Friday, April 19, 2013

Seminars and Rank

It seems I keep coming back to this topic...

Last month I attended the Wilder Seminar. It was great. By now, in our region, it seems like we get mostly the same 10 to 15 people at the seminars, so to me it seems almost like a family by this point. Which is really cool! It's a much better experience then when I attended my first seminar almost two years ago as a white belt, which I posted about previously. (You can that blog post if you are interested)  I didn't mention in my review that there was a white belt there! He was new! I remember when he showed up thinking "Hey! Cool! Another white belt! Welcome to the family of those of us who know!" I made sure to go introduce myself. I was really just excited and thought it was great to see someone who is just starting their martial arts journey get to start it out on the right foot without having to wade through all the bull shit (excuse my language) that is out there.

After the seminar was over there was a discussion about seminars and rank. It was mentioned that perhaps lower ranking belts shouldn't be allowed to attend seminars, because the instructor isn't able to cover more advanced material with non-black belts present.

I wasn't really sure how I felt about this. I chewed on it for a while. Nick and I discussed it at length on our drive home in which I discovered I was actually kind of upset about the remark. I decided I am in disagreement with this opinion, and here is why:

The Black Belt ranking is completely arbitrary. I say this because there are some schools who will give you a black belt in two years and some schools in which it takes up to ten years to earn a black belt. Students may be going to classes the same amount of days a week and same amount of time in each school, but the time it takes to get to black belt is still different. Different schools and different instructors have different criteria for ranking and demand different levels of competency to progress. So... you  might have someone walk in who is a black belt who has been doing martial arts for two or three years. And you may have someone show up who is a green belt (or whatever mid rank color your system uses) who has been doing martial arts for five to seven years. There is no way you can ask the student who has been practicing for seven years to sit out while someone who has only been practicing for two years can participate because they are a black belt and it is therefore assumed that they have more knowledge, control, experience, and are more able to handle the difficult or advanced material.

In addition these attendees usually come from all across the style spectrum. At these seminars we have people from different two schools of Shotokan Karate, people from Goju Ryu Karate, people from Aikijutsu, people from TaeKwonDo backgrounds, and people with Judo backgrounds; sometimes people with backgrounds in more than one of the above. Someone from TaeKwonDo isn't going to know the same kata as someone from an Aikijutsu background, who isn't going to know any of the kata from a karate background. Even though the line between all martial arts can be blurred to the point of indistinction, not everyone is walking into the seminar with the same knowledge, EVEN if they are ALL black belts.

Now, I'll be fair and play the devil's advocate here. When I helped Nick design his rank sheets we arranged the requirements in such a way that the more dangerous and more difficult techniques were required and primarily taught to the upper ranking students. I can understand that it would be frustrating to have a white belt present and to have to try to cover the basics or things that they haven't yet learned in order to explain more in depth material, or being hesitant to work with them on more advanced techniques because you don't want them to hurt you. I DO understand and acknowledge those concerns.

However, who is to say a black belt FOR CERTAIN understands everything they are assumed to know? Maybe it's even more dangerous to NOT have any lower ranking belts present, because it is just assumed everyone in the room will know what is going on and no one wants to ask for clarification or help fear of looking stupid? I still have a tendency, because I feel that the black belt rank is arbitrary, to try to stick pretty close to working with Nick at seminars because there is a part of me that still doesn't totally trust the other black belts in the room not to hurt me either. Maybe that's pretty snide of me, but you have no way of knowing anything for certain when working with people you only see once or twice a year at a seminar. No offense seminar peoples, I love you all, but I still have trouble over coming my hang ups.

What to do, what to do? I feel that, If you really want to work on or cover techniques that are so advanced that any rank lower than a black belt should not be working on it, and you don't want to bother with explaining basics, or dealing with people who haven't studied the same style as you, then you need make a seminar that is SPECIFICALLY designed for people who practice Style X who have obtained at least rank Z or studied for Y number of years. It is not open to the general public. I'm perfectly OK with this. Awesome! More power to you! I don't really think it's being elitist even. It's just an advanced level seminar for people who practice a specific style. Cool. I fully acknowledge I am not qualified to attend your seminar and do not feel discriminated against in the slightest. (Although it might end of fostering an elitist attitude if people aren't careful, and I'm sure someone out there would be petty enough to throw a fit about not being allowed into a seminar they are not qualified to attend, but oh well.)

I do think that the Wilder and the the Abernethy type seminars are more of a general education type of seminar. Here is some REALLY cool stuff you can do with Martial Arts, we want you to take it home and incorporate it into your school and your style however you see fit. I think it's GREAT to have lower ranking students at these seminars because even if they can't utilize or haven't learned everything yet, they are getting some of the pieces to the puzzle that they can think about and plug in as they progress in their training. They are there because they are interested and they want to learn. Cool!

Let's foster that and encourage them. Try to remember what it felt like to be that rank. Did the upper belts you knew look down their nose at you? Could you pick up on the fact that they were irritated that you were there watching and learning? Were they mad that you asked questions because you couldn't understand something? Or were they excited to help you on your journey? Did they welcome questions? Did they get excited when they showed you something knew? Did they celebrate with you when you understood or grasped something for the first time or had a 'light-bulb moment'? Even if you had the former type of instructors or sempai, wouldn't you have rather had the latter?

Just some food for thought.


  1. It's a very egalitarian view, and considering everyone is probably paying the same they should get the same.

    On the other hand, it's excruciating to have to go slowly and cover less material at a seminar that one only gets to rarely (maybe...only once!)...and to have to waaaait for everyone.

    Frankly, I think the seminars are probably they are offered to at least defray the expenses and depend on a certain # of attendees to sign up. Targeting 'bb only' is bound to limit the number drastically.

    1. The seminars that I have been to, the ones by Wilder and Abernethy, have a set agenda and they cover what they cover. Regardless of who is there. It doesn't really seem to me that anything gets left out or that they have to slow down to cover less material because lower ranking students are present.

      The majority of the seminar attendees are already black belts. There is usually myself, (I was a white belt with two stripes at one seminar and a green belt at the others, that is my Aikijutsu rank) and sometimes another green belt and a brown belt or two. Everyone else is a black belt. So when the number of mudanshas attending these seminars are already drastically low, I don't feel like it makes sense to say we should ban them. We're not doing any harm.

      As mentioned in my article, several of the black belts in attendance at this last seminar study Shotokan whereas Wilder studies Goju. In my opinion because martial arts is so universal, the point is to translate different methods and concepts as opposed to... say... teaching the applications of one specific Goju kata. Shotokan people won't know the Goju kata (unless they have cross-trained), so it WOULD be frustrating to have to slow down and try to teach them the kata, but that doesn't happen. There are similar moves found in almost all the kata across many many many different martial arts. So the point is more to take this move, which is found in this kata from Goju and this kata from Shotokan and even this kata from TaeKwonDo and show what you can do with it.

      I hope that makes sense. I do get where you are coming from though.

  2. This is definitely a difficult subject. As a mudansha (non-black-belt rank) I don't want seminars to be closed off to black belts for the very reasons you have given, but as a more experienced martial artist (relative to white belts) I also don't want to be limited to going over basics at a seminar I have paid for. Several times, I have found myself helping people (from orange belts to black belts) with things I consider to be fairly basic, so obviously rank isn't a good indicator. Perhaps there should be some sort of filtering process done by instructors--they pick who should go to a given seminar based on the content being presented. It's definitely not a perfect method, but I don't know that there IS such a thing...

    1. I think that it is generally assumed that most people who attend these seminars have an interest in the martial arts and at least know the basics. This most recent seminar the white belt that was there had only been practicing a few weeks and I think that is pretty unusual for a seminar attendee. He worked in where he could and followed along where he could, but the whole seminar didn't slow down for him.

      The black belts gave him tips and pointers as we were all working together, but mostly people just took it easy on him and went with the flow. People tend to end up working in groups of three so that one person can watch and practice (visual and kinesthetic learning)what is being discussed, so I don't even think his presence affecting anyone getting or not getting practice time because they had to stop and help him. Everyone (at least in this region) seems to work pretty well together.

      I kind of like your idea about instructors picking students. Maybe they can recommend certain students go. I can honestly say I'm not 100% sure it's a good idea to go if you've only been studying a month or two, as you might get a little lost here and there, but at the same time I don't see how it can really hurt you either. Even if they just go and take notes, or go with an upper ranking student from the same school so they can practice more when they get back to their home dojo.

      It doesn't seem to me that Wilder or Abernethy mind having any lower ranking students there (heck we were all a white belt at one point or another, and both these guys run schools for a living, so they must like teaching all ranks if they're still doing it)and since they have not made any statements that these seminars are BlackBelt only, they probably don't mind. Of course this is only my guess and I certainly cannot speak for the men themselves, so who knows?

  3. So, perhaps a belt or kyu requirement isn't what these seminars need but a "martial age" requirement? It might not be a perfect fix, but perhaps asking that anyone with less than 1, 2, 5 years (etc) step off the mat during advanced tutorial would better suit the group better.