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      Yesterday I read an essay on another blog and thought that the author, Aric A. Gibson, a practitioner of Cooper Ryu Vee Jitsu, was really on to something.  He entitled his essay, "Martial Arts: Myths and etiquette.  He wrote in part:

>The Black Belt
>    There is a certain amount of mysticism in the black belt.  The general public assigns the >symbolism of a black belt to mean “expert.”  I think most martial artists would agree, however, that this >just is not the case.  Some students beginning martial arts practice look at the attainment of the rank >of shodan as the end of a journey.  Quite contrary, earning the rank of shodan, or 1st degree black >belt, is the beginning of the journey.  Be earning this rank, it has been recognized that you are >competent enough in the basics of your art to begin “real” learning.  The analogy of mudansha rank >being like undergraduate studies in college and yudansha rank as graduate studies was offered by a >sensei many years ago and has stuck with me.  To quote author and budo man Dave Lowry, “In other >words, the black belt is a sign that you have walked through the door and little else.  You are not an >expert.  Not a teacher.  You are not even someone who can adequately represent the art.  The belt >means you have stuck it out long enough to warrant some serious consideration as a student, >period.”  Keeping that idea in mind lends to the virtue of humility that has come to be associated with >traditional martial arts.
       I’m interested in knowing what others associated with this blog are thinking in regard to the ideas that Mr. Gibson has written?   Since I have not been part of a traditional martial arts system I can’t comment authoritatively on the idea that Shodans / 1st degree black belts are not teachers.   My own impression is that Mr. Gibson and Mr. Lowry are correct based on my own observations of various people who have earned black belts in a number of martial arts systems.  In fact I would suggest that the problem is not confined to just traditional martial arts systems. During my 30 years of training in Modern Arnis I have known only one teacher who opted to teach his students how to teach while they were still underbelts – my own teacher, Sifu Don Zanghi.  It appears to me that most martial arts students regardless of system or style they are learning are not given any sort of formal, organized instruction in the art of teaching.  Those students who do go on to open their own schools merely mimic the lessons as taught by their instructors.  These people are engaged in ‘on the job training’ within their own schools. 
       When I was studying Kenpo-Arnis under Sifu Don Zanghi, I was assigned the task of “showing” new or younger students various aspects of the basics on a one to one basis from orange belt through green belt.  These were the 2nd and 3rd belt colors in the Kenpo-Arnis System.  The term “show” was used by Sifu Zanghi when made the assignment.  I should also point out that I was already an experienced professional teacher when I joined his school, “Fight Back Institute”, so taking on a coaching assignment as soon as I finished my white belt wasn’t too difficult.  On the other hand, that early coaching experience reinforced my understanding of the basics and sharpened my skills as a teacher in both the martial arts as well as sociology.  In turn I’ve used Sifu Zanghi’s  method with my own Kenpo-Arnis students. Having the students coaching one on one, two on one and still later four on one, the coaches learn the basics in depth themselves as they learn through guided experience how to teach.
       Mr. Gibson’s essay is very interesting to me and I hope that everyone will share their ideas and experiences with regard to teaching with us.
Jerome Barber, Ed. D.

Views: 410

Comment by terry joven on October 31, 2012 at 5:24pm

I really like..."You are not an >expert.  Not a teacher.  You are not even someone who can adequately represent the art.  The belt >means you have stuck it out long enough to warrant some serious consideration as a student, >period.”  I think to many of "us" graduate/promoted, given a title etc and they feel there is nothin more to learn. I think that we are always students. We can learn something new from a lot of different source. One of my instructors Dexter Labonog from his bio on our website "He considers himself a lifetime student, a coach and a instructor." I have spoken to Dentoy Revillar many times and he refuses to be called Master... he says he does not know everything so why would you call me master?

Although i am very proud of my past training... i feel i can handle myself in a lot of situations..I  am still a student and i have a lot to learn.

I also feel there are too many Martial artist out there with titles & certificates that hide behind them but i digress...

great blog sir!

and like always this is just my opinion!I

Comment by Guro Lawrence Motta on October 31, 2012 at 6:04pm

Dr. Barber,

I agree with Terry.  Graduating just confirmed how little I knew.  It takes all the basic training to bring you to a state of preparation for learning.  Learning the fundamentals is as much subtractive as additive.  It also has no meaning at all when it comes to teaching.  The only thing I would add is that being a life long student does not always mean that you are continually studying more and more styles.  It can also mean that you go deeper and deeper into your own art as deeper study reveals the true bredth of your style.  Many so called Masters fail to do this - content with their current knowledge and too frightened to question it's validity - and their arts deteriorate into a weak facsimile of what they were.

Thanks for the post.


Comment by Joel Huncar on November 1, 2012 at 10:13pm

I started teaching as soon as my Guro gave me the OK.....and I found out how little I knew....15 plus years later I am still being reminded how little I know.   A black belt is the start of the journey...not the destination. 

Comment by Justin Cataldi on November 2, 2012 at 9:04am

All of you Guros are so right, ranking systems as we know it didnt exist until america needed a way to market the arts.Before that they just trained indefinitely

Comment by Kalijas1 on November 2, 2012 at 9:42am

There are a lot of good points raised here. I have studied martial arts (off-and-on) for 20 years now. And I have only recently earned my first black-belt. And it seems the more I train, the more I change my mind about what I thought I knew. For me this re-enforces the idea that black-belt is the beginning of training not the end.

  As far as being an instructor goes, I was lucky because my first instructor believed that students who wished to later become instructors needed training, not just in the arts, but also in how to teach. I learned as much from showing other students the basics (if not more) as I did from my own training. And my prior training as a martial arts instructor helped me through the leadership roles that I eventually attained in the ARMY. I feel that my military leadership training has been invaluable to me as an instructor as well.

  I hold "middle" ranks in 3 different systems and a black-belt in FMA. And now I have decided that what I want to do is (for lack of a better term) start over. Knowing what I know now I have decided to go back and start with the white belt curriculum and go back through the system.  I feel that this will give me a better understanding of the martial arts. I have also recently begun studying Aiki-Jujitsu. While do I think that cross training in other systems is a good practice I also agree with Dr. Barber that once you get to black belt or, as we have established here, get a good grasp on the basics you should delve deeper into your own system.

  While I view the study of martial arts as a lifelong endeavor there are many who view black-belt as the end of the journey. I think this is more common in traditional systems. I also suspect that it stems from the aforementioned mysticism attached to the rank of black-belt. Of course this is only my opinion, and I could be way off. 

Comment by Jerome Barber, Ed.D. on November 2, 2012 at 7:01pm

Hello to All,

 I want to thank everyone for their comments and ideas.  It is really a pleasure sharing ideas and information with this group of FMA Students-Instructors-Players; unlike another forum that I once participated in, "" is really a medium of thoughtful exchanges.  I truly appreciate being part of this group of people whom I consider as peers and brothers in the art.

One of my ideas about teaching in the martial arts, regardless of system and style is that all too often students ARE NOT taught how to teach or given the opportunity to practice teaching under direct and/or indirect supervision.  Therefore, when most people first step out on the training floor they are often overwhelmed by the task before them.  It is no wonder that people feel that they are really beginners after receiving their first black belt.  This is to be expected given their very real lack of instructional training within the dojo. 

We should take the time to consider the fact that all of the teacher preparation programs taught at American colleges and universities have a student teaching component built into their college program.  The education major must actually teach in a classroom under the supervision of certified professional classroom teachers who acts as a mentor and evaluates the work of the student teacher for the college department.  I doubt that there is anyone who was educated in American elementary and secondary schools that didn't have a student teacher at least once between kindergarten and 12th grade.  Yet how many martial arts students get the opportunity to actually assume some instructional responsibilities during their underbelt studies?

I mentioned my experiences under Sifu Don Zanghi in order to make my point that learning to instruct within the arts of Kenpo and Arnis was unusual 'back in the day' and most likely is still unlikely to occur in current times.  Sifu Zanghi's coaching-instruction format made me a better student throughout my underbelt years and prepared me for the responsibilities of instruction when I went out on my own after he left Buffalo a year after I earned my 1st degree black belt from him.

I'm not going to tell you that I was totally prepared and superbly qualified as an instructor after leaving Sifu Zanghi, or that I was not the least bit apprehensive about what I knew in terms of Kenpo and Arnis.  Quite contrary, I knew that I didn't know enough about these arts.  My solution was 'quite novel'... I found another Kenpo instructor and continued to train at both seminars and camps with Professor Remy Presas... in other words I continued to be a student!  Thirty years later I am still a student!  My rank, earned certifications and honors are part of my background, but I am still a student working under other instructors in Kenpo, Arnis and any other areas whenever I can find a teacher whose skills intrigue me enough to work with them.  I absolutely refuse to allow my rank/titles/honors interfere with my continuing education in the martial arts.

One of the most important things that I've learned over the years is that Professor Remy Presas was absolutely correct about 2 things - first - "It is all the same."  No matter what the art, system or style, basically the same principles of movement, leverage, torque and balance apply.  The entries and exits might differ but the middle part of the techniques are essentially the same.  Second - you have to "Make the art for yourself."  You have to 'tailor' the art to fit your personality and body.  In addition you will alter parts of the art to better match your age, strength and newer knowledge.  There really isn't a singular traditional system, devoid of growth and maturity!  Anyone trying to sell that product is a fraud and a person of limited skills, seeking followers who will massage their fragile ego.  BTW, I strongly recommend that all martial arts instructors read "Martial Arts in America: by Guru Bob Orlando (Paladin Press).  His treatise shaves all the glossy stuff off the martial arts business and gets things down to the here and now realities of the world.  You will be able to put names on the personality types that he describes, not because they are nationally/internationally known personalities, but because we all have met these people on Main Street in our own cities, towns and villages.  We know their names because we know them as people and martial artists.

Teaching is an art!  It requires practice, thought and re-evaluations if we are going to do it right!

Teaching is not an idle, mindless activity; teaching is a dynamic enterprise that does not always result in immediate positive feedback.  There are multitudes of people who believe that anyone can teach, but these very same people have never stepped up, put their bodies and minds on the line and gave teaching a serious, sustained attempt!  Teaching ain't easy!  In fact most of the detractors have never even tried coaching – simply helping someone else improve their own physical skills development!

Teachers improve the mental and physical development of their students.  Teachers prepare people for the future in both the field being taught and other aspects of the student's future lives that are not readily known or easily foreseen.  Without teachers, who prepares us for the future with both foundational skills and flexibility for the future?

As instructors and teachers, we should consider how we are preparing our students for a future as instructors and teachers!  That's my position and I'm sticking to it!


Jerome Barber, Ed. D.

Comment by Joel Huncar on November 3, 2012 at 12:35am

Well said Mr Barber. 

Comment by Jerome Barber, Ed.D. on November 5, 2012 at 11:27am

Thanks, Joel.  I believe that in general terms most martial artists are not prepared to teach and after years of training they arrive at the first black belt level and nothing "magical" happens to/for them.  Of course that emotionally deflates the egos of some people and raises a challenge that so others willingly accept, so they press ahead with more training. 

This whole 'lack of something magical' idea was part of a converstaion I had this morning with a former student who is teaching a small garage program for adults in Virginia on the weekends.  One of his students successfully tested recently for his black belt and after a couple of weeks came back to class a bit disappointed.  He told my friend "Nothing happened, there's no change in me!  Why?" 

The allure of getting the blackbelt is far greater than the reality of being a 1st degree black belt.

I believe when students have some coaching experiences as underbelts, they are less likely to experience that 'magical let-down'.  They already understand that they have to dig deeper into their lessons, pull apart techniques, finding the small details and reassemble the techniques in order to coach well.  These folks fully understand over time that the "magic", if there is any, comes from within themselves, not from earning or wearing the black belt.  They also understand that real knowledge comes through practice, practice and more practice in conjunction with strong understanding of motion, mechanics and leverages within the various techniques.  These folks seem to know that they have to make the art fit their own bodies and mind-sets.





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