Jeff Helaney 9th Dan
President – United States Kido Federation
Is rank really that important? Is one black belt rank more valid than another? Are standards fixed or mutable? I tend to write a lot about this topic because it is plays a significant role how we understand our arts and helps shape our journey paradigm through our specific art. The answers to each one of these questions will vary by the person answering it. I know several high ranking martial artists that put significant importance on the achievement of rank. While I agree that rank is an external motivator and is intended to be representative of progression through a specific art, it is an often corrupted by unscrupulous commercial schools in order to increase profits.
Like anything of worth, it takes time to learn a martial art. I am saddened when I watch schools and individuals issue black belt ranks to students after just a few years of training or issue them to children too young to understand what they are learning. It cheapens the experience and cheats them out of the journey. A belt rank is not nearly as important as the knowledge gained along the way. Knowledge and skill are not acquired through osmosis, but rather through hard work and time spent in training. The counter-point is that we live in a very ‘entitled’ society and people expect instant gratification. I am frequently confronted by instructors who will tell me that that they have to promote regardless of skill or they will lose students. My response is, “Yes you will, but so what?” I am not being dismissive, but realistic. It is impossible to make every person happy that walks through your door and you will quickly go crazy trying to do it. You have to draw a line in the sand early on and say, “This is who I am and what I believe…” or you will lose your ability to teach and your credibility as an instructor. There is no martial arts teacher worth his or her salt that hasn’t parted ways with a client over ethics or standards. It is a reality that we have to come to terms with, not every person is right for every school.
Despite what you may read in a martial arts business magazine or hear at a seminar you do not need long contracts, gimmicks, or to change who you are to be successful. You have to be true to your convictions and make your students aware of who you are and what you represent before they start. Some will go elsewhere off the bat (you really don’t need them … they won’t be a good fit), some will stay awhile until they realize they aren’t progressing as fast as they want and then leave (you don’t need them … they can sour the environment at your school), and some will stay around to teach the next generation (they are your legacy … treat them as such). Students who share your values will gravitate towards you and will help you grow.
It is important to remember that rank is only as important as the knowledge that accompanies it. No one organization, school, or individual has the market cornered on credibility. It is essential that both instructors and students take responsibility and pride in their journey. This process is facilitated through an interactive process and on-going discourse about each individuals learning process and progress. In order to be effective, instructors need to shift a portion of this burden to the student and encourage questions. This does not mean you should alter your core curriculum or values to meet individual needs, but rather modify those things which can be changed in order to help them meet your standards. This does not always happen. An instructor can only open a door, it is up to the student to walk through it. In the end, it is the acquired skill and knowledge that should determine rank progression … not a contract or time in grade.
Standards may vary somewhat from organization to organization (or school to school) but they should be relatively fixed within your own doors. If you treat one person differently from another then you are being unfair to everyone who walks through your doors. The only exception you may consider are for those with either physical or mental disabilities that prevent normal progression. This is a sticky subject, but one that has to be considered with compassion and realistic expectations in mind. Often there is a ceiling that is reached early on, but rewards can then take place in other venues rather than rank promotion. I would caution each instructor to keep from straying too far from their standards or they will find themselves on a slippery slope that can be the downfall of their school. Do not grease that squeaking wheel for the sake of expediency and at the cost of your ethical grounds. It will bite you in the end. Let a person go who does not deserve a promotion rather than issue it. If you do otherwise you will lesson the credibility of your school.