Making Black Belt Too Easy

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Now, on to today’s post:

The Dangers of Making Things Too Easy

Black belt factories

What happens when you give students a black belt on a silver platter? All you have to do is look at our industry for the last 25 years to see..

Are you struggling with balancing retention versus quality in your school? I know I have in the past, and it makes things even harder when you’re worried about paying your bills and making rent each month.

But is there really any need to worry about this issue? For years, “experts” in the mainstream industry have told us that the reason why martial arts schools lose students is because they make things too hard and students don’t feel like they’re progressing.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the next century… we started seeing public interest in new trends in the martial arts… namely:

  • Grappling
  • Reality-Based Self Defense
  • Mixed Martial Arts

At least based on the information I get from networking with school owners locally and across the nation, interest in these market niches is at an all-time high in our industry.

Yet, you don’t have to do much research to see that adults are flocking to grappling, MMA, and reality-based self defense programs by the droves… I think we can all agree on that.

But Here’s The Funny Thing…

Now, think about this for a second – there’s nothing easy about participating in those types of programs. Moreover, in arts that exist within these niches, rank is a secondary consideration to training and learning… exactly the way it should be in every martial art.

Case in point – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Sure, every once in a while you hear about a phenom getting their black belt in three or four years. But those are extremely rare cases. For the most part, it takes the average student as long to get their first belt in BJJ as it does to get a black belt in the average tae kwon do school (not in my school, but we’re not the norm, either).

What gives? For more than 20 years, hasn’t the mainstream industry encouraged martial arts school owners to make the “black belt” the beat-all end-all goal in your school, in order to increase retention and to encourage students to stick around for the long haul?

If that’s the case, why is it that BJJ schools are seeing record enrollment numbers and interest among that most elusive of markets – the adult segment?

And, lest you blame this all on the UFC craze, let me draw your attention to all the Israeli martial arts schools and reality-based MMA and JKD schools that are doing extremely well in this economy. Once again, rank is secondary to training in those programs.

There Must Be An Explanation For This

Oh there is, believe me. You see, we are living in an information age, a time when the average person can go to Google and research anything they want… when anyone can go online and in just a few keystrokes find out what other people think about anything and everything.

The exchange of information is tremendous… and this has led to a consumer who is more educated than ever before.

That includes pubic opinion about which martial arts are best for self-defense, for children, for women… you get the picture. And, the result of 26 years of commercial karate and tae kwon do schools handing out belts like candy has resulted in a public perception that they are just for kids.

So How Did We Get Here?

Folks, it’s no coincidence that I’m writing this article just before the major motion picture release of The Karate Kid remake. Certainly, this movie will spark interest in traditional martial arts training among young people (or maybe just kung fu schools – who knows?)

However, the question we need to be asking ourselves is whether we want to continue to make the same mistakes that were made in our industry over the last three decades. You know… following the tremendous influx of children that entered martial arts schools after the release of The Karate Kid in 1984.

Money makes people in our industry do some stupid things, not the least of which is watering down a martial art for mass consumption in pursuit of profit.

So, How Do We Fix This Negative Perception?

Not that I’m saying you should change your kids curriculum so you’re teaching children like little adults…

However, I am suggesting that we place the emphasis in our schools on training and learning, instead of little pieces of cloth that don’t mean much without the skill to back them up.

And, let the public know that your school focuses on training, not selling belts. At the very least, maybe we can educate the public about how to know the difference between a “black belt factory” and a serious martial arts school.

Do you agree? Disagree?

Let’s hear it! Post your comments and opinions below – I’d like to know what you think.

Comments

comments

About the Author: martial arts business consultant Mike MassieMike Massie has owned and operated martial arts schools and fitness studios for most of his adult life. A lifelong martial artist, he is the author of Small Dojo Big Profits and over a dozen other martial arts business books and resources.

Comments

  1. In our school, we pass out belts on a schedule. We’ve got LOTS of belts. This really, really sounds like a belt factory!
    However, it’s not. Why? Because the belts are NOT a marker for the students as much as a marker for the teachers. It is our responsibility to make sure that the necessary techniques are learned in the time required. Kind of like real schools – you know, the public ones…

    The only real requirement is that students attend a certain amount of classes, because if they do, they WILL know the required techniques.

    And the mythical Black Belt is the exception to the rule. It is most decidedly NOT handed out on a teaching schedule. Black Belt candidates have as much time as they need to attend their required amount of classes at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. (These are classes that are required AFTER they’ve finished going through them as a student.) They have to show proficiency in not only DOING every combo, technique or form – they have to show that they can teach it as well.

    Let’s face it: the “one person in a thousand (million?) is worthy of a Black Belt” philosophy is NOT a recipe for a successful school. Personally, I think that “Black Belt” is highly overrated – I’ve simply met too many teachers who proudly wear their belts – but haven’t trained in 10 years. (“My teacher? That big, fat guy over there…”) I’ve met teachers that didn’t understand honesty, integrity or self-discipline – yet swear that they teach it every day.

    We’re training normal people – not elite athletes – to become better than they would’ve been without MA. We’re training them to know what to do in a Mixed Martial Arts encounter. And, no, we don’t pretend that it’s street worthy self-defense like 99% of MA schools do! We’re emphasizing personal integrity and honesty, we’re training with discipline and requiring our students to show self-discipline.

    Belt Factory? I don’t think it’s defined by your curriculum, your schedule or your belts. I think it’s defined by your teachers and the results that they get. And this is the point where running a successful business and staying true to a Black Belt ideal come together: results.

  2. Mr. Massie,
    I agree 100%. It is difficult for a school owner to balance among profit/retention/quality. However, when we allow quality to slip in favor of profit or retention, it devalues our own rank. Since I come from a Karate/Tae Kwon Do background, I will speak from that area for now: I feel that in kids classes, the focus should be on good values, sportsmanship, fun competition, and avoiding conflict. With my adults, I want them to also avoid conflict and build stronger inner spirit and character, but I want them to know how to protect themselves and their loved ones should the need arise. The syllabus is very similar between my youth classes and adult classes, but the focus is night and day. My adults know that the belt is only an outward sign, that they should seek the skills, not the cloth. Keep up the great work Mr. Massie!

  3. I think it is happening in all over the world. I am not preffer that. I dont want to sell blackbelts but in this generation people doesnt want to do hard work and the want to do safe training without injuries. So even if they perform all katas for the blackbelt grading they want to do the sparring with safety. All the WKF roles also has been changed as this generation want. So even if they spar with all safety equipments with safe roles and get the blackbelt . it is also a kind of selling the belt. They cannot able to do full contact sparring. So My opionion and request is WKF has to change the roles to show the karate as an art not a sport.

  4. Agreed! I haven’t found a TKD school to practice in since my original school was sold to someone else about twenty years ago. I have too high of standards. I’m currently looking again and it’s not easy. There is a serious lack of technique being taught overall. Our school was very serious, and I miss that! Our society needs it, our community needs it, and kids need it. That is the discipline, the true achievement, the hard training and focus on technique and the roots of the art itself. I like your articles. Thank you for writing them.

  5. Good stuff Mike.

    The other day, I just had a parent complain to me why her child needed to be a minimum age to obtain their Black Belt. Her daughter is 6 yrs old. Her reasoning behind all of it is that “if she can do the moves, they should be able to get their black belts. It doesn’t make sense to hold them at the same rank for a period of time.”

    My response: “there are many things out there that requires a minimum age for kids to achieve. Education, driving, military, etc. Even I have to be a minimum of 30 years old to test for my 4th Degree Black Belt.”

    In all honesty though, this is how I keep the quality of my students so high.

    Recently, over the past few months, I have been giving out half-stripes, or no stripes to students during our monthly Stripe Test Week.

    Why?

    They got compliant and thought they could do the exact same thing every month and not work harder.

    End result. They got disappointed, worked harder, and they raised their skill level an extra notch. Merely because I didn’t award them a full piece of duct tape on their belt.

    And the kids that got full stripes saw their friend get a half stripe got scared and started working harder too.

    I am actually sorta afraid that The Karate Kid may “water down” our standards, but as school owners, we need to stand by our traditions and make sure students earn their belt and that blank checks will not help their child achieve a belt.

    I’m proud to see that my students with less than 2 years of training, are looking better than some black belts I’ve seen from belt factories.

    Why? I can only imagine how awesome they will be at once they achieve their Black Belt.

    Javier Lozano, Jr.
    Broomfield Karate

  6. No Black Belts under 16 yrs. of age (minimum) — never have and never will. Our average Shodan (1st Dan Black Belt) over the last 30 years is age 20.

    We have plenty of belt ranks for kids (ages 5 – 13) and a Junior Black Belt Program, which moves them into our adult program and advances their training from straight Karate to traditional Jujutsu.

    But, believe me when I say we have suffered for upholding our principles.

  7. I fully agree. Unfortunately I feel like my hands are tied with the organization I work with. I feel like I’m losing purpose and people around me just teach for money.

    What should I do?

  8. For all the years I have been teaching kung fu ( over 20 ) I have never compromised in my issueing rank. The criteria must be met, period. Granted, for the age 7-11 group ( I don’t take students younger than 7 as I don’t believe – based on experience at a YMCA – that kids younger than that have the cognitive abilities or attention span to really comprehend what I am teaching them and I refuse to be a glorified baby sitter just to make a few bucks ) the rank requirements are not as big a load as the older kids and adults. I issue traditional rank , i.e. student, teacher, master and leave it at that. My feeling, and I make this plain to incoming students, is that if all you are concerned with is getting a belt ( sash in my case ) to wrap around your waste and impress your friends, go someplace else. The students I have that are serious ( the overwhelming majority ) could not care less about when they get a rank / promotion. They care about the instruction they are receiving. As many of them have prior experience, some coming from “black belt factories”, they quickly learn to appreciate reality based training coming from the ancient world of feudal China when any day could be ones last if his kung fu wasn’t good enough to keep one alive.

  9. I agree 200% with you. But how can we change these? I had been practicing for 32 years and I had seen all those changes in Martial Arts. I’m suppose to Test for 5Dan in Jun18 but I don’t feel like I want to do it. I’m practicing in a very know school by a 9th Dan owner (9th Dan from Korea I will say a real Rank) but the way that he give belt i something that I never agree with. So i feel that in the same way that he evaluate those gyup or white to black ranks, will be the same way that he will do with high ranks too. Even some of the junior master that have to test don’t go to practice for years and they are going to test for the same rank that I have to test too, but the difference is that I teach 3 time a weak
    I workout at 4am-5am 3times a weak and in the evening I work 5 round of 3 min each of kicking, punching etc…Do you think that I should test under those conditions? I do not think than that rank or test have any meaning.

  10. Excellent points, Kurt.

    However, we cannot at the same time be referring to “Black Belt Excellence” and “Black Belt Attitude”, holding it up as a metaphor for our highest level of ambition and achievement…

    And then at the same time make it something so cheap and easily earned that anyone can have one.

    So, not one person in a million…

    But, maybe only one who deserves it.

  11. Thanks Mr. Henry, for the kinds words.

    Keeping the expectations high helps our students learn to expect more from themselves.

    “Aim for the moon and hit the barn, aim for the barn and hit a cow patty.”

    Or something to that effect. :)

  12. Mani, I agree that standards have to be set organizationally.

    However, members of those organizations have to demand that the leaders in charge maintain standards.

    And of course, it’s up to us individually to demand it of ourselves and our students.

  13. It’s funny, Brandy…

    I was just having lunch with another instructor and talking about how important it is to expect more from our students.

    I hope you find a good school to train at!

    Glad you like the articles – keep looking for that school that “fits”. :)

  14. Javier, every time you share a story it reminds me of something similar I went through in my own schools. :)

    Funny thing – my email and Tweet headline made it sound like The Karate Kid ruined martial arts standards.

    But that was just to pique the interest of the readers…

    The truth is, we’re to blame – the people in the industry. Not the movie, not the screen writers or directors, and certainly not the students who just follow our lead.

    I can hold myself and my students to higher standards, but it still doesn’t stop the bozo down the block from telling one of my green belts they can join his school and be a black belt in 6-8 months.

    So, I believe it will ultimately be up to the consumer to demand better in the market.

    Seems like it’s already happening to me. :)

  15. Hey Mike,

    This has been my biggest frustration in the martial arts industry for the last twenty years of my training, learning and teaching. The philosophy of “make it easy so people will feel good about themselves” is coming to an end. The public is catching on to the game and is taking a stand against it. Congrats to them…

    I have achieved black belt a few more times over than a couple and I would hand over my piece of cloth anytime asked, but the one thing that could never be removed is the knowledge I have gained. With that I have achieved more than all other things I’ve done in my life. The knowledge has propelled me to where I am today, not the belt. Yes, it may feel good to don the black belt or give it out, but when your serious about learning, then the belt doesn’t matter. It has been a great marker for me and the students I teach, but the belt doesn’t define me nor does it define my students. The knowledge they walk away with and use provides them the building blocks to make them who they are today. I hope they become what they want…

    What the problem is, is that school owners are willing to accept every student that walks through the door and aren’t willing to decline someone because they don’t fit the philosophy of the school or owner. If the school owner would position himself as a serious school that creates the kind of student that they want, then they would have greater success and greater respect for themselves. It takes positioning and closing strategies that gives them the ability to do this, but with the right tools, they can achieve way more than the competitor who is still doing things the “old way.”

    If there is one thing that will be certain in the future, that is there will be change and the ones who don’t change their model will parish. This is true in nature and in all other forms. Hopefully, the successful will see what is happening and be brave enough to take a stand and have the courage to see it through to the end.

    So, how can a school owner actually do this and succeed? With the right marketing and message, positioning, customer service, closing, and floor management, along with consistency in the positioning process the whole way through, they can make more money without sacrificing quality.

    Jason

  16. Mr. Mason, I hear what you’re saying about suffering for upholding your principles.

    However, unless we create a culture in our schools that reveres excellence, that will always be the case.

    That’s why I say school owners have to develop a boutique mentality, and compete not on price but on the quality of their services.

    Creating a culture of excellence in your school serves that purpose, as does educating the public POSITIVELY by explaining the difference between a serious school and fast food martial arts.

  17. MG, maybe you’re better off finding an organization that shares your values…

    Believe me, it’s better to be a man or woman of standards who stands alone, than to die a slow death inside due to sacrificing your values for the sake of remaining amongst your peers.

  18. Mr. Cook, I am glad you’ve never compromised your standards.

    However, I disagree that people who teach young children are glorified baby sitters or just doing it for the money.

    There are plenty of instructors who choose to teach younger students, not only for a profit motive, but because it’s a great age to instill character values that they aren’t getting anywhere else.

    Parents love it, the kids benefit. And, you can teach a kid a lot about discipline and respect even at a young age (4.5 years is my limit – anything younger than that and I am pulling my hair out).

    And, agreed – students learn to appreciate that you are imparting something of value, that can’t be gained quickly or easily.

  19. Robert Castillo says:

    I agree 100%. The new generation of students that want to reach the next level within a couple of minutes, like they do in most of their video games, is what is hurting traditional schools. I tell all of my parents/students that this is what distinguish my class from others, that we do not give belts away. When a students is asked to test is because they are ready, and they have become proficient at their skills. I try to point out their progress to them every day.

    I hope that The Karate Kid movie has a lot of positive influence to our industry, and that our schools fill up with lots of eager students. But I also hope that I continue to inform my students and parents of what it takes to progress. A lot of sweat and hard work is what makes that Black Belt all worth it in the end!

  20. Luis, the rank matters if it matters to you and if you feel your instructor makes you earn it.

    Personally, I hope you take the test if it really is important to you.

    As for someone’s rank coming from overseas making it “real rank”, well…

    I don’t believe that my rank earned here in America with American instructors is any more or less valid than someone’s rank that comes from overseas.

    Very likely in most cases, the only difference would be that I paid a lot less for mine… :)

    …and received it from someone that I personally know and highly respect based on my time observing, training with, and learning from them.

  21. Jason, I agree -

    Changing that perception takes work and consistency on the part of the instructor…

    And maybe sacrificing some immediate income in order to be in a position to have the school they really desire down the road.

  22. Robert gill says:

    I have trained in the ITF system of Taekwon-Do since 1973, and have owned schools since 1987.I recently was told by a student from a local karate school about an instructor who has students wait until their 16 before they can test for Black belt, but yet he suddenly promotes himself 3 levels from 3rd to 6th degree. We have adapted our system and schools to be able to teach kids and this great since originally Taekwon-Do was for the military. The rigid formats some instructors impose on their students are the main factors that sometimes hold them back and , I still have a lot of my old school ways and want to see all my students work hard, but the rigid ways do not accomplish this and why would someone want to put their best effort in and hard work into their training only to be told they will still have wait another 5,6,7,8, years before they can test. I have a junoir level something that is more to the kids level and age and I do not compare my kids to adults. But in my schools I have had several Junior Champions who can perform pattern and sparring equally as good as the adults, some of these kids have gone through the junior levels and then into the adult levels and what they told me was, “ you were hard sir but I am glad now, and you never held me back but always showed the direction I needed to go“ I now many MMA schools that don`t have a clear set standard for levels just fighting skills, no uniforms or belts they all have lots of students in the beginning, Very few stay more than 3 years.

  23. Sorry I did not tryied to say that over seas Ranks are better. I was making a point. Those TaeKwondo trainers that came to USA 50 year ago were very well trained people and some became 9th Dan, but they coming here and teach very little,very poor Martial Art just to put money in their pockets. Some of them look like they don’t care about quality training for American but they care for the quality of trainnig for their country.

  24. Joe Perkins says:

    There are a lot of good points made,
    1) Traditional time for a black belt is usually around 4 years, 3 if the student works REALY hard and attends most of the classes and can demonstrate all the material.
    2) Black belts should not be awarded to kids under 14 years old.
    3) Students should have an understanding of the rank that they have earned and not the belt they have been given.
    4) There is a difference between earning a living while teaching good martial arts and just trying to increase your bank account. You can earn a living teaching traditional martial arts it just takes more dedication!

    I have only been training for 14 years but I hold black belts in several styles and have been to seminars all across the country and I truly believe,
    All in all, students will come and go but it’s up to the instructors to make the difference!

  25. Hi Robert,

    I’ve known some really good ITF instructors. I agree, having a Jr. Black Belt rank makes sense for kids who go through all the child and adult material, but who aren’t physically or emotionally prepared to be a black belt in the sense that we expect from children.

    And, it’s true… in many MMA programs, there’s no clear progression or ways to demarcate advancement, so students don’t stick around very long.

  26. I understand what you were saying now, Luis.

    No worries, I wasn’t offended.

    I just find it amusing that some people still base their opinion of what is “legitimate” on where it comes from.

  27. You can earn a living teaching traditional martial arts it just takes more dedication!

    Joe, excellent way to put it – well said!

  28. By the way, the new Karate Kid looks like it’s going to be a fun movie.

    But, has anyone noticed from the trailers that the tournament (the climax of the movie) is basically full-contact with no pads?

    Kind of sends a different message than the first movie.

    My, how times change…

  29. I think the resurgence of interest in martial arts is a good thing and a bad thing. I remember 10 years ago when I first started training not many people I knew did MA, but since UFC has hit our screens in Australia, most of the people I know train. I however, see that the only downside to this is the ground and pound mentality of the new breed of martial artists who are new to the MA scene.

    When I started training 10 years ago I studied Shukokai Karate meaning ‘Way for All’ which was intended for any person of any size. Ideal for me as I was and still am 5″5′ and stocky. I studied that discipline to build my confidence, keep myself fit, and increase my focus at school and was one belt away from Black. So I know that for 7 years I wasnt chasing belts, but they were given to me for the effort and time I had put in, training 4 days a week consistently over that period.

    I certainly wasnt in a black belt factory, as there were only a few black belts, no more than 5 in our school and were given on our merits not by the size of our wallets.

    Unfortunately, some of these traits are not passed down through the majority of MMA schools I have seen. A lot of MMA students I know have changed into violent, short tempered, angry people and if memory serves me well a martial artist should be disciplined and controlled. Not to mention the merchandising and paraphenalia that comes with it, which I reckon would be a moneyspinner on its own.

    I am fortunate to now be involved with a Hybrid style that mixes traditional martial arts with MMA. So I get the balance of focus and discipline yet I am taught effective self defence and groundwork at the same time.

    I believe that by instilling traditional values within a MMA school is beneficial as we do not want a ‘vigilante society’ where people are constantly fighting. The world is already a violent place as it is. This is where I think where UFC has let down society and has changed the martial art landscape. 25 years ago when you said you did Martial Arts, instanly people though of Karate Kid and Mr Miyagi. Now when you say it, people instantly think of Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz.

    Maybe some of these UFC guys should also incorporate traditional values into their persona in and out of the cage, and send a positive message to the kids of today, so the cycle of violence will break down, and turn fighting into a spectacle sport, not a lifestyle. I am sure if Mr Miyagi was alive today this is what he would have wanted……

  30. Mike:
    Let me share my perspective as a student/consumer and not as a school owner.

    You are 100% right that with the internet students can educate themselves. I have noticed many schools, that 5 years ago taught karate, claim to teach “Mixed Martial Arts”. A few did so because they “mix” karate, TKD, aikido and other traditional systems. One school in my city is called “______ Mixed Martial Arts” and has a “certified MMA instructor”; yet the instructor has neither fought nor coached anyone for the octagon.

    In a desperate attempt to hold on to students, instructors are claiming to teach MMA when they are really not; at least not beyond the basics. 5 years ago, when people asked me how to find a serious MA school, I would tell them to go to a school that calls itself an “MMA school”. Today, I say:
    1. Go to a school that calls itself an MMA school, and
    2. ACTUALLY SENDS FIGHTERS TO THE OCTAGON

    This is a good test to filter out frauds. Their students don’t have to compete in UFC. Local amateur cage fights are fine. It doesn’t have to be MMA rules; boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ, Sanda and K-1 are also great rule sets.

    This also solves your blackbelt problem. Whoever calls himself a BB and is submitted in under a minute has only embarrassed himself. Nobody cares about belts anymore. The entire belt system has lost credibility. Belts were supposed to correlate to fighting ability back when our skills were “too deadly to test”. Today, you can measure fighting ability by your record in the octagon.

  31. Gus, I get what you’re saying here.

    However, very few schools send fighters to the “Octagon” since the UFC is currently the equivalent of the major leagues in baseball, the NBA in basketball, or the NFL in football.

    By your standards, a person shouldn’t participate in their local high school football, baseball, or basketball team unless one of the players got drafted to the pros right out of high school.

    Also, there are plenty of serious martial arts schools that don’t teach MMA at all. MMA is a sport. As great as it is for learning skills that can apply to self defense, it’s not the beat-all-end-all of martial arts training, nor is its practice the only indication of whether or not a school teaches realistic self defense skills.

    Not to mention the fact that its inclusion in a school’s program offerings should not be used as a yardstick for whether that school is a quality school. That’s just ridiculous.

    This is the perfect example of how propaganda and marketing influence the public’s perception of the martial arts. If we were having this discussion 25 years ago, you’d have said “ninjutsu” instead of MMA. Or 40 years ago it would have been “Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do” or Chinese kung fu.

    My point here is that following trends does not a serious martial arts school make. Real martial arts comes in many styles, forms, and approaches to training. Just ask Chuck Liddell, Rich Franklin, Lyoto Machida, or any of the host of other pro fighters who started out in TMA if they think their TMA background was worthless.

    You may be surprised by the answer.

  32. Mike, I came into a traditional Okinawan system that most of the instructors had 50-75 student(very few kids) and worked a full-time job.

    I remember when I bought my first school(13 students) I was asked what I’m going to do for a job. They where all shocked when I said “I’m going to just teach Karate”!

    Long story short. I help revise the system. Not so it when easier, but we put all the information on cards. So, a student could know exactly what they needed for their next belt and the approximate time it should take them and the best part, it didn’t dilute our art form at all. So, the higher ups where happy.

    This not only helped retention but everyone was one the same page.

    When I sold the school some years later it had over 175 students and was making a nice income…

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