Rank is a Symbol (Not a Right)

There is more to rank in martial arts than skill (and loyalty) alone.

Ike Haertel receiving his black belt from Relson Gracie at Kogen Dojo: Photo by Mike Oswald Photography

In martial art competition, rank is important as a means of establishing a level playing field. It is also important as a symbol of who is capable of teaching new students and to what degree. Aside from that, I have often thought that belt ranks in martial arts are somewhat silly. Recently, however, I have been reflecting on this and, at least when it comes to the higher level ranks, specifically that of the black belt instructor, I have come to a different conclusion.

At the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) school where I started, there was a guy who would drop in over the years and, in spite of the time between visits, he was always the same rank. Our teacher told us that he had been that rank for nearly a decade. Every time he came in, every roll (sparring round) was like a grudge match. He tried to submit everyone as hard and fast as possible, even if it hurt them, and he refused to tap when defeated, even if it meant being choked unconscious. He helped me measure my progress, but rolling with him was definitely not for everyone and his presence was not really good for the school. In fact, it was a distraction.

One day, another student asked our teacher, “How come after all of these years, even though [the visitor] is obviously skilled, he is still a purple belt?” To that, our teacher replied, “He has been jumping around from school to school for years. He has no loyalty. Who is going to promote him?” This made sense to me at the time, but I think there is more to it than that.

Loyalty and skill are obviously important in a competitive team environment, but loyalty is a two-way street and skill is often relative to the environment and the person. What is more important, at least at higher ranks, is whether or not the person is actually good for the school, for the team in general. When I think about the best black belt instructors I know, the ones who truly embody the rank and title, they are also leaders, and leadership, true leadership, is never selfish.

“As in life, so too it is in budo. As in budo, so too it is in life.”

-Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Taikyoku Mind & Body and Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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