Titles & Ranks

The scales must balance!

“The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.” Miyamoto Musashi

How do you determine if your style is useful in all things? Does your style or system license techniques or license individuals? It doesn’t matter what the system you study offers: Titles, belt ranks, specialized clothing options, patches, or any other type of acknowledgment. The fact is they all use some sort of acknowledgment.

Boxers use titles and championship belts, wrestlers do pretty much the same, most judo, and karate influence martial arts systems have adopted the kyu and dan system, a large percentage of Chinese martial arts now utilize colored sashes. Some military martial arts use a belt system and/or simply rely on certification. Then there are systems that will utilize patches to indicate the level that the practitioner is on and some systems will certify a person by gold, silver, or bronze medals or even boxing gloves.

I understand some schools signify that a student is able to instruct once they receive a weapon as a gift from their instructor but I believe that is rarely done any longer. I have heard people argue for years that their system doesn’t issue rank. This statement is utterly ridiculous as there is nothing to stop an individual from attending a single seminar and then going out to claim that they are certified as an instructor in XYZ style. Okay, I know that happens all the time, it is usually at this point that everyone from the system that doesn’t issue rank likes to point out that no one from their organization or list of approved instructors backs the individual in question. So this disproves their statement, they do indeed have a certification system, and that is a good thing.

These systems are in place to protect the general populace from unscrupulous individuals that are either out just to make money, or satisfy their over-inflated or damaged egos. So in the end it comes down to the question of how does your system arrive at the conclusion that an instructor is approved to teach or to be considered an expert. They can do this by several methods, but these usually are determined by what you know or what you can perform. Sometimes the certification is dependent on a combination of these two elements. I have often heard that a good teacher can instruct someone how to swim or dive even if they do not have the ability to do so themselves.

I personally would never go to such an instructor no matter if they were capable of churning out loads of champions. If I were drowning, I’d want someone capable of rescuing me. The option of throwing his safety ring life preserver is not sufficient if I’m unconscious. I need someone who can jump in the water and dragged me out. Likewise the coach, sensei, or sifu that has never been in an altercation in a ring or in the street would make me highly suspicious of their skills. I understand that it takes great martial art presence and knowledge to learn how to avoid confrontations, but I can guarantee you that reason and judgment alone cannot always provide protection. There has to be some martial in the martial art for the system to maintain its categorization.

This is true even with martial arts systems that recognize that the majority of their training and primary reason their practitioners’ study is to develop mental and physical health, healing and well-being. I personally prefer systems that require a combination of the ability to perform at a certain level of physical skill, communication skills to instruct, and the technical knowledge to adjust and adapt the principles to be certified. This helps ensure that the techniques can be molded to fit other individuals as there is no such thing as one size fits all. Beyond this I believe that the titles of coach, guru, sifu, and sensei etc. imply a transcendent element with them.

The implication is that they are an example on how to navigate the hardships of life, but that still leaves room for the type of example you want to follow. You might be in the market for a hard drinking bar fighter, or a kill or be killed type of instruction, not everyone wants a Mr. Miyagi type of teaching or a modern pragmatic or a classical aesthetic approach. In the end look at the teacher’s life and not just at what he says. The psychological and emotional factors involved in the study of martial arts changes the individual that truly studies the arts in depth.

Any teacher that can only teach how to fight is not worthy of any of these titles. The scales must balance in between the ability to perform and the ability to improve upon his students’ mindset and outlook on life. I try to illustrate this aspect in my fictional novels from the ‘The Dream Walker’series and with my books that feature the compilation character Taro, sensei.

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