I’ll never forget the feeling of swapping my White Belt for a darker colour. My first Karate Grading was very formal. One of the senior instructors came to the club for a week day session, which he took. The grading followed the main session, where we took it in turns, starting with the most junior, to demonstrate basic combinations, pre-set sparring, and finished with kata. I would liken the experience to having a sack full of sand poured down my throat followed by exhausted elation at climbing the ladder.

 

My first Judo Grading was a different format. It came in two sections, theory and practical. For the theory, I had to demonstrate throws, ground holds, arm locks and strangles to an examiner. The techniques were divided into a syllabus for each grade. In order to reach each grade, the theory up to that level had to be demonstrated and certified. The practical test was similar to competition. Every entrant got three or so bouts, and entrants were assessed according to how well they performed, obviously taking in to account the number of wins. In my first grading, I lost every bout, but, as a junior at the time, was allowed to attach three red bands to the end of my White Belt.

 

I have never been able to come close to describing the feeling of achieving Black Belt status. Clearly it is not the mythical badge of the elite that was perceived, but the closest I can get to describing the feeling is passing your driving test a thousand times or more in one day. I’m not devaluing it, it is a significant step along the way, but then, you move to another ladder, and struggle on upwards once more.

 

In Eastern countries, such as Japan for example, there are no colour belts. There is white, and there is black. The word ‘Dan’ simply translates as ‘Degree’. A Karateka gets his or her black belt on achieving a ‘Degree’ in Karate. Prior to that system, the instructor wore a Black Belt to differentiate from the students who all wore White Belts to hold their gi jackets closed.

 

Coloured Belts in Martial Arts, and some Combat Sports, were a Western addition. It could be argued that this is how, we in The West, gauge our progress. A more cynical argument would be that it is a way for clubs, instructors and governing bodies to make more money out of students.

 

When I made the transition from Karate to Western Kickboxing, I was initially reluctant to start climbing the ladder again, but my instructor persuaded me to skip a few grades and go for one that he thought was my level, already having years of experience behind me, but also having to adapt. I don’t know why this accelerated my improvement, but I suspect it may have been that as a higher grade, I was paired with the higher grades and therefore tested more and more. It felt just as good to reach Black Belt level in Kickboxing.

 

I have since trained with many other Kickboxing clubs, some of which recognised my grade and allowed me to wear my belt, but at others the instructor requested that I remove it if I were going to train with them. I always went with what the instructor wanted because the most important thing was to be allowed to train. I did not suddenly become inferior because I was not wearing a belt.

 

When I started training in Muay Thai, I found the fact that we don’t wear belts refreshing, liberating even. I’m not saying that there is not a ranking system in Muay Thai, but in my club we don’t even have a club uniform. In a class there is a mixture of T shirts, training vests and long sleeved rash guard tops, as well as Muay Thai, Boxing and MMA shorts. You can only tell the advanced students from their ability, and everybody pairs with everybody as a matter of course. Some people progress faster than others, but nobody worries about who holds what grade.

 

I don’t know if it is because I have been through many gradings, and my inner ego is satisfied, or if I am tired of the stress of gradings, but one of the things that I am enjoying about Muay Thai is this non uniformity. I like to believe that I haven’t stopped improving, so the question is; are gradings necessary? Do we need to have colour belts as interim badges of rank, merit or progress, or can our performance speak for itself?

 

It may seem like an ‘opt out’ conclusion, but I think that, although gradings and a structured belt or rank system are not necessary, they are not a hindrance either. What they do is give you a benchmark to define your own progress. The Black Belt is not the end of the journey either, as there are then Dan Grades to achieve, but in Boxing, for example, this is not an issue. You don’t have to grade to improve or progress, but if it leads to personal achievement, why resist doing so? A colour belt, or other depiction of grade, is something to feel personally proud of at every stage, and if it makes you hungry for more, that can only be a good thing. Really, if you enjoy your art, you will remain hungry regardless, but what it essentially boils down to is a balance between doing as ‘The Romans do’, and personal choice. However, it is hard to stand at one end of the line while those around you are moving up, if that is the way your club and its governing body operate.