Karate Etiquette: New Students, Old Belts

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I’m going to write a little bit about martial arts etiquette and dealing with parents or new students who once practiced…in particular, former black belts.

Martial Arts parents, especially fathers, can be very interesting people. A lot of them get very into the training their child is a part of – much the same way dads get into their sons who play football or baseball or any other more ‘traditional’ sport. And this is a good thing. If the parents are excited and into it, then there is a much greater chance of the child staying focused and into the process. As a teacher in a martial arts school, I LOVE those gung-ho parents.

The only time that can become a bit of a challenge is when the parent once studied martial arts (often as a child). The reason it is a challenge is because you will inevitably be asked ‘can I wear my old black belt into class?’ The answer I’ll give is: Of course you can! In my opinion it is no different than a parent wearing a football or baseball jersey to their child’s game. If it gets them hyped and pumped to bring their kids for training, then by all means go for it! And I’ll happily suggest they purchase a shiny new Red Dragon Karate t-shirt to go with it!

They’re parents, they’re paying for their kid to train under our system, if they want to cosplay, they should be allowed to. It’s fun for them and it’s harmless as long as they aren’t trying to instruct any of the students.

When that answer of ‘OK’ turns to ‘No Way’ is when a student from another system comes to train under me. I’m sure anyone out there who teaches regularly as run into this – a former ‘black belt’ from XXX system wants to come in and jump right up to their former rank in some completely unrelated system.

With those people you have to be diplomatic but firm. What I do is let them know that a black belt is an incredible achievement and one they should be very proud of. BUT isn’t the whole point of entering into a new system the learning of everything that goes with it? If you skip from white to black, then there’s no growth and no experience of the intricacies of what makes our form of karate unique. You need the foundation before you can put a roof on your house.

That’s my nice way of saying: look, it’s great that you got a black belt somewhere else, but until you show me that you have mastered our curriculum, then your rank means nothing to me. It’s just a belt.

And when you think about it, all a black belt really is is a gold star or a giant check mark showing that you’ve completed a section of training in a given system. It doesn’t mean you’re a master of all systems and styles and that check mark doesn’t mean much in other schools. Sure, some of the physical training will carry over and make learning a new system easier, but you will still need to demonstrate a full knowledge of our material before you earn that check mark – that belt.

You want to be the master, Bruce Leroy, then you best show me you’ve got the Glow first.

Not only do I preach this idea, but I practice it as well. I’ve trained in a few different styles (especially as I’ve moved around the country) and I always go in with the eyes of a white belt. Most of the time I don’t mention my belt ranks in Red Dragon Karate or Aikido. They don’t matter in whatever new system I’m studying. I’m not there to show off what I already know…I’m there to learn. To paraphrase my buddy, Sensei Alex, ‘I don’t need another belt to know I can kick everyone’s ass here.’

Next time someone comes in and asks if they can wear their old black belt, tell them the biggest part of being a true black belt is realizing their training has only begun and the best way to do that is to empty their cup. Too see with the eyes of a white belt once more.

PS: Something that throws off my private students is that I don’t wear a belt at all when I train outside of a school (sometimes I may not even wear pants…but that’s an unrelated story). There’s far too much focus on the belt status (and you see that with ‘black belt collectors’) these days. What’s most important is the growth, knowledge, and development you gain from the training, not what color belt you wear. Focus on your training and not your fashion.

-Mat Nastos, The Karate Geek
www.KarateGeek.com

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Karate Geek
Mat Nastos is the Karate Geek, Amazon Best-Selling Author, writer for film/tv/comics, with black belts in American-form karate and aikido.

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