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?