Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Five-Year Old Awarded First Degree Black Belt

No, I am not kidding. Neither, apparently, are they. Read about the story here. I am not sure why this stuff always seems to happen in the USA, but here we are again in the Midwest.

I have no intention to belittle the achievements of a 5 year old girl.
There is a deep discussion we can have about the idea that "nobody gets left behind" and the use of praise and reward in helping children achieve excellence, but that is not the subject of this post.

I also will never shy away from welcoming another lifelong martial arts devotee to the fold. We need as many new evangelists as we can get. Everybody, from McDonald's to the Catholic Church to radical Islamic extremists knows it is best to target children to achieve what IBM called "lifecycle marketing".

However, call me old school (please call me "old school", I LOVE IT), but I think there must be more to becoming a black belt than the memorization/execution of 15 kata.

I have been through this process three times, earning black belts in ninjitsu, iaijitsu/kenjitsu, and most recently, Yoshinkan aikido. In every case, I was measured in the following ways.

1) Technique
remembering techniques and their names is a given. However, techniques must have balance, timing, speed, power, intensity, focus, and the extra special something, metsuke, what Japanese call "eye focus". It is the look of combat intensity which we see in every fighting animal. Anyone who saw Morgane test for black shirt will know exactly what I mean. I am skeptical any five year old can truly have this. Martial Arts are martial for a reason, and I don't think any five year old, no matter how accomplished, can deliver in combat. This is not a ballet class.

2) Maturity
Martial Arts is a victory over the self. This is what takes us to our next evolutionary state and gives us the self-control and discipline we need to become mature - to suppress our doubts, fears, and wants and enable our love, compassion, and selflessness to emerge. I am sorry, but I do not think this growth is possible for a five year old.

3) Leadership
Achieving a black belt is a symbol of leadership. It shows an emerging presence as a leader and mentor in the school and positions the holder as a person who should provide guidance to other students as they also progress. Despite technical excellence, it is hard for a five year old to garner the respect needed to lead others, especially adults. As an example, Maxime drew some reluctant looks at 16 when he tested for his black shirt. It was his extraordinary maturity, high technical skill, and natural leadership which won him the respect he needed to teach.

In most schools, 16 is the absolute minimum for a black belt. I think it should be 18 with only a rare exception for a truly incredible talent. Five years old simply lowers the bar too far.

Disagree? let me know what you think.

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