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  • Writer's pictureAnn O'Brien

What Do Kids' Colored Belts Mean?

Updated: Apr 19

I love seeing the pride in kids when they earn a new belt. It is something we don’t typically see in this world of instant gratification. I can’t quite explain it, but the happiness they show in getting an ice cream cone or new pair of shoes doesn’t even compare.

Over weeks and months, kids work on the techniques they’ll be tested on. When they first learn a new skill, it’s very normal to fumble. Certain moves may feel impossible at this stage. I have learned to just let it be, because as long as we’re having fun, it changes quickly.

That said, rushing to get it right often slows progress. With patience and perseverance, there are typically “a-ha” moments, where things “click” that made no sense before. At this point, body-knowing starts to lead, and practice takes a leap.

I can sometimes sense jealousy or frustration in those working towards belts who aren’t there yet. And I get it; I’ve been there!

Moving through this is part of our Aikido training. We cannot “join with life force energy” when we are in the ego, in competition. Aikido is about allowing something bigger to lead our way.

And so, at least at my dojo, the belts aren’t just about skill. Yes, the skills need to be there. But to think that the color of your belt means you’re good or not good, or special or not special— misses the mark.

When new students begin training, they learn quickly to copy those with the highest colored belts. And so, promotions are given to those who demonstrate this responsibility and leadership. This is not about showing off or telling the newer students how to do Aikido— far from it. Following our dojo etiquette— showing personal dedication and honoring others— is as important as technique.

Kids’ first test (yellow belt) is given fairly quickly, after at least 20 days of training. It’s so validating for them to set a goal and achieve it, and also prepares them for more challenging tests ahead. Expectations get higher as students go up in the ranks, as does the time between tests. There is nothing to rush. Anyway, quick success doesn’t mean as much to them.

Aikido is passed on through energy transmission. There is a reciprocal exchange expected between newer and more senior students. Again, this requires un-learning the human tendency to compete and compare.

Hierarchy in Aikido is not about “better” or “worse;” there are just different gifts and needs implicit in each role. The senpai (more senior student) needs to be responsible, and gifts their support and sharing of what they’ve learned. The kohai (less experienced student) needs to be respectful, and gifts their receptivity and enthusiasm.

To this end, not only is a student’s promotion a gift to those less experienced; it is a “thank you” to those more experienced. The sensei or senpai’s Aikido becomes that much more meaningful when it is received. Each of us who practice has an important role; none are better or worse, and we all benefit from one another.

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