There are many colours in the martial arts world, whether it’s the white of a fresh laundered Gi, or in the many and varied colours of belt.
Whether you are BJJ sportsman sporting a blue, purple, brown belt, with black and white trim; A Karate-ka sporting every colour under the rainbow; A Taekwondo practitioner wearing the many varied combinations.
Whether it is white, red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, brown, salmon, magenta, cyan, or even black, the belt around the middle of a martial artist is at its very, very best an indicator that the person has been observed and found to have a certain skill, what that skill is, is so varied that even this is unsure. Some karate groups might have a 10 minute exam to get your black, requiring you merely to demonstrate forms; while others might have a gruelling 2 day exhibition of forms, memory, technique, power, determination and fighting prowess, at the end of both exams is the colour black but they mean different things.
Unfortunately many in the martial arts world read much more into belts than there is. The worst crime, in my humble opinion, is to believe that a belt is a badge of honour or a medal, or a certificate reading “this person deserves your respect”.
I have worn black around my waist for several years now, and when I first received my black I was told that it was but the start of my journey, and this was true in several senses, because it was only when I first got my black that I was old enough and interested enough to start actively expanding my horizons both as a martial artist and as a thinker.
I have fallen victim of the inner ego that cries out “I’m a blackbelt, I deserve your respect”, In fact to my shame I think I may even have uttered those words once. Since then I have learnt the truth, and tried my best to live it. My belt is worth nothing, it is cloth that keeps my gi top from flapping open, it is not something that gives me the right to respect and certainly not anything for which I should demand respect.
Respect is developed, and from many things, and in many ways, and in many different types. I gained respect from some as a martial artist by setting foot on the mats time and again, by being honest, open, and eager in my training, and by giving of myself to my training partners. I gained respect from some as a teacher by being patient, confident, calm, by doing my best, by looking at how to teach and what to teach and who to teach, and by being willing to say ‘I don’t know’. I gained respect from some as a person by putting aside my own needs for those of others, by focusing on the needs of others over the needs of myself.
But all this respect that I gained, that I feel I earned is only from some people, not everyone because my actions have only been too, for and in front of some people. Every time a new student stands in front of me, I do not think “this person should respect me, because I am a black belt, because I am their teacher”, every new student causes me to think the same words “How can I earn the respect of this amazing person, who has willingly stepped in front of me and offered me the honour of teaching them”
In my opinion the moment I fail to think this will be the moment I fail as a teacher. It is and always has been an Honour to teach, whether it was a 6 year old wandering into my class with their dad to play karate, or a second dan black belt bowing to me and asking me to show them Jurokyu Kata, or a wrestler wanting to work with me on their Tai-otoshi.
Respect is a complex thing, in many ways it is like gold, to be coveted, but it is also like the currency of many different countries. Just because I have 10,000 respect dollars, doesn’t mean I am rich in respect pound sterling, so each new person, each new thing I do, each no situation requires me to go out and earn my respect. I will never earn respect by standing in the corner stamping my foot and saying “I have a black belt”, and if that’s how respect was gotten I’d not want it.
I travelled recently to visit the amazing Ross Martial Arts in America, I travelled there as a student, eager to learn from people I had grown to respect through our communications. The instructors at Ross and the visiting instructor from Yamasaki earned my respect time and again with every movement and action, from putting aside a busy schedule to pick me up at the airport, to sharing their time, to sharing their knowledge, to asking me to share mine. Even little gestures like providing me with a skin treatment for my eczema in hopes of helping me. I know at times I did annoying things, or odd things, but the understanding and patience shown by the people I met there gained them more respect than I could have expressed. These wonderful people also earned my respect through seeing their students. It was almost relief to throw off my black belt and put on a white belt when I trained with them in an art I had never done. In fact on arriving even though they had asked me to teach a class, I asked if they wanted me to wear black before wearing it.
It is also worth mentioning that, while there, I met the founders of Vector Jiujitsu, and in the space of a single tournament these two wonderful BJJ practitioners and their whole crew earned respect from me in bucket loads.
Next time I set foot on the mat, what draws the respect of those around me is not the colour of my belt, but the many different things that make up the man inside the belt. I would happily throw my black belt away (except it cost me a pretty penny to buy), my skills, my knowledge, my honour, my patience and my kindness are not in my belt, these things are what make the man, and the martial artist, and it’s these things I hold dear to me.