Thursday, December 25, 2008

Should Children be Black Belts…..or more interestingly should anyone?

An ever popular question in Isshinryu discussion and across the internet is the one raised here, should Children be Black Belts. The question is rhetorical because each program actually does whatever they will (as the only true rule about karate is there are no rules).

So we like to hear “We do award children black belts”, or “We don’t award children black belts” or “We give them ‘pretend’ black belts”.

For the record training young people for 30 years now I’ve never awarded a child any rank, I only teach karate-ka, not children, not men, not women, just karate-ka. The content I teach everyone is the same, adjusted for their ability whether they’re 7, 17, 27, 37, 47, 57 or 67. I don’t give the young access to more than two classes a week and the average time for them to reach sho-dan is 7 to 9 years (my son started at 7 and he reached sho-dan at 18). But I have no restrictions and if the student’s merit calls for sho-dan examination they would receive it, just because of what the past has done does not restrict my future.

The two very best sho-dan examinations I’ve ever attended was the day Tom Lewis’ 11 year old son Rob and Dennis Lockwood’s 12 year old daughter Anna took their examination. They had the technical skills, they had literally tons of kumite experience in tournament against their own age groups, and at 13 Anna took first place in black belt weapons at Harold Long’s tournament whooping all of the ‘old’ men competitors.

Young people have the potential and can develop the ability. That they’re normally not pressed into combat situations (in our country) really isn’t a important consideration, for does the 57 year old sho-dan candidate have the ability to be pressed into combat either. It always depends, and in turn is just a dojo objective, not a ‘universal’ operating principle.

One of my friends who teaches a very complex set of Chinese arts about 15 years ago changed his standards for their sho-dan equivalent from 6 years training to 3 years training. I questioned him about that, whether he was weakening his art and his reply was if it motivates more of those people to reach 6 years training (as the course content at 6 years hadn’t changed) he was creating more competent students.

I understand his logic because it hits on the key idea about what a black belt is, IMO.

The entire concept of black belt is fascinating; it is one of the most powerful tools we have in the martial arts, capturing the students mind and is a driving force in its own right. Unfortunately that can be limiting too if the focus is only on the cloth, or the number of strips it can maintain.

If reaching sho-dan drives the student to keep training and push for greater knowledge and ability is it important what the age requirement is?

I guarantee you if you teach young people you will loose almost 100% of them to life as they grow up. Perhaps a few will stay around for a lifetime of training, but statistically I bet they’re a very small % of students. Dangling their own dojo and an income before them is hardly justice because the more important thing is they must keep pushing their own training. But school, military service, work, marriage and all of life’s other offerings are and will be more important for most.

The training you offer them becomes a piece of their lives, and only when they can control their life can they give a lifetime to training. That’s part of the reason I don’t let the young train more frequently because they’re not in control of their lives, their parents are. But if they stick the 7 to 9 years they’ve reached that decision on their own, even if it means shortly after sho-dan they MUST move on.

The entire topic started me thinking and I did a small bit of research through the CyberDojo.

There is no evidence that Kyan awarded anyone a black belt, he never even gave a name to his system of teaching.

It is also well documented that Miyagi would not award anyone a black belt even when his students kept the pressure on to receive them. Even though the Japanese martial establishment had awarded him the highest title of the Okinawan’s teaching in Japan, he didn’t equate that to dan rank. The speculation is that he was against the Japanese meddling with the Okinawan arts.

The development of gi and dan ranking occurred in Japan as Karate transplanted there pre WWII and changed the art structure to match Japanese sensibilities. It does not seem to have had the same penetration back on Okinawa. I imagine the old Okinawan training of people doing sanchin in their undies had much to do with removing their clothes to keep them clean and dry, and not having a gi production infrastructure to provide alternatives.

It appears that after WWII it was Japanese influence that caused the Okinawan groups to start using dan ranking. All of the students of Miyagi appear to have ignored his wishes and Goju developed dan ranking. Likewise group after group did so.

Shimabuku Sensei adopting rank was no different from every other group, but as I don’t believe he belonged to any of the groups, he had no obligation to follow their standards of what rank meant. It meant whatever he felt it meant.

Which takes us back to whether Children can be black belts. In Shimabuku Sensei’s environment children didn’t study karate (where today on Okinawa 75% of the karate-ka are children – previously documented on the CyberDojo too).

So we see things change, they always do. We each felt the importance of reaching sho-dan and how it drove us in part and can use it to effect for our students. Hopefully we work with those same students to understand sho-dan is irrelevant, the true value is that we keep training, studying and working forever.

Long ago I wrote that I always felt the true black belt examination was not the sho-dan test, but whether after 5 years that black belt was still training hard, and after 10 years and after 20.

IMO, if promoting young people to sho-dan helps their growth in the art, then it’s a good idea for those programs.

A more interesting question for anyone with a long term program is of your adult students what is the average time they keep training after acquiring sho-dan?

My program is small so this may not be fair, but currently the average adult reaching sho-dan has stayed training over 15 additional years. They still leave, but they’ve had a fair run.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Silent Night Holy Toledo...........

Silence is gone starting this Christmas Eve, my internet access has been restored. It's been a very challenging two weeks, in the mildest of natural disasters here in New Hampshire.

Not a fun time, but helps give pause to how we survive when things are falling apart.

May everyone enjoy the Holidays and once I've had a chance to reenter the internet I have more to chat about.

Here is a photo from the local newspaper of my home street the morning after the ice storm struck.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Ice

Right now the Ice Storm that hit New Hampshire 7 days ago has left me without power, heat and of course internet access the entire time.

Still unsure when any of the above will be restored.

As the season is on us, I wish all of you a Merry Christmas (or substitute the holiday of your choice as needed) and best wishes for a Happy New Year.

I will return! Victor