Not Everyone Will Get a Black Belt

My goal is black belt.  This is a black belt school.  Black belt excellence.  Minimum time required to earn a black belt.  These are all things that you will see posted on the wall of a studio or hear being discussed by students, instructors, and parents.  From day one, we are programmed to believe that earning a black belt is the end all be all.

We are also told, almost guaranteed, that we will someday become a black belt.  Whether it is hopeful optimism by the instructor or a business tactic to keep students longer, instructors almost always set the expectation of getting a black belt.

The truth is, not everyone will get a black belt.  Nor should everyone get a black belt.  I firmly believe that everyone has the potential to be a black belt but there are certain obstacles or limitations that they simply cannot overcome.  It is not due to the ability to overcome these obstacles; it is due to the desire. 

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Perhaps your work schedule causes you train inconsistently or sporadically.  Maybe you have the attitude that you know everything already causing you to not continually improve upon what you’ve learned.  These are examples of things that people could overcome but don’t.

A good instructor will do all they can to help their students overcome these obstacles and limitations and will never give up on them.  However, there is only so much an instructor can do.  At some point, the responsibility needs to fall on the shoulders of the student.

You may be thinking, if these students never get to black belt, why continue training?  They should just quit, right?  Wrong.  If a student is continuously learning and progressing, training is invaluable, regardless of what is around their waist.

These days I feel that many instructors award black belts to students simply for showing up.  They tried their hardest and therefore should be awarded black belt.  I find this more prevalent during the pandemic when most studios were required to do online classes.  I heard numerous accounts of students earning a black belt after months of doing online classes and even an online black belt test.  They tried their hardest.  The pandemic was not their fault so they should not be penalized for it.

These students may or may not be deserving of a black belt.  My point is that the primary requirements for them earning a black belt were 1) they showed up and 2) they tried hard.  I’m not sure when or why these became the most important things when evaluating a black belt but there are many, many more requirements that cannot be overlooked.

Technical Excellence

Regardless of the style you teach, it should go without saying that a black belt is not just technically proficient but one who possess technical excellence.  I have seen far too many black belts kicking with the incorrect part of the foot, having mediocre stances, or not using hip twisting.  These things are often overlooked because they have a good attitude, tried hard, or contributed to the studio in some way.  This is simply unacceptable.

Commitment/Dedication

There is no other way around it, you must put in the time.  You must do things repeatedly, over long periods of time.  You must make sacrifices in other areas of your life.  The top things in your life must be family, work, religion, and karate.  You can’t be a black belt if there are other activities that get placed higher than karate.

Knowledge/Wisdom

Being a black belt is not something you can cram for.  Knowledge and wisdom are gained through years of dedicated training.  I have seen too many times people become black belts that do not know all the requirements.  A common reason for this is that they are older and can’t remember everything.  This may be true, or it may be an excuse.  The fact of the matter is, they don’t know what they need to know.  Again, this is often overlooked because the person is a good guy who tries hard.

Attitude

Having the proper attitude is a key ingredient in any important endeavor.  Getting a black belt is no different.  A black belt is a person with strong moral character, a humble confidence, lives with integrity, and is courteous and compassionate.  They are willing to train hard, follow directions, and understand they have a lot to learn.  I have seen poor attitudes often overlooked because the student was an exceptional athlete with outstanding technical abilities.  

Respect/Loyalty

A black belt understands and demonstrates respect and loyalty towards their instructor, seniors, and studio.  A respectful student is not going to get a black belt then quit to do the next big thing.  They are honest with their instructor as to their intentions.  A loyal student trusts that their instructor has their best interests in mind will stick by their instructor through thick and thin.

Mental/Physical Toughness

Lastly, there is a mental and physical toughness associated with becoming a black belt.  Pushing yourself to your limits mentally and physically is important in building the strong will and toughness needed to defend yourself in a real-life self-defense situation.  Hitting a board and not breaking it but still doing it again and again despite the pain builds perseverance.  Overcoming the fear of sparring against a more skilled opponent will also help create the strong will needed to be able to defend yourself.  It is common these days to see no contact sparring and unsuccessful board breaking being acceptable for black belts.


Those of us in martial arts like to hold the rank of black belt up as a crowning achievement that few will ever get earn.  Yet, many black belts are achieving the rank while being deficient in one or more of the areas I mentioned above.  

If a black belt is so highly regarded, why allow those with deficiencies to earn them?  Would you want a surgeon performing open heart surgery on you that couldn’t remember the procedure because he had memory issues?  Would you want a lawyer representing you who lacked passion, conviction, or integrity?  Would you want military personnel who did not have the perseverance and toughness to do what it takes to defend their country?

The answer is no.  These people would never be put in this position.  We don’t allow people to be doctors, lawyers, or soldiers without adhering to very strict requirements with no variance.  Can you become a doctor because you tried hard?  However, becoming a black belt seems to be different.

Let me finish by reiterating what I said at the beginning.  Not everyone will get a black belt and that is ok.  They should continue to train and learn and become better people.  In addition, people with limitations that have no equivalent modification, such as certain physical or mental handicaps, will benefit tremendously from training.  However, if the limitations are such that they cannot perform the necessary requirements, they should not be awarded the same black belt as everyone else.  They should either continue to train and progress and get whatever rank they can or be awarded an honorary black belt.

These opinions may not be popular, but I stand by my statement that not everyone can be a black belt.  Keep the black belt standards high and don’t drop the bar for any reason.  Keep training, keep teaching, keep learning, keep leading, and don’t put so much emphasis on the belt.

If you enjoy playing soccer but don’t have what it takes to be a professional, do you stop it all together?  You can certainly keep playing at a high level, continue to study the game, and even coach others. You don’t stop getting better just because you can’t make it to the top.

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One Comment

  1. I applaud your adherence to high standards for black belt at your school. I remember a time where mere time in at a Dojang was no guarantee of a high belt. Maybe if you put enough time in, you could advance to high green,or red belt, but in those days, only those students with a combination of dedication, good attitude, skill and of course fitness could aspire to the black or in the case of Tang Soo Do, Midnight blue belt. That was a long time ago.

    But times change as do the economics of running a Dojang. It is not easy for people who teach martial arts for a living to do as the allure of earning a black belt (relatively soon) keeps young students coming back. And of course there is the not inconsiderable money testing fees bring to the school. But then again, maybe children under the age of 15 or 16 shouldn’t be awarded black belts at all. But that ship has sailed now. what is the martial arts teacher supposed to do when the Dojo or Dojang down the street is offering a black belt program where, seemingly, all the child has to do is show up twice a week, learn some forms and basic curicullum, and he or she can earn a black belt in 2 years, or sometimes even less time?

    As a student of both Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do, I view this as the reality of traditional martial arts these days. and, FWIW, it isn’t the black belt, either probationary or 1st dan that is the true bench mark for skill and dedication, but rather the 2nd or 3rd Dan. (I say this as a 1st Dan.) Because there are a lot of children and adults who earn black belts, but by the old standard, would probably be brown belts or red belts. And it is too bad, since a lot of them start to quit just as they are on the cusp of getting good. But, not many people, kids or adults, stick around long enough to earn the 2nd or 3rd Dan.

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