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Martial Arts and Promotion

Posted Jun 18 2009 12:11am
I was talking about grade testing, belt promotions and the way different schools handle both of these issues the other day with some folks from my BJJ school. It also seems to be coming up frequently on several of the various MA blogs I enjoy, and I've left a couple of comments on their blogs. All of this has got me thinking, a dangerous thing indeed, about my views on the subject.

First, I studied at another school prior to training at Foster BJJ. My old school was a style that incorporates many different ranges of combat: striking, clinching, some ground work. The training, the style, the science... all of this really appealed to me in theory. But ultimately, it was the culture that drove me away.

I love BJJ. There isn't a single thing about it that I don't enjoy. I like the conditioning. I like the technical complexity. I enjoy the competitive aspects of it. But it's the culture that really appeals to me. I've said more than once over the last few days that I really like how my white belt has tape on it to denote my one stripe. I really like that the black field on my white belt is also tape... just black tape. The stripe is a small piece of athletic tape. I don't know why, but I like it this way. I like how I have a gi that has patches all over it... flair if anyone's seen Office Space, yet my rank is denoted by athletic tape.

I also really like that we don't "test" for promotion. When our instructor feels that we're ready, we get a stripe. When we're ready to advance a belt, we're given a belt. There's enough ceremony to make it special, and it is, but not so much that the ceremony seems contrived. And to me, when someone gets their blue belt, I know how much time and effort that blue belt represents. Because there is a standard, and that standard is still largely universal, I know what that blue belt represents regardless of where the school is.

In speaking with many other people training in all sorts of disciplines throughout the world, this seems to me to be unique to BJJ. In all other styles, there are schools in which the rank is significant. There are schools where people are promoted only when ready. At the same time, saying, "I have a black belt in Wing Chun (or insert another style here)," can mean anything really. There are belt factories and there are McDojos in every style. Except, it seems, BJJ.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure that as BJJ becomes more popular, this phenomenon will occur, but it doesn't seem to have occurred yet and I like it. Also, for several reasons, active competition being among the main ones, belt inflation will not become as much of a problem as it seems to be in other arts.

I'm not opposed to testing for rank. What I didn't like about my last school was that I was pretty much expected to test for promotion every three months. I hated that. Integrity means a lot to me. Integrity between people, and the integrity of a program in which I participate. My old sensei has integrity and I would never suggest otherwise. I respect him individually very much, and this respect alone kept me at his school long after I had on some level decided it wasn't for me. The integrity of his program, however, was questionable and that ultimately played a large part in my leaving. If I didn't feel as though I was ready, I was assured by the sensei that he was the best judge of that. And that'll be $40, please. I didn't like that. I also didn't like how people were promoted (including myself) when clearly not skilled. The result is a situation where either you end up with black belts who are not skilled (often along with the saying, "Now that you've obtained black belt, you can BEGIN your training.") or so many colors, stripes and patches between white and black that no one but the sensei can figure out what comes next. "Congratulations. You are purple belt with plaid stripe... recommended." Worse case scenario, you get both.

Do I sound bitter? I hope not, but I'd be lying if I said that this sort of thing doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth. I think that there are a lot of reasons to train in martial arts and many are unrelated to martial skill. I don't train for self defense, although I feel that being in shape and training competitively can't hurt. I train for health. I train for fun. I train for a lot of reasons, and rank means little to me. But I can also say that, because I train in a program that I enjoy and believe has integrity, in an art that I also believe has integrity, that I appreciate promotion more. I have one stripe and while I understand that a one stripe white belt in BJJ is a largely meaningless rank, I am more proud of my one stripe in BJJ than I was of my "purple belt decided" in my other school.

So, as I leave comments on other blogs, if I sound negative in any way, I hope that this explains things a little.
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