Defining Progress in the Martial Arts

In some martial arts schools, progress is defined with belt ranks. Students learn new things, test, and then receive new belts. It’s a shiny process. Everyone loves receiving something new. But I’ve asked myself before, and now I’ll ask you:

Do belts equal progress? Which is more important: a pile o’ belts? Or real progress?

Pile o' belts.
Pile o’ belts.

We believe that black belts should be good at martial arts. But at a certain point in everyone’s martial arts career, the rate of technical progress slows. Progress depends greatly on the students’ self-awareness (age/maturity), effort, attendance, and perseverance.

That being said, I realize that it can seem discouraging not to move up in belt rank for a long time. So I’d like to share several other ways I define progress–ones that I think are much more meaningful than a rainbow of belts.

1. Time.

  • White belts measure progress in weeks.
  • Colored belts measure progress in months.
  • Brown belts measure progress in years.
  • Black belts measure progress in decades.

As a white belt, you learn a lot in a short amount of time. Everything is new, and it’s exciting. You make big progress in a short amount of time. As you become an upper belt, things aren’t so new any more.


Especially around brown belt, it becomes same-old, same-old. You might grow bored, even frustrated. A lot of your progress is breaking old habits, and that takes time.

What keeps me going? I think about how long I’ve been training. And then I think about how cool it will be when I’ve been training for 20 years, or more. To me, that’s what it means for martial arts to be a lifestyle, not just a sport.

2. Technique

Someone who isn’t a black belt can still act like one. We believe technique is what differentiates black belts from normal people with high standards & exceptional character. You can measure your technical progress in a lot of different ways.

When you examine your own technique, ask yourself questions like:

  • Are my techniques & stances consistent?
  • Am I even on both right/left sides?
  • Does my side kick still look like a roundhouse kick?
  • Can I pull my chamber hand back faster, stronger, 1 inch further?
  • Is my stance work precise? Are my toes in the right places?
  • Do I always use two hands to chamber & block?
  • Do I do my forms without any mistakes?
  • Do I have any alignment issues?
  • Am I receiving the same comments from my instructors over and over?

You must be honest with yourself. Ask for advice from your instructors. Whenever a correction is given in class, even if it’s intended for someone else, examine yourself anyway to make sure you’re not doing the same thing.

As someone who’s been training for a long time, I always think of something I could do better next time.

3. Experiences (AKA Fun Stuff)

I believe martial artists should have a lot of passion for what they do. The experiences you have, enjoyable (or not), become badges of honor. Ask yourself:

  • How many seminars have I been to?
  • How many weapons have I learned?
  • How much do I know outside of my requirements sheet?
  • Have I trained with other schools? In other arts?
  • How many summer camps have I done?
  • How many times have I helped a lower belt learn something?
  • Am I having a good time, even if I’m not moving up in belt?
Arnis bo
Students working with bo staff at the last Arnis seminar.

Martial arts should be fun, and experiences are just a part of growing as a martial artists.

One final thought: taking months off interrupts the flow of a student’s progress. Breaks cause students to forget the basic foundations. They often revert to old, bad habits, and when they return, there’s a higher level of effort required to catch them up AND move them forward.

As long as you’re coming to class and working on your skills, you should be proud of your commitment to the martial arts. No matter how long it takes to get to the next belt level.

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