Guest Column by Joseph Siprut The Merits of the Belt System What Wrestling Can Learn from the Ma

By Joseph Siprut | May 21, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
Fans of the late 1980s flick The Karate Kid may recall Mr. Miyagi's admonition to Daniel LaRusso that belts are only useful for holding pants up. Funny, yes, but incorrect. In fact, the belt system employed by most forms of martial arts has several meritorious features. The sport of wrestling, were it to take a page from the book of martial arts and adopt some version of the belt system, would quite possibly enjoy several of these benefits as well. As most readers know, under the belt system of martial arts referred to here, those who train in the arts receive colored belts which are meant to correspond to a given individual's skill level. A white belt is commonly an entry-level color for the novice, the black is typically the most advanced or expert level, and there are a host of colors/levels in between. More important than the significance of the particular colors, however, is the significance of having different colors at all. When wrestlers at the high school or collegiate level compete, they have benchmarks to gauge their progress: the conference and state tournaments in high school, for example, and at the collegiate level, the conference championships and national tournament. The same certainly holds true for elite wrestlers who compete internationally and routinely vie for spots on national teams. But what about those wrestlers who finish their high school or college careers and still desire to compete, but do not desireor are not capableto compete on the more elite, international level? And what about those pre-high school age wrestlers just starting their training, trying to decide whether to stick with the sport? For these groups of individuals, in a system where competitors and recreational trainers alike carry belts that symbolize skill level, several beneficial features emerge. Those who participate in the sport at these levels will have a greater incentive to train that is, they will have something to train for. Anyone who has trained in any sport, or who has worked out in any capacity for purely recreational purposes, recognizes that the best gains come after specific, concrete goals are set. Providing some objective means by which to measure skill level will map progress and make concrete goal-setting much easier. Of course, one may question whether the relatively small number of individuals who compete, or desire to compete, at the "limbo" level between college and the international circuit justify a proposal this bold. But this concern misses the point: it is precisely because of the lack of incentive to train and stay involved with the sport that so few individuals exist. If things were different, wrestling might blossom as a club sport in the way that the martial arts have. And let us not forget the youngsters! Pre-high school age competitors may benefit from a belt system more than any other group. This is true for all of the reasons already covered, but also for additional reasons. Perhaps most importantly, passing through the belt levels will encourage young wrestlers to keep training when the win-loss record alone otherwise would not. For youngsters in particular, it's exceedingly difficult to keep showing up to practice night after night, week after week, when on the weekends, you serve as a throwing dummy for your opponentsparticularly when all your friends are off playing basketball and baseball. Having a new belt to show to your friends, however, gives you a reason to keep taking punishment. Moreover, in the martial arts, achieving a new belt level is based in large part on mastery of technique, rather than pure competition. If wrestling were to set the same criteria, excellence in technique would be rewarded in a way that pure competition alone cannot always do. And as many veteran wrestlers will surely concede, often times, if you don't correct bad technique at an early age, you may be stuck with those bad habits for the rest of your career. For present purposes, the point is simply that a belt system or even anything close to it would help foster in the general public the basic belief that wrestling can be a recreational sport, for people of all skill levels. Further along these same lines, it would enshrine the notion that wrestling can be a form of self-defense (like the martial arts), which in turn, of course, would also increase the popularity of the sport. Wrestlers have fared exceptionally well in mixed martial arts competitions such as the UFC over the last ten years, and this fact has done much to establish wrestling's effectiveness vis-à-vis other styles more typically regarded by the general public as appropriate for self-defense training. By "joining the club," in effect, and establishing a belt system employed by these other styles, wrestling would go further in this regardand would both legitimize wrestling as a recreational sport and increase wrestling's popularity. This proposal raises questions perhaps more than it purports to answer them. Perhaps chiefly: What would the objective criterion for belt levels be? These types of questions should perhaps be left for another day. And as mentioned above, it may not be the case that the merits of a belt system have anything at all to do with a "physical belt," per se. But if fans of our sport desire to see an increase in wrestling's popularity, there should be some objective benchmark recognized by the sport to measure achievement and progress for wrestlers not competing on the high-school, college, or international level. Let's branch out and make wrestling accepted as a recreational sport in the way that most other sports have. Mr. Siprut is a litigation attorney based in Chicago, and is a recent graduate of Northwestern University School of Law. He has competed in and coached wrestling on a volunteer basis for twelve years. He may be contacted at