It’s a broad question with no single, definitive answer. What does a black belt really mean? What is its value? I’ve been thinking long and hard about this lately, especially as I prepare for my own black belt grading.
I’ll tackle this question first by outlining what, in my opinion, a black belt is NOT.
What a Black Belt is NOT
It’s not a license to be a jerk.
If you’ve trained a Japanese martial art, you’ve probably heard of the term “shodanitis” before (if you’ve never trained, “Shodan” is a Japanese way of saying “black belt”). You’ve probably also run into someone suffering from the illness. Shodanitis refers to the tragic arrogance that accompanies some people who just got their black belt. It’s the tendency to think that you’re now better than the lower belts in your dojo, or that you’ve earned the right to talk back or push other people around. A black belt grants no such right in any discipline I’m aware of.
It’s not evidence of advanced fighting skills.
Are there black belts that are great fighters? Of course there are! Is the black belt what makes them great fighters? No way. All I’m saying with this is that, with all the subjectivity across different styles and schools as it relates to what makes someone deserving of a black belt, it’s not safe to assume that just because someone has one, that they’re an excellent fighter.
It’s not a symbol of mastery of the art.
Thanks to kung fu and martial arts movies, in the public eye a black belt is too often viewed as a symbol of mastery. The popular thinking goes as follows: if you have a black belt, then you must know all there is to know about your art/be able to beat me up/catch bullets with your teeth. Anyone who is approaching their own black belt knows how far this is from the truth.
It’s not the end of the journey.
It will be for some people, and that’s absolutely ok. But I think that many people who start training do so with the goal of getting to black belt, because then you’re “done” the curriculum. The reality is that this just isn’t the case. Black belt is where the learning begins anew.
It’s not some mystical garment that changes how well you kick.
When I first started training, I was convinced that getting my black belt meant I’d somehow be able to kick above my head all of a sudden, or that the spinning roundhouse kick I had struggled with was now magically going to be a cake walk. NEWS FLASH, PAST JASON: it’s a belt, not a magic lamp. It won’t just automatically improve your karate any more than wishing on a shooting star will.
By itself, a black belt is not, in fact, anything more than a cool way to hold your pants up. So should you sit there thinking I’m hating on black belts right now? No way, not for a second. Because now that I’ve told you what, in my view, a black belt isn’t, it’s time to tell you what it is.
What a Black Belt Is to Me
It’s impossible for me to talk about what a black belt means to me without moving beyond the physical, which is basically a fancy piece of cloth. So bear with me while I get a little esoteric here.
A black belt is a responsibility.
Like it or not, when you put that black belt around your waist, you are now being looked to as an example by the lower belts in your dojo. Your actions now carry more weight than they did just before you put that belt on. I view the belt as a responsibility to set an example for others through: the sincerity of your training; the cleanliness of your techniques; your work ethic in the dojo; and your personality and the values you choose to uphold. With any luck those values will be the ones that align with those professed by your dojo – things like respect, compassion, courage and integrity.
A black belt is a signpoint along a broader journey.
The corollary to my statement about a black belt not being the end of the road is that it is a signpoint along a broader journey. It may not be the end, but it does mark one hell of an achievement. If you’re training in a sincere dojo that truly cares about the art it professes to teach, you’ll pay for your black belt with sweat, blood and tears along the way. This is why I say I’m not by any means downplaying its value. It’s a symbol of your hard work and dedication for what for many is years and years of training, through both good times and bad. That is nothing to sneeze at.
That being said, it’s an achievement during a snapshot in time. If you earn your black belt, immediately stop training, then try to revisit your training 10 years later, you may wear the belt, but you know deep down that you aren’t at the same level of proficiency you were when you first earned it. The second you stop pushing the rock uphill, it rolls back down again. To remain at the level I believe a black belt should be at takes constant commitment to training and exercising.
A black belt is a fresh start.
I’ll be honest: I loved being a white and yellow belt. Being the newest guy in the room meant I had everything to learn from those around me, and I soaked it all up like a sponge. A black belt is no different in my view. I’ll be the newest one in the room during black belt class, and once again I’ll be in a position where I have everything to learn from those around me. That’s a great place to be, and I can’t wait to start at the bottom again.
A black belt is a reminder of how little you actually know.
Contrary to the public’s view about what it means to be a black belt (“oh, so you can beat me up right?”), those who are near or just recently got their black belt know that you’re really only just now becoming worthy of being considered a serious student. In other words, you may know the basics, but your training is only just beginning.
A black belt is a state of mind and a way of being – not a piece of cloth.
Ok, literally speaking it IS a piece of cloth. But when I talk about a black belt, I’m talking about black belt ideals; the things I think a black belt should represent. To me, it means working hard toward improving your weaknesses. It means staying true to your values. It means setting a good example for others. And it means continuing to train, hard and with sincerity.
Anybody can go online and buy a black belt. Getting yours from a dojo and then failing to do the above reduces the value of your belt to a trophy, a mere symbol of an accomplishment from an earlier time in your life. That’s ok, but in that case you can’t call yourself a black belt anymore, in my opinion. You have a black belt, but you aren’t a black belt.
Wrapping it Up
A black belt is a challenge – to not let it affect who you are and the way you behave.
All of the things I’ve said so far are things you can be working on no matter where you are in your training. You can work on them from the day you sign up, and you can work to apply them outside your karate as well. If you do that, then getting your black belt should only mean that the stuff you were doing is now just a little more visible to others. You shouldn’t have to change who you are, how you act, or how you train as a result of getting your belt.
This is going to be my challenge. I’ve built black belt up to be this lofty ideal in my head, and as a result I’ve set ridiculously, almost impossibly-high standards for myself once I get it. It will take work to remind myself that I’m human, and I’m going to make mistakes like anyone else. I spoke of Shodanitis earlier, but my risk is in swinging too far in the opposite direction: putting so much pressure on myself that I wind up trying too hard and in the process, doing irreparable damage to the joy I used to take in my training. My task will be to go on having fun and being who I am day in, day out – despite feeling like I have to set an example, despite wanting to live up to my values, and despite what others think of me when they hear that I have a black belt.
I think this is one of the most important responsibilities I’ll have. To show people, especially people who don’t train, that a black belt isn’t what they think it is, that it doesn’t change who I am or what I stand for… that could just be the ultimate example.
This post was written as part of my preparation for my black belt grading. When I pass, I’ll write again about what it’s like “on the other side.” I think it’s important to do some reflection to see how your reality compares to what you thought it would be like prior to getting there.
To that end, for those of you out there who are preparing for your black belt, or those who already have it, I’m asking you to share your expertise with me. Tell me your story in the comments. What went through your head in my situation? How did it change when you got your black belt? You’ll be doing a service to me and all those who are passing through this same point on their journey.