How Old Should a Black Belt Be?

Taido is athletic, and you can only expect performance of certain movements in students who are relatively young. I certainly feel that we should continue to encourage young Taidoka to reach the goal of black belt. Eventually, we are going to have to hand them the reigns all together. I know I can’t keep performing at my level forever, so I want to make sure that there is someone ready to step up and keep creating new Taido after I’m too old to eat anything but oatmeal.

But then I hear stuff about four year old black belts and junior high school students making 3dan at some American martial arts schools, and I think “No!!!!! That can’t be right. They’re way too young to be that good. There’s no way they can understand what it means to be a black belt.” But of course, that’s the problem – black belt doesn’t “mean” anything – not objectively.

It isn’t really about meaning though. The black belt is an award, given from teacher to student for meeting certain requirements and achieving a certain level of proficiency in an art. Those certain requirements and levels of proficiency are at the teacher’s discretion. Students have to trust their teachers to use that discretion wisely – in a way that benefits the students.

On the Karate Underground Forums, we’ve had a lot of discussions about what age a student should be in order to obtain a black belt ranking. We also had some discussion over the age requirements for higher degrees. It’s interesting to note a certain consistency here: there is a “tradition” of a year per degree number between levels. This gives support to the two most common markers of sixteen for shodan and thirty for 5dan. At a year per, that matches perfectly: eighteen for 2dan, twenty-one for 3dan, twenty-five for 4dan. These are minimums, kind of.

I remember replying to the initial post about minimum ages, almost without thinking: “sixteen years old.” Only after hitting the “submit” button, I realized that I had not even been that old when I reached shodan.

I wrote that, to me, a black belt is someone who is going to be teaching – even if not immediately. Someone under, say high school age isn’t going to have attained the psychological development to understand the interpersonal relations involved in teaching others. Younger students can be assistant instructors (I was from the time I was twelve), but they are not going to able to feasibly lead large classes or organize a lesson without supervision. Looking at it now, I can see that most of my arguments on that thread were inspired by specific difficulties I had as a young black belt in my dojo.

Other forum members posted various ages. Some suggested that children should not even be allowed to practice martial arts. There was an opinion that fighting ability should be a requisite for black belt, so any black belt should be able to win a fight against any lower belt. Since a child wouldn’t likely be able to defeat an older, larger student, that child should not be allowed to become a black belt. Some folks said that age should not be a factor – if an infant could perform the required techniques with proper form, then nobody had the right to say that infant was any less of a black belt than an older student.

That viewpoint really resonated with me, for obvious reasons. Not the infant part, but the age-as-non-issue part. To a point. I hate to think about what would happen to a twelve year old kid who goes to his first day of junior high school and tells people that he is a third degree black belt. At my school, that kid would have been used as the ball in a game of smear the queer. All the technically-accurate punches and kicks in the world would not do anything to stop the junior varsity basketball team from having their way with any runt who had the audacity to claim such a credential.

Perhaps the designation of black belt may require some level of “maturity.” This was also suggested on the forums, and the flames poured in: “Who has the right to decide when a student is ‘mature’? There are many immature adult black belts,” etc. And then we had a lot of debate about what was meant by maturity. To make a long story short, there was no consensus on much of anything. Come to think of it, there never really seems to be much consensus issues of any significant weight. Maybe that’s what makes it stimulating. Anyway…

As a schoolteacher, I work with lots of children from the ages of about three to fifteen. Let me inform you definitively that there are many differences between children of various ages, and also between physically mature children and adults. Some of my junior high school students are bigger than I am, but there is no question that they are children. They have underdeveloped interpersonal awareness, i.e. they are still selfish. Their cognition struggles with complicated relationships, ie they understand cause and effect, but they still believe that correlation is the same as causation.

Besides physical size, there are other types of maturity to consider. Though they aren’t easy to pin down with a casual analysis, there is more to it than designating someone as either a child or an adult. I can see my students moving through levels of cognitive ability, physical coordination and strength, spacial awareness, interpersonal awareness, and responsibility. Though I couldn’t tell you a specific age at which these characteristics are sure to be fully developed, they all seem to be approaching adult-level by about the end of junior high. There’s still plenty they don’t know, but they are almost grown up, developmentally speaking.

It’s really hard to say if age should be a factor in belt promotion. It’s easy to say that the technical requirements should stand on their own, but there is no objective technical requirement. Since everyone has different bodies and capabilities, a rigid testing curriculum is pretty impracticable. As a result, we bring in criteria like age, teaching, and “organizational contribution.” The idea is to “soften up” the requirements a bit to allow for differences between students. The problem is that these things are all so subjective – there’s really no way to say that the requirements for black belt should be any particular way or other.

Looking at things now, I can really understand a lot of what my teacher must have been thinking as I entered my third year as a brown belt. My techniques were very good, and I was more knowledgeable than most of the adult black belts, but I was small and a bit of a know-it-all too. In the end, I had just been a brown belt for too damn long. Ready or not, he had to test me, even though I was only fifteen years old.

As for now, age is certainly a non-issue in american Taido, and I prefer that to having it as a strict requirement. Perhaps some sort of flexible guideline could be developed that would acknowledge the accomplishments of children without setting up false comparisons between older and younger students. And no “junior black belt” ranks, please – that’s just patronizing in all the wrong ways.

What i’d like to see is a flexible system of mentorship wherein older black belts would assist and guide younger black belts and black belt candidates in the transition to adulthood as it pertains to Taido and dojo activities. For all outward purposes, any black belt would be considered a full black belt. Younger black belts wouldn’t be able to become instructors until they were older, but they would be given the same respect as any other black belt. And when they graduate high school, they are considered adults, no questions asked. At this point, all mentoring-type “assistance”, no matter how well-meaning would have to cease.

I don’t know how I would outline such a system, because I think it should operate on a pretty much case-by-case basis, as should initial consideration for promotion to shodan. However, I think it would be workable if the dojo instructors supported it. I like the idea of having young people acknowledged as subject experts after practicing for a sufficient amount of time, but I also hope to save them some of the frustration I had when I was that age, while at the same time protecting the integrity of our art by ensuring that all instructors are highly qualified.

What do you think? How can we be fair to young students without weakening the value of the black belt?

9 thoughts on “How Old Should a Black Belt Be?”

  1. Hi Andy,
    I’m reading now since apprx. 3.5 hours your articles. Really interesting and informativ.

    The only thing I have now is a suggestion to a new topic you might wanna think of (you already wrote one regarding Taido moms and dads starting practicing Taido themselves, but with another background topic).

    What in your point of view should be the maximum starting age for Taido? Since kids might have the physical ability to master the techniques, but maybe not the maturity, when do you think an adult might eventually not have the physical ability but hopefully the maturity to be kinda good or for himself at least succesful?

    Was just a thought, since I’m an elderly woman ;-) , with some physical issues (one disc less then other people in my lower back in example )

    Am I still worth it? lol

    Big hug,

    P.S. Feel free to use this post as a starter idea :-)

  2. oh i forgot!!!!!!!
    Sorry for my poor english, but since i’m a german it’s kind of hard to express myself in writing.

  3. hi andrea.

    thanks for the positive comments about the site. also, thanks for the suggestions. i actually had planned on addressing those points to some degree when i was writing this series of articles and was involved in some related discussions, but your specific concerns slipped through the cracks, so to speak. i will make sure to put a file on the back burner to get back around to this stuff – i need to work out my specific curricular recommendations as well.

    for now, i can tell you that i know several elderly (really elderly, as opposed to you) newbies in taido, and they are doing well. i think all discussions of who should or should not practice taido have to do with what that person hopes to get out of (and put in to) their practice. if their goals are realistic, anyone can learn a lot by practicing taido.

    the ability to perform the physical techniques is not the most important factor. that said, even physical practice can be scaled to match any student. the five movements and unsoku are all workable in less athletic forms than the standard curriculum, but making adaptations requires creativity beyond what most instructors possess and humilty beyond what most students possess.

    are you still worth it? you tell me.

    “Sorry for my poor english, but since i’m a german it’s kind of hard to express myself in writing.”

    in this day and age, being functionally multilingual is a valuable skill. though humility is a virtue unto itself, our talents are not something for which we should be in the habit of apologizing.

    be good to yourself, and continue to enjoy what you read here.

  4. Hi Andy,
    actually YES I think i’m still worth it. Even though I might be not the most physical mobile person, but mentally I feel pretty good about myself. And the best is, I learn all the time new things to fill my brain up. There seems to be still lots of space….
    So taidowise I would say i’m just starting a journey even if I have lifewise already a pretty good trip behind me. And I’m happy to explore more :-)

    Hope your finger is better and that you can make it to Summer Camp.


  5. i’m glad to hear that. it seems you have the right attitude to get out of taido what you are looking for. learning is always fun – at least i know i’m addicted. as long as you keep an open mind, you can’t help but learn more all the time in taido.

    reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: when you stop learning (or growing), you start dieing.

    the finger is getting better, slowly, but surely.

    however, summer camp is 99% impossible for me. since my contract ends in july, it’s going to be pretty busy around that time. plus, i have a certification exam and a taido tournament the previous week, so i think i’ll have to wait until august or so before i can make it back stateside.

  6. Oh, too bad, since I move back to Germany end of July, maybe mid of August. But you never know, maybe your Journey of your life will bring you to Germany one day :-) If so, make sure to stop by. Since I don’t know yet where I will live (except that’s in Bavaria) I will leave the address at Sensei as soon as I have one.
    Take care and good luck at your tournament and exams.

  7. Like your writing and the only problem I have is to find the time to continue reading ;-)
    Teaching kids I sometimes face the difficulty of giving the student a chance to challange a degree or not. However, when it comes to black belt I see it like this. A black belt is not the final aim, it is just a proof that you can start practicing yourself, just like getting your first diver’s licens. Each step (dan) you move up you have to challange and it will be a proof that you have reached a different level in terms of technical skills and theoretical understanding. You can drive with both your body and mind. In most western cultures black belt is equal to a teacher, which I believe it should not be. How can you expect a person who just got his/her driver’s license to teach? I think we have to separate the black belt system (dan system) from the licence system in which a renshi (4 dan) is like a trainer license (can teach students how to drive), kyoshi (6dan) like a coach license (can make exams), and hanshi (8 dan) like the head coach or master (creat and develop educational systems). These licenses are slight different from the black belt degree system, although somewhat linked to it. I am not sure if my examples are the best, but I think it is important to not put too much value on a black belt. for the minimum age question, I would only like to ask, how long time will it take for a white belt to become black? The dirt on the white belt is the sweat and experience the student gained through hard practice. By dragging the belt in the dirt, neither sweat or experience is added, thus even thought the color change the belt is still white beneath. In Japan Junior High School students might be able to get a black belt, but the main reason for this is that they, when they enter Senior High should be able to compete at competitions, where the minimum requirement is a black belt.

  8. “In most western cultures black belt is equal to a teacher, which I believe it should not be.”

    excelent observation, and one of the major issues we have to confront in america.

    i like the idea of having the separate teaching certifications above black belt (which is a technical rank). however, i do not feel that they should be tied to rank. not to toot my own horn, but i feel every bit as qualified as anyone i have met to determine the grade up to a certain level or design a practice curriculum. as a lowly 4dan, i have plenty of knowledge and experience that should make me elligible for certification to do so. this knowledge and experience is unique to my situation and perosnal studies – it is not related to my rank.

    with regards to time – that’s a really loaded issue.

    i like to differentiate between time (in years) and time (in hours spent practicing). for example, americans look at japanese university students reaching black belt in a coupe of years and think “that’s way too fast”, but the fact is that many of these students practice for several hours a day. most american students are lucky to spend more than three or four hours practicing each week. i’ve heard a lot of peopel who like to brag about how many years they’ve been practicing whatever martial art, and invariably, they never practice more than ten hours in a week; usually, it’s much, much less than that.

    on the other hand, i think there are a lot of things that can contribute to taido skill that happen outside of practice sessions. if i restricted my taido to the time i can make it to a dojo and put on a dogi, i’d really be in trouble. however, i do lots of things everyday that i feel directly contribute to my taido training. my professional activities also offer opportunities for my growth as a taido instructor. by the same token, i also try to take account of the extra-curricular activities that may contribute to my students’ development, but these things are hard to measure in a consistant manner.

    like you said about being able to fake dirt and sweat on a belt, i don’t look at the ranks as being precise measure – rather they are extremely general. and one person’s 1kyu could be another’s 3dan. i think that belt/rank in martial art is awarded, not earned. that is, it’s an acknowledgement between the instructor and student that the student has met some certain expectation. it does not really mean that the students is at a particulr level of skill.

    not to say that i think standardization (to an extent) is impossible or undesirable – i just don’t think it works, as implemented in most organizations.

  9. as an update…
    i just returned form us taido summer camp, at which 19 black belt awards were made, twelve of them to students who won’t be able to drive for a while yet. it will be interesting to watch over the next few years as these students either grow into strong taidoka or fizzle out. i’ve got my predictions for a few of them, but i’m going to keep them to myself for now…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *