Black Belt Kids – Get Off Their Backs

By Jesse | 34 Comments

A while back I posted an image in a post, where a black belt kid (age 11) threatens an adult brown belt woman (age “none of your business”) with a sai. It was a picture I took during a Kobudo camp at our club, and there was nothing special about the picture, really.

Well, at least not for me.

However, one comment left in the comment section under the article said the following:

“A CHILD (wearing a junior black belt… ugh) using sai.”

I don’t know about you, but “ugh” is what I say when I’m disgusted. Apparently, some people don’t think kids should be wearing children’s black belts while swinging “sai forks” around.

It… disgusts them.

Well, it doesn’t disgust me.

And if it disgusts you, then you need to take a chill pill.

Because there are far more important things to care about in this world than if some unknown, random, kid is wearing a certain colored piece of textile around his jacket in a place you don’t care about in a country you’ve never been to.

You see, I don’t think anyone has any place in commenting on anyones belt, rank, age, club or style. At least not when it comes to kids, because they just do what they’re told. Contrary to popular belief, kids are not mini-sized adults.

Adults however… that’s another matter!

Soke-dokeys here, McDojo’s there… they amuse me. I have a good time thinking about them. I’m neither angry nor upset, I am happy. Joyous. Because these “grandmasters” make the rest of us look so much better!

Seriously, a quick google search for some nice “World Sokeship Council 10th dan” -pictures makes my day most of the time! Just switch it up and throw in some additional words like hanshi/traditional/shihan/kancho/kaicho/classical etc. and you have a lifetime’s worth of amusement right there!

But I do get slightly irritated.

Sometimes.

Irritated when people get upset about this whole belt/rank/degree issue, throwing around words like “respect” and “tradition” as if the world would go under in an apocalyptic thunderstorm of biblical proportions if you so much as even think about washing your Karate belt (“but, but… I thought its magical powers would go away if I washed it!”). No. It’s okay. Please wash your equipment.

And prime example of this peculiar phenomenon is black belt kids.

Karate Kids.

If there ever was a sharper chopstick in the eye of most Karate desktop warriors than children wearing black belts, then I don’t know what it is. More often than not, these self-proclaimed (and surprisingly often slightly overweight) grandmasters totally frown upon kids wearing black belts, because they “haven’t got the superior skill, understanding, wisdom, toughness and persistance” that are required for your average adult (normal) black belt holder to achieve this honorable rank.

Well…

Duuh.

Congrats, Sherlock. Nobody except you presumed they would.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m quite sure nobody believes a kid with a black belt is in any way equal to an adult with a black belt. At least not within the same dojo or organization. Like I’ve written numerous times before, this whole system (really, it’s not even a system, but more like an idea or notion) can’t even be used for comparison. Comparing belts and ranks is like when you were a kid comparing toys in the playground.

Seems like a good idea, until you grow up.

Yet, there are kids who show superb skills when it comes to a technical display of Karate. Not surprisingly, most of these live in Japan and Okinawa. And if you don’t believe me, go there yourself, and you will quickly notice that every other kid you see has a black belt around his/her waist. It’s nothing special. After all, “shodan” simply means “first level”. Before that, you are zero. A nothing.

Note that I use the word “display” instead of “understanding”, because in 9 times out of 10, this is what it’s all about. These black belt kids are masters of imitating forms and movements, copying these and showing them off like there’s no tomorrow!

So what’s wrong with that?

I’ve met hundreds of adult black belts who haven’t reached that stage of Karate.

Seriously.

So it’s quite frightening that somewhere along the way it became cool to denigrate kids who are skilled, train hard for several years, and finally get awarded a shiny black belt. Where is the sense in that? I mean, why do other people even care? And why do I care that other people care? Because I’m a Karate nerd, that’s why.

(Don’t act like you didn’t know…)

At the end of the day, what more people need to understand is that the amount of commitment these kids (along with their parents, family and trainers) put into Karate is nothing short of admirable.

And yo, it’s totally okay for you to be jealous, but the rest of us don’t need to know, okay?

It’s nobody’s business to tell black belt kids what they can or can’t be/do/have.

So I suggest we leave them alone for a while.

Let’s take a few steps back and look at these awesome kids, and go; “Hey, that’s cool! Imagine how fortunate I would have been if I could have started at such a young age! I hope he/she continues and perhaps one day becomes a true master, developing both internally and externally to be a fine addition to society!”

I think we should all be happy that a kid chooses to channel their energy into something positive.

And if that means they’ll have a “junior black belt” around their waist after years of training, then let’s try not to disrespect the amount of dedication, skill, money, time, commitment and talent lying behind that.

It’s so much more than just a “belt”.

Here’s an example:

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

34 Comments

  1. patrick

    January 31, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    i love that video clip, no i love that kid its a pleasure 2 see him train,I only hope that he keeps up the good work without pressure let him be a kid.

    • Alex Kirri

      February 1, 2011 at 3:49 am

      It’s about 30 years old if not older ;)

  2. Geoff

    February 1, 2011 at 5:45 am

    I think its great when kids put in the effort and committment to earn a black belt. We shouldn’t look down on kids with black belts simply because they’re kids.

    I think that the reason some people look down on kids is that they think the kids couldn’t defend themselves, but I think that could legitimately be said about adults who train for fitness and/or sport and/or the social aspects of a karate club because the training is different to that required for self protection. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone because we all train for different reasons and I am not disparaging anyone’s reason for training. As long as the black belt knows the reasons why they train and understands the limitations of their training, I don’t think it matters what their age is.

    Besides, IMHO a ranking is just an indication of how far along you’re journey you are.

  3. Julia

    February 1, 2011 at 6:39 am

    I am myself a junior black belt, so when I read the first three words, ” Black Belt Kids” I prepared myself for an onslaught of abuse heaped at kids like me. I am thirteen years old, and the youngest person in my dojo (and no, its not a McDojo) to ever get a black belt, and I’ve had my fair share of naysayers. Thankfully, most of them have either decided that I was good enough to train with, or that my age isn’t an issue after all.

    I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw that you were endorsing kids participating in the martial arts. It doesn’t matter how old you are if you have the skill level, both physical and mental. Besides, shodan, as you said, is just the beginning. It’s like starting over at white belt all over again. Thank you for this post, it has definitely put me in a good mood!

    • mel

      August 2, 2012 at 10:14 am

      it would be impossible for me to get an black belt on/before my thirteenth. I always wanted to take karate classes, but the only dojo in my village (and the surrounding ones) only can be joined if you are thirteen or older. sorry for de bad english I am dutch :)

  4. Te'o

    February 1, 2011 at 7:25 am

    The issue of kids and belt ranks is definitely an idea that has to do with perspective. In our school for example, the kids can attain a “junior” rank until their 18th birthday and then they can test for an adult level. With that said…all martial arts systems deal with the issue of kids and the particular art. If you want to see a couple of extraordinary kids that train in MMA, please go to tapout.com and watch the video of the Ruffo brothers. Make sure you pick your jaw off the floor when you realize they are like 6 and 8 years old. All I can say is that for a child, they need the perspective of a good teacher that will steer them in the right direction with humility and wisdom. Hope you enjoy the video.

  5. Theodore Kruczek

    February 1, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Interesting point. Having received my black belt as a kid, I think it is important that people train their younger students well, rather than complain someone else didn’t -- in their opinion.

    I loved the point about washing the belt -- one of the most absurd legends to ever come about.

  6. Rob

    February 1, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Just did a google image search for “World Sokeship Council 10th dan”. Thanks for that, made my day ;-)

    Just browsing this page now:
    http://roldoselfdefence.blogspot.com/2010_09_01_archive.html

    • Jesse

      February 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm

      Priceless! If my IQ level was even half that of the combined number of dan levels that guy has, then even Einstein would have become jealous!

      • Szilard

        February 1, 2011 at 6:12 pm

        Nah, he just has 120 dan. But his sidekick, he is really something, the dude with the sword, he has a total of 227 dans.

  7. Lecé

    February 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    The boy in the video trains like the wolverine, but when he talks he´s so cute, ja ja, very cool. The video is from the 80´s, so he must be older than me. Cool post, Jesse, as always. People like to give their belts too much meaning, way toooo much…

  8. Szilard

    February 1, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Oh blast… I wasn’t supposed to wash my black belt? I guess it is too late now.

    • Sayo

      February 3, 2011 at 2:11 am

      Deepending on the color, never wash it with your gi ;)

  9. Szilard

    February 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Maybe this question about kids and belt colors is a bit deeper. There are regulations after all about age and dan level. At JKF for 1st kyu the candidate has to be at least 15 years old, for 6th dan 38. In my stile it is a bit different, I think there is no age limit for junior black belts. As far as I understand, kids have only 1 black belt rank, and after they are 18 they can test for 2nd dan in the adult system. The age limitations come in at 5th dan only which can not be awarded before the age of 36th year. Not that it ever bothered me, I started training in this style around my 40th birthday… I could test tomorrow up to the 7th dan without hitting the age limit.

  10. Dojorat

    February 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Rank and skill is something that is very personal and usually understood only by the individual and the sensei. A long time ago before belts, all a student would get in recognition for improvement in skill was a word of approval. People these days, especially youths and kids NEED a tangible sign of achievement. McDojos in all their greediness are making oodles of cash exploiting this. That is why when people see a blackbelt tied to a person in his early teens or younger automatically think that kid did not earn it or truly deserve it. Any serious karateka training for the sake of skill has made this assumption at least once. Any dojo with a good sensei and programme makes clearly distinguishes between child/youth skills and belt requirements and that of adults but it is impossible to see that without knowing the black belt kid`s sensei and style/school. Which is why the assumption black belt kid=Poor kid must be a McDojo victim

  11. Fleur Hindt

    February 3, 2011 at 4:20 am

    At my school, my Sensei will not grant a blackbelt until around the age of 18years, the youngest ever was 16. Even if that kid has been training since he was 6. He doesn’t do the junior black belt thing. I kinder feel a little sorry for these young colts, but man I respect them. Some of them have been wearing their brown belts now for like 8 years! But you know what’s really cool -- they just keep coming, week after week after week. Cos at our school there is no big emphesis on your belt -- it’s just about the training and the learning and the fun along the way. Our Sensei is not focussed on collecting money, he just wants to teach anyone who wants to learn, and that’s why these kids just keep turning up. It’s pretty cool really. As for why our Sensei does this, I think it is just a personal thing of his -- he simply wont give a black belt to anyone he doesn’t think could defend themselves on the street. And he just doesn’t believe no matter how skilled a young kid is that they could defend themselves against a big violent thug. It’s just his personal thing -- it’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just his thing. If your belt focussed and you don’t want to wait I suppose you just go to another club, but interestingly enough -- noone does. And I think it is because we are trained to focus on the training -- period.

    • Dojorat

      February 3, 2011 at 6:35 pm

      The kind of sensei you referred to is exactly what I was thinking about. In my experience, a good sensei will promote a student for improvement in technical skills and the level of understanding of said skills. Some will wait until the student has developed the power and ability to apply the techniques. That is what usually distinguishes `junior` levels from regular ones. I have seen many black belt youths and kids with amazing techniques but I would bet money that none of them would match a more mature student at the equivalent level. No matter how skilled a 10 year old black belt is you will have a very hard time convincing anybody that he can match an 18 year old with the same skill level. In Okinawa where I train, young kids are often promoted up to shodan but only if and when the sensei decides and TELLS them to take the exam. After that, it does not matter if you are 12 or 80. If the sensei does not believe you have the appropriate skill AND power to match you cannot test. And that is after the minimum evaluation period has passed. That is why I am still at nidan after over 3 years and have not been told yet that I am ready to take a stab at sandan

      • Cinzia

        January 5, 2013 at 2:34 pm

        I agree with you guys. I suppose the disgust comes when you see a very young kid totally confused while trying to perform unsu, which is probably too elaborate for him since he misses all the heian kata, wearing a black belt. I swear I was sorry for that lil kid when our lil yellow belt got 5 flags with heian shodan against him ( it was a just-for-fun competition )The poor boy was a product of what a mcDojo seriously is. Belts are to keep up your pants, like Master Miyagi once told to Daniel San. But some things are so bad they are not even funny anymore.

  12. karate gear

    February 3, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Sorry to provide a link but this post of yours reminded me of another awesome video I saw the other day. I did some digging and here it is:
    http://www.martialartbook.com/2011/do-you-want-to-see-the-real-karate-kid/

    These kids use every ounce of energy to take it to the next level. I just hope it is really what they want to be doing!

  13. jamonco

    February 4, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Jesse Sensei,

    You MUST check this out!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvF21QLEid0

    • Jesse

      February 5, 2011 at 1:37 am

      That’s EXACTLY what I’ve been trying to say! AWESOME video!

  14. andrey from tampa bay ..

    February 5, 2011 at 7:58 am

    it is very good subject.

    please tell me if i am wrong

    but on this video

    this kids top is fold on the left hand side?

    instead of right.???

    there is a nice story when your dogi

    ends on the left handside.??

    may be you should elaborate

    on this subject,

    dear jesse san.

    andrey from tampa bay.

    • Cinzia

      January 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      Hey you got me curious, what’s the story?

  15. andrei dima

    February 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Good subject.

    This is only my opinion.For children training like play .
    With belts or not , depends on teacher.
    A friend of mine teach Karate to children , it is ok.

    No Martial Karate under aprox.18 years old , depends on each psihology and determination.For black belt ( colour not important , real level of experience is important )minimum 11 years of intense training with serious kumite .
    And minimum one Kobudo weapon mastering.That means much.

    Agree with the ideea that children are not miniadults, so belts for kids are belts for kids.

    Best regards , Andrei

  16. Te'o

    February 8, 2011 at 8:29 am

    After looking at the World Sokeship Council photos I think that I would like to be a part of this group. Let’s see…I have an advanced degree in education from a real university and I’m a teacher -- I’ll take the title of Professor. My black belt has quite a bit of white showing and has cool red Kanji writing on it -- I could probably order a cool red one with writing on it though. My white gi is nice but I need a flashier one, you know, with lots of patches and stuff and a cool color. Oh yeah…my own style, yes -- Te’o Ken Do Ganga Ryu. World Sokeship Council, please look for my application in the mail. Here I come! Jesse, gracias for da giggles.

  17. Sean

    April 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I agree with this article. having me many young black belts myself. and i think so often about how i’d be being able to start at five. Truth be told i probably wouldn’t have got this far. then I see, I’m still young, and lucky. Going for Shodan in july this year. At the tender young age on 21.

  18. Wilton Machak

    June 25, 2011 at 10:48 am

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  19. Gerry

    November 1, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    No doubt children have the ability to be technically advanced in all sorts of physical activities given the time and training (think of young gymnists for example). My question is what did the “black belt” mean when it was first introduced nearly a century ago compared to what it means today?

  20. The Strongest Karate

    August 24, 2012 at 12:25 am

    I take a somewhat softer stance when it comes to child black belts. And I should first say that I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with the whole colored-belt concept.

    Anyhow, if a kid works his ass off and earns it, then I am generally more okay with him earning a black belt (but preferably staying at 1st kyu until in his teens). The problem is that this hard working kid with a black belt is completely indistinguishable from the one who got his for his birthday! (Actually, this is a problem with GROWN UP black belts too -- again, my love-hate relationship with belts).

    I place a certain amount of significance with what the black belt has come to mean which I imagine is pretty common (meaning that its not magical, just important) and for me, it would be very much an exception to award shodan to anyone under 16. Of course, I’m only 6th kyu today, so maybe I’ll feel differently once I get there myself.

  21. karatemom

    October 14, 2012 at 6:08 am

    As the mother of two jr. shodans, I thought this was a great article. But I have to ask, what the hell is a McDojo???

    • Jesse

      October 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm

      Karatemom: Have you heard the term ‘McJob’? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McJob). Well, a McDojo is the Karate version ;)

      • karatemom

        October 14, 2012 at 7:42 pm

        Ah, sorry, I guess I’m a little slow on the uptake late at night. But in my defense, there aren’t alot of dojos where I live. I live in the suburbs, but our Sensei’s Sensei is Kiyohide Shinjo and we’re lucky enough to train with him occasionally and the sempais from his dojo visit on a regular basis. I guess I thought all dojos operated like that…. :)

  22. Jack M

    March 31, 2013 at 2:35 am

    I will hopefully get my black belt around 16/17 years old. (14 year old 2nd kyu, Goju Ryu for 6/7 years). It kinda aggravates me that people can get a black belt in 3 years, regardless of age. respect to him for it but he can’t be training everyday, he’s probably going to school as well so I can’t understand how you can get a shodan in 3 years. But yeah, I see no problem with children having black belts as long as they are at the same level of understanding as adults of that rank. Jesse San, if black belts are just repeating moves, then I don’t think they really deserve it.

  23. isshin

    October 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    The issue here is that we are all too willing to take on these Junior Students (and take the money from the Parents), enforce that they have to be at class for a minimum of two classes per week, enter tournaments (to promote our schools) yet when it comes to the crunch, we don’t want to let them grade to Balck Belt??? Guys, don’t be fooled to think that because your student ‘wins’ at a tournament, that they are true Black Belts? What do we do, make the Student ‘hang around’ class for another few years until we deem them old enough to test??? Remember, just a few decades ago we never taught kids Martial Arts! Times change and so should our way of thinking!

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