Can’t get black belt no matter how hard they try?

Several instructors have posed versions of this question lately: What if you have a child in class who is dedicated and tries hard — but is simply too uncoordinated to perform the required material up to par? Is there a point at which you stop promoting this student through the ranks, in spite of his or her best effort? If so, is there a “magic rank” where this happens? –They might get green belt, but not brown belt; or, brown belt but not junior black belt.

I think we’ve all had students at one time or another who’ve caused us to ask these questions. Other factors usually come into play, like the age of the students in question, the reasons for their physical difficulty, and the expectations for future change as they grow and mature.

Instructors: Tell us about your experience. What have you learned about working with less athletically gifted students? What decisions have you made at test time? What advice would you give an instructor who is dealing with the issue for the first time? And, bottom line, can this student get his or her black belt?

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7 Comments on “Can’t get black belt no matter how hard they try?”

  1. Chris Baglieri Says:

    Yes. I have had (and do have) several such students.

    Some guiding principles that I have used:

    One key is to not put off the issue until later ranks. I try to identify these students in the intermediate ranks, and routinely allow students to earn partial rank (stripe instead of belt) for Purple and Blue Belt.

    I often invite one of my assistants–a senior student–to participate in the process of these decisions, noting the students strengths and weaknesses and helping decide if they should be promoted to the next color.

    Part of being an assistant, or “Sempai”, is the need to learn to objectively evaluate others. This has the added benefit of creating a “mentor” for a struggling student, one who often has a stake in helping them succeed.

    If the student’s failure to meet objective criteria (rank requirements) is not something that they can change. (E.g.-due to a handicap) then I rethink the requirement, and often substitute something else.

    If their attitude is holding them back–as when students refuse to understand that karate is supposed to be difficult, and requires sustained effort–we make their test about attitude. This is where the “mentor” comes in handy! I sometimes promote this student when attitude improves, knowing that technique will follow.

    This logic works up until brown belt, when I make sure that they know that their technique needs to be at least good enough to use as an example to teach others. Attitude will only go so far. I try to set obtainable goals for these students for each test that are separate from rank requirements.

    For example – I often encourage students who are repeatedly unready for Brown Belt to log their outside practice and to report early for class and participate in intermediate classes. If they decide not to do these things, I make their test about that.

    If their problem is age/maturity, I generally give half credit. “I know you’re still young, and telling left from right is a challenge, but you will need to try at least twice as hard if you want a break on the final result.”

    When all else fails, I let every one of my student know from very early ranks (Orange Belt, usually) that I am perfectly comfortable promoting students within their rank (2nd degree Purple, 5th degree Purple!!)to acknowledge continued effort or incremental improvements, but without advancing them to the next rank.

    I also let them know that I will gladly teach them -forever- as long as they continue to be dedicated to improvement. I use senior students as an example, and ask each how long they have studied. The amount of time varies widely, and is always longer than the student who is struggling. The message is clear – Keep struggling and advancement does come, just never at the pace you would like.

    I created a rank called “Black-Belt Candidate” for senior brown-belts. At this point, they are given the option of declining any further “degrees” or stripes until we both feel that they are ready to test. I tell then from the moment that they are designated a candidate that “every day is now test day.”

    In the years, I’ve “lost” a couple of brown-belts, but never a candidate, even when they hold this rank for over a year. And when they do test, nobody in the dojo ever doubts (especially not the candidate)that they earned their belt, regardless of the level of their technical proficiency.

    I think that the key is to teach the student, not the rank. Rank is something they are attached to, so we need to separate it, not only in words but in actions. Then if advancement in rank stops a student, they are not stopped, they have a connection to the -process- of improvement, not the product.

  2. Chris Baglieri Says:

    I apologize for my long answer…You got me thinking.

    Here’s a much shorter one that occurred as soon as I clicked “Submit”.

    I am training to run the New Jersey Marathon (my first) in 10 weeks. Everyone in that race falls into the following categories.

    1 – Those who don’t know if they can do it.

    2 – Those who believe that they can’t. (quitting)

    3 – Those who know that they can, and are striving to do better/stronger/faster than others/last time.

    4 – People who know that somehow they will succeed, even if they have to walk, or crawl–which means even if they have to redefine what “succeed” means.

    I spend all my time around rank testing moving kids from category one to categories three and four.

    I am in category four, and always have been!

  3. redwoodojo Says:

    Chris, thanks for your Very Thorough answer 🙂 ! Anyone else have some Brief thoughts? 😉

    I always stress, and sometimes I have to remind myself, that it’s kids we’re dealing with and they have a long time and a lot of physical changes ahead of them where training is concerned. Our children’s ranks differ from adult for that reason; kids take many small steps. And within the steps, there are ‘A’ students through, let’s say, ‘C’ students passing tests. If you have a ‘D’ student, you find what they’re good at and use it to build them into a ‘C’ student. Sometimes you do have to modify your requirements for passing the test. A truly dedicated, committed student who persists and doesn’t give up is a rare thing indeed; if they happen to be clumsy, well, that’s a difficulty, but they shouldn’t be discounted as a martial artist because of it, if they have those other qualities and they keep trying to improve.
    Truthfully, most problems of this kind are solved by attrition.

    • Chris Baglieri Says:

      🙂 O.K. – I did go on a bit. I guess it’s rare to get to discuss this stuff in depth. Thanks for keeping the dialogue open!!


    • The phrase “find what they are good at” resonates with me. I had a friend of mine who is a prominent new york city school staff developer audit my kids class so that I could get some good tips from her on how to improve the class and my teaching techniques. “Find what they are good at” was her main theme throughout her staff development programs for public school systems. She said that children need to get tons of positive reinforcement (thumbs up go a long way in class and are a great non-verbal que) and repeating what a child did right next time in class to remind them. Even if it is as drastic as a kid sitting out and not participating. If he approaches the mat to participate and line up, she says, immediately acknowledge “wow, that was great how you came and lined up so quickly” and give a thumbs up. She says that too many teachers (speaking of the public school systems in NY) focus on “Johnny cant do X,Y and Z and he is in 3rd grade and how can he move on to 4th grade” – sounds like the same scenario we are talking about here for karate. She tells them “Well what CAN Johnny do?” Focus on what he can do and build from there, not what he cant do – and you will start to see improvements.

  4. Ricki Kay Says:

    [updated/corrected 3-2 at 10:45 pm]

    I teach over 300 students each week. I notice that the instructor from Redwood dojo makes some very vital points. There are and always will be “A” students, “B”, “C” and even “D” students, in all sports and endeavors. The A’s go on to become black belts, leaders, instructors even. The B’s , C’s and D’s still enjoy the martial arts but in ddifferent ways. And, i beleive that natural attrition will take care of those who just may not belong in the martial arts. But, what do you do with those who stay in your dojo?

    The rules for promotion in our dojo are the following:

    You must have minimum number of days in attendance, you must know your techniques,(this includes you must be able to execute your techniques according to a certain standard) and you must have the right attitude. So,what to do with the individual who performs at a “C” or “D” level? If it assessed that they have low muscle tone and coordination than you might have them wait additional time and work on that aspect. if they come to sufficient classes and then some, then perhaps waiting will not do any good. In that instance i have found that as they progress they get better at showing the techniques for the rank prior to their promotion. so, they will actually be one rank behind in their performance ability, but mentally be able to do the rank of their belt. We currently have one student who is extremely overweight. He has been training for almost 2 years. He can do all of the requirements for his rank,including katas, kicks, self defense etc. He cannot, however do regular pushups. His kicks and stances fluctuate between a “B-” to a “D” performance. We recently made a private agreement with him regarding his pushups and “fudged” the requirements so he could pass his upcoming test. His heart is in the right place. He never poses any problem in classes. He is always in a good mood and works quite well with his peers. So, from a martial arts point of view what doesn’t he have? he shows perseverance, dedication, attends classes very regularly, is quite humble, but lacks strength. Some day he might make an excellent instructor to those who also struggle with their own body types. We have passed students at a Brown belt level who were “D” students, performing with little focus and strength, but much determination to complete their test. Some pick up from there, some naturally quit. It is not for us as instructors to set requirements so high or to judge too quickly that we eliminate students from enjoying the martial arts. Black belts come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. Some make great instructors (regardless of how well they can perform a technique). Some make great performers, regardless of how well they can teach.


  5. I view kids’ ranks as a very subjective thing because of the huge amount of plasticity in their development. Kids can take all sorts of development curves on the way to being a normal adult. This makes it really hard to rank kids on any sort of objective test.

    Here’s an article on my blog about how I solved this problem: http://www.mokurendojo.com/2009/07/how-to-rank-kids-in-judo.html

    The basic gist of it is:
    – don’t use the same colors for adult and kids ranks. (so, no child can get black belt, no matter how hard they try. That’s an adult rank.)
    – when rank time comes, if the student’s attendance, participation, and enjoyment has been excellent, then they get the next belt. If any of these criteria (attendance, participation, enjoyment) have been marginal, then they get a striped belt fo the next color (“almost the next rank”)

    It has worked great for us.


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