Will belt for a dollar

The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively. –Bob Marley

Integrity is a word that gets kicked around quite a bit, especially in the martial arts community. In fact, I think it’s one of the four words embroidered on many TKD black belts I’ve seen in my travels. But embroidering it on your belt and living it are two completely different things.

Recently, I’ve begun to wonder if we all start out on a path of integrity and somehow get swallowed up by a life that demands something less. And I’m just young enough to believe I won’t be swallowed.

When I got my black belt in Krav Maga, I belonged to an organization that had awarded just 8 black belts in 3 years. As it should be, we worked our asses off for that belt. Literal blood, sweat and tears got us there. Plus a few broken bones. And we took pride in the fact that we were part of a small community with integrity. It was hard to get to that level because the bar was set high and remained there. For a while.

In the 3 years since I earned that black belt, that same organization has awarded 9 more black belts and has begun 12-months-or-less-to-black-belt training for at least 20 more. Some of these are people who started Krav Maga 12 months prior to their (scheduled) black belt test date.

Why the shift?

Well, it’s simple: $$$. If you developed a plan where someone who wanted to achieve a certain goal, could do so by attending 3 mandatory trainings (for which they pay $300+ per training) and arrive at that goal in 12 months, regardless of their prior experience or current talent, wouldn’t you put as many people through that plan as possible?

Well, yea. If the greed monster had sucked your integrity out your ass.

This is a beef that many people have with youth martial arts programs, and I think we’re seeing it pervade the adult schools as well. Belt tests are seen as a revenue generator, and the “pay to play” mentality overrides any hint of integrity that once existed in the system. School owners would rather advance someone who is not really ready, than miss out on a belt test fee. What they’re left with is inflated numbers of under-qualified members, and eventually, a severely tarnished reputation for their organization.

So now, I feel obligated to explain that I got one of those first 8 black belts, and not one of the new 30.

I recently distributed black belt invitations to 5 people in my school. I think 3 of them have what it takes to make it this year, and I hope the other two will kick it into high gear and surprise me. Probably next year. Do all of them (and more people in my school) understand the technical curriculum requirements of advancing? Yes. Do they all deserve black belts right this minute? No way in hell.

To me, earning a black belt is about more than demonstrating that you’ve learned some specific curriculum. It’s about your character. It’s about what you bring to the table in my community. It’s about the effort you put in, the attitude you bring to your training, and whether or not I watch what you do (both on and off the mat) and say “s/he gets it!”

Pay to play doesn’t fly here.

When I got my black belt, I was young enough (31) to believe that the people who awarded mine believed that was the case. And jaded as I may now be, I am young enough (34) to believe that will always be the case for my organization.

Some people embroider a word on their belt. That’s not me. Some tattoo it on their skin. Yea, that’s me. And some live the very essence of that word, no matter the cost. Check in with me in 10 years…that’ll still be me.

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