THE BLACK BELT
People unfamiliar with a martial
art expect a black belt to be some kind of �super-human�. Unaware of the
complete system of ranking, they feel that when a person has attained the level
of black belt, he/she has reached the top. The dark band symbolizes mastery of
feats that ordinary men/women dare not attempt. Wondering, envious, still they
are not quite sure just exactly what a black belt is.
Materially it is nothing more than a
strip of cloth 1�� to 4� wide and long enough to wrap twice around the
waist. Yet, traditionally, it is a designation of expertise in a field. A black
belt is a part of a system of advancement, and therefore stands as a symbol of
improvement and achievement.
HOW TO ACHIEVE A BLACK BELT
The method by
which a practitioner earns a black belt varies according to the system or style,
his/her attitudes and culture. For example, Korean students train six (6) days a
week, usually earning their black belt in 1� to 2 years on the average. In the
United States, a dedicated student will attend class approximately three (3)
times a week and obtain his/her black belt at the end of 2� to 3 years.
Frequently a student can only come to class twice (2) a week or less, in which
case it may take as long as four (4) years for him/her to achieve black belt.
By comparison, the United States has a much shorter
history in the martial arts than Korea, and therefore attaches less significance
to it as a part of American culture. Neither does it have the tradition of
attitudes and values. As a result, black belts are quite numerous in Korea,
whereas they are a rarity and a curiosity in America.
Because of the tradition of Taekwondo in Korea and the cultural differences that promote patience and perseverance, a Korean student is likely to get a black belt earlier. The greater availability of instruction, both through an abundance of studios and the installment of classes in elementary educational facilities along with the assistance of other black belts, also serves to encourage the student. The result is a high level of morale and a low level of dropouts. Perhaps one student in a hundred will make black belt in the USA.
comparison, one in ten Koreans will reach that level. The most important concept
is that the amount of time it takes to reach a particular level doesn�t
matter. It is the proper concept of the art and a continued effort that will
eventually prove successful.
THE VALUE OF A BLACK BELT
begin training in Taekwondo will learn most basics and several forms (Poomsae,
Hyungs, Tul, Patterns) (patterns of offense and defense practiced solo) in a few
months. They then begin adding to their knowledge with different types of
sparring (1-steps, 3-steps, model, free) and gradually, as they progress through
the color belt ranks (usually: White-Yellow-Orange-Purple-Green-Blue-Red-Brown), breaking
techniques---all important aspects of self-defense. There will always be basics
that the student must continually practice. Similarly, as the student
progresses, there will be new, more advanced forms, new sparring techniques,
greater levels of meditation, and more instruction in philosophy and history.
How the instructor leads each student to a higher
level will vary with the student�s ability and the instructor�s concepts and
techniques. Each student must be taken as an individual, regardless of age, and
taught the knowledge of the art. There are many divisions of black belt---pee
wee, juniors, seniors, men and women.
Each person has a different purpose for studying and
achieving a black belt. Consequently, each person will have developed some of
the aspects and requirements for a black belt more highly than others. Some
practitioners may be very good technicians, but have little knowledge of the
�art�. On the other hand, some may be very wise and understanding, but have
not developed into proficient technicians.
The most important value in receiving a black belt
will be the mastery of ones own conduct. It means that the holder has enough
control of him/her self to set a good example to others as a human being. He/She
will be able to set aside his/her own desires in order to help others. He/She
will have firm control over his/her own emotions and temper, even in a difficult
situation. He will conduct him/her self wisely and conscientiously. He/She will
be able to determine his/her own moral precepts and stand for his/her rights and
ideals. He/She will understand the difference between right and wrong, and weigh
the outcome of his/her actions on him/her self and others.
Above all, the black belt should not be a symbol of
physical power. It should be a mark of character, the ability to accept a job
and do it right, to face life with honesty. It should be a sign of good manners,
strong spirit, and perseverance.
WHO ISSUES A BLACK BELT
Over the course of many years a student trains for certain
values and knowledge. His continued studies should never be allowed to progress
through a desire to obtain physical prowess and power over other humans. In
order to insure his/her guidance toward the proper goals his/her instructor must
Most skillful and sincere black belts receive their rank
from their own instructors rather than an organization that was not responsible
for their training. The instructor has been able to watch the student progress.
He/She has helped him/her to understand the martial arts. In turn, he/she has
also come to understand the student, his/her motives, desires, character,
ability and spirit. The instructor is most likely to know when the student is
ready to progress to black belt. His/Her insights and observations enable
him/her, more than anyone else, to perceive when the student has developed into
a serious martial artist. Therefore, the instructor should be the judge to
decide when to award a black belt.
The student who achieves black belt through an organization
that is unfamiliar with him has only demonstrated his physical prowess and
ability as a technician. No test, except the test of time and familiarity, can
be devised to test ones character. It is for this reason that the student who
receives his black belt from his own instructor has achieved a greater symbol of
good character and spiritual development. Of course the instructor has to be
certified and able to promote a student to black belt. First-degree black belts
cannot promote anyone to black belt. Second degrees can promote to first degree
if their own instructors certify them to do so.
There is also one other �type� of black belt. This is
the person who writes his own certificate without proper testing. He is a
�phony black belt� but the possessing of that type of certificate means
nothing. Having a black belt certificate is not the same as having a license to
practice medicine or go into business. It is not an objective for economic
stability and does not guarantee an ability to make a living. Instead it is a
symbol of honor and achievement in ones life. The holder of a fake certificate
holds only a piece of paper, a hollow victory at best. His is a symbol of the
honor, which he has failed to attain. He who creates his own �black belt� has fooled no one but himself and those who
trust in him.
This country has seen a steady growth of all martial arts
and has produced innumerable black belts during the last thirty (30) years. At
the same time, the general public seems to think that a black belt is the
highest achievement that a martial art practitioner can attain�. and that,
with so many new black belts, the martial arts in the United States are getting
better and better.
Unfortunately, many students of the martial arts seem to
share this belief. We have all known some students who work very hard, take
direction very well, work out regularly, and finally receive the right to wear
the black belt, the 1st Degree (Dan), and within a few months have
ceased to practice, stopped studying, and usually stopped listening to their
instructor. They behave, as a matter of fact, as if they really do not know that
there might be something more to learn.
What is far worse than this is really quite common: such a
student who fairly recently reached 1st Degree black belt, decides to
promote him/her self, and declares him/her self 2nd or 3rd
Degree black belt, and even, I am sorry to say, in some cases 5th or
6th Degree black belts. When I hear young men and women in their
20�s and 30�s declare that they are 7th or 8th Degree
black belts, or even sometimes 9th or 10th Degree black
belts, I feel sorry for this state of affairs.
There are other cases that are just as sorry. For example:
I once had a student come to me from another school and another style. He showed
me a certificate stating that he was a 4th Kyu in Shotokan karate. I
knew his previous instructor and knew that he was a good teacher. I cross-ranked
this student into our system as a 4th Gup. After he was with me for
six months I asked him if he was ready to test for 3rd Gup. He said
that he was ready to test for 2nd Gup and that I should give him the
opportunity to double promote. This was back in June, 1985 and I did double
promote at that time if the student new all the curriculum and had enough time
in grade. I consented to his wish and set up the test date. I had six (6)
students who were testing for 2nd and 1st Gup on that day.
When the test got under way he showed an indifferent attitude toward the testing
procedure. He was off balance most of the test and his patterns were terrible.
Before the breaking and sparring portion of the test, I had already decided not
to promote him, but gave him a chance to show others that he was not ready. He
failed the breaking portion, and when it came to free sparring he committed
several unforgivable errors, by striking his partners in the face and groin
intentionally. After the test, I pulled him to the side and asked him what his
problem was. I could smell alcohol on his breath and his clothing had a burnt
rope smell to them. I was informed later that he did do �pot� and also sold
it. I told him on the spot that he failed the testing and because of his
condition at the test, he was banished from the school. As I said, this was in
June of 1985. I didn�t hear from him for a couple of years, but I did talk to
some friends of mine who worked out in another city in a TKD school run by a
well known 6th Degree black belt.
Apparently my ex-student went to this other school and
received his 1st Degree black belt over lunch at a nice restaurant in
Shreveport. No test, just an exchange of funds. Then about six months later I
heard that he went to a well know Korean in Tyler, Texas and bought his 2nd
degree and also became the State representative for the USTU in another state.
It wasn�t long before people were referring to him as Master. So, he went from
4th Gup to 4th Dan in a period of less than four (4)
years. I thought it was remarkable. Even more remarkable was the fact that he
invited my demo team to perform at the State Championships in 1990. His demo
team performed also and you know what? He still performed like a 4th
Gup Blue belt.
I believe that perhaps one of the difficulties which
contributes to this situation is the fact that the beginning student and to the
general public, the degrees of graduations which distinguish a 1st
Degree from a 3rd Degree or 4th Degree, a fairly advanced
student from an instructor, and that instructor from a master, are so unclear.
Consequently I would like to offer a few remarks about the degree (Dan) system.
Taekwondo and all of the martial arts are physical arts. It
cannot be learned by reading books or articles or by listening to lectures. It
is imprinted into the body and mind over a long period of time through constant,
disciplined and supervised practice, under the control and guidance of competent
and qualified instructors. It is a visual learning process that can be learned
through proper guidance and videotapes. Whole sets of actions and reflexes have
to be built into the body slowly, painstakingly, and correctly, over a period of
time; complete mastery of such a physical discipline will take a lifetime of
perfect practice. It is a mistake, then to assume that you will master the art
in a few years, or when you receive a black belt. It is more correct to say that
a black belt admits a student to a circle of individuals who are serious
students of their particular school�not an end but a beginning.
I would say that in a good and strict school in which a
student practices diligently a minimum of three times a
week, that he might be
recommended for the qualifying test for the 1st Degree black belt at
the end of two (2) years of study, or sometime during the students third year,
depending on his/her progress. It will take a similar 2 to 3 years of work for
him/her to be qualified for the 2nd Degree black belt examination; it
will take another 3 to 4 year period of work, three or more times a week to
reach the point of qualifying for the 3rd Degree black belt. In other
words, to become a 3rd Degree black belt in one system, such as
Taekwondo, entails a minimum of seven (7) years of diligent practice (that's 3
times a week per month per year) under
To qualify for the 4th Degree black belt the
student should spend another four (4) to five (5) years in steady practice and
study. At this point I would like to emphasize that only at this level�4th
Degree�can the practitioner be considered qualified as an instructor, only at
this point is he ready and able to teach. We all know that many schools now have
1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree black belts as
teachers. My point is not that this should not happen, but that it should only
happen under the direct control and constant supervision of a qualified
instructor, better still, a master or grandmaster.
At this time it might be well to digress to clarify
something concerning the higher degrees. The fact that one person has been
awarded a higher degree than another person, who may even have studied for the
same length of time, does not necessarily mean that the first person has a
better technique, or shows better form than the other; particularly for the
fourth degree and above, it may rather mean that his/her superiors who judge
him/her and ultimately have the responsibility to promote him/her are looking to
other elements. This is particularly important for the 4th and higher
degrees because these students are becoming the new instructors and masters, and
will in turn are responsible for the proper training of the juniors and the
integrity of the art.
The higher degrees are, like the lower, awarded at the
discretion of the practitioner�s superiors and teachers, usually after long
and careful observation, and ideally under supervision and further instruction.
This is not an ironclad rule, but ordinarily the period of further study and
work between 4th and 5th Degree black belt will be more
than four (4) years; from 5th to 6th degree black belt
five to six years; from 6th to 7th Degree, six to seven
years. It goes without saying that very few students of martial arts, even after
working out for years will ever attain the rank of 4th Degree, and
that a "true" 7th Degree black belt will always be very rare.
After seventh degree black belt there are also eighth and
ninth degree black belt, and some claim tenth degree status. Instructors who
reach such a high degree are most likely to be professional instructors who have
devoted many years of their lives to mastery of the martial art. As a rule of
thumb, perhaps a master could attain eighth degree rank with eight (8) years of
training after reaching 7th Degree, but that would be 35+ years of
training; then add another nine to ten years for 9th Degree.
My final analysis is this: If a student started at age 20,
he would be eligible for 8th degree at age 55+. I know that there are
quite a few Masters and Grandmasters who claim that they started training at age
5 and continued to train through their childhood into adulthood. But, if you
look at most of the martial arts schools that cropped up in the last 30 years in
the USA, how many of those 5-year-old students stayed with the program for 30+
years? How many stay with it for 10 years? How many stay with it for 1 year? How
many stay with it for 2 months? I hope whoever reads this gets the point I am
trying to make.
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