Black Belt Kids: Are They Legitimate?

Photo by: U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Rachael Garneau

Many people like to ask in general terms if it is legitimate for there to be kid black belts. A more interesting questions is: “Why do some styles give black belts to children?” The answer to that would tell us why black belt kids are a thing in the first place.

Black belts for kids are legitimate depending on the styles in which they are given. Styles issuing them are not as concerned with universal applications in self-defense or sport. But honest instructors and systems make clear distinctions between adult and child black belts.

If these systems of martial arts are not giving black belts to adults in the same way they are to children, then why call them black belts at all? If you were confronted by an aggressive child who had earned a black belt, would you need to worry? To get to the bottom of these questions, read on.

What Is A Junior Black Belt?

According to the WTF (World TaeKwonDo Federation) headquarters website, TaeKwonDo for instance there are two completely different designations for black belts. The dan ranks are adult black belt ranks starting at age 15 and poom are the black belt levels for kids 14 years old and below. This same thing happens in many forms of Karate.

For styles like Judo and Brazilian Jiu jitsu not only is that rank reserved usually for teenagers and above, but it can take up to 10 years or more to earn some of those dan ranks. Any child under those ages putting in the time it would take to achieve it is slim to none. For example, the USJF (United States Judo Federation) that I studied in for years, has in its requirements that a minimum age of 14 is required for a Shodan (1st degree black belt).

In my time in the martial arts I have had quite a bit of experience with various styles and instructors. It seems to come down to the instructor if they don’t have association restrictions and if they have built their business around children or not. The temptation for many of these professional studios is to advertise with more grandiose promises as time goes on.

These promises sometimes morph into “guaranteeing” a black belt to anyone who commits to paying for a certain length of time. Though a Junior black belt designation is a more honest, it does not change the fact that the general public is still in the dark about what a black belt means much less knowing that a junior version exists.

As you think about what a black belt means tied around the waist of a child, just remember that most honest schools and styles would tell you that they are considered some sort of junior rank of black belt. They just may not want to put that bit of info in their ads online or in the local newspaper.

Why Call Children Black Belts At All?

Martial art systems like Kali, HapKiDo, Akijutsu and others have a core that includes dangerous techniques or weapons that are not suitable for children to learn. These styles will normally only accept adults or if children are permitted, their curriculum is seriously truncated.

Yet, in styles like Karate and TaeKwonDo, the core elements are not considered as morally compromising to teach a child. A punch or a kick from a trained black belt 10 year old is not going to cause anywhere close to the same damage as an average untrained man in his thirties. These kids are mastering the technique on a proportional scale.

Want to see a monster article of all the belt ranking orders for 20 of the top Karate styles? Check out my article here.

In this light you can see that they are able to demonstrate with their more limited strength and size the same techniques, just not with the same effect. This all goes back to the misunderstanding of the term “black belt” as having universal accepted standards. The differences in size, strength, age, and definitely style are key considerations.

With this in mind you can now see that it is not the outcome that is measured, but the input that counts. As these children grow into adulthood, these techniques become more and more applicable to adult sized opponents. This doesn’t mean though that they haven’t mastered the techniques.

Here is an example. If you were to decide at around the age of 10 or younger that you wanted to train to be a professional competitor in some form of martial arts, you would be right on track. You could train specifically in those techniques and develop your body as it grew to best fit the style you were trying to acquire.

On the other hand, if you were 24 making this same decision and hadn’t trained as a college or professional athlete, I would have to break the news to you. Your chances would be like winning the lottery to be very successful. Others that started younger would just have a huge advantage over you.

These kids and their instructors are training for proportional situations to their ages. We all know this, because we accept without question weight classes and delineations between men and women’s sports. A featherweight champion in boxing doesn’t have his ability questioned because he would not do very well against the heavyweight champion.

How Would an Average Adult Fair Against a Child Black Belt Aggressor?

This question has come up a lot in discussions I have had with adults asking about what I teach children. My answer always starts with, “It depends.” This may sound at first as if I am going to say that a percentage of children with black belts in any system could cause problems for adults around them if they were to suddenly decide to turn delinquent.

No, not even close. Honestly, children being effectively able to do much harm to a determined adult is a bit far fetched. Here are some of the qualifiers.

Is this a large 16 year old boy that has competed on a decently high level for several years? Is this in a style that has a full contact focus like boxing or kickboxing? Have they earned a black belt in a controlling style grappling system like Judo or Brazilian Jui jitsu? Then yes, that minor would be fairly capable. But I don’t think this is what most mean by the question.

Now, is this an 11 year old small girl that has spent most of her time running kata (patterned movements with no resistance in the air)? Has she only competed in point style TaeKwonDo tournaments with lite to no contact? Then no, there would not only be a lack of techniques to make her very dangerous, but her lack of strength and size would make her efforts not much of a problem for most average sized untrained adults.

So you can rest easy. That roving band of 9 year old black belts coming to terrorize your neighborhood would not be too hard to disperse. Since the higher the rank the less aggressive martial arts kids become, this is not only not a problem, but highly unlikely. To read more about aggression levels in children and marital arts training see my article on martial arts for behavior problems.

What Does Having a Black Belt Really Mean Then If Some Kids Legitimately Have One?

Again, this will depend on the individual person who has earned one and from what style of martial arts it comes from. I think an analogy will help that comes directly from the martial arts. Anyone who has entered or watched a tournament of any type will immediately understand.

I competed in a submission grappling tournament in Las Vegas some years ago. The advanced division had over 50 entries and most all of them had black belts in Brazilian Jiu jitsu. After only the first round of matches, half of the black belt trained and in shape competitors were out. That means these highly trained black belts did not win one match in that tournament.

Think about it for a moment. After the first round, half took a losing record home with them. How could that be? They were all black belts right? A Black belt speaks much more to mastering the technique than being at a specific ability level that can be applied across many situations.

Take this example and apply it to the kids that were in the kids division of another tournament I attended. There is no expectation of the 9-10 year old purple belt division champion to be of the same outcome based ability as the adult 30 and over master’s purple belt division champion. Most of the out of shape dads in the stands could easily fend of the 9 year old, but would get destroyed by the 30 year old.

So, what does it mean to have a black belt. I have always explained it this way. A black belt means you have mastered the basics. This is referring to being highly proficient at the basic techniques of the style. This says nothing about individual ability, physical strength to apply it, or overall athleticism to save you from mistakes.

Are There Instances of Kids With Black Belts That Aren’t Legitimate?

The short answer it yes, most definitely. I have seen some horrible situations where due usually to money concerns, all standards were simply optional and no mastery took place of any kind. In these instances, the instructor is doing harm to his art and especially to the child. If a kid is told they have earned something that is supposed to have high standards, that child knows whether they were actually held to that standard or not.

This teaches them that regulations are arbitrary and don’t serve much of a purpose. It doesn’t take long to imagine where that could lead. The road to a black belt is supposed to be a road to self improvement. In this scenario, not only was that not achieved, but actual damage to that child’s view of truth and reality has occurred.

As I alluded to earlier, this comes about many times because of instructors attempting to turn a black belt into a commodity. They promise that a child will reach a black belt in a certain number of months with some sort of ‘guarantee’ attached. They market a black belt as if it were a television on layaway.

This is in no way meant to take away from legitimate achievements of those who have put in the time under competent instruction. Those achievements are commendable. They are proportional in the grand scheme of things, but no less valuable to the child at that time and even more so in the future.

The Black Belt Kid Takeaway…

It is true that many throw the term “black belt” around without qualifying it for age, size, and martial arts style. This leads to the misunderstanding of the general public when they hear the term. No wonder ideas of children fighting in adult full contact bouts enter their minds. We don’t even consider this for women in men’s MMA or boxing matches. Once this is understood it becomes easier to grasp.

Another key point is that even among a large group of black belt adults, there will be large gaps in ability, even though they all wear the same rank around their waist. Keep in mind that a black belt signifies a certain achievement from where you started and not a universal ability level.

The next time you see a child wearing a black belt with her parents at the local fast food joint, just remember she is a child and probably proud of her accomplishment. She may have had an excellent instructor and a great art to study. If that is the case, she is all the better for it.

If her instructor was not honest with her and her parents, it won’t be their fault, well not entirely. The parents may have suspected, but maybe not. You would be surprised what people are willing to believe if they choose not to think critically. The instructor would be the problem, and the best way for us to deal with those guys, is to just not give them what they are after, your money.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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