Martial Development

Martial arts for personal development

Why Are White Belt Fighters So Dangerous?

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21 Comments

Many experienced martial artists believe that, of all the different categories of training partners, absolute beginners are the most dangerous. To outsiders, this sounds like a paradox. Shouldn’t those with the least martial arts training be the least dangerous?

It is not truly a paradox, only a misconception. And not all white belts are dangerous, obviously. But those that are, if only on the mat, are so for the following reasons.

Their goal is always to win. They don’t yet understand the difference between trying to win, and trying to cultivate the skills that one uses to win. Real fights are chaotic affairs, and chaos is not a proper breeding ground for skill development; thus, training in respectable martial arts consists of a series of games, first introducing support structures (e.g. rules and conventions), then dismantling them one step at a time.

The need for, or value in this approach is not obvious–and it is not always explained at the outset. So some white belts never appreciate the context of their practice. Others consider themselves above the “organized despair” of the “traditional mess,” and when a rule stands between them and a sparring victory, they break it without hesitation. The conventions and rules of training, they reason, are “unrealistic in a real fight.”

Sadly, annoyingly, some of these individuals mistake their impatience for martial prowess–and having checked off another box on their MMA resume, they quickly depart in pursuit of the next imaginary accomplishment. In the words of the seasoned sensei, “They’re someone else’s problem now.”

They have no self-awareness. The white belt fighter will take insane risks that any experienced player would avoid. The white belt fighter will compromise their own balance in an attempt to take yours. They will open up their guard in the hope of passing yours. They consistently expose themselves in the present, thereby expecting to prevail in the near future.

To the rest of us, watching a white belt fight is like observing a murder-suicide attempt.

Why are white belts so crazy? They don’t realize when they have made themselves vulnerable, so they are free to do so with carefree abandon. Over time, competing against higher ranked classmates provides a civilizing education.

They are honest attackers. While the previous two points address the folly of youth and inexperience, these qualities also have their benefits. The strength of the white belt is…strength. And speed. And courageous aggression, no matter how ill-founded. And unpredictability.

People who are more interested in attack than in self-preservation can make great practice partners (so long as minimum safety standards are met). One of the ironies of self-defense is that, unless a trainer can step outside their own mindset–and inhabit the mind and body of the amoral predator–their training does not have any real value.

The white belt can take you by surprise. They will do something so improbable, so highly inane, that you feel compelled to stop for criticism or laughter instead of taking advantage of the error.

And yet, surprising the opponent is never really an error, is it?

Because the white belt fighter is a tremendous resource, there is a tension between helping them mature in skill and temperament, and preserving them in an untamed state (in order to help others grow).

Black belts would do well to study the best practices of the white belt novice, and incorporate them into their own practice. Let the shodan follow all the rules, while the sandan playfully proclaim, “I can do bad all by myself!”

Categories: Aikido · Fighting and Self-Defense · Karate · Psychology · Teaching

21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Glass // Oct 8, 2010

    Common misconception. Poor article. Only inexperienced fighters have trouble with ‘white belts’ – For the experienced fighter ‘white belts’ are easy to knock around. Good boxers have no trouble hitting beginners. Good Judoka can easily throw beginners. If you are have trouble with ‘novices’ that’s your problem. You need more fighting practice. Fight with better fighters and stop playing with beginners.

  • 2 chris // Oct 8, 2010

    I can imagine you facing a white belt in an informal boxing match, and the first thing they do is kick you in the balls. Then they advise you that you need more fighting practice, thus completing the great cycle of insecurity.

    I’ve heard these sentiments from at least a half-dozen experienced instructors of martial arts. Do you teach, Bill?

  • 3 Michele // Oct 9, 2010

    I agree with this article. I think the phrase “carefree abandon” sums up why white belts can be dangerous. In my experience, I am extra diligent when sparring white belts due to their unpredictability. Once a white belt student (male – age 16), dropped into a split in the middle of a sparring match. He saw the technique in a movie and wanted to try it out. The technique was completely ineffective but it reminded us that white belts will try almost anything…

  • 4 Bill Glass // Oct 9, 2010

    I used to teach but I realized it took time away from fighting practice. which is all I do now. That’s all there is to it. As for getting kicked in the balls, I do that to others and I don’t let beginners or anybody else get a chance to do it to me. Teaching, studying, writing is ok as an excuse not to fight which is the only purpose of any martial art. Good luck with the blog

  • 5 chris // Oct 9, 2010

    Bill,
    Fighting is fine–even as an excuse not to teach or learn–but to claim that as the only purpose of martial arts is to make a crude attempt at rewriting history. Good luck with your fights.

    Michele,
    Thank you for sharing. I’ve had similar experiences.

    I remember when a fellow with no Tai Chi experience showed up for push hands practice. After I told him that striking wasn’t, strictly speaking, against the rules, he immediately started throwing random punches with his free hand–never recognizing that the only reason he had a free hand, was that we were drilling the most basic one-sided introductory pattern. Which he could not execute correctly. Sigh.

  • 6 SenseiMattKlein // Oct 9, 2010

    Yes, Chris, white belts are unpredictable. I believe the reason is that they have not mastered the techniques, and therefore do them without coordination or control. In most cases they are not out to hurt anyone, but cannot control themselves. Mastery in the ring comes after hundreds or even thousands of sparring rounds, where you learn to relax and go with the flow. For this reason I generally don’t let beginners spar in our schools.

    Bill, you have missed out on the most important lessons of martial arts–to be humble, to respect others, and to use it for self defense only, not for fighting.

  • 7 Padawan // Oct 10, 2010

    An interesting perspective. I like it.

  • 8 CR // Oct 12, 2010

    You definitely have a strong perspective on this, Bill, and thanks for participating in the blog. My concern is that if all experienced fighters do is “knock around” beginners, there won’t be many or any beginners left after a while.

    I venture that the article is speaking at least in part from the perspective that the more experienced partner in the match is not trying to stomp the white belt, but perhaps to teach them something in the match, and teaching (in some form) is the only way to ultimately get more experienced fighters, yes?

  • 9 Budd // Oct 21, 2010

    Excellent article. They can also have a “something to prove” mentality.

  • 10 Phil // Oct 21, 2010

    I agree wholeheartedly. My observation is that white belts are missing control of their techniques. They may have stamina, speed, and even some basic techniques… so they can be dangerous in that aspect, and when they do land a strike, it is with imprecise control. When we spar (for sport/points or even light cardio training), our purpose is seldom to inflict actual damage to our training partner. If it were, we wouldn’t be with a training partner for very long. An overly aggressive white belt with no control or focus can seriously injure even a seasoned martial artist. So the seasoned student may land a dozen well placed, well controlled strikes on their opponent, where any one of which could have ended an actual fight, they only come off as a slight taps to their opponent. But the white belt on the other hand, only needs to land one well placed, poorly controlled strike that penetrates a little too far – ending the practice session with a bloody nose, cracked rib, or worse. Now of course not all white belts lack control… but then again, not all black belts have it:)

  • 11 T-man // Nov 6, 2010

    Yes, it is true, white belts tend to have that ‘out there to prove something’ and that in itself is a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, in my personal opinion it is an advantage in sparring in its own right, do u guys think so? I myself is a blue-belt atm in judo. I just remember that in sparring, aggressiveness is a very powerful tool and that enables us to attack with an enhanced sense of power (n btw, only for competition purpose, not just practice). To an extent, my coach told me never let that flame die down because in the end, martial art is a sport and you play sports with all your heart, dont u? :) Thank you very much for this blog

  • 12 Adam // Nov 14, 2010

    I think that some white belts can be unpredictable, rather than dangerous. It is because the white belt does not spar according to the rules of the particular art he is participating in.

    One classic scenario is where the white belt lowers his guard to defend against a front kick to the mid section, which results in the kicker, kicking the elbows of the white belt defender, thus hurting their feet.

    I think this situation is most strong in traditional martial arts and is not very common at all in boxing and especially brasilian jiu jitsu where all beginners are cannon fodder to other white belts with just three months training. And this does not mean that white belts just get hammered by all.. just an observation.

    I really do not want to provoke a defensive response by people feeling this statement is saying one system is better than others, it is just an observation and I am sure that people who have experience in a range of systems will agree here.

  • 13 chris // Nov 14, 2010

    Violent + Unpredictable = Dangerous

  • 14 Doug // Nov 25, 2010

    White belts are dangerous because when you try to show them something, they spaz out and do it without restraint. For example, show a white belt an Americana lock and let them drill it on you, and they will crank that son of a bitch as hard as they can and wreck your shoulder.

  • 15 shaun // Jan 31, 2011

    Hey Chris,

    I’ve trained for 23 years and taught for at least 10. I think the primary reason why beginners have difficulty participating in controlled sparing is down to fear…they are worried about getting hit which is why they come in head down and all guns blazing.

    I found a great way to overcome this and turn them into controlled fighters was to ask them to practice their techniques on me and make them totally aware that I wasn’t going to hit them back so to take it easy.

    I would tell them I am defending only and if they hit hard I would hit back. Once they learned to attack in a controlled manor I would start putting the occasional dig into them and they enjoyed it.

    As their confidence grew, our pace increased. I produced a lot of controlled fighters using this method and they developed alot of respect.

  • 16 How To Fight Good // Feb 1, 2011

    But all this said would it still work on the street, almost every street fight will go to the floor so ground fighting must be implimented into every schools syllabus I think.

  • 17 Phil // Feb 1, 2011

    It is a common misconception that almost every street fight will go to the ground. Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. did a research paper on this where he analyzed some 300 street fights and found that, basically, only in 42% of the fights did *both* fighters go to the ground. That isn’t to say that ground work isn’t important to know, but it is probably more important to learn how to stay on your feet. And if I’m on the ground there is going to be a lot of eye poking and biting which most ground sport fighters won’t be accustomed to and doesn’t take long ot learn!

  • 18 How To Fight Good // Feb 2, 2011

    Hey Phil,
    Yes it has to get dirty, there is no such thing as a clean street fight anymore, it’s either going to be you or them. But good grapplers could lock into some hellish positions where you won’t be able to bite or gouge and the correct focus could temporarily paralise. I think it safe to say it depends on your opponent and no fight will ever be the same. Interesting fact though about the 42%, thanks for that.

  • 19 Ben // Apr 2, 2011

    I’m a white belt with only 2 strips. I always pay special attention to what I’m doing because I acknowledge that injury is only an errant twist away. I have rolled with every person at my school and none of the higher belts take advantage of the lower ones. Oh, they’ll hand you your ass…but they will explain how they did and how to avoid it in the future, and they will the same thing too you 10 times in a row if you dont figure out how to stop it. this Bill guy sounds like he’s just an armchair warrior running his mouth, no real instructor former or current would have that kind of attitude toward his students or fellow sparring partners. And not all white belts are dangerous, provided that the dangers are explained early on by an instructor with an emphasis on safety. Accidents happen but if it keeps happening then the offending student needs to be shown to the door. Besides, any idiot knows that if you hurt your training partners, they cant help you later, and probably wont want to either.

  • 20 Rick // Apr 19, 2012

    I don’t know where you’re finding these crazy white belts. Mine are usually too timid, not too aggressive. I don’t find them dangerous to spar with; but they are dangerous when sparring each other.

  • “Why Are White Belt Fighters So Dangerous?,” by Chris Pearson // Nov 12, 2010

    [...] Click here to read entire article. [...]

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