“What is it about Rank?”

Rank, what is rank and why in the whole scheme of things does it truly not matter?

Rank seems to be such a focus within the martial arts and because of that it will always provoke a spirited response. However when it comes down to it, your rank doesn’t matter from one style or from one organisation to another.

Let us start with the idea of rank. Rank is a way of determining who has seniority within the school and this is primarily important to give an indication of which students have more knowledge. The story of the white belt becoming darker as a student trains, ending up as a Black Belt, is a good story, but it is also only that a story. The idea however reflects the process of a new student putting time into their training and gaining knowledge. Ranking was implemented to give those students an idea of where they were along the path. Of course it only reflects where they are along the path that relates to that style, and to that school. Therefore a Green belt in one school may have no relationship to a Green belt in a nearby school. So how can we judge one to the other?

Looking a little deeper into the structure of ranking, coloured belts are accepted as being stepping stones to Black belt or its equivalent. In my school a Red belt is the first level of senior belt, however in some Karate schools it can represent 5th Degree. This shows that the colour can become meaningless, so should we just compare black belts with black belts. This will only make the process even harder as some schools have 5th Degree as their highest rank, some 15th degree. Is a 4th degree in both schools the same? Have they travelled the same distance through their respective curriculums, achieved the same level of knowledge, of course not.

Then we also have the fact that in some organisations rank has to be physically tested for regardless of level, but in others it is awarded, or earnt through many non physical methods. Most tend to have a level of physical requirements which then change as the rank increases to recognition for time and effort. That too is also very dependant on style and organisation, so here again we see how comparing a 4th degree from one organisation with another is a moot point.

So why is rank important? To many it is external recognition, it is the yardstick however flawed that others see the practitioner by. When truly it only represents one schools internal level of recognition and this can change even within a single organisation. How many times have we seen Black Belts of the same rank from the same organisation perform at wholly different levels? However flawed the system is due to the fact there can be no real standard, rank still is needed.

Rank becomes a way for the school or organisation to set goals, recognise achievements and to create leadership. It structures how the student progresses within your style and also gives them a guide to who has been training longer and can assist with knowledge.

Every organisation has its own requirements for rank and I am sure that most have their merits. However it is not our place to directly judge those merits unless we fully understand them and how they apply. In my school black belt ranking is broken down in clear steps that include time in rank, an amount of training hours, an amount of specific black belt training hours and a technical requirement. This ensures that the student has learnt the technical requirements and at the same time has put them into practice sufficiently to attain their next level. This also gives each student a clear understanding of what each rank above them entails and what that student has had to achieve to earn that rank. This makes sure that respect for those attainments is always held at the highest level, and that everyone on that level has worked to the same standards.

So Rank becomes an individual recognition of attainment that in an effort to compare we need to understand all the elements that were required for that schools and their organisation. This is why in the scheme of things rank doesn’t truly matter, only the knowledge and effort it reflects does. The easiest way to determine if someone is worthy of their ‘rank’ is to train with them and only then will the knowledge that it should reflect be evident.

Grandmaster Geoff J. Booth