I was trying to figure out whether Brown Belt should be one big post or three little posts, and after thinking about how big the one big post would be, I decided it was three little posts.
If you went to my school as a kid, you would already have been familiar with degrees, because at least the first couple of belts had three degrees each. It’s funny to look back on this as an adult who has now spent close to two decades in game design, because I can clearly see the thinking.
For adults, white belt is one belt, because any adult who signs up to learn martial arts cares enough to get up from the chair after work or on a weekend, haul themselves over to the school, put on different clothes, and sweat voluntarily for an hour or so. That means that, assuming they have a weekly lesson and put in the practice time to keep moving along, they’re gonna get to Orange Belt in about six months. Long enough that it feels earned, short enough that you can see it coming. (And I think that later on, the school even added Yellow Belt, maybe? Which was “the second half of the stuff you need to get to Orange Belt.”)
But for kids? Hooboy. There’s a good chance the kids are in there because Dad really wants them to do some sort of athletic activity, but Mom would like it to be Not Football, Please, because they’ve read a bunch of stuff about long-term brain injuries, and hey, here’s a website with a kid bowing and looking stern, and maybe that will help our kid learn discipline, too, buuuuuut no, by the time the kid gets to the group classes a couple times a week, their ADHD meds have already worn off for the day, and so this poor kid who has had to try to sit in a chair and pay attention for most of the day is now faced with having to listen and repeat specific body movements for an hour, or realistically about forty-five minutes after the instructors kill a little time with stretches and “All right, we’re playing dodge ball with bean bags and also running from one side of the dojo to the other!”
So that kid is rarely gonna get from White Belt to Orange Belt in six months. And even if they could, six months to a kid is an appreciable percentage of their entire lives. For a kid, six months is far enough into the future that it feels like an impossible distance, and from a game design perspective, that makes it hard to get the player motivated to make progress toward that goal. You want the player to get a taste of success early enough that they feel inspired to keep going. (That’s why the first few levels of any video game with a leveling system go by quickly, with you usually levelling up at least once by the time you’re out of the prologue.)
All of which means that the process of getting from White Belt to Orange Belt gets split up for kids in a lot of schools, and that’s not wrong or bad or evil. That’s just the schools trying to give the kids goals that are close enough for the kids to visualize, so that the kids are motivated to get there step by step.
And hey, we were talking about Brown Belt.
Because Brown Belt is where the belt levels split for everyone, even adults, and for kind of the same reason.
At least when I was there at the school, on a well-attended adult class on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, you’d have a bunch of white belts, and then a few orange belts, and then only one or two apiece of purple and blue and green, and then a bunch of brown belts. It was like a reverse bell curve in some ways, because the first big hump to get over at the school was, “Can you learn to move and do the thing? Do you actually want to do this?” And that takes awhile, and a lot of people, even adults, will try it and then decide it isn’t for them. But the ones who got to Orange Belt were far more likely to continue on the other belts, at least until Brown.
And Brown was the next big plateau, where the amount of time and dedicated effort required to get to the next rank meant that a lot of people stalled out there.
It makes sense, too. Each rank of Brown Belt is hard, in some ways that they all share, and in some ways that are special for each belt.
In order to get to Third-Degree Brown, you’ve got a short technique list — ten, rather than the usual twenty or thirty. You’ve got two katas. And finally, for the test itself, you’ve got The Kicks.
The Kicks marks the first time that you as a student are expected to come up with something yourself. After all these belts of mostly never kicking above the waist and staying practical, this belt asks you to start learning kicks that have adjectives like “Leaping” and “Spinning” in front of them. The teachers would help you get comfortable with them, and eventually, your job for the test was to put together a presentation of several kicks on each side, showing off what you can do.
To be 100% clear, there is very little reason to ever do a jump-spinning hook kick in an actual self-defense situation. That said, it looks cool as hell, and much like board-breaking, it is not intended to be practical as much as it is intended to show that you have put in the time and effort necessary to do something difficult well. (We don’t do board-breaking in tests, although some schools do.)
The techniques at this belt continue the trend of getting more complex and demonstrating different types of motion and skills. One of them is about controlling an attacker before taking them down to the ground. One of them has a weird Aikido-feeling takedown that is really hard to explain and doesn’t feel like it should work until you have it done to you and then find yourself on your back going, “Huh.” One of them actually does use a spinning hook kick (although not a jumping spinning hook kick) in a way that is actually practical:
Side Punch #5 (Also sometimes they just stop having fancy names at this level, and you’re like, “Let’s see, Trapping Well, Eagle’s Grasp, and this one is just called Brown Belt Club Attack? Okay.”)
Attack: A right punch coming from an attacker on your left.
- Step to the left into a fighting stance — your left foot should be just behind their right foot.
- As you step, left parry and right upward block (which together we call a Shield block).
- Simultaneous left inward block as a strike to the attacker’s back (between shoulders) and right inverted hammer-fist to the attacker’s stomach.
- Left foot sweep takes them off balance, and you plant it across your right, which leads into…
- Spinning right hook kick and simultaneous right back-knuckle. The back-knuckle goes to the head, and the hook kick goes to the back of the knee of the leg you just weakened by sweeping it.
- As the attacker drops to one knee, grab the shoulder, finish with a punch to the head.
I love this technique. It is one that showed me how far I had come from when I was first learning stuff. It’s got hands doing different moves at the same time, and it’s got the spinning kick that seems ridiculous at first, until you do it with a partner and understand that no, you’re not just going right into a spinning kick for no reason like a 90s Direct-to-Video kickboxer-turned-action-star. You’re stopping the attack, stunning the attacker, breaking their balance with a sweep and then a step that coils up your whole body, and then uncoiling into that kick with all the power of your body behind it. It’s showing how a kick like that might actually make sense from a practical standpoint, not as something you must do, but as an option you can do now that you understand enough about how your body works to do it.
On the kata side of things, we have Mass Attack, and we have Book Set.
Mass Attack is a lot like Short #3 back at Blue Belt. It’s short, it’s fast, and it’s one move into another into another. It’s called Mass Attack because every technique you’re doing is one you learned earlier that involves two attackers. It requires you to pay attention to where you’re targeting during the kata, but it never bothered me.
Book Set, on the other hand, is a beast.
You may have gotten to Brown Belt and thought, “Cool, I know spinning kicks now, I’m doing these cool parry-blocks, everything is soft and evasive, and I can basically flow my way through everything from now on, right?”
Book Set is there to tell you No.
Remember all your blocks? No no, not your fancy new ones. Your old blocks. Remember how you used to have to practice blocking your way from one end of the mat to the other, and you would get tired and kind of wish you’d been good enough at team sports to stay with soccer? Remember how you haven’t really focused hard on those blocks in awhile? Buckle up, Brown Belt. This kata is basically you doing blocks and strikes back and forth across the mat for what feels like an hour.
Hey, Book Set noticed that you’re trying to get power into your punches by just sort of leaning. Book Set thinks you should do some punches that specifically use good strong forward bow stances. How about you go back and forth across the mat a few times just to show Book Set you’ve got it down? Okay, good, good, now how about inverted punches? Nice, nice. How about inverted punches with the front arm?
Book Set is a long-ass kata that takes you Back to Basics. By the time you get it down and good, you are going to have clean stances and strikes, and you are going to be able to show your work on how you’re getting power from every possible stance change.
And that’s Third-Degree Brown Belt. Taking everything you’ve learned so far with your movements, and then taking you back to the basics and forcing you to apply your new levels of coordination and balance to them.
You get that, and you’ve taken the next big steps on the road toward Black Belt.