The Increasing Meaninglessness Of Black Belt

the black belt has become meaningless

Or, Would You Please Stop Screwing Up The Martial Arts Industry?

So this morning I see this post on a popular social media website. The gist of it is, one instructor was deriding another instructor for “only” promoting 14 black belts in 40 years.

His take on it was that it indicated the other guy was a lousy instructor. Seriously?

What I found to be really amusing was that the commenters on the thread were in unanimous agreement with that assessment.

Furthermore, none of them asked any pertinent questions, like:

“Out of how many students?”


“How often do his students test for rank?”


“What’s the average time to black belt in his style?”


“Do most of the students who train with him even care about getting a black belt?”


“Is earning a black belt even the emphasis for training in his school?”

I think you get my point. The general response to this guy’s post indicates exactly how ridiculous the mainstream martial arts industry has become, when school owners believe that the ONLY indication of the aptitude of another instructor is how many people he promotes to black belt within a given time period.

What’s The Real Issue Here?

Now, my question to YOU is this:

Is the real issue here student promotion, or self-promotion?

Master Ken 11th degree black belt

Because honestly, it seems to me like this is all just one big pissing contest about who can promote the most black belts. Sort of like when a bunch of studio owners get together at a martial arts business convention and start bragging about their enrollment (start talking profit margins though, and you’ll get a lot of hemming and hawing, believe me).

And if that’s the case, then it really isn’t about motivating people to black belt, or inspiring your students, or being a better instructor. Instead, it seems to me that it’s more about inflating egos than it is about elevating the hearts, minds, and spirits of martial arts students.

“Tell Me… How Low Can You Go?”

Worlds youngest black belts

“He’s the world’s youngest black belt… NO, she’s the world’s youngest black belt… no, now maybe he’s the world’s youngest black belt…” (Google Image Search)

Do a web search on “worlds youngest black belt” and here’s what you get:

10,200,000 results. Yep, 10.2 MILLION results for “world’s youngest black belt.” That’s amazing! I mean, that kid must really have some incredible PR people working for him. Or is it her?

You see, when you check out the Google Image results (see above), you quickly realize that there are a lot of 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old “world’s youngest black belts” running around. And yes, there’s a four-year-old black belt running around in Florida somewhere (and he’s a cute little bugger, too – so is his sister; she made black belt at four just a few years after he did).

Oh, how low can you go, indeed!

“Now YOU Get Your Black Belt In Under Two Years – Guaranteed!”

This reminds me of a conversation I had with an old karate instructor buddy of mine about rapidly promoting kids to black belt. He once had an adult student who enrolled his kids at the “three-letter” school across town.

When he asked that parent why he didn’t enroll his kids at the same school he trained at, the guy replied point-blank that he wanted the kid to be a black belt, and he knew his kid could get it in under two years at the other school.

“Then, I’ll enroll him here to learn real martial arts,” he said. My friend just laughed.

Another true story… I once had a student who was a brown belt who’d been with me for about six years. He went to a sleepover at a friend’s house who was a three-year black belt at a school in a neighboring town. My student went with his friend to watch the kid’s class, and got to speak with his instructor afterward.

“Where do you train?” the instructor asked him.

“At Massie’s Martial Arts,” he replied.

“Oh, they do real martial arts there,” the instructor responded.

You should have seen that kid’s face when he told me that story. Priceless. He didn’t ask me why he wasn’t a black belt yet; instead, he was proud that he trained somewhere that black belt wasn’t given out as a participation ribbon for just showing up.

It didn’t damage his self-esteem to have to wait a few extra years for black belt, either. See, kids know intuitively that real self-esteem comes from personal achievement, not from false accolades derived out of participation in programs that grade based on inclusionary standards.

Do You Really Have To Give Out Belts Like Candy To Succeed?

In the past I’ve spoken at length about how the public’s increasing interest in arts such as BJJ and reality-based martial arts is proof that they want more than just an empty belt and a gold leaf certificate on the wall.

And all you have to do is visit any successful Brazilian jiu-jitsu school to see that, in fact, you don’t have to give out belts like participation ribbons at a grade school field day (and when did we start that crap?) to have a successful martial arts school.

Now, I have no idea as to the teaching skill of the “14-in-40” instructor mentioned at the beginning of this article. However, I will say that I have a damned good idea of the moral fiber of an instructor who routinely turns out black belts in under two years, or who promotes a four-year-old to black belt (I mean, did the kid start in the womb?)

So, Mr. 14-in-40, my hat’s off to you, and I encourage you to keep doing your thing. Heaven knows we don’t have enough of you guys left in this industry.


  1. Jamie Malin on September 26, 2013 at 11:42 am

    I wonder if these instructors even know how the black belt started? I am a student of Kung Fu but appreciate the true meaning of what a black belt is and where it came from. In Japan When Martial Arts were studied, the students were to wear a Gi and a white belt when training. Part of the students responsibilities was to take care of and clean their Gi. The only part of their uniform they never cleaned was their belt! So the longer, harder and more often they trained the blacker their belt became! A real teacher should not care about numbers, they should care more about why they want to teach in the first place and the people they are teaching. Don’t ever loose the real true meaning of why we train and teach Martial Arts!.

  2. Quintin on September 26, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Nice article, totally agree. The black belt has become a marketing tool in some schools.
    Sky high karate, get well soon kung fu etc give kids stripes and belts for turning up or doing there homework.

  3. Jason on September 26, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Mike, great article. This reminded me of when I opened my school up three years ago and how the martial artist who were “successful” in the area (who I knew well at the time) gave me warning not to operate a school or open with the philosophy of making kids (and adults for that matter) EARN their rank. I was also told if I don’t get students to a black belt in two years then I could guarantee I will be out of business or have barely any students by this time. Yes, they told me that kids under 18 should be promoted to black belt. Since I couldn’t wrap my head around this concept and I figured if I have to operate my school the way they were telling me, I would rather NEVER teach martial arts. I had to earn every single color I wore around my waist and it made me a better person because of it. I am not talking about hazing or being treated disrespectfully. I just had to earn it like everyone before me.

    Well, that was three years ago and I am still here thriving in my area and doing great. Have I lost students? YES. Was it over not getting kids to a black belt in two years. There was only one of those parents who didn’t like what I was doing. However, I have a culture in my school that has made me proud to be teaching martial arts and improving my community. I have parents who thank me DAILY for teaching the kind of character building skills to their children. I have adults that love the fact I give them more than just some fluffy martial arts program. Everyone is challenged and loves the fact they are growing, improving, and building true confidence in themselves.

    You might be wondering if I have to work full-time someplace else to support myself because I won’t promote children under 18 to black belt. No, I don’t. My school supports me FULLY and I am able to have the weekend to myself.

    I could go on and on, but I took a stand against the way our industry is going and not allowing more garbage to seep into the meaninglessness of a black belt.

    The students who get a black belt from me will feel good about what they earned and their ability to protect themselves. Not to mention their warrior spirit and mental toughness to get through life’s unforeseeable enemies that lie within us.

    Any other school owners and instructors doing this, I am glad you are joining this small community that is making the change to a better future. School owners thinking about doing something like this because they are tired of how meaningless a black belt has become? Do what Mike is asking and you will be successful.

  4. Lou DeJulia on September 27, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    It is not often that I comment on sites, but I could not resist this one. Just want to congratulate Massie for speaking out and calling attention to this issue. I have been in the arts for over 40 years, and although I am “retired” I still study. It angers me to see what these so called “Instructors” are doing to the Arts. Let’s face it, we all know this is just for business. What it actually does is create a notion that the whole Martial Arts community is a joke. Really, child Black Belts. Before I left my studio I remember explaining to several New Students, why i was “just” a 3rd degree “Black Belt” after so many years. Of course, once they became students they understood the meaning of black belt, and the dedication I expected for anyone to achieve such a honor. Four years later, each of the students i am referring to, are still studying, are extremely dedicated, and none have reiceved a “black belt” yet. This should be a journey, not a business move. Please, all you “instructors” who are participating in this type of promotion need to re-consider your positions. You have a responsibility to the Arts first and foremost.

  5. Mike Massie on September 29, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Thank you for chiming in, sir. One of the things that made me want to write this post is that I feel that guy deserved a lot more respect for his 40+ years in the martial arts than what he was getting. So, hats off to you as well for your 40 years of dedication.

  6. Mike Massie on September 29, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Jason, thanks for bringing your perspective to the conversation. Honestly, what I think is so ridiculous about the stance these folks were taking on that thread is that no one in their right mind would tell a seasoned BJJ black belt that he or she was a “bad” instructor for only promoting a few of their students to black belt. In fact, I think that would get you arm-barred, in most cases. :)

  7. Mike Massie on September 29, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Jamie, actually the practice of wearing a black belt was started by Jigoro Kano as a way to quickly determine who was a beginner and who was an advanced student in his burgeoning classes. The story about belts getting darker with training is a myth.

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