Black Belt – What is it Really?

What is a Black Belt? Why are people willing to work so hard for years to earn one? Why are others willing to pay thousands of dollars to be guaranteed one? Why do so many quit soon after receiving this rank?

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I asked the first question when I started our Advanced Rank class at the new Centennial School and it is asked frequently in the sphere of martial arts. Literally, it is a piece of black cloth that can be tied around your waste. In the Japanese martial arts tradition, a black belt started out as a white belt and as it got dirty with age it turned black as a testament to the length of time the student had devoted to training and study. A Black Belt, to the non-martial artist has also come to symbolize excellence or expertise in martial arts. Unfortunately, in this time of “McDojos” and “Black Belt Factories” the Black Belt has become a commodity to be purchased and guaranteed by contract. I am dismayed when I see 5 or 6 year old First Dan Black Belts or 8 year old Second Dans that are produced by these strip mall charlatans, I doubt anyone that young can learn and refine the skills associated with a Black Belt, let alone understand and practice the personal characteristics of a Black Belt. This type of commercialization has deluded the meaning of the Black Belt rank black lives matter t-shirt.

The way things are now, there are a plethora of martial arts styles and as many schools out there that have just as many different philosophies, including their own definition of what a Black Belt is. I guess ultimately, the individual decides what this rank means for them personally and it is the responsibility of the individual to go out there and find a school or club that shares that definition.

I started martial arts when I was about 9 years old, a virtual senior citizen compared to the kids that practice martial arts today. I would tell you how long I have been training in Taekwon-Do but, for those of you who can add, it would give away my age. In all those years, I have been exposed to a wide range of martial arts, martial artists and their philosophies. I have developed my own personal philosophy on what a Black Belt means and as Head Instructor of a Taekwon-Do school, that is also my school’s definition. It is my sincerest hope that all of my students share my philosophy. I know for a fact that some of my students that haven’t shared my philosophy have left my school to find other Instructors whose definition they were more comfortable with, or they have simply quit (yes, I dare to use the “Q” word) Taekwon-Do.

I will never forget a parent, who was living her life through her son’s accomplishments, so she had this poor 10 year old boy involved in so many different activities he was doing something different every night of the week including Taekwon-Do, soccer, choir, piano and so on. I felt sorry for him! He was a smart and skilled martial artist, but he was only attending class a maximum of once a week. One night after class this parent approached me and asked, “What is the fastest way I can get my son to Black Belt?” I figured she left out the rest of the question that probably would have gone, “so I can move him on to another activity adding one more of my son’s accomplishments to MY resume.”

Those who know me, wouldn’t be surprised at my answer. I told her, “I can order in a black belt for $12 and we can have it in about a week. For $25 he can have his name embroidered on it and it should arrive in about 10 days.” She was not amused. So I thought I better get serious fast. I explained the training and time requirements. She let me know in no uncertain terms that his schedule was completely full and he could not meet the requirements. That was the last time I saw that student and his mother. The saddest part of the whole thing is that if his mother had let him put in the time and effort he could have been an outstanding Black Belt.

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