What does the black belt represent?
One of the most common questions that I receive is why kids can’t get black belts in Jiu-Jitsu. In full disclosure, I was a given a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at age 11. As a life long practitioner of martial arts I am completely against the idea of giving kids and even teens black belts. I know that when reading this many will shut down due to be offended, so let me explain why.
First it is important to understand that a black belt represents a certain level of expertise in that given art. It doesn’t mean they understand the basics. It means they have a deep understanding of the art. It also means that they have shown themselves to be leaders and good citizens in most gyms. If it means understanding the basics then we should allow kids to receive a high school diploma upon completion of 8th grade. We would never allow a kid to graduate at 13 years old unless they were an absolute genius. Why? Because they are not ready for that kind of responsibility. We don’t allow kids to get jobs until they are 16 and even then we have limitations on how many hours they can work. Again they need guidance and protection.
The second thing we have to look at is the future attitude of the student. I have literally seen hundreds of cases of a kid getting a karate black belt at 9 years old, quitting at 11 and walking around high schools with arrogance. Why do they quit? Because in the mind of a child the black belt is the ultimate martial arts achievement. I hear at least five times a year someone say, “I will start Jiu-Jitsu as soon as I finish my karate black belt.” I always ask them to explain what that black belt even means. When given to a child the rank is devalued.
The third point I find tragic. The belts are being used a selling point. “If you come to my gym you can get a black belt in 18 months.” That is crazy. A four year old starts and is a black belt before they turn six. I hear about black belt academy’s and black belt clubs and can’t help but think about how that is the wrong message. Imagine taking a kids to a Jr. football team called The Guaranteed NFL team. You would call that coach crazy. I have asked Karate gym owners for years what the harm would be in putting a minimum age of 16 on black belts. It always comes down to money. Several years ago I personally witnessed one of the greatest lies in all of martial arts. A gym needed an assistant teacher so they fast tracked an adult to black belt. They literally promoted this guy to black belt in nine months of training and then put him over the kids program. It was just business.
I love a lot about Jiu-Jitsu. I love that most Jiu-Jitsu gyms do not have belt test. I could not imagine promoting someone just because they pay me. I love that each student knows without a doubt that when they get a stripe or a belt that they have earned it completely. They know that nothing was given to them. I love that you have to be 16 years old to even get in the adult belt system. The youngest Jiu-Jitsu black belt I have ever met was 22. I love that Jiu-Jitsu is real and not based upon memorized routines. It truly is the most effective self-defense system on the planet.
Why is this important? People ask me all the time why I care what a karate school is doing. This is why? I worry about the kids. What are we teaching them when we give them such a prestigious rank at such a young age. I would also ask if the kids are in danger. Imagine this: A kid gets a black belt at 8 years old. They quit at 9. At age 14 they enter high school and as a freshmen, he or she thinks they are tough because they are a black belt. They get into a fight with the large senior at their school. Really, who wins that fight? An even worse case is what happens in a real life situation with a home invasion or a car jacking? Is that person really prepared? They thought they were. After all the trusted good guy karate teacher wouldn’t have given them a black belt if they were not tough. I mean they broke a half inch piece of pine would with the grain. They can hold their leg in the air, really high for a minute. When reality finally hits, it will be hard.
Years ago a female adult karate black belt came in to my gym to try a class. After class she told one of my adult men the following, “I don’t like it here. What he is teaching could really hurt someone.” My student said to her, ‘Ma’am, I’m not sure what kind of criminals you have where you live, but here they really try to hurt you.” I hope that one day teachers, students and parents will crave knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in a real life situation. I hope that one day the focus will not be on the belt, but on the years of work and dedication to learning, growing and improving. Or will the pursuit of money from gym owners and unearned ranks continue to be the norm? I hope not.