Is hierarchy destroying the Martial Arts?

A system of hierarchy is something that the Martial Arts, and especially traditional Martial Arts, are built upon. While the elusive and often coveted Black Belt (gasp, oooh, ahhh) should not be the main goal of training, it is often a useful motivational tool for those who struggle with self-discipline and attending class, especially after the initial high of learning a new Martial Art has worn off. So while hierarchy, or belts and levels can be a fantastic tool within the Martial Arts, there are also some drawbacks which are often overlooked or not address.

Black Belt Is hierarchy destroying the Martial Arts?

Levels or grades can be intimidating for those just beginning in the arts.

I am sure we all remember our first ever martial arts class – walking in to a sea of white pajamas, feeling completely out of place and wondering why the hell you walked through the front door in the first place. Let’s face it. Walking in to a room full of people willingly kicking, punching and throwing each other about, and agreeing to participate when you have no clue what you’re doing – can be a little scary.

Of course, those of us that teach know this and should instantly make the new person feel super welcome. We should let them know there is nothing to worry about and that we won’t go in to full on sparring until at least week two right…?

It can still be a little scary however, and the presence of colored belts or grades adds to this intensity. The black belts are the ones to be avoided at all costs as they are basically ninjas and you can just stand at the side of the class with the other white belts, desperately trying to remember your left and right as a fully grown man or woman. All while doing your best to ensure you don’t make a nasty stain in your beautiful new white gi bottoms…

At no time is this more prevalent than at major seminars. I have been lucky enough to attend a number of seminars with high ranking instructors in various martial arts and often saw the instructors gathered together. Black and brown belts together, and then lower grades together, both in training and socially after.

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In training at these events, if you can pluck up the courage to ask a brown or black belt to train with you as a beginner, this can be a big deal, but I remember seeing the disappointment on their face at being paired with a lower grade. The clock watching from them began and you could tell, they just weren’t feeling it. This obviously left me… and I’m sure other beginners, feeling a little dejected! I seemed to be an annoyance and someone holding them back from really achieving the maximum in their training, and this happened on a number of occasions, not just with myself, but with many other lower grades I talked to. Black belts trained with the black belts and the white belts trained together slowly mastering the art of putting one foot in front of the other without falling over from nerves.

This seemed an unspoken rule but saying this I have been to other seminars where the visiting instructor has actively encouraged the senior grades to train with the lower grades for a while, before then training with someone equal in terms of experience. This does however, seem the minority, not the majority.

This – as stated above, also translated to hierarchy off the mats at the socials afterwards. The post training beer at the local boozer and meal would see a similar situation. Instructors and high ranking students sitting on a table together, laughing, joking and drinking. While lower students would often be on a separate table, missing out on the experiences and stories from the high ranking instructor’s years in the arts. It seemed as though this almost had to be earned in a way – an almost VIP to hang around with the cool kids!

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Is this the way it should be?

Levels or grades can lead to some delusions of grandeur.

We have all done it and all been there. The new “black belt dickhead”. You’ve just got your black belt, you think you’re the dog’s danglies. You walk into the dojo, chest out, head high, smiling and nodding to all the stupid lower grades that know jack shit.

This could last a day, a week, a month, but at some point – you will realize. You are not the dog’s danglies, your head will go down, your chest will sink in and you will realize you are that dickhead you took the piss out of when you were a white belt. The guy who thinks he knows it all!

For some this can take quite a long time to realize. For others, they have yet to realize…

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But in terms of the arts, this can be an issue. As a black belt, you instantly want to start teaching and imparting the knowledge you have acquired. But here’s the thing. It may not be all that good!

Sure you have a black belt. But that just means you have put the hours in and know the techniques/requirements to pass the grade. Oh my friend, the journey is just beginning ad you have such a long way to go until you are ready to impart the knowledge you think you are capable of!

Sure you can help out with some basics, but trying to teach too much too soon can just be more detrimental than anything. You can teach bad habits which then need to be un-learnt by the student. Or, heaven forbid, you teach something that is completely the opposite or in contradiction to what your instructor is trying to convey, be it in a class or seminar.

For some, black belt means you are ready to teach and nearly at the end of your journey, this is completely the wrong attitude and can be a problem with having this hierarchical nature in the martial arts – especially the traditional ones.

At the end of the day, we are all just students

We are all just students of the martial arts at the end of the day, whether you have been training for one month or for 10 years, you still want to just improve yourself and learn more. The best teachers and martial artists are those that continue to learn even though they are considered by many to be at the very top of their game. An excellent example of this can be Guro Dan Inosanto. In an interview done with one of his top students – the legendary Bob Breen in my book Martial Masters Volume 1 – Bob talks about Dan’s day to day routine and how he is constantly on the go and learning new arts, be it in striking or ground such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu!

Hierarchy can sometimes hinder this when we think we have reached the illustrious black belt, we can rest on our laurels and chill. This should be where the training really ramps up, test what you know, evolve it, develop it and make the style uniquely your own – Bruce Lee Style.

How many of us truly do this however, and how many of us simply think we know what we are doing now all due to the fact we now have a different colored bit of cloth around our waste? We all unfortunately have an ego, and we all like it when that ego is massaged, especially on the mats.

The traditional martial arts can be a great place to have your ego massaged as once you reach black belt you are sometimes placed on a pedestal and thought to have more knowledge than others. This is fine until it’s tested and if you can back up the goods, awesome, if not. Your ego may be a little bruised rather than massaged.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great example here of an art that has adapted more to this hierarchical system through competition. Any newbie walking into a new BJJ class should know that they will be tapped out… a lot. It is part of the process and keeps your ego in check from the get go.

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Even at black belt level, competitors still compete or even just roll with their students, and it takes one mistake to be caught in a submission and realize that you are not invincible and some sort of black belt demi-god! Sure you should be tapped out WAY less than a white belt, but it can still happen! Yet how many traditional martial arts have this same mentality where the instructor is shown to be a mere human?!

For me, martial arts are about ego checking and we often tell our students to leave their ego’s at the door when they train. How many instructors follow through with this too however…?

Always interested to hear your thoughts… Let me know!