How Long It Takes to Get A Black Belt?

How long does it take to earn a black belt in your martial arts style?  This is a common question I get when potential students call/email/stop in to inquire about training.  The answer to this question is almost always around 4 years.  I am always sure to add the caveat that this is an average and every student is different.  Some can do it in as little as 3 years and some take 10 or more years.  Tang Soo Do, like all martial arts, is an individual activity.  Everyone’s journey is different.  A lot has changed over the last 30 years but the time to black belt has remained the same.  I have done a lot of thinking on this topic and have done a little analysis that will hopefully open some eyes.

For this comparison, I will look at 3 different times:

  1. The 1960s when US soldiers trained overseas and commonly earned black belts in a year or so
  2. The late 1980s/early 1990s during my early training years when it took an average of 4 years to earn a black belt
  3. Present time (2020) when it still takes an average of 4 years to earn black belt

It should be noted that I did not train in the 1960s (I wasn’t even a sparkle in my parents eye at the time) so I base my information on things I’ve heard from my instructor as well as others who have trained at that time.

1960s

During this time, US soldiers stationed in Korea would train almost every day (5-6 days/week) for 3-4 hours each session.  I’ve heard from many sources that a student could earn a black belt in around 1 year.  So, the number of hours trained comes out to the following: 5 days/week x 3 hours/day x 52 weeks/year = 780 hours/year on the low end and 6 days/week x 4 hours/day x 52 weeks/year = 1248 hours/year on the high end

Time to black belt = 780-1248 training hours

Late 1980s/Early 1990s

During this time, the classes I trained in met twice a week for 2 hours and 15 minutes each.  So, the number of hours trained comes out to the following: 2 days/week x 2.25 hours/day x 52 weeks/year = 234 hours/year x 4 years = 936 training hours

Time to black belt = 936 training hours

Present – 2020 

During this time, most students train twice a week for 1 hour each class.  I know many studios that actually have 45-minute classes in fact.  Also, there are a lot of studios that ramp up their training as they get closer to black belt so I will assume 2.5 classes per week as an average. So, the number of hours trained comes out to the following: 2.5 days/week x 1 hour/day x 52 weeks/year = 130 hours/year x 4 years = 520 training hours

Time to black belt = 520 training hours

Conclusions

Based on this examination, you can see that when I first started training, the time required to black belt was roughly on par with what was required in Korea in the 60s.  You can also see that the training hours required now are much, much lower.  In fact, to equal the number of training hours, students would need to train for an average of approximately 7 years to earn a black belt.

I would like to reiterate, in case you missed it at the beginning, that these are averages.  I am fully aware that the path to black belt is an individual pursuit that is unique to every student.

Now, in case you missed this too, the title of this blog is Master Elmore’s Martial Arts Rants.  So, it is time for a little rant.  However, after the rant I will actually provide a solution.  For those of you that are in Tang Soo Do and have been for 20+ years, you probably did not need to see the numbers to know that we train less now than we used to.  Why is that?

  1. More kids in class.  Kids have lower attention spans and get bored easily.  We have to limit classes to 1 hour so they don’t get bored and quit.  This is a business decision to have shorter classes.
  2. Shorter classes means more classes means more students means more money.  Again, this is a business decision.
  3. Everyone is so darn busy these days.  People can only manage one hour twice a week for an activity because they have so much on their plate whether kids or adults.

What can be done?

With the current Tang Soo Do ranking system of 10th gup – 1st gup – Cho Dan Bo – Black Belt and students testing every 3-6 months, you get about 4 years to black belt.  Why is this important?

Students need to test and earn a shiny new belt every 3-6 months or else they will get bored and quit.  We are impatient and require instant gratification to keep us interested.  Yet another business decision.

With less training time to achieve black belt, how can students learn all of the required material with a high level of aptitude?  Answer…they can’t.  Over the last several years I have noticed curriculum being cut out, requirements getting easier, and quality waning.  The areas I see the most change are in physical fitness and combative skills (sparring and self-defense).  These two areas require a lot of time and tough, physical training, much like in the days of old, to achieve.

Kids are becoming black belts at a much younger age these days
Kids are becoming black belts at a much younger age these days

Potential Solution

Now here’s the good news.  There is a solution.  We can have our cake and eat it too.  We can keep the business decisions of shorter classes and frequent tests while still maintaining curriculum, requirements, and the number of training hours.  

The answer is to add more rank.  I won’t go into full detail, but I devised a system that involves 22 ranks to black belt.  Before yelling blasphemy hear me out.  I didn’t add an 11th gup or use a red/white/blue belt.  All I did was break down some of the ranks to allow more time to be spent at that rank.  For example, instead of going from 6th gup to 5th gup, students go from 6th gup to intermediate 6th gup to advanced 6th gup to 5th gup.  Students who put in more training hours and are able to execute the curriculum at a high level can progress the more traditional route of 6th gup to 5th gup.  Make sense?

I have been using this system for a few years now and am pleased with the results so far.  I think it is important that if we change to keep up with the times, we not change the outcome only the way we get there.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out.  I would be more than happy to share my system with anyone who is interested.

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