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Belt Meaning in Martial Arts

In any martial art, whether it is Tae Kwon-Do, Karate, Judo or any other, there is a belt system in place, and a newcomer may see a different variety of colours around the waists of the students in the club they are trying out. As the newcomer is handed their own white belt, the instructor or helper will tie it round their waist, but they may not know the significance of having that belt.

But what is the significance of having that belt? Is there a significance of having a belt? Where did the belt system originate from?

There are different theories and stories about where the belt system came from. I have heard one story of that in the Far East, they used to be handed a white belt to hold their suit together, and the belt became darker with sweat and dirt as their training progressed as they didn’t wash it, which eventually started turning the belt black. Thus, a black belt was somebody more experienced and who had trained longer, so would have become a master of the art. I do not know how factually correct this story is, but it is still a lovely tale which might explain where the belt system came from.

However, one of our exceptionally knowledgeable students actually told me the real story of where the belt system as we know it today came from. It was developed in the 20th century in the Japanese culture, although some argue that Chinese martial arts such as Kung Fu had an input. Judo was arguably the first martial art to introduce the coloured belt system, used as a way of motivating the learner to better themselves and to provide targets to aim for to reach the next stage of training and improvement.​​

Many believe that the belt system is as ancient as martial arts itself, but it is a lot more recent than many may think (including myself). In fact, before the 20th century, most martial arts didn’t have a belt system, and the only difference in students would be their ability and more autonomous technique. In the modern day martial arts, the belt system has become vitally important to its success, and that is largely down to how it sets goals and targets for improvement.

Goal-setting is important in any walk of life, so you can see why it was a system implemented. The fact that most martial arts have taken up the belt and grading systems and encouraged its development shows that it is a successful and integral part of martial arts.

So, we have goal-setting as one of the reasons that the belt system is used, but what does a belt and its ranking truly mean? Some people believe it is status, some people believe it is seniority, some people believe it is the symbolism of a journey… whatever you believe, the most important thing is what it means to the individual student.

When I first started Tae Kwon-Do, I had no idea what the belts meant except that there was lots of different colours. I talked to my friend about it at school who did Karate, and they couldn’t understand why there was no brown or orange belts. Belts mean different things in different martial arts, but in Tae Kwon-Do each belt has a meaning, and the comparison to a plant growing from a seed to a towering tree in relation to Tae Kwon-Do development is fantastic and inspirational to me.

After a few lessons, when I was fully hooked on Tae Kwon-Do, I remember thinking “I’d love to be a black belt”, but when we lined up in belt order, the first thing I thought is “wow, I’d love to have a yellow belt!”. When I became a yellow belt, I would watch the green belts do their pattern and think, “that pattern looks really cool, I’d love to have a green belt and be able to do that pattern”. Then, the higher I got, I started aiming for my black belt and in my mind I was aiming for the black belt grading and had it calculated when I could go for it.

The belt system, whether I realised it or not, motivated me to improve and get better, and pushed me to better my skills and train harder. When you get a little higher in belt ranking though, the belt takes on a different meaning. You begin to realise that you are part of a huge martial arts family, and when you are stood on the front line in your club’s session, as you turn round to tie your belt, you realise something.

'Everyone can see every single move that I do now'.

In the immortal words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Suddenly, you think about your stances and moves and effort more, because if you slack, others will see it. If you do it well, then the lower belts may watch or copy you if they aren’t sure how to do a move, and that belt around your waist takes on a different meaning entirely. In clubs throughout TSX, there are always higher belt volunteers that help lower belts and the juniors progress, as there are in many clubs, and it is great to see. The higher belts realise that they are responsible for others, and that the belt around their waist means that they have the power and ability to help others around them. Many take up the call without even being asked, and that’s a great thing.

Then, the realisation comes that it is also about attitude. With my kid’s classes, when they first start they can get away with a little bit of messing about, because they don’t fully understand why they have to be disciplined in class, but when they hit yellow belt, and no longer have white on their belt, it hits home to them that they are no longer a beginner.

They realise that their behaviour will be imitated by the lower belts, so they act much more disciplined. The belt around their waist suddenly means something more to them, it isn’t just something that tells people that they can perform the pattern to get to that belt. It is much more than technique.

Sometimes, you hear of “black belt advancement” classes, and they usually come at a higher cost to the student, where the student is ‘fast tracked’ to a black belt. I’ve taught in schools before where a pupil has come up to me and said “I got my black belt in 3 months”. For me, where a black belt takes a minimum of 3 and a half years of training in Tae Kwon-Do, I think it is wrong and it misses the point of martial arts.​​

And that is what I think, for me, is what a belt meaning truly is. It doesn’t matter about what your belt colour is, it is whether you show the attitude to prove that you have earned that belt ranking. In class, I occasionally make my students take their belts off, so we are all equal in belt ranking, and prove to themselves that they deserve to be the belt they have. It doesn’t matter the colour of the belt, because belts can be bought on eBay or from sports shops. What matters is what the student has learned, and that the student has earned the belt that they are at. A belt cannot be bought, it is earned through hard work, sweat, sometimes tears, perseverance and a strong will to succeed.

If I could sum up what belt ranking means, I’d use Tommy Cooper’s karate black belt sketch.

Interviewer: “Now I believe you have a black belt?” Tommy Cooper: “Yes. And before that, I had a brown belt, and before that I had a white belt”. Interviewer: “And before that?” Tommy Cooper: “My trousers fell down”

It isn’t about the colour, it is about the person that wears it around their waist.

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