"You know the belt isn't really that important to me."
"The belt just holds the gi together!"
"I'm not interested in earning rank; I just want to get better."
On the surface, these thoughts and ideas may sound okay. Heck, you may have even said some of these things yourself at some point. And that's okay. I'm not going to tell you that these thoughts are bad or wrong. Let's talk about why the Black Belt is so important, however.
Having your instructor recognize your abilities and tie the Black Belt around your waist will probably rank up there as one of the proudest moments of your life. Earning your Black Belt from a legitimate martial arts instructor means that you have reached a certain level of skill and someone with expertise in that field acknowledged it. Without the belt, this level of competence can be difficult to distinguish and leave a student wondering if they have ever reached a level of mastery.
While being validated by another is not necessarily crucial to continuous growth and enjoyment in an activity - it can certainly help.
Let's talk for a second about why we should learn from an instructor in the first place? Why not just try to figure it out on our own?
Finding a qualified expert in any field to guide you at least through your initial steps on your journey isn't so much necessary as it just saves you a lot of time and headache. By finding a good instructor with a legitimate lineage in the art you want to train in, who is skilled in the art of teaching, you get to learn from the successes and failures from not just your instructor, but all of those that came before him on the family tree.
This assumes that the art was taught well from person to person. If one martial artist in your branch of the tree split off to start instructing others before he learned the necessary skills from his teacher, it breaks down this continuous learning stream from the people before you to you. Virtually it's as if this person that went off on their own started a new tree because you are no longer learning all of the successes and failures of this person's ancestors. He didn't stick around long enough to learn them!
Imagine if an island popped up in the middle of the ocean. It is inhabited by people who have never had any experiences or contact with the rest of the world. Now imagine that this island declares war on the United States. Fortunately for us, they would not stand a chance. They haven't even discovered how to make fire yet, let alone all of the military weapons, technology, scientific discoveries, strategy, logistics, etc. that we (both the USA and humanity in general) have learned over the years. They couldn't even get to us for probably thousands of years because they won't have boats, airplanes, etc. In fact, they wouldn't even have declared war because they don't know we exist yet. You get the idea.
That is one reason to study history - we can learn from the successes and failures of those that came before us and hopefully not make the same mistakes (hopefully being the key word there).
All martial arts were made-up at some point. But if you choose to start making something up now, it is HIGHLY unlikely that you would figure out all of the techniques and strategies that have proven to be the most effective and efficient ways to fight by all of the various arts and instructors that have advanced us to where we are today.
That is why we learn from someone else. When I teach a technique today, I know that what I can teach to someone in 1 hour is the result of many years of hard work and trial-and-error from myself and those that came before me. If we continue to uphold strong traditions and standards for our Black Belts and Instructors, then the arts we teach will continue to progress, rather than deteriorate (as we've seen so many arts do).
Therefore, choose an instructor who meets the following qualifications:
1. Is an accomplished martial artist in the art you wish to study. A caveat to this one would be to make sure that the instructor and/or those that came before him have tested this art in battle if combat effectiveness is important to you.
2. Originates from a legitimate lineage of other successful martial artists in the art you want to study (which means it should trace back to where the art originated or else someone along the line just made it up).
3. They are continuously training, growing, and honing their own martial arts skills, physical fitness levels, and lifestyle outside of the academy.
4. Their philosophy and approach to the art make sense to you.
5. Their approach to training makes sense in your situation (age, physical limitations, available time, family status), and their focus will be on training YOU.
It sure helps if they are smart, kind, inspiring, and have any other positive attributes you can think of!
Another importance of the Black Belt is confidence. No matter how many times someone tells us not to compare ourselves to others, we cannot help but judge our abilities by the people around us.
Assuming you are not the top dog in your group of training partners, this can be frustrating. It often can feel like we are not making progress because the people around us are also making progress. So if in a group of 10 people you are number 10 in skill level, you might train for ten years and still be number 10 in that group of individuals. As you look around, all you see is that the people you are training with are better than you!
That is where your instructor and your rank come into play. There is not one standard for Black Belt. Each student is unique and has an individual set of strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. A student that begins training at 70 years old can earn their Black Belt, but physically may not be able to do the same things as someone that starts training at 20 years old. The Black Belt ultimately comes down to some degree of understanding of the art, and a level of ability determined by where that person started and their potential.
If you have chosen an instructor that meets the qualifications above and is upholding their standards, then you can have confidence in your teacher's assessment of your abilities. When you make it to Black Belt, you truly have made it to Black Belt, and that confidence gained is invaluable.
What if you are number 1 in that group of 10 students? It will be necessary that you have faith in your teacher's experience and judgment. If you look around the room and see that you are of a higher skill than those that you are training with, that doesn't make you a black belt.
You have to trust your teacher to advance you on your journey, and in the meantime, you should put all of your efforts on making the people around you better. You aren't the first person to be in this position, and your instructor will know how to keep you improving. In the process of doing so, your skill will increase significantly by helping those around you, and the experience will be truly rewarding.
Remember that the undefeated, number one ranked boxer in the world probably is number one in his gym too. He has confidence in his coach who helped him get to this level, and his trust, loyalty, and relationship to that person is hopefully an important thing to him at that point.
What if you are somewhere in the middle of that group of 10 students? Well, you have it made! That doesn't mean your training will be easy, but it does mean that you're in a good position of having people that you are "better" than, people around your skill level, and people that are "better" than you. That gives you the best of everything!
I could go on about the benefits of training martial arts, and achieving your Black Belt, but I will stop here and leave you with this:
We are slowly losing the value of working hard for many years and learning a skill in our society. The feeling you will get when you achieve your Black Belt after so many years of hard work will make choosing to train martial arts one of the best things you do in your life. I promise!
Coming up soon, we'll discuss the problems with the Black Belt. Unfortunately, many who achieve this level then lose motivation and quit their training. We'll talk about why and how you hopefully can keep this from happening!