Most martial arts use a colored belt system that generally progresses from lighter to darker colors to signify how experienced and skilled a practitioner is. Someone walking into a studio for the first time should be able to tell at a glance who the newer students are, who has been training the longest, and who the instructor is. Martial arts belts are symbols of one's dedication to one's training and should always be treated with respect.
But have you ever wondered about the origins of a white belt representing a new student and a black belt representing a master practitioner? According to the folklore, many centuries ago, practitioners would wear the loose-fitting clothes of their time and use a white rope around their waist to keep the clothing from getting in the way during training. Training typically took place outside on the grass and dirt. Over years of training, the white “belt” would gradually become darker and eventually turn black through being exposed to blood, sweat, and tears, despite being washed. Thus, a darker belt meant more time and dedication to one's martial art, signifying a higher level of expertise.
Over many years of training, a belt used so much that it had turned black would begin to deteriorate and wear away, causing the interior white to emerge. This was considered to represent the idea that even martial arts masters are still students of their art, even after decades of training. This idea of a continuous circle and return to the beginning within martial arts and within life is also represented in the concept of Yin Yang that is integrated into BIMA's logo, and which is central to many Eastern martial arts. The Yin Yang symbol signifies, among other things, that “opposites must balance for harmony to be achieved,”* just as an expert martial arts practitioner is simultaneously both a master and a student.**
Here at BIMA, we expect our staff and students to honor their uniforms, including their belts, as symbols of their dedication to the art and to their own self-improvement. We ask all who attend BIMA to wear the appropriate attire—including their belt, as applicable—for each class they attend, and to treat their uniforms with care as an indication of respect for their training.
Remember to wear your BIMA T-shirt alone or under your gi, along with your belt. Belts should be folded carefully before and after class and not dragged on the floor. For Muay Thai, if you have not yet earned your Thai shorts, a belt is required. New BIMA T-shirts are available for purchase if you need one. As we move forward with the New Year, remember: Look Sharp, Train Sharp!
**Thank you to Ray Rosales for his assistance with the origin story for this article.
BIMA hosts three to five seminars each year from master instructors of the arts we teach, including Sifu Dan Inosanto, Grand Master Ajarn Chai, Professor Pedro Sauer, and Sensei Erik Paulson.
I host these seminars for several reasons. First, I want BIMA students to see where my training came from so that they have a broader perspective on the philosophies and techniques that have shaped my own life and my teaching.
I developed my skills from many years of mimicking my instructors' movements. As a BIMA student, you are learning from me and from the instructors I have trained, but it adds depth and nuance to your own skills when you can see the origins of that training firsthand.
Attending BIMA's seminars will also improve your own understanding of the techniques. Each person brings their own perspective and experience to how they learn, and we all learn in our own unique way. Some people learn better from seeing descriptions written down, some can absorb the basics just from seeing a move done a few times, and some need to feel how to do a technique before it makes sense. When I teach a specific move or sequence, you'll focus on and remember certain things depending on your own learning style. Your understanding of the technique will deepen when you see my instructor teaching the same movements, because everyone also teaches in different ways.
We strongly encourage every student and instructor at BIMA to attend the seminars we host. If you wish to attend a seminar but are struggling with the cost, please talk to BIMA's staff.
Long ago, most people who trained in martial arts focused only on one discipline, and training in multiple arts was discouraged. Masters of these single arts tended to emphasize philosophical principles to their students, such as honor, self-discipline, integrity, respect, and honesty. These masters would refuse to promote a student if the student did not exemplify characteristics of a true martial artist—one who is both a warrior and a scholar. Genuine martial artists are dedicated to improving themselves both physically and mentally. They work hard to be role models to those around them. They treat others kindly, help and protect those in need, act with integrity, and are able to constructively handle difficult situations.
As martial arts studios began offering more than one art to their students in recent decades, however, some of these principles have fallen away. At some studios, a student can earn a black belt regardless of their character, and sometimes regardless of their actual skill level. In the long run, this diminishes the martial arts community.
Here at BIMA, we believe that promotion to the higher belts needs to reflect a student's character as well as their physical abilities. In our youth classes, we work to develop good character in all our students, even the youngest ones. Whether we exemplify the characteristics of a true martial artist is dependent on the choices we make every day. During every youth class, our instructors model and explain these choices, such as the choice to express respect and gratitude to one's partner for allowing their body to be used for training. We believe it is important to instill mutual respect and an understanding of training with one's partner instead of on one's partner. We believe that as martial artists, it is our responsibility to help our youth students to develop good character as they grow so it becomes a permanent part of who they are. The character of adults tends to be more fixed, but regardless of one's age, everyone can still make choices to improve their self-discipline, integrity, and other mental traits as well as our physical skills.
We also promote these principles at BIMA because we want to create an environment of trust and support in which our students can reach their full potential. Your ability to improve your mental and physical skills is only as good as the people around you and the environment you are in. When you're training with people who value excellence and exhibit traits of a true martial artist, it will give you more opportunities and inspiration to create excellence within yourself. When you respect and trust your training partners and they trust and respect you, it builds a community of support that will enable everyone to learn and grow knowing that, even when mistakes are made along the way, other people will be there to help you continue to move forward.
When I was first doing martial arts as a teenager and in my 20s, my instructors told me how important it was to warm up and stretch properly before training, as well as to stretch and cool down afterwards, so as to minimize the risk of injury. At the time, I would listen to their words but I didn't take them to heart. I felt like I always had plenty of energy, and any muscle soreness or injuries healed quickly, so I didn't see the point in taking time to stretch that I could instead use to do conditioning, learn new techniques, or train with my colleagues.
As I have continued to train and teach over the years, however, I have come to understand the importance and value of my teachers' guidance. Just one major injury can affect your ability to train for weeks or months, and as you get older, some injuries can cause discomfort or pain for years.
When you are first preparing for martial arts training or any form of exercise, it is best to do an active warm up, starting slow and gradually increasing your level of exertion. This will gently warm up your muscles, which will make stretching safer and your muscles better able to benefit from the stretches. If you stretch before warming up your muscles, you will be putting stress on them—when your muscles are not warmed up, they are like tight rubber bands and can be more easily injured.
After you train, even five or ten minutes of a gentle cool down and stretching session will help to bring your body back to equilibrium and help minimize the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles which could otherwise cause pain over the next day or two. As you grow older, you will find that cooling down is just as important as warming up in terms of how you'll feel a day or two after an intense workout.
As you continue your martial arts training, you will see the benefits over the years from taking the relatively small amount of time necessary to help your body prepare for and recover from training. If you take care of your body and treat your muscles properly, this will help enable you to be healthy and active for your entire life.
Gracie Academy has released a great video called Why Kids Quit Jiu-Jitsu (& How to Prevent it!). Although the video is focused on Jiu-Jitsu, the points they make apply to martial arts in general.
We recommend that everyone who has a child enrolled at BIMA watch this video, but below is a summary and elaboration of the main points.
Martial arts are for everyone—regardless of whether one participates in other physical activities or not. However, everyone—especially children—will think about quitting at some point. Depending on your child's age and maturity level, there are several things that you as a parent can do to guarantee the longest possible martial arts lifespan for your child. Martial arts is beneficial in every aspect of life—relationship building, negotiation skills, confidence, etc.—but first you need to help your child to remain committed.
4 to 7-year-olds
For kids who are approximately four to seven years old, the most critical studio-based factor as to whether the child will stay in martial arts is whether the instructor makes the classes playful, fun, and engaging. The instructor needs to be able to be at the child's level and meet them where they are so that the child trusts the instructor and feels safe and comfortable in the class. During this phase, the most important thing parents can do is simply to make the commitment to continue bringing the child to class. Sometimes parents will bring their child to a martial arts class because they want the class to be serious and instill discipline in their children, but they need to trust a studio that incorporates playfulness into the class, especially at these young ages.
A good martial arts class will have structured elements so that the students learn how to listen and stay focused, but it also has to include a large amount of play in order for students to want to come back and be able to focus on learning. Play is critical to learning for young children, and martial arts is no exception—a good studio incorporates techniques into games so that students are learning even as they are having fun. As the child grows older, they will seek out more structure and more advanced techniques. Pushing them before they're ready, however, will only result in them not enjoying themselves and resisting the classes.
During this phase, a major goal of martial arts classes is simply to help children become comfortable with physical closeness and learn how to stay calm and not panic while learning techniques or while sparring. Parents who do not train in martial arts themselves may not understand the purpose of what the instructors are teaching, so it is important to ask questions if you have concerns or want to understand the techniques and why they are being introduced to the children.
Even at this stage, martial arts classes will help children with building confidence and learning principles and philosophies that will help them the rest of their lives. Learning martial arts is like learning to swim. Parents wouldn't have their child stop taking swimming classes before they are truly able to be safe and take care of themselves in the water. Martial arts is also a necessary life skill—it is critical for a child to know how to protect themselves if they need to. Learning how to stand up for yourself and defend yourself is like wearing your seat belt—you know that you have what you need to protect yourself if things go wrong. It is important for parents to prioritize martial arts for their child and potentially even ease off on other activities if they are making it difficult for the child to continue in martial arts classes. The curve of learning self-defense skills may not be visible immediately, especially at this age because it can look as though all they're doing is playing, but the benefits will be clearly apparent with time.
8 to 12-year-olds
For this general age range, the main objective in martial arts classes is to build confidence so that the child is willing to stand up for themselves or any of their peers in a difficult situation. During this stage, the biggest challenge is keeping the child's interest on martial arts as other activities may begin to distract them.
Some children will quit around this time because parents inadvertently put pressure on them by correcting their techniques, and the children stop going to class because they don't want to let their parents down. They want to live up to their parents' expectations, and if parents are telling them that they're not focused enough in class or not doing a technique well enough, this will be a huge setback for the child's self-confidence and their willingness to stay in martial arts. They are likely to decide that the best way to avoid disappointing you is to simply stop attending classes. Parents think they are helping their child by correcting their techniques, but this is something that is best left to the martial arts instructors, who are specifically trained to help children improve in a positive, empowering way.
Good instructors will focus on the 60% of a move that your child got right, not the 40% they got wrong. To the child, that 60% they exhibited is their 100% for that day, so a skilled instructor will focus on congratulating them for what they achieved and perhaps subtly help them to adjust the move. By being supportive and encouraging instead of critical, the child won't be worried about disappointing anyone—they will remain focused on learning for its own sake and for their own satisfaction and self-improvement. The next time they see that particular move, they might retain 70% of it, then 80%, and eventually they will reach 100% understanding. If you are worried about your child's skills, it's best to talk to their instructor about it and let them handle it, as opposed to directly addressing it with your child. The only thing you should be saying to your child after their martial arts class is, “I really enjoyed watching you practice martial arts today.”
From an instructor perspective, for this age range, it is important to teach techniques and concepts that are immediately recognized as relevant and applicable in the student's daily life. If the student understands that they are learning specific skills that they can use in a risky situation, they will feel more confident. A lot of bullying begins as verbal attacks, but martial arts students know that they can defend themselves physically if it comes to that, which makes them more willing to assert themselves against someone who is verbally bullying them. It creates a confidence that your child will exude in whatever they do, which actually makes them less likely to become a target of bullies in the first place.
Advanced 8 to 12/13-year-olds
These students, who have typically been training since they were very young, have more developed skills, but they are also at an age where it is easier to be distracted by other opportunities and other activities such as girlfriends/boyfriends, video games, events with friends, etc. One of the Gracie Academy's instructors, when he was in middle school, started not wanting to go to his Jiu-Jitsu classes. His father said that was fine, but said that the student had to notify his father two days in advance when he didn't want to go to class. The student never decided that he didn't want to go until an hour before class, which meant that he had to go, and he is grateful for this rule because he is now 27 years old, a black belt, and a Jiu-Jitsu instructor.
Many kids will not want to stop whatever activity they are doing when it's time to get ready for martial arts class, but it's not because they suddenly dislike the classes. It's simply that martial arts can get drowned out by other things they want to do. It's easier to continue playing video games or hang out with friends than to go get exercise and potentially get tapped out. But parents need to be willing to require their children to continue going to classes during this transition period. Explicitly limiting the time frames of other activities like playing on screens—such as making a rule that they have to stop an hour before martial arts class—can make it much easier to get the child to class consistently. Children in this age range, especially around 12 years of age, have so much more freedom than they did when they were younger, and they can be resistant to structured activities when there are so many other options and distractions. They can also become frustrated with other students in their class who may be significantly more skilled than they are.
Keeping your child in martial arts at this stage may ultimately come down to insisting, as their parent, that your child needs to continue going to class, just as you insist that they go to school every day. You can think of it as being in a sort of maintenance mode during these ages. If you require your child to continue attending class through the ages of 12 and 13, when they get to around age 14, they will be so much more advanced that they won't want to quit anymore. This is especially true when they start being able to tap out people much older than they are. A skilled 16-year-old martial arts student will reach the day when they will legitimately tap out or achieve a take-down on an adult, which will create a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, and empowerment that will set them on the path of practicing and loving martial arts for the rest of their lives.
For really mature teen students, allowing them to attend adult classes occasionally may also help to keep them motivated because they are starting to feel that they're close to adulthood and thus feel more comfortable in those classes. Regardless, however, the requirement to attend class still needs to be there.
At the Gracie Academy, they have asked many of their adult students if they wish they had started Jiu-Jitsu when they were very young—like 6 years old—and every one of them wishes they had started earlier than they did. They have also asked these students if they would have wanted their parents to insist that they continue going to class when they were 12 or 13 if they had asked to quit, and every single one also said that they would have wanted their parents to do that, because they are so grateful now that martial arts is a part of their lives.