Being a Black Belt vs. Having a Black Belt

It has been a while since I had a true rant in one of my posts even though the title of my blog is “Master Elmore’s Martial Arts Rants”.  I will try not to rant too much while still providing some useful insight and information on being a black belt.

In just about every karate school, there is a sign somewhere that says, “My goal is black belt”.  Look at most advertisements for a martial arts school and chances are you’ll find a statement like, “This is a black belt school.”  Ask any non-black belt student what their goal is and most will tell you, “To be a black belt.”

There is a difference between being a black belt and having a black belt
There is a difference between being a black belt and having a black belt

Now, I am not dismissing the goal of black belt.  It is a very worthy and admirable goal.  In fact, that is one of the primary reasons we have belts in martial arts, to set goals.  It should not be what drives you to keep going.

It is a well-known fact that a large percentage of students quit training within 6 months of getting awarded their black belt.  They have set their sights on that one particular goal and once they achieved it, there is nothing left to drive them forward.

Someone who quits training shortly after earning their black belt has a black belt but is not a black belt.  I am not trying to downplay the achievement of having a black belt.  I am just trying to differentiate from being a black belt.  Upon earning a black belt, there is no set time before a student becomes a black belt.  A student must now apply what they’ve learned in order to be black belt and not just have one.

Let’s make a couple of comparisons that hopefully drive the point home:

  • You get a driver’s license but never drive afterwards.  Are you a driver?
  • You earn a degree in accounting but work as a farmer your entire life.  Are you an accountant?
  • You pass the MCAT with flying colors but don’t pursue the medical field any further.  Are you a doctor?

Get the idea?

Earning a black belt is not an award to be put up on your mantle.  If your goal is to get your black belt then display it in a trophy case, never putting it around your waist, you need to examine why you do martial arts in the first place.

It takes time after earning a black belt to actually become a black belt
It takes time after earning a black belt to actually become a black belt

There are many outstanding activities out there where trophies, medals, certificates, and other awards are given out for display purposes.  A black belt is not one of those.  A black belt is someone who is dedicated to a long-term pursuit of excellence. This includes both technically and philosophically. If you aren’t doing this you simply just have a black belt.

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  1. Good article. Getting a black belt is an achievement but then what. I think a practitioner needs to ask themselves what next when they get close to their goal. Do they want to keep focusing on one martial arts and move up the black belt rankings or try other martial arts and get a more well rounded set of martial skills. There is no right or wrong answer to that.

  2. This is especially true these days with so many kids younger than 12 (and some younger than 10) earning black belts. It isn’t a criticism of awarding black belts to children. After all, if you are going to teach children as young as 6, it stands to reason some will advance and earn black belts at some point.

    If the youngsters continue, there is a method to this. A 15 year old 2nd Dan who has been training for 8 or 10 years is indeed the real deal. They have power, technique and the correct attitude. And are capable of teaching if the head instructor asks them to.

    1st Dan is a worthy achievement. But a lot like your blog post, a lot of the people who earn that rank (myself included) know the curriculum but are still learning the application of the techniques, or alternately, know the techniques but some aspect of their martial arts game still needs work. For a lot of child black belts, that thing is power, leadership, and attitude. To my mind, a black belt should be capable of not just handling themselves physically, but knowing the material well enough to teach it to beginners and intermediate students. And it is a rare 10 year old who can do that.

    Sadly, just as these young students in particular are starting to really achieve a level of mastery over the material, usually somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13, they pull the plug and just quit. Will they return years later? Some perhaps, but most probably will not.

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