Ranks, Belts, krav maga

September 17, 2020, Israel 

Second dan black belt, everyone of these guys is a serious fighter, with Itay Gil many years ago 

and just recently

For those who are regular long-time readers of this blog you will notice I am repeating old stories, old lessons, but this is important. There are those who have forgotten, there are those who have never learned. So we repeat, reexamine, take another look and try to grow.

The issue is belts, ranks, grading in Krav Maga and in martial arts in general. This is one of the most troublesome areas and most potentially explosive. 

When I founded IKI and I sought the advice, blessing and assistance of my teacher, mentor and friend Itay Gil, he offered much advice, most of which I followed. There was one issue where I felt I had to do otherwise; ranks. Itay advised me to drop ranking altogether, he correctly advised and warned me that is a major source of headaches and conflict, this has proven true. I chose to use the belt system as students demand it. They want and need the recognition that belts afford. I have written a great deal on this topic. I felt I could not manage an organization without the all too powerful motivation and recognition that belts alone grant. Every person that enters a martial arts academy dreams of someday wearing a black belt, and I can attest to the fact that it is a very powerful motivator. If this can get people to train hard and learn self defense, it is worth it. If belts can get you to learn how to defend yourself, than I will use every colored belt there is. My goal is your survival. I will use whatever means it takes to get you there. But Itay was correct, this is a can of worms that will come to bite you. 

I had trained with several instructors before meeting Itay Gil, but he became my instructor for 18 full years, and even to this very day I look to him for guidance and advice. My approach is based upon his example. There are a few cases that stand out in my mind. 

I trained hard, very hard, all the time. Itay would say, as much as I know that the sun will rise tomorrow I know that Moshe will be on the mat tonight. I missed work opportunities, came late to weddings and bar mitzvas, showed up to dates with a fat lip or swollen face or a noticeable limp. And yet others were promoted ahead of me. I saw others earn their black belts before me, their second dan before me. I never said a word, I never questioned my teacher's judgment. One student won a tournament, got promoted, OK but I taught martial arts all day every day, no problem. Itay kept saying, your day of glory will come, I waited and I trained. After class I worked out, I ran stairs, jumped rope, lifted weights. For my brown belt, besides training with Itay 3 times per week, 3 lessons each time, I also trained 15 additional hours a week with my training partners (such as Esther). I never complained about others being promoted. I never questioned my teacher's judgment. I focused on my own training. 

and then the time came when I had risen enough in status that Itay actually took the time to explain some of his decisions to me. A certain student earned his Brown Belt but could only perform ONE knife defense, only ONE knife defense for brown belt! Itay explained, this student is dyslexic, for him to learn one knife defense is like you learning 15 knife defenses. I understood, there is more than I can see. I should not judge. 

Another fellow did not do the requisite number of fights. Itay pulled me aside and explained. This student has serious asthma issues. For him to do 10 minutes of fighting is more difficult than for you to do 40 minutes. I understood, there are things I could not know. I must never question my teacher's judgment. 

There was a guy testing for his 3rd dan, I was only a 2nd dan but I was asked to prepare this student, to bring him up to the required level. But then why was I not being promoted as well? I never asked and I never even thought about it, but Itay did, he took me aside for a chat. This in itself was an honor for he did not need to do this. He told me that this fellow, an immigrant from Ukraine, was supporting three generations in his family; himself, his single mother and his widowed grandmother. He taught every night, he was too busy to be able to come to our class on a regular basis. I on the other hand did have the ability to come to class, and never miss a class. But this student needed that rank for his work, so it was up to me to help. I took this as an honor. My time would come.

I recall another student, in my heart I felt it was not fair that he earned his black belt at the same time that I did. I worked much harder, he showed up now and then, when he was in the mood for a good workout. He was a very good fighter, and pretty good with the techniques, but I still felt what was the point of my coming to class so diligently when this guy, come when in the mood, earned his black belt on the same day as me. 

But let's give it time, let's be patient and wait until the end of the story. 

Fifteen years passed, yes, I said fifteen years, and I am at the airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I have just completed a five day seminar and participants came from all over Europe. While waiting for the El Al security check I see this guy, the guy who earned his black belt on the same day as I, the guy I resented for getting his black belt "too easily", who did not work as hard as I did. My frustration at the time hurt me. 

We said hello, I asked what he was doing there, he said he was with a group of other Israelis, they had just participated in a marathon. He had trained to be a lawyer and worked in the field for several years but after a serious disease decided to devote himself to a more noble cause. He had clearly matured since I last saw him. He asked what I was doing in Holland. I told him. I also told him my current rank at the time. He said, You were always such a hard worker, I noticed that about you, you worked harder than anyone, you deserve this!

I was surprised by his response, I never anticipated this level of respect. You see, when you work hard you will eventually receive the recognition. I asked if he was still training in Krav Maga; he was not, in fact he could not even remember where his black belt diploma was. He may have lost it when he and his wife moved a few years ago, he has no clue. 

All this hit me like a ton of bricks, so much to process. But we had to board. To my amazement, for the first time in my life, I was upgraded to business class. I was elated! I boarded first, sat in my comfy large chair with a glass of champagne, and then my old colleague entered the plane with his group. I felt very proud of myself and what I had achieved, and again my old friend taught me a lesson, without even realizing it, he simply smiled at me and said, Good things come to good people. You deserve this. 

and now what did I feel? I felt deeply ashamed but I had learned a very valuable lesson, which I wish to share with you all now. I had felt frustrated, perhaps underappreciated, I had resented this individual for sharing my big moment when I felt he did not deserve it. But the truth is that over time, over time those who are most dedicated, who work the hardest, will emerge on top. As Itay always said to me, Your day of glory will, and indeed how right he was. Over time nothing is overlooked, if you really are good, that will emerge over time, your skill will come to light, you will not be denied. Perhaps in first grade you were not appreciated as you thought you should be, but years later, when you are published author and a distinguished professor, will you still feel that your first grade teacher should have noted your great genius? 

All this can be summed up in a simple life lesson; lengthen your own line rather than try to shorten someone else's line. Focus on your own development, celebrate your friends' accomplishments even if in your heart you believe they were not deserved. What do you really know?

There is also another, more specific, lesson here, regarding ranks:  Never question your teachers' decisions regarding rank. This is a sign of disrespect. There is no other way to put this. It is also a sign of arrogance as you assume that you have all the information, knowledge and wisdom that your teacher has. My teacher saw me as an instructor and thus explained to me his decision process, not that as a student I had any right to this knowledge, but as an instructor that he was grooming to be a great instructor he offered this to me as guidance. He wanted me to understand that he, well known tough guy etc, took human considerations into account; he took student's personal life circumstances into account:

this one was supporting a family, 

that one had medical issues, 

this one had cognitive issues.

I look at my own students around the world; one has limited physical motion, another recovered from a stroke, another has limited shoulder mobility, some even lost limbs or have artificial limbs, some have personal trauma. When the student in question is a student of one of our instructors, but not my personal direct student, I always, always, always, consult with the direct instructor. I respect the local instructor who works with his person on a daily basis, while I only see him once or twice per year at most. Perhaps the student is more nervous in my presence, perhaps they are having an off day. I will never know this. 

When it comes to testing our students who are students of their local IKI instructors, I weigh heavily and rely heavily upon the input of the direct instructor. Here in Israel we take a long time to promote anyone. When abroad I need to consider the information provided to me by the local, direct, instructor. This information is crucial. 

And remember this, your rank is yours alone. It is an indication of your own progress and growth as well as representing an international standard. Never compare yourself to anyone, and trust your teacher. If you respect your instructor you will respect your own rank and those of others. 

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