In Taekwon-Do, belt rank is an immensely important part of the entire experience. When someone finds out that you practice martial arts, I’m willing to bet that one of the first questions they ask is, “What belt are you?” If someone finds out that I’m a black belt, I’ll often hear, “Well I’m not going to mess with you!” To which I reply, “Were you thinking of messing with me beforehand?”
But I digress…
Rank is important.
We line up by rank, we call the black belts “sir” or “ma’am,” our belt exams are given an almost sacred sort of significance.
Rank is important.
No. It isn’t. Well, not like people think it is.
I don’t care about rank. I care about what you know.
What does a Taekwon-Do belt mean?
Non-martial artists and seasoned practitioners alike often believe that Taekwon-Do belts indicate skill. They’re an objective yardstick that can be used to determine how good a person is at performing his or her art.
That isn’t true.
To be fair, in a few martial arts it is semi-true. There are a handful of arts, like Judo or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, whose promotion systems are influenced by performance in sparring. These arts also tend to put an emphasis on competition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t for everyone.
But I want to focus on TKD here, and not some other art.
Being a black belt in one of these arts, or any other, means that you’re good at what you do. But it doesn’t guarantee that you can beat, say, a blue belt. It also doesn’t mean that you’re inherently deserving of more respect than anyone else.
Rank is not objective. Rank is not a comparative measure of skill. It doesn’t mean that you’re a better fighter. It doesn’t mean that you’re wiser and more knowledgeable. It doesn’t mean that you’re a better person.
Rank is a tool.
Your rank is an acknowledgement by your instructor, and by your instructor alone, that you know what he or she thinks you should know to be able to advance a little further in your Taekwon-Do career. The instructor feels that you’ve handled the material so far to the best of your individual abilities, and you’re ready to learn a little more. That’s it.
Belt rank is something that an instructor can use to look at a bunch of students and immediately know what each of them should know and what they should learn.
There are no objective standards.
It bugs me when I hear things like, “How can these two be the same rank? This guy is clearly better than this other guy.” That’s because physical skill alone doesn’t really matter. Taekwon-Do is about more than how well you can fight or how pretty your patterns look. A good instructor will assign your belt rank based on what they think you are capable of. Not compared to another person, but within the limits of your own body and mind.
I like to use the analogy that belt levels are like grades in school. If someone is in the 10th grade, it doesn’t mean that she’s smarter than someone in the 7th grade. It just means that she’s put in the time and passed the exams laid out by her teachers to be able to move on and learn more.
In fact, Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo and inventor of the belt system, was an educator. He wanted to take the graduated progression of the education system and apply it to his martial art.
Being a black belt doesn’t mean that you’re better at Taekwon-Do than a blue belt. It just means that you’ve been training for several years and have learned and demonstrated what your instructor thought you should know.
And here’s a very important thing: every instructor is different. Every instructor has a different idea of how belt tests should be structured, and every instructor has a different level of knowledge when it comes to Taekwon-Do. Not all instructors are created equal, and—just like color belt rank—a higher black belt rank doesn’t necessarily make a better teacher.
So, if every instructor has different interpretations and expectations of what TKD looks like, does this mean that if you move to another dojang your rank should now be invalid? I want to say no, but with an asterisk.
Going back to the school analogy, if you graduate from the 9th grade and move across the country, the curriculum may not be the same in your new city. But does this mean that your previous education doesn’t count? Not at all. You may have to learn some new things to catch up, or you may even be ahead of your peers, but you’ll still be put into the same grade because the fundamentals are the same. It’s the details that are different.
The same is true of your Taekwon-Do belt rank. If you move to another dojang, you will know the same basic material. You’ll know the same patterns, and you’ll know how to spar. You may have to learn new step sparring. Your new club may or may not do close-quarters self-defence, which you may or may not have done in the past. Your technique may be better or worse than your peers.
Some things may have to be changed, but the basics are still there.
If you move to a new club, the instructor reserves the right to start you over at a lower belt level if you do not meet their expectations for your current rank. However, most clubs won’t do that. One big reason is that it’s just not good for motivation. It’s disheartening to look down at your waist and see an old belt that you thought you’d never wear again. A good instructor will build you up to meet his or her expectations (if necessary) while allowing you to keep your current belt.
Remember how I said that your rank is an acknowledgement by your instructor that you have met his or her expectations for a belt level? Every instructor has different expectations because every instructor has a different degree of knowledge and a different interpretation of Taekwon-Do. Therefore, rank is not exactly a transferable currency. It’s an indicator that you know the diagrams of your patterns up to that belt level. It also means that you’ve put in at least a certain amount of time. Beyond that, if you think about it, it doesn’t mean much from club to club.
Sure, the fundamentals are essentially the same from club to club. And, sure, if you move to a new dojang you should be allowed to keep your belt. But belt rank is about the details. You won’t reach the next level until you meet your new instructor’s expectations. And if you’ve moved from a different club, you haven’t necessarily satisfied those expectations to reach your current rank. As a red belt from club A, you may not be able to keep up right away with the red belts from club B. Instructor A’s idea of what it takes to reach red belt may be different from instructor B’s. Allowing you to keep your rank is a courtesy, not a right.
But even though rank may not be a comparative measure of skill, it is a tool. It’s a tool for your instructor to break down his or her curriculum, and to instantly gauge what you should know. But it’s also a tool for motivation.
Belt levels take the Taekwon-Do curriculum and break it into manageable chunks. And those chunks can be used as goals. Focusing on the next belt level, which could be a couple of months away, keeps you motivated toward that goal of your black belt, which could be several years away. Breaking a larger goal into several smaller ones makes the big goal easier to reach.
So does this mean essentially anyone can become a black belt if they stick around long enough? Pretty much, yes. But is this the right way to do things? Does it devalue the black belt? That depends on your opinion of the purpose of rank. If you think belt rank is a measure of fighting skill, then no, it isn’t right. But if you believe, like I do, that it’s about knowledge and personal growth, then it makes sense.
I’m not saying that we instructors shouldn’t have high expectations. We absolutely should. Quickly pushing your students through the ranks and turning your school into a belt factory doesn’t help anyone in the end. But I am saying that rank is a very personal thing. Despite the importance we put on it, in the grand scheme of things, it means very little. But to the individual student, it can mean the world.