Monday, December 15, 2014

The belt color really isn't the point

What color is your belt? Whether you are a martial artist or a friend, family member, or just an interested observer - belt color is supposed to be an indicator of ability, progression, or expertise. The term "Black Belt" in fact is used to indicate top-level capability in everything from job searching to improving your life. I've written here before on the use of the term in the Six Sigma world of Business Process Engineering.

The term "White Belt" in some circles is equally synonymous with novice or beginner. Much beyond that, belt color doesn't signify much outside of martial arts circles primarily because there are no standards in meaning. In the martial art of Tang Soo Do as practiced by the International Tang Soo Do Federation, a royal blue belt signifies the rank just below Black Belt. In other disciplines this same color indicates an advanced beginner, which is often followed by a red or brown belt color.

So, there are no standards in color belt rankings, although it is generally true that as the practitioner progresses through the rankings, his or her belt color becomes darker. It is said that historically, all belts were white and became darker with age, simply as a result of use.

Regardless of the style of martial arts one practices, the sequence of colors used to indicate rank, or the historical accuracy of the transition to black, the color of the belt really pales in significance to one important distinction.

Consider the following two questions and see if you can immediately understand the difference in meaning:
  • What is the color of the belt you wear?
  • What color belt are you?

Similar, yes. Clearly the second question has little to do with the dye used during the manufacturing process, and has everything to do with the practitioner's ability. Think about three consecutive days in the life of a student. On day one they are preparing to test for their Green Belt. On day two, they are being tested, and on day three they receive their new belt. How much change has actually occurred here in the student's ability? Sure, on day one they were an Orange Belt and on day three a Green Belt, but their ability didn't jump on day two.

As a visual example in one class, I took one of our Black Belt students who was known for being a particularly aggressive fighter and replaced his belt with a yellow one. A Yellow Belt signifies a very new student who has only passed one test. I then asked the class, "Who wants to spar with this Yellow Belt?" None of the junior students, not even the Orange or Green Belts, took the offer.

So, the question is... what color belt are you? Maybe you have tested for and been given a green belt. OK, congratulations. But ARE you a green belt? Do you exemplify the qualities associated with or expected from a Green Belt? Does your instructor have to continually remind you of your stance, your focus, or your techniques.

In some ways the color of the belt is insignificant with one exception - the belt should signify your progression through the art. But this will only happen if you embrace the concept that each new belt is a challenge to become better. It's not enough to wear a belt, you need to become the belt.

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