A Rank Paradox

This may have been you…
Grasshopper becomes enthralled with martial arts as seen in a movie or TV presentation. Perhaps it was the “Ninja Turtles”, or “Dragon Ball Z”, or, well, it does not matter what it was. All that matters is Grasshopper, whether they are youngster, teen, or adult, is smitten by the skills and the seemingly mystic qualities of martial arts.

Grasshopper walks into a dojo or kwoon, a school or a club, their mind filled with the amazing things they will learn. Grasshopper focuses on a magical goalpost – the black belt or black sash, or some other marker of mastery. They study and train hard, achieve interim ranks until the seemingly elusive goal is within sight. Our hero receives their brown. Grasshopper is so close. Unfortunately, Grasshopper’s family has to move or Grasshopper goes off to college, or maybe our hero’s school shuts down.

Grasshopper seeks out a new school so he or she can continue to the mountaintop, and claim the mystic black. However, in the new territory, there is no direct affiliate in Grasshopper’s style. There are similar styles, which will do in a pinch, but Grasshopper is devoted to his or her style. She or he knows a new style means a complete reboot. Fortunately, there is a school of the same style, but from a different lineage, or not in the same association. With eager heart, Grasshopper enters the new facility.

If our hero is lucky, the new place may test Grasshopper for a short while, providing time to make adjustments, but most likely the new Sensei / Sifu / Guro says, “You have to start back as a white.” In short, Grasshopper learns rank has no meaning. It is useless outside of the specific lineage or association from which the rank was obtained. Grasshopper is not in Kansas anymore. This is not college with transferable credits. Grasshopper’s instructor, and no one else, is the only one that recognizes their rank. Others may recognize the skills, and acknowledge the years Grasshopper has put in. However, there is no magic in rank. It will not buy Grasshopper a thing, not even a pass.

Was that you? If you train and it was not you, it was someone you know. You may have to adjust the details a little. Maybe there was a falling out, a buyout, or an association transfer. Regardless, the practitioner with years, perhaps even decades, of trained skill finds themselves secluded. They may have a black with several degrees, but no instructor’s certificate. They may have a certificate, but find themselves with no affiliate support. They are stranded, isolated, shunned, and yet far more skilled than the owner of the McDojo down the street.

TAO - Training Assistance OnlineAll martial artists are individuals. There is a reason it is called ‘martial arts’ and not ‘martial crafts’. Regardless of what you learn in a school, it all comes down to how you apply yourself and your skills. This is most certainly true in terms of combat. A painter (artist) may attend a fine, upstanding school of art and obtain a degree, but it will still come down to how well they paint.

Martial arts do not have standardized certifications, as might be the case with the painter. While the aforementioned painter may not paint well, their college degree can land them a job as a museum curator or some such. There is a universal acceptance of the areas of study the degree represents, so long as the college can be found with a Google search. This, however, is not true for the martial artist. Oh, in some small way, the training might help Grasshopper become a security guard, but people with no martial art training can be security guards too. Our hero began his or her quest with the goal of achieving a magical mark, with the idea it would bestow some sort of renowned upon her or him. Grasshopper learned that rank is not transferrable anywhere, even within the same style.

To the fledgling, if you don’t have rank, you don’t have skills. The reality is you can have a ton of skills, and no standing. Rank may be a marker within a specific school, but it is most often a lure to facilitate student retention – a way to keep the money coming in. One school’s black belt might be worse than the next school’s yellow. Rank is a decision by the owner of the school against their own arbitrary standard – and often that standard is simply how long they have been draining money from the student. There are exceptions, but always rank is an arbitrary mark, at worst by a school owner, or at best by an association board, and always only valid within that sphere.

For fighters or kata practitioners, there are contests. This is truly ‘art’, often for art’s sake as compared to combat. Still, art is honorable and noble. In this case, ranks maybe keys to unlock levels of competition. Still, it is isolated. Contests are organized within a style, and limited to recognized associations. These contests, while worthwhile within that scope, are arbitrary. In these cases, the training is often limited to maximize the result of the structured contest. The “martial” is removed from the “art”. The Jiu-Jitsu practitioner may have no striking experience; the TKD kata champion may have never worked on the ground.

An honored associate of mine is yelling, “But black means the beginning – you now have a baseline and are ready to begin real training”. This is true. However, the confusion only highlights the premise of this article. The coveted black, generally seen as the end goal, is only the first step. Those with decades of experience recognize this, and yet there is no attempt to quash the myth. Moreover, many schools offer nothing after black. Perhaps they award a degree or two for instruction. The instruction is limited to the techniques of the style, a form of indoctrination. Affective techniques from outside the style are frowned upon – they are a pollutant that may taint a contest, even though they win a fight. Few schools have real top-level classes where the going gets tough and rugged, and practitioners are allowed to expand and explore.

If a well trained instructor recognizes the falsehood of rank, and chooses not to align with an association, how do they keep a sufficient student base? How do they keep students from wandering off after a short bit of training, as the students do not see a goalpost ahead, when in truth the only bar is within themselves? Experienced practitioners know it is just about training. Train, train some more, and keep on training. There is nothing else. There are no exterior goalposts to obtain, no brass rings worth anything.

Rank defines skill-sets only in the very small specific – sometimes only the school itself. It does not define skill-sets in general. Rank is often little more than a sticker that says, “I ate a Big Mac and the McDonalds on the corner of Fifth and Main”. New students are drawn in and maintained by rank’s allure, believing they are becoming a Super Saiyan against all comers, when in fact they are achieving only a status within that specific workplace. It is a rank paradox.


About Sifu

I teach Wing Chun, both traditional and practical, at KDA Karate Academy. I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager. In addition to being a Martial Arts Instructor, I am an author. My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge".

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