The COVID Black Belt Test – Why we shouldn’t do them

A COVID black belt is a student that has earned their black belt through an online and/or simplified testing process that is a result of the pandemic.

The COVID19 pandemic has been going on now for nearly 7 months.  Many karate schools like mine were shutdown for 3-6 months.  Some continued to offer classes online during the shutdown.  Most schools have reopened for live classes in some capacity while still offering online or live streaming classes as an option.  While nearly all karate schools have reopened, I don’t think any schools are operating or teaching their curriculum the same way they did prior to the shutdown.  I have heard of some schools going on with classes like normal including sparring and grappling.  This is reckless and irresponsible, and it infuriates me.  The vast majority are doing the right thing though and socially distancing, wearing masks, limiting class sizes, amongst other things.

What we can do now

With all of the restrictions and modifications, those of us acting responsibly are teaching in a much different way.  The style I teach, Tang Soo Do, is roughly 50% forms/basics and 50% self-defense/sparring.  The self-defense and sparring (one step, three step, free sparring) require a partner.  The latter 50% are currently being modified to be done individually in order to adhere to social distance guidelines.  These modifications consist mostly of drilling the technique individually to improve muscle memory.  We are essentially doing these techniques as forms.

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The partner activities we do in our curriculum are intended to improve distance, timing, accuracy, precision, and control (ourselves and control over our partner).  Doing sparring/self-defense as forms will not improve these things.

A black belt kicking the COVID virus
A COVID Black Belt

COVID Black Belt Test

I have seen and heard of many studios doing black belt tests virtually or live but under these new modifications.  So essentially students are being tested on only forms and basics.  I myself have done a few colored belt tests virtually since the pandemic began but I’m not sure how I feel about a black belt test.

Proponents of doing these modified black belt tests will argue that the student has worked hard, has a great attitude, continued to train, and should be tested for black belt since the pandemic is not their fault.  The student should not be punished for something out of their control.  While these arguments make sense, I still find it difficult to test and possibly promote someone to a black belt doing only 50% of the curriculum, not having to spar anyone, and not having to demonstrate technique’s effectiveness against another human being. 

We are injured and need to heal

Let’s think about it another way.  Let’s say you are a great student; you train hard and have a great attitude.  One day you slip and fall on your way to work and break your arm.  You have a cast that immobilizes your arm for 6 months.  You continue to train during these months as best you can but have to modify things and can’t spar or do contact drills.  Should you get to do a modified black belt test?  Most of us would say no, just wait until you are healed and do the full test even though this person meets all the criteria of a COVID black belt testing participant does.

If the broken arm was a permanent limitation, most instructors would be ok with some sort of modification for this student to earn a black belt.  They would need to be able to do everything in the curriculum with some acceptable modifications but certainly would not be able to not do 50% of it at all.

COVID has is like an injury.  We can't train properly when injured and need to wait until healthy.
COVID is like an injury

Guess what?  The entire planet has a broken arm right now.  Correction, the entire planet has broken every bone in its body and is in a full body cast.  It will heal though.  We can’t do black belt tests based on modified curriculum.  It lessens the meaning of the black belt.  Those who earn black belts doing a modified COVID test are not respecting those who came before them.  Just like the student with the broken arm, wait until you are healed and do it fully.  It will mean so much more due the increased level of dedication, perseverance, and patience it required to get there.

Wait to test the right way, not the COVID black belt way

We tell our students to be patient all the time.  Why are we not doing it now?  Are we scared they will quit and won’t pay us?  If promoting someone to black belt doing lesser curriculum is the difference between going out of business or staying in business, well, you do what you gotta do.  I would opt to go out of business.  There is no price tag on integrity.

I will say that if how we are teaching and modifying becomes the new standard, then yes, a new version of a black belt test is warranted.  We aren’t there yet.  We would need to come up with an entire new test that allows students to demonstrate proficiency in being able to defend themselves, proper timing, accuracy, toughness, and physicality without the use of a partner.  That is a big undertaking.  Simply doing techniques without a partner does not accomplish these goals.

So, to all students out there close to black belt and instructors of these students, be patient.  Utilize this time to improve your skills, learn new ways of doing things, dissect techniques to better understand them, and just train for the sake of constant and never-ending improvement.  Don’t worry about what is around your waist, worry about how much you can fit in your brain and heart.

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