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.