It’s common knowledge at the gym that I’ve been training in different martial arts for a number of years now and one thing that is pretty consistent among all the different arts (at least with Asian martial arts) is the use of belt ranks to represent progress . The colour belt system is widely used in related arts such as Jiu Jitsu as it draws its origins from the Japanese martial art. Knowing your place in society or within the structure of the gym hierarchy in a society based on Confucianism (such as China, Korea and Japan) and respect to elders there has to be a system to indicate who is who based on honorific titles and dress codes, etc., is a cultural aspect and so inevitably, the belt colour is equated to the holder’s skill level because they have spent the most time getting there. The thing that got me thinking was for the individual, beyond the usual channels of rank, a hot topic in itself, what other methods do you use to measure your progress and improvement?
By and large, belt ranks in jiu jitsu are subjective, personal and to put it bluntly, superficial. By that, the initial veneers of martial prowess and abilities are at worse implied and at best, a warning sign to the beholder that they are indeed a bad-ass. Ability varies from individual to individual with a wide range of skill and ability. Many notable jiu jitsu instructors have said that “the belt only covers 2″ of your butt and you need to do the rest”, so having a belt (or not) is no real indication of progress.
So how do you measure progress?
By far the most common metric is the style-centric competition. In most contact martial arts there is usually some element of organised and formalised events that encourages the expression and showcasing of the martial art in question. These can range from club level, inter-club, regional, state, national, international and in some cases, professional competition offering a purse and product endorsement contracts, etc.
Winning a competition is a huge confidence boost and you learn a lot from the experience. You also get to see where you “stand” among your peers but some may propose that competitions are not real indicators of skill as there are many factors involved. For example in Jiu Jitsu competitions, you may be having a bad day or your opponent is having a bad day. The 3 or 4 minutes that you have in the round to pull off a “win” is only a snapshot of your skill set against a specific individual who is playing a specific type of game within the confines of the sporting rules. Everyone is trying to use their narrow sport-specific skills to win within a confined set of rules and regulations. It doesn’t show the depth or breadth of the person’s knowledge and skills. Say if you have been training for 10 years, what is your 4 minute, elevator-speech picture going to sound like about what you do and know?
Self Preservation scenarios
While there are many possible permutations of what constitutes “successful” self defense, I would wager to say that if you were able to safely escape a potentially dangerous situation using the least amount of effort and strength in an intelligent and timely manner, you won!
As an example you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. You recognised a potential situation and as matters escalated you safely escaped unnoticed and unharmed. That’s a win.
Another example is that you are caught up in a heated verbal disagreement. You offer an intelligent and actionable retort and before matters escalated into physical violence you made your safe exit. That’s a win too!
You got jumped as you unlocked your car door in a public parking lot. You managed to distract your attacker after throwing your wallet or purse in a direction that got the mugger’s attention, quickly got in your car and drove off to safety. That’s a win!
Would you consider those instances as making progress in your training?
Learning and working on improving your techniques
Some might equate or include improvement in memorising, being able to perform un-prompted, a technique or chain of techniques as improvement. I remember when I was first learning how to perform an arm bar, being confused by the sequence of steps, the dizzying complexity of the movement and overload of information was frustrating as much as it was confusing. When one day I finally caught my training partner in my first arm-bar submission I was as shocked and happy that I remembered the technique successfully rather than being able to beat my opponent. Is this also improvement?
Personal Enrichment and Growth
You feel more “complete” or fulfilled. You have direction in life and working towards a goal that you set in your mind. These feelings can’t be measured in the usual sense however you feel that you have become better since you started practice. It has nothing to do with your martial abilities or lack of but the process of training, the ritual of habitually coming to the gym and learning or improving a skill set has you smiling from ear to ear. Do you experience less stress? Are you feeling happier? Does helping others along their journey make you feel good? Improving your teaching skills to enhance others’ journeys is also a skill and a measure of ability. You must be skilled to know the subject matter, being able to perform it well, and have the appropriate verbiage to transmit those skills at a level that is best absorbed by your audience. That is progress too!
Whatever motivates you on this journey more power to you.
On my path, my motivations have changed over time. Every so often I encounter a distraction which may or may not further convince me that I’m on the right path or that I should take a slight detour to further my understanding on how things can be improved “this” way. I found that as long as I’m moving and moving forwards I’m improving. No trophy, belt or escape can change the course.
In servitude and openness,