It’s a long time since I’ve thought about this, but a few things have been put to me over the past few weeks that have made me consider the phenomenon of belts and such in martial arts, and indeed the whole concept of external validation in coaching. This whole concept is a silly mess, and one which is hopefully dieing. Yet in spite of my low opinion of it, I still find myself caught up in it.
It’s difficult to express this without coming across as patronising, but everyone needs encouragement from their coach from time to time. Some need it more than others. Some have confidence issues, some need their ego stroked, and some just need the odd pat on the back or “good job” said out loud. However I don’t know of any grown up who is serious about their training who needs to be given a piece of coloured material to validate their efforts. Yet due to some bizarre quasi-cultural migration which has now ingrained itself in our culture, we are stuck with an idea that to prove you are good at fighting, you must get a belt of a coloured material wrapped around your waist. Oh, and did I forget? You also must pay for it.
It’s bizarre, yet here it is. Can you imagine one day walking into a gym and squatting 100kgs and someone saying “well done, now here’s your 100kg cert and belt”, or kicking a point from the ground for the first time and being told you were now a level 4 Gaelic Football Player, and should get a different coloured pair of socks. It’s idiotic, it’s bizarre and quite frankly, a lot of the time, it’s about money. People want your money and they want to keep on taking it too. So without further ado I give you…
Reasons someone gave you a martial arts belt today:
1) Instant money- I’ve heard of “gradings” costing anything up to €500, but usually they’re around the €30-€50 mark. Often this is excused on the basis that you’re taking up instructors time, hall rental and so on. I’ve also seen gradings where anything up to 150 people were being tested. Do the maths.
2) Retention- Now it’s not uncommon for businesses to offer incentive schemes to their customers to keep them coming back time after time, but usually, the customer doesn’t have to pay extra for the privelege. Offerring a reward system (roll over! good boy!) is a method used by pretty much every supermarket or store, but usually you get something for free. With martial arts, YOU pay for your customer loyalty.
3) Retention Part 2- Of course it has long been recognised by psychologists that we are more likely to continue something in which you have invested a great deal. In spite of our feelings that maybe we’re being duped, or that we’ve lost the love of something, we’ll keep coming back as long as we can tell ourselves that “a while more and I’ll get that black belt”.
Now of course I could be accused of being a hypocrite here. I have sat and officiated at many belt tests and I still run belt tests for children (who do require an occasional external reward and a boost from their coach, they like colours too) but somehow I doubt the average 27 year old wants to run home to his girlfriend to show her his new yellow belt the same way a 7 year old would show his mother. Besides that, the tests I do with the kids I have subsidise the class I put on to make the actual monthly cost of putting a kid in my kids class much cheaper. I run my kids classes at a loss and in fact will be reducing the cost of having a child in my class very soon.
However one very significant fact of what I do is that I readily admit that this is my living and my gym is a business. Now that won’t surprise anyone who trains with me but you’d be amazed at the amount of people who think that I have committed blasphemy when I admit to that. You see most martial arts clubs are businesses, they just don’t like to admit it because of
a) the tax man
b) their members
You see if you make your club more like a business, people might think you’re trying to make money, and that will erase your guru status overnight. Repeat after me- If I take money from people to put in my own pocket I am a businessman. Not so hard was it? Yet I dealt with someone not so long ago who in no uncertain terms declared “I don’t run a business”. The same person takes money for pretty much everything but doesn’t have to explain why because he has developed his club into what can quite easily be termed a personality cult. This man makes his living from taking money (often through running in house classes and courses which you just “have to attend”) yet had the gall to accuse others of being money oriented because they blatantly admitted to being for profit organisations. To quote The Joker, if you’re good at something, never do it for free. The stipulation must always be that you should have good ethics, be honest and always offer a good service. In other words, do what you say on your label and hopefully more.
The difference in what I do now versus the amateur me is unbelievable. My every working (and my wife says waking) minute is concerned with coaching, training and the business aspects of doing same. I literally eat and sleep the job. Now that’s because I want to be good at it obviously but mostly it’s because I love it. I really, really love it. To get to do it for a living has been amazing and hopefully I can continue doing it. I actually keep waiting on someone to tip me on my shoulder and say “alright you, back to work” and to lead me off into some factory somewhere.