Belt systems are used in most modern martial arts to define a student’s knowledge and ability. In spite of popular belief, awarding colored belts to denote rank is a relatively new practice. It’s widely accepted that the modern martial art uniform and belt system has its foundations in judo. In the days of ancient martial arts in Japan, scrolls were awarded to indicate a student’s progress.
Belts in ancient China served several purposes. They were used to suspend trousers and to hide valuables and weapons. Different colors indicated the social status or clan of the person wearing a belt. Colors were also used to indicate the style of martial art a person practiced and the school he trained at.
Most martial arts belt systems start with a white belt. The time it takes to progress between belts varies depending on several factors. These include the martial art style, how frequently a student trains and how quickly a student masters the techniques. A common question students ask when inquiring about taking up a martial art is how long it will take to achieve black belt level. This varies between three and five years for most arts.
The taekwondo belt system typically includes white, yellow, green, blue, red and black. In addition to passing a test of skills and knowledge, a student is expected to demonstrate an understanding of the philosophy and tenets of taekwondo. The tenets include respect for instructors and seniors, to never misuse their martial arts skills and to stand for freedom and justice. As is the case with many martial arts, taekwondo is much more than a sport or self defense system.
Once a student achieves black belt level in taekwondo, a system of dan grades begins. The length of time between each dan grade level increases as a student progresses. For example, a fifth dan would typically have to wait five years before progressing to sixth dan. Responsibility for teaching and mentoring lower ranked students is a key part of the dan grade journey. Being able to perform blocks, kicks and strikes becomes less important than developing the skills of other students and promoting the art to other people.
The taekwondo belt system has advantages for both student and club as follows.
Motivation to continue training
This is particularly important for younger students. Having a tangible goal of the next colored belt can help to ensure students continue to attend taekwondo classes. Children are likely to be involved in a range of sports and after school activities, and the prospect of being presented with a new belt can keep them focussed on taekwondo. Many clubs present a certificate to mark the achievement of promotion, and this is another motivator.
Low self-esteem is one of the possible reasons people consider taking up a martial art. Being publicly recognized with the award of a new colored belt is a great boost to confidence. In addition to improving fitness and learning practical self defense skills, taekwondo develops a range of life skills.
Giving formal structure to training
Having a clearly defined pathway is a great motivator. A good taekwondo club will publish a syllabus setting out the techniques and skills required to progress between each rank. A student should have an understanding of exactly what they will need to learn on their journey to black belt.
Identifying a student’s level of training
Martial art belts are an easy way of identifying the level a student has reached. This is particularly useful when clubs get together for seminars and competitions. A more experienced student should take account of another’s ability when sparring and training. Some clubs schedule classes aimed at specific ranks. For example, classes for blue belt and above only.
Helping to avoid accusations of ‘McDojo’ training
The term ‘McDojo’ is used to describe martial arts clubs with low standards and poor teaching. They are often purely money making enterprises rather than organizations created to teach and develop genuine martial arts. Belts are awarded every few weeks without any real testing. The structured nature of taekwondo and the formal testing between belts ensures that standards are maintained.
Each taekwondo belt has symbolic meaning, as well as indicating a student’s technical ability. The following summary explains what can be expected as a person progresses through the ranks, and what each belt signifies.
There is no formal testing for a taekwondo white belt, and it comes as part of the standard training uniform, known as a dobok. The white belt symbolizes purity and innocence. The student is regarded as a ‘blank canvas’ at this stage, open to learning and keen to understand the basic skills of taekwondo.
If a student hasn’t studied a martial art previously, he may find some aspects of the world of taekwondo alien. For example, the formality of bowing and how instructors and senior students must be addressed. A new student must embrace the culture of taekwondo, keep an open mind and be positive. Early weeks and months will be spent learning basic stances and drills, and this can be frustrating for some students. A white belt must remember that even his most senior instructors wore the same belt once, and respect that he is being guided at the start of a long journey.
A white belt doesn’t carry the same status as those of more advanced ranks, but it has value in that it confirms a student’s commitment to train. He can expect improvements in fitness, strength, mental toughness and as he moves from this foundation level.
Most taekwondo clubs require a student to grade in two stages from white belt to yellow belt. The first will award a successful student with a yellow stripe as an interim before the yellow belt grading.
A taekwondo yellow belt represents the earth, and it acknowledges that the student has established foundations to grow from. Most taekwondo clubs have a high drop-off rate for students at white belt, and if they progress to this second level they are more likely to train for a number of years. This is a critical stage of learning for a martial arts student. It’s essential that the basics are learned correctly, as small mistakes will become very obvious at later stages of training. What may appear to be minor details, such as the angle of feet in stances, must become second nature.
Some taekwondo schools have an orange level, but most allow students to progress from yellow to green. The green belt represents a plant starting to grow from the earth. Expectations on a student increase at this stage, and the mental aspects of training can be more demanding than the physical. Stances should be clearly defined, and details such as weight distribution and the finish position of hands after techniques are performed will be scrutinized.
In addition to learning more complex patterns, green belt students must begin to develop sparring skills. As well as the opportunity to test skills and techniques in a practical way, sparring allows a student to experience the fear and adrenalin rush of a fight in a controlled environment. It can be interesting to see how individuals deal with this. Confidence rises as a taekwondo practitioner faces confrontation without coming to harm, but this can lead to issues with ego. Competition may be encouraged at a club, but students should remain humble and remember not to misuse their skills.
A taekwondo blue belt represents the sky. The student’s skills are becoming strong at this level, and he is like a plant growing upwards into the blue sky. Instructors and seniors at a club will be begin preparing a student for the pressures of a black belt test if he has made it this far. It’s not unusual for someone to want to progress more quickly at this senior rank, but it takes time to prepare mentally and physically for the next phase of training.
The complexity of techniques steps up a level at blue belt, and some students struggle to grasp spinning kicks and jumping kicks in particular. A blue belt student is not expected to perform these advanced moves without fault at this stage. Instructors will be looking for good balance and form rather than perfect execution. However, if he has practiced enough, a blue belt should have mastered more basic techniques such as side kicks.
A taekwondo practitioner at red belt has another set of challenges to overcome. Self-awareness and self-control are as important as martial arts skills at this stage. Some say the red belt represents danger, others believe it represents the essential life force of blood. Honor and respect are essential qualities of a red belt student, and he must not become over-confident.
Surprisingly, quite a high percentage of people quit at red belt stage. This is often due to fear and anxiety about taking a black belt test. It’s important to talk to instructors and senior club members if you have these feelings. Everyone will have experienced the same fears, and it’s not a sign of weakness.
The black belt in taekwondo represents maturity and experience. Being awarded a black belt in any martial art is recognized as a major achievement. On the journey to black belt a person will develop strength of character and the ability to focus, in addition to self defense skills and improved fitness. He may have had to deal with injuries and other setbacks, and overcoming these is all part of the experience.
The black belt should be regarded as the start of the next phase of your training and development in taekwondo. You will have proved your abilities in the art to more senior practitioners, but must continue to practice on a daily basis to maintain standards.
The taekwondo belts system gives students goals and milestones in their training. Obtaining belts should not be the sole purpose of training. If the student trains regularly and follows the advice of his instructors and seniors, progression through the belts will happen naturally.