Rank or Certification, Which is More Important?

I was tagged in a TikTok video several months back by a fellow Martial Artist, and friend of mine. He wanted my input, as well as from the other people he tagged, on their opinion of what was most important, rank or certification. Because I did not know how to use the app very well, I did not respond. And then when I figured out how to, I could not find where he had tagged me. Regardless, the answer to the question is not a simple one, because it is all based on perspective.

I know why he tagged me. Because he puts a lot of martial arts related material on the Internet, and so do I. I’ve been posting pressure point information for almost a decade. I know he gets slack from people asking him about his credentials. I used to, and sometimes still do, get the same thing. What I find humorous, is that as a school owner and instructor not once in all the years I’ve been teaching, whether it has been from my garage or from my storefront, not once has any potential student, or parent of a potential student asked me what my rank was in martial arts. However, I post stuff on the Internet and people want to know my credentials, what am I certified in? What’s my rank? What I find funny about that observation is that somebody who wants to pay me almost $200 a month is not asking about my rank. Could care less about my rank. While somebody is questioning me about my rank for information I’m putting on the Internet for free.

So let’s dig into this by starting with defining, rank and certification.

In the martial arts, belt rank is supposed to reflect your skill and knowledge in a specific style. The ranking system used today has only been around for about a hundred years and was originally developed by Jigoro Kano the founder of judo. There are two “levels” so to speak in the ranking system. Colored belts and Black belts. Depending on the style, system, or instructor the number and types of colored belts can vary. It is generally accepted among most styles, though, that there are only 10 degrees of black belt. On average, and of course, this depends on the style or system, it takes about 4 to 5 years to reach first-degree black belt. And it can take almost a lifetime to reach 10th degree.

Belt rank is important because it gives others in the system or style, and even outside the style to get a general idea of where you are at in your training. If you have a colored belt, you are most likely a beginner. Instructors used colored belts to break students up into different levels of the curriculum. If you have a black belt, you should probably know something. If you are a high ranking black belt, you be a master of your craft. And let us not forget, it is also an ego thing. Some people take it a bit far, but on a fundamental level, having a certain color belt does make one feel better about themselves. It can be a confidence booster to have a feeling of self-accomplishment you have achieved or completed a goal, and that someone else felt the same way about your skills and knowledge to award you that rank.

Certifications in the martial arts are mostly geared toward instructor levels. These certificates can be awarded for many different aspects of the style, representing that the person who was awarded the certificate, had completed a minimum number of hours and proven they had the capability to teach within the scope of the certificate’s curriculum. There are some systems that issue user certifications. These are most commonly associated with the use of some kind of tool. Since martial arts training is closely linked to military, law-enforcement, and security, user certifications are awarded to prove a person has met minimum standard requirements to be able to carry and use the tool they were trained in. Depending on the system, style, or tool there can be multiple instructor levels as well as multiple user levels. I have been in instructor certification classes that lasted from 8 hours to a few days. One program I was in wouldn’t let you teach a class with someone with less experience until you mastered the material, and that took months.

Certifications are important, because it qualifies the certificate holder, the ability to teach whatever curriculum the certification is for. When it comes to law enforcement and security, an instructor certification is important on an insurance company and department policy level. This says the department is responsible enough to have a certified instructor to train users. This could be for any tool that an officer has on their belt, a baton, handcuffs, pepper spray, CRMIPT, a Taser, firearm, etc. This user certification can potentially back up a user in court. If a tool was used in a use of force event, it proves to the jury and the court the person who used the tool was taught how to use it properly. Certification also helps a department discipline or even terminate individuals who were trained properly, but don’t use and continue to not use a tool properly.

The difference between rank and certification is, one certifies you to teach and the other one does not. It is a misconception that black belts are certified to teach the system or style they are ranked in. Being an instructor, it is commonly agreed you can promote somebody up to one rank below yourself. For example, a second-degree black belt can only promote somebody up to first-degree black belt, and so on. Even though they may have the ability to award rank, not every black belt has the ability to teach. I have one friend who says there are black belts in his school he would never have as an instructor on his mat. They are good martial artists, but are not good at teaching what they know. At the same time, I have met some really bad certified instructors.

There are some systems that give a teaching certification to those who reach third-degree black. Though not written in stone, but done in practice, this is how it is done in the style of Kempo I came up in. My rise in rank was a little unorthodox. I never stuck to one “school” but attached myself to a few different instructors over the years. I was never directly taught how to teach through my Kempo training, I learned more from the instructor certification training I went through, and by watching how some of my mentors taught. I also find myself to be a natural teacher.

To say what is more important, rank or certification, it really depends on what aspect of martial arts you are talking about. Is the topic having the credentials to teach? Then being certified is more important. Is the topic rank promotions, then rank is more important. Is the topic a real life fight? Then skill is the most important thing you should have. All the certificates and all the belts in the world will never save your ass in a fight. Only your skill. If you have bad skill, you lose. Well, to clarify, if your skill is worse than your opponent, you lose. If your skill is better, then you win. This is why there are some martial arts systems, Modular Knife, for example, that award instructor certifications and not rank.