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!”