The black belt was invented in the late 1880s and originated in Judo. The black belt symbolized mastery. Somewhere along the way, color belts were introduced and was commercialized and adopted by many different martial arts including Tae Kwon Do and Karate. Today we see entire martial arts businesses AND their curriculum centered around the belt progression. We see forms and other requirements centered around a modern concept. This has nothing to do with martial arts and everything to do with business and marketing.
Today many black belts are nowhere close to mastery of their respective arts. Defining mastery itself is a hard concept. For governed and organized bodies such as Tae Kwon Do or Karate, belts are tied to memorization of movement patterns "forms" or "katas"- that's it. Any other requirements are up to the discretion of the master of the school.
Parents put their children in martial arts for various reasons - commonly for them to develop character, self defense ability, and get exercise. Most parents do not attend their children's lessons, and for those who do attend many are checked out looking at their phone or reading a book while doing so. For many, the opportunity for parents to observe their child's improvement is at belt tests. Belt tests are great for the business as it is an opportunity to charge for the test itself, celebrate the child's progress and demonstrate to parents that their child is in fact improving. Tae Kwon Do, Karate - probably two of the largest youth martial arts today are using this model.
This model also works well as we currently live in a credentialist society. Many parents who are willing to put their children in a martial arts school also recognize the benefits of their child becoming a black belt. This put on a college resume, or a job application would demonstrate that their child has discipline, focus, respect, and some level of mastery at a specific sport.
Many children are also externally motivated. This makes sense as children attend school, where they have tests that they study must study for to pass and learn more things. Many have to memorize information, formulas, and processes where if they listen well and focus specifically on the material they will get an "A" and likely receive some form of validation and potentially some reward from their loved ones.
From how the world works now, whether it be schools and As, getting a job and writing a resume, and even martial arts - it's all about the belt. But to me this doesn't make sense. Let's start with why.
What are we teaching our kids when we put them in a martial arts school that's all about becoming a black belt? What if the curriculum is just a series of memorizing certain movement patterns. What if the kid doesn't like the program? What about the learning? I have literally seen kids bored to tears, where their only sense of joy is playing the odd game that has nothing to do with martial arts. Or that they get to be at the front of the line because they have a higher belt. What about learning? What about the joy of improving your ability? I have observed and I'm sure many masters have seen countless students drop out of their school after they have achieved their black belt, and many still dropping out before black belt because they couldn't take the grind of memorization or the student realized the black belt was a check box and nothing else.
Does the kid lack discipline? Perhaps.. But I believe that the kid was bored because the material was boring, the lessons repetitive, and that they haven't learned anything new in the last few years they have been coming. Likely a smart child. Sure they may have learned new kicks and "self defense" patterns, but what have they actually learned beyond the requirements of getting the next belt?
Does this sound familiar? I spent my life playing this game and graduated from Cornell University then spent 4 years in finance before leaving to pursue my passion in martial arts. I have many friends facing their own grind and know many adults who are now unable to leave their job which they know is not for them as they have a family and golden handcuffs or have nothing beyond their pursuit of the next belt.
We are not doing any favors by defining our children's worth and ability on their belt color. The belt is the LEAST important thing when it comes to martial arts. More and more I am less and less impressed when a child tells me he's a black belt. Martial arts is an industry now trading up belts for profits and it is really a shame. I seriously question the values of the current model of memorization and requirements to achieve belts. Yes this makes for easy standardization, easier process, to make easier money, in a world where this is the status quo so I understand how this exists. But this is at the expense of not only the children, but the reputation of our service, and as martial artists we should be better than this.
Belts, if any, should represent a martial artists' progress. If the belts should be standardized, it should be based on fairness and effort. As the masters of our own dojo's, we can literally build a system around our ideals, even if the world may be different.
In practice, at my school, belts are awarded based on attendance. This is closely tied to my view on ability which is a function of the [(students time spent training) X (effort and focus level during that training) X (quality of instruction)] X physical / mental talent. Everyone has a different level of natural talent, and will progress at different rates so belts should not be awarded on ability, but on their time spent - this standardization places the emphasis commitment, focus, and effort. Students that do not listen, or focus are asked why they are here, the student has to want to be here, to want to learn because they themselves want to - not because their parent wants them to. If the student takes ownership in their learning, and are there because they want to be there, they will usually give their best effort - which is key.
Instructors should focus on delivering the best instruction possible. Students should focus on listening as best as they can and working as hard as they can. Parents / students should focus on getting as much training as they can - which means consistently showing up. Belts / progress should recognize this persistence of effort. There is no focus on the ability, assuming everyone is doing their best, the results will come, tournaments will be won, and the students will have learned more than you could have imagined.
The curriculum is thereby separated from the belts. The curriculum is focused on the learning and the belts focused on the journey and effort. When you are learning, the belts do not matter. When you finally are a black belt, you know you have the ability, and you have put in the time, and the entire way you learned that it's not about the belt, it's about the effort, the persistence, the focus, the discipline.
I recognize it's hard to have a world of martial arts without belts, in a generally hierarchical world that's brainwashed on money, power, status, belts. We can have the belts, but it is not about the belts. I believe that we have the opportunity to really teach others and to have a belt system that recognizes and rewards persistence and effort. With a separate curriculum focused solely on learning emphasizing that it is about learning and growth and enjoying the ride vs. just trying to get the belts.