or maybe they’ll quit.

So is the better option to let the student keep their rank, but to re-test them on (what the new instructor sees as) their deficient areas? It certainly seems like a better option, but I would argue that it’s not. That black-belt student who had to go through the whole re-testing process? He quit. He left the ITF altogether and joined a WTF club instead. The problems with this scenario are similar to those of busting a student down in rank. Sure, the guy got to keep a black belt around his waist, but he still had to do a test for his white belt. And then his yellow stripe. And then his yellow belt. And so on… It wasn’t fun. He’d already been through all this and earned his black belt. And now he had to go through it all over again. I can’t blame him for quitting.

Let them keep their belts

So, as instructors, how do we handle this? If a new student comes in and we don’t think they’re up to snuff, do we just let them keep their taekwon-do belt and carry on as normal?

Pretty much, yes.

The thing is, if they’re willing to learn, they’ll eventually work their way closer to your expectations.

If a student has a lower rank, keep correcting their technique as you would with any other student and they’ll soon be ready to test as normal.

For higher-ranking students, you may have to set the expectation that it will take a little longer than normal for them to test for their next rank. But after that, it’s back to the regular schedule. Don’t re-test them on all their material, but rather just let them keep training and help them improve. When they improve the fundamentals for their level, the fundamentals from lower patterns will get better as well. If they need to improve their sparring, that will come with time and practice. If they need to learn new material that’s unique to your club, then teach it to them, but don’t worry about testing them on it any differently than you’d test another student of their rank. Just make sure to help them learn it. When they’re ready, let them test for their next level. But remember that they can keep improving at this next rank as well. There’s no need to hold them back forever until they’re perfect, because they never will be.

Perhaps more importantly, find out what your new student wants to do. Maybe they’re open to corrections and improvement. Or maybe they just want to come and train, and don’t really care about moving up in rank. If that’s the case, just let them do their thing. When they’re ready, they’ll start working on fixing their technique.

That black belt who had to re-test on all his patterns? He should have been allowed to just come and train. If he wanted to improve his technique, the instructor could have given him corrections just like any other student. He would have improved, whether he had all his patterns tested again or not. If the instructor really wanted to keep an eye on all the patterns, he could have had the black belts do lower-ranking patterns in class, or checked out the guy’s patterns after class. Soon enough, the student would have met the instructor’s expectations for his next black belt level, without all the rigamarole and subtle humiliation.

Switching between taekwon-do styles

Back to that third dan that I gave a white belt to. He came from the WTF and hadn’t practiced in a few years. I consulted with my instructor and we agreed to make him start again as a white belt. Our justification? Even though they’re both called taekwon-do, the two styles are technically different arts. Plus, he was out of practice.

That wasn’t fair.

The guy was clearly not a white belt. Sure, he had to learn all the Ch’ang Hon patterns, just like any beginner, and had to adapt his movements to the Ch’ang Hon style, but all the basics were there. He learned quickly. And he could out-spar most of the students in the club, even though our sparring styles were a little different.

He had earned his black belt. I should have let him wear at least a first dan, perhaps even his third, and just let him learn.

Why do I know this approach works? Because I’ve been on the other end. Where I live now, there are no Ch’ang Hon-style taekwon-do clubs and I don’t have the time to start my own. So I joined a WTF club to practice with, and I do my Ch’ang Hon TKD on my own. On my first day at the new club, I told the instructor that I didn’t really care about my rank and would go back to white belt if he wanted me to. He said, “Naw. Wear your belt.”

My rank isn’t recognized by the WTF (or, more accurately, by the Kukkiwon, which handles black belt ranking for the WTF). But it is within the club. I’m learning new material at my own pace, but they also value my input as a black belt. If I ever want to test for an official Kukkiwon-recognized black belt, I can do that. But I don’t have to test for anything else on the way there.

Of course, that’s for black belts. We’ve been training a long time. Colour belts are a little more difficult. It may be a little harder to let them keep their rank when transferring between styles, but I would encourage you to do so if you can.

Remember, rank is a tool, not an objective measure of skill. So use that tool wisely. Use it to help your students progress.

  • Andrzej Jennings

    You’ll be happy to know that you can transfer your ITF certification into WTF, by joining the National Dan Program.

    • Whaaaaat?! Too bad something like that doesn’t exist in Canada. That’s awesome, though. Props to USAT.

      • Andrzej Jennings

        I think there is still a way. Looking at kukkiwon’s site, the link is no longer there. But, there was once a formality whereby you could petition to receive rank at or similar to your current rank from another organization. I don’t recall the details, I think you still had to present yourself before a board – just like regular testing. If this was the case, then the stipulation is that you’d have to know all the poomsae for your desired rank. If you are interested, you might want to contact them.

        On the other hand, you can always just apply for first dan, regardless of your current rank. You’d have to have a local Kukkiwon instructor test you, and the benefit is that you get into Kukkiwon’s system now.

  • The Dojo Girl

    Just found your blog and I’m already a huge fan. I think we share a lot of views on the old ‘cult’ style of teaching. We have had two WTF students recently join our ITF club. One is an adult red belt from France. He is a very hard worker and throws himself into all aspects of the class. I would happily let him be a red belt in our club until he learns the patterns to move on to black tags in our syllabus. The other is a 12 year old from China who says she is a 2nd dan in WTF and a 1st dan in ITF, despite only remembering Saji Jirugi and Chon Ji. My problem with this girl is that she is very lazy, complains constantly and needs to be babysat throughout the class. I don’t expect that of my yellow belts let alone black belts. I feel like letting her wear her black belt sets a bad example to my other students. I’m not sure if I need to come up with a club policy for transferring students to keep it fair across the board or to treat each student on an individual basis… Which in turn may seem unfair.

    • Glad to hear you’re a fan!

      Sounds like a tough situation you’re dealing with. The first thing that comes to mind is does your 12-year-old have certificates? There’s no reason to doubt her, but if she has the paperwork (especially the ITF paperwork), she’s a black belt and that’s that. Side note, I’m curious how she could get ranked in both before 12 years old unless she was training in both simultaneously.

      From your post, it sounds like the biggest problem is her attitude. As in she doesn’t have the kind of attitude that you expect of your black belts. Is that fair? If that’s the case, I feel like that doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not she’s earned her black belt and has everything to do with whether she fits into the culture of your club. I have to assume you’ve talked to her about her attitude, but does she understand why it could cause issues for other students and that you expect more? Could she be a good fit for your club with time, or would it be better if she went to train somewhere else? I know kicking a student out is a tough pill to swallow (especially kicking a kid out), and it’s never the first option, but sometimes students and instructors will just never click. That being said, I hope you can find a way to help her stay.

      So in short, if it were me, my club policy for transferring students would be to let them keep their belts. But as much as instructors should be there to serve their students and not the other way around, if they’re going to be in your club, they have to play by your rules.

  • Scott Feinstein

    Great article (and great site in general)!
    I came to my current ITF-based school (no WTF schools nearby) a couple of years ago with a WTF 1st Dan from the Kukkiwon (and having not trained in a number of years). The instructor did not let me retain my rank, however he did allow me to begin at Red belt and allowed me to test for my black belt once I had learned all of the color belt patterns. I’m now a 2nd degree in the new school. If I had been required to begin at white belt, I honestly would likely have moved on to the next school. I also think it may have been a bit disingenuous of me to wear a black belt on day 1 when I didn’t know a single Ch’ang Hon pattern.

    • That’s great that you were fine with going down a rank. That’s a nice compromise between going all the way down to white belt and keeping your old rank. Personally, I think I would have let you wear your black belt, though—assuming you had wanted to. Sure, it’s from a different style and you had taken some time off, but you earned it fair and square. I know it can feel a little disingenuous (I’ve been there), but people will quickly get used to it, just like I’m sure they got used to your red belt pretty quickly even though you hadn’t tested for that under the ITF system. Now, if you really weren’t comfortable wearing your black belt, that’s a whole different matter.

  • Simon Lee

    Interesting discussion and article. Keeping people on board is key! My wife and daughter began WTF recently and were given the same red belt ranks from their ITF dojang by British Taekwondo. Obviously, there is a conversion process and technically, Kukki kicking is different to ITF, plus all those poomsae to learn and grading is different too (full contact sparring in Kukki style, Self Defence moves, plus leg sparring that you won’t get in ITF grading). So there are many differences to contend with but she is overcoming them and should be ready to grade to black stripe in Autumn in Kukki style. She will probably grade a month earlier to black stripe in ITF style. But after black stripe in both, the wait to grade to BB in ITF (due to pre-grading requirement of her fed) will be longer than Kukki and she could well become 1st Poom BB in Kukki before Ch’ang Hon. She will know all the ITF patterns and basically be training at BB level in ITF at that point. Does she ask her fed to honour her WTF BB or wait and go through pre-grading, then give up £450 to test to ITF BB? It’s a lot of money to us.

    • That is interesting to be training in both styles at once at the same rank. I can’t really answer whether it would be better to hope to transfer the Kukkiwon black belt or to test in both. I do know that it’s easy to unofficially transfer a black belt, but officially transferring it may be quite a bit tougher.

      If I were put in that situation, I think I would prefer to test in both, but I don’t know for sure. To me, I think it would feel like more of an accomplishment. But that’s just me.

      • Simon Lee

        Yes, it will be interesting going fwds and I can understand the argument for rank xfer as well as for a separate BB test; merits in both. An interesting thing in WTF is that the minimum wait to 2nd Dan + is the rank you have in Kukki, not the rank you wish to grade to as per ITF. This actually adds up to quite a lot over a lifetime and can mean for example that an artist can acquire GM a decade earlier in Kukki v. ITFs/GTF/ITU. This won’t be of interest to 99% of BBs but for those who wish to make a career of TKD, it may be relevant.