Martial Law What if We Eliminated The Belt System in Martial Arts?

Martial Law

A few years ago I delivered a major customer service training program to a large company in the Midwest.

When the going got rough, as it always seems to do when you’re trying to introduce sweeping change to hundreds of workers, one of my contacts at the company, in exasperation, asked:

“Why can’t you just give us a prize and go away?”

It seems the same service unit I was struggling to fix had the misfortune to have been handed a “Best in Service” award by an industry survey company, the previous year.

From that point forward, many of the workers were simply ineducable. They thought they knew everything, were already wonderful, and couldn’t really advance. Moreover, they didn’t want to get any better at what they did for a living.

At my own expense I flew to New England to interview the president of the company that issued the award to that flawed team. Along with a few of his key associates, we had lunch and at one very relaxed moment I asked him: “What would happen if your company stopped issuing customer service awards?”

He looked at me to check my sanity and then said, barely suppressing a laugh, “Why we’d go broke.”

I had him, and I knew it.

Then, I asked: “So, you’re really in the PRIZE business even more than the survey research business, right?””

Knowing he was cornered, he forced a smile and conceded, “I guess we are.”

I offer this elaborate tale to put a question to you, especially if you own or belong to a martial arts dojo.

Are you in the martial arts training field or in the “belt business?” And what would happen if you decided to eliminate the various belt ranks, which range in most cases from white to black?

Would you go broke as well?

I happen to believe the belt system of promotion, while exceedingly popular in the United States and in many countries, is fundamentally flawed and it, too, leads people to aim at the prize instead of the underlying capabilities that the prizes, in this case the belts, signify.

This isn’t sour grapes. After eight arduous and sacrificial years, I was awarded my black belt in kenpo karate.

But many aspects of the belt-chase were counterproductive, and if I had it to do over again, I doubt I’d join a dojo that uses this system of recognition and advancement. As I pointed out in a recent article:

“Belts make the trainee impatient and greedy for the next promotion, for acquiring the next color in the martial arts rainbow. Belts spawn competition among peers to become the first to test for the next higher level, causing a certain amount of strife, accusations of favoritism or toadyism, and occasionally injuries as contestants vie for increasingly distinguished and relatively unpopulated rungs on the status ladder.

“You might find it interesting to note, in the last paragraph I alluded to, arguably six of The Seven Deadly Sins, articulated in the Bible and by various theologians through time, including Pope St. Gregory and Buddha. These are vices that the sages have said mortals are wise to avoid indulging: Pride, Greed, Envy,Wrath/Anger. Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth. It makes you wonder if the Enlightened One would feel comfortable meditating under the bodhi tree with a martial arts sash tied around his waist!”

Perhaps getting rid of the belt system would leave only those students that genuinely want to learn and teachers that want to teach. Instead of focusing inordinately on symbols of achievement, perhaps we could dedicate ourselves to the real thing.

Martial Law