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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.

 By 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

Students who 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.

The symbol of a black belt is not ones ability to beat up the ordinary man on the street. It is the mastery of a certain amount of knowledge of a martial art. One need not necessarily be the best fighter in the class, or the tough kid on the block to become a black belt.

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 be reputable.

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 constant supervision.

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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