Saturday, July 29, 2006

fear not the white belt

What does it mean to wear a white belt? how can someone who has experience in another art come to appreciate his or her status as a white belt in a style that is new to them? can a white belt win in a fight? with the trends of today to use mixed martial art instruction, does a gi even have a place in the dojo anymore?
the modern white belt
In olden times, of course, there was no such distinction between the ranks. a master was a master, a novice was a novice, and a belt held the traditional training uniform (gi) together during practice. today we have put such an emphasis on belts that even styles that originally bucked the mainstream belt system have begun to adapt versions of their own class structure, (as with kungfu sashes denoting rank in some schools).Now a veritable rainbow can be seen in each dojo, nearly requiring a field guide to identify and make sense of it all.

--However, the white belt of today indicates which students are the most novice and can act as a kind of beacon for more experienced students to hone in on and help out with. so before we throw the baby out with the bath water lets examine some of the ways using a belt system can come in handy.
When a new student comes to class they can get a lot of information thrown at them seemingly at once. Often times an instructor won't have the time (unfortunately) to answer every question a novice student has (how do i tie this dang thing?! where should my foot be now? and now? and now?) the belt system in this case can be a beneficial thing, giving the new student a group of individuals wearing distinct markings that show that they probably have good answers.

Also, imagine the stress involved without a clear rank structure when the master has to leave for a while. Suddenly it can become "the cat has gone away, the mice come out to play," as students with less moral strength and courage (and maybe bigger egoes) start trying to encroach on teaching responsibilities that may have been left with instructions but also might be too humble for their own good. As we all know, it is not always the right voice that wins but often the loudest. With the belt system in place, karate students can get the "picture worth a thousand words" message loud and clear.
Unfortunately, this also has the opposite effect as the white belt becomes the last person whose voice is heard, even if they happen to be right. Often times the white belt will feel, and often justifiably so, that the other students look down on and shun them. I can only say that if that is your case, you are in the wrong dojo and that I personally see wearing a white belt as an opportunity.
How I learned to Love My White Belt
When my family moved from California and went to Washington, I had to leave my sensei and the style I had been practicing for seven years. It was a hard transition for me as I searched for another school. I even put off practicing and forgot a lot of what I had learned. When I finally started practice with my next instructor I was given another white belt and I had to relearn everything. There were slight differences from Goju and Kyokushin even in little things like how to stand. Being a white belt was a great opportunity to refresh what I'd been trained in before while simultaneously being able to fill in the gaps.
When I reached the point where my instructor informed me that I had surpassed the "black belt level," I felt I still had some holes to fill. With my white belt in tow I started attending an Aikido class and, as is to be expected, had to start from scratch again. It was both easier and harder to wear the white belt. Easier because I knew the immense benefits of learning things a step at a time and harder because it seemed no one would take me seriously. [I was fortunate to find a much better aikido class about nine months later that was much harder, but also more rewarding in that everyone was respected regardless of rank.] Everywhere I go that is not related to one of my previous styles I wear my white belt because I want them to know that I am a novice and that I take my learning experience seriously. It would be rude, for example, to show up my first day of a new Karate class and wear a black belt to that class. Karate ranch aside, the most important thing is I would be a new karate student and certainly it wouldn't be appropriate to show up in a black belt if I wasn't in that style of Karate.
Old Age, New Age and the Thin White Line
Fighting is something so beautiful, so horrific, so impossible a thing that it would be insane to say that a white belt will always lose to a black belt in a fight. There are many factors to consider when trying to weigh a fight and while rank can help be a determining factor, it should not be the stand all end all. To put it another way, a white belt is a thin line that separates a novice and someone with "experience." I've seen people with no previous formalized training defeat people with advanced rank in the martial arts. I've also seen martial artists beat the living crap out of people who had no experience. A belt color is not enough to make me consider a white belt or a non-belt a skill-less individual and a third degree black belt isn't enough for me to cower either.
the beginning: a good place to end
Where did all this start? This whole debate may have started with the uniform that has been associated by Americans with karate training since the art was introduced to them; the gi (plus belt). The current trend of the mixed-martial arts training hall is seemingly doing away with the practice and use of traditional martial arts (including the gi itself) so does this discussion even matter? Yes, I think it does. Although it is important to practice with reality in mind (and most of us don't walk around town sporting our white pajamas) we should remember why the karate gi is convenient; it is durable, flexible, and doesn't have sharp parts or hooks to get caught on. The karate gi, the karate uniform, is an expression of simplicity and humility. The karate uniform, in my opinion, when balanced with good teaching and frequent practice, can make the training experience one of rich developement and set it apart from the rest of the day as something special. Let's not forget the individual worth of the white belt and let's re-examine how we're using the belt systems to help our new karate students.
From the Karate Ranch and the bottom of my heart wishing you a safe and fulfilling journey on the Way.