It seems like many people today jump from school to school. Some do it because they moved away from their old dojo. Some do it because they weren’t learning, others because they found out they weren’t learning a real martial art system. Some do it because they learned their teacher was not a legitimate instructor or had self promoted / inflated rank and titles. Some even do it just because they didn’t get their way or thought they know better / more than the Sensei. There are times when a dojo closes and it leaves students out seeking new instruction. And in other times a person has been out of training for many years and wanting to train again. Regardless of the reasons I often get students from other schools into my dojo.
They come in, want to sign up but also expect to keep their rank from their previous school. This becomes an issue for many reasons but probably the biggest is the amount of time it takes a good instructor to investigate if the rank is legitimate. To simplify the process I created a system to review and assess the student who wants to come into my dojo. It is important to note that some schools will just allow a person to keep their belt and join in. Other schools will make everyone start at white belt regardless, especially if they are switching systems. By tradition the only time a student is allowed to keep their rank is if they are transferring to a school in the same style of martial art they are already ranked in but most don’t follow this, even in authentic traditional schools.
Over the years I have had many come into my dojo who were ranked anywhere from a yellow belt to a mid-level black belt such as Yondan (4th degree). When I was first starting out anyone who came in claiming to be a black belt was allowed to keep their rank and join in the training but I quickly found out why I should never do this. It seemed that some of them lied just so they could wear a black belt and I found out the first time we sparred and my beginner level students were smacking them around. Other times they couldn’t keep up with my intermediate students because they didn’t know certain techniques or had never learned them. Regardless I quickly set out to build a process to assess a student and put them where they belonged. This process requires them to perform their highest level Kata, demonstrate some Kihon (basics), do a little sparring and have a conversation with me. When it is done I place them at the rank they assess to be in comparison to everyone else in the dojo. It is fair and helps the student understand where they are in the process of learning our system and training among the others.
Sadly it seems that many people don’t like being deranked. Only one time did I ever allow a student to keep his black belt and wear it. He was pretty darn good, came from a legitimate system and could train right along side of my black belts without falling behind. Many other times most of the black belts were around green belt level at best which is where I decided to place them. I never saw many of them again and even had some of the throw a fit and demand to keep their mcdojo bought black belt. Other times it was clear they lied about their rank all together and I told them they had to wear a white belt. Those people that lied just kept going from school to school until someone would allow them to wear a black belt…but it wasn’t going to happen in mine.
Here is the real issue…humility! As martial artists we seek out humility, to be humble. Regardless of the color of belt around our waist we should never have an issue putting on a white belt. In the past I have had students tell me it was beneath them to which I replied that I have gladly worn a white belt several times. I was already a black belt when I began Judo, Jujitsu and Kenpo…each time I wore a white belt and earned my ranks the old fashioned way…by training. I even have the certificates that went along with it. Wearing a white belt is awesome because it reminds you that we always are the student first and have so much to learn. In the 1990’s martial art schools began to market the black belt as a symbol of excellence, a goal, something you attain. While this is partially correct it also made it seem that it was the end of the journey, the training, which is completely false. Society in general sees the black belt as some sort of great accomplishment and as if it makes the person wearing it a master. The truth is the black belt is just another belt, another step in one’s training. It is where the basics are now learned and the real training will begin. Too many people think that earning a black belt is the entire purpose of training in martial arts. I always feel sad for them because they will miss out on a huge picture and all of the benefits that are gained from training as a way of life – sans the belt color.
A few years ago I had a few black belts come into my dojo wanting to sign up. They were all from a local ATA school. I offered each one to take the assessment review so I could place them in the proper rank in my dojo. This was a courtesy because ATA rank is not valid anywhere outside of the ATA, but I wanted to be fair. Out of the five black belts that came in only two showed up to the review. Out of those two only one of the was willing to begin at the rank I offered them and even then they still didn’t sign up. Later I learned that three of the five returned to the same school and resumed their training. The other two I have no idea. What did those actions say about them? That they only wanted to switch if they could keep their rank and when they learned it wasn’t valid outside of their own school/association they would rather run back and keep living in the lie than step outside and truly learn.
The belt is not important…the ability to learn is. Most people get a black belt and automatically think it makes them “knowledgeable” and an “expert”. Even in my own dojo I had to humble more than one of my black belts who thought they now knew enough not to listen to me. I always felt it was my failure as a Sensei that caused this until I had been teaching for about 15 years and learned that it is the student’s ego. The real challenge is to help people understand that training is a life long pursuit. In our society it is about achievement and success in a short term. People don’t focus on long term goals but rather on immediate self satisfaction. It doesn’t matter how long it takes a student to earn a black belt. If they train hard and know the materials plus can perform at the proper level then the length of time to get to black belt doesn’t matter…what does? That they understand they are still a beginner and just keep training.
If you are a student of a different system, from a different school then be humble if you seek out training. Be willing to be placed at the proper rank you belong and be thankful that you weren’t told to wear a white belt and start over. If you haven’t trained in years and expect to keep your rank just remember that is rude, disrespectful and ethically wrong when compared to those who have earned it and never quit. In the end the training is what matters, not the stupid belt. Be humble, be grateful and train hard…that is the right attitude to have.