Earning a Black Belt
A black belt should be earned through a set of guidelines requiring specific learning requirements and timeline to achieve the rank, and not to be earned as a means of reward. There are many different perceptions of what it means to be a black belt. Schools should not be focusing on recruiting students based on a summer camp type atmosphere or brag about how many black belts they’ve produced. Being a first degree black belt does not necessarily mean that the person is capable of passing on proper instruction to students. The instructor needs to make sure that he is a well-rounded teacher and take the responsibility of assuring that each student is taught properly. My passion for the sport of Tae Kwon Do started when I was very young. I would love to sit and watch the old martial arts movies on television. The actors would move extremely fast with such power and speed, but yet look so graceful. I found this to be amazing so I asked my parents if I could join some classes but they told me it was too expensive. Needless to say, I was very disappointed. Throughout the years, I would continue to ask my parents if I could take some classes, but the answer was always the same. As the years went by, I put the thought of taking any martial arts classes behind me but I still continued to watch what I thought were great movies.
When I reached the age of 20, I had some friends that told me they had started taking some Tae Kwon Do classes and that I should come by and check it out. I didn’t hesitate to take them up on their offer. From then on, I was hooked. I would never miss a class and I worked very hard. I had even gone a step further and took up boxing for 5 years to develop my all-around skills. It’s now almost 27 years later, and I’m still actively involved in the sport of Tae Kwon Do.
I started as a white belt and it took me about 5 years to earn my 1st Degree Black Belt. After I had received my black belt, I began to teach others all that I had learned about the sport. I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the time and was fortunate enough to teach at one of the Karate North schools with an instructor that was one of our system’s very first black belts and who had already been teaching for more than 15 years. My teaching skills improved greatly under his guidance. We taught together for over 6 years. He was a mountain of knowledge and I learned all that I could from him. To this day, he’s still one of my best friends.
I moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1997 and worked out with a traditional style Tae Kwon Do club for about 2 years. I wanted to see what it would be like to work out under someone else’s style and instruction. I also began speaking with other instructors and observing other clubs in the area. During this time I started to notice that some of the other schools seemed to just give away their belts, including the black belt. One school in particular would award a black belt after only 2 years of training. That’s when I decided to open my own school to teach the style of tae kwon do I have learned. My school has been operating for approximately 7 years.
All of my years of experience and observation are what lead me to believe that a black belt should be earned through a set of guidelines requiring specific learning requirements and a timeline to achieve the rank, and not be earned as a means of reward.
What do most people think of when they hear the word black belt? For someone to have a black belt today, it seems as if there is a certain sense of perception that goes along with it. People tend to associate the word expert with the rank. They perceive that this person has extraordinary skills and abilities. “When a typical student begins training, he’s apt to think a black belt means the wearer has arrived at a high level of competence” (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53). How can this be true if that belt has been earned only after a couple of years of training; does this mean this person is really an expert? “One point of view is: Yes, a first degree black belt is an expert on the basic gross motor skills necessary to perform martial arts moves. The other is: No, a first degree black belt is not an expert but an advanced beginner who’s just grasping the concepts he’ll need to become an expert within a few years” (Maberry, Vol. 44 No. 1).
Unlike the Westerner’s perception discussed above, the Eastern cultures look at a black belt in a whole different manner. It may be more common to see young people who have achieved their black belt, but that in no way means that they are considered an expert (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53). It may have taken them more than 10 years to achieve that rank (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53). The martial arts are so much a part of their culture that “they don’t regard the wearer of a black belt with the same awe people do in the West” (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53).
The local news tends to thrive on stories of children achieving the rank of black belt. Although the rank may have been earned through regular training and the instructor gives him that rank to reflect that hard work, it certainly doesn’t mean that the student has reached the highest level of technical competence. Awarding children these ranks is often used as a marketing tool to encourage other kids to enroll (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53). How much can a black belt be worth if it’s that easy for a child to obtain? It can also have a negative impact on people’s perception of the school as a whole.
In the system of Tae Kwon Do that I’m a member of, there are a required set of guidelines and timelines that are as follows. Every style of martial arts is different and requires a specific list of criteria required to achieve each belt rank. These criteria lead to the ultimate goal of the rank of 1st Degree Black Belt. To move forward in the belt ranks, each student must test in front of a panel of black belts. This criteria also includes a minimum time that must be allowed between each belt rank. In the system I teach, the steps required to achieve that goal are as follows.
When you first enter the program, students are given the rank of white belt. To receive the next belt, which is a gold belt, it is required that the student learn a specific form. This form is a set series of moves fighting an imaginary opponent. There are also 6 self-defense moves that need to be learned. This will take at least 3 months (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6).
Once a gold belt, the student must work for another 3 months before being allowed to test for their green belt. To receive this belt, there is another specific form that must be learned and 4 assigned self-defense moves. A fighting demonstration is also required. For the test, the student will perform these requirements along with first form that was learned (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6).
After a minimum of 9 months, the student is eligible to test for their purple belt. This test will require the student to perform previously learned forms 1 and 2, along with the newly learned 3rd form. There are also 4 advanced defense moves that the student must create and be approved by the instructor. They must also take part in a fighting demonstration. The student must remain a purple belt for at least 1 year (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6).
The next belt rank is second grade brown. The test requirements include all previous forms, a 4th learned form, and a fighting demonstration. The student is now also required to perform a pre-set kicking series. This series includes specific kicking combinations using both right and left legs (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6).
The next belt rank of first grade brown can be achieved after another year of training. For this rank, it is again required that all previous forms and a 5th form be performed in non-stop sequence. A fighting demonstration and an advanced kicking demonstration is performed using more complex style kicks also using both right and left legs (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6). The student, with the guidance of the instructor, will begin learning how to teach lower belt ranks.
The ultimate goal of first degree black belt can only be achieved after a minimum of 1 years training as a first grade brown belt. This will require the student to perform all previously learned forms, in non-stop sequence, as well as the required 6th form. The fighting demonstration is done with the student fighting multiple opponents of other various belt ranks, including black belt. There is a kicking demonstration of highly advanced spinning and jump-spin kicks that are performed using both legs (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6).
To advance to higher degrees of black belt will require more years of training and can only be arranged with the Head Master of the program (Sullivan, 1975, pg. 6).
On the average, the rank of first degree black belt is achieved after a minimum of 4 ½ to 5 years of full-time training and testing. The time frames between each belt rank are only a minimum guideline. When a student is allowed to test is determined solely by the instructor, based on the student’s capabilities.
As you progress through the belt ranks, you are encouraged to enter tournaments. This helps students immensely. It teaches the student to be competitive, but to also meet new people from different styles of martial arts, and to have fun. Competitions also offer the chance for the student to spar, or fight, with many different styles of martial artists, at different levels of training. This, I believe, is where the student gains much of their experience. There are also competitions for open-hand or weapons forms. These forms are a set series of moves fighting an imaginary opponent. All around, competitions are a major benefit and learning tool for the student to take advantage of during their training.
What I see happening in some martial arts schools are that they are becoming more like “summer camp” than a disciplined, structured program (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). So what’s missing? “Most likely, there is a small school run by a legitimate instructor who teaches a well known martial art that’s been handed down through the years. But in its’ place are some schools run by self-promoted masters who teach a cross between a low-level style and gymnastics” (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). These schools lack any standard for promotion between the belt ranks and are turning the sport of martial arts into nothing but a spectator sport (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). I’ve also found schools that offer nothing but an assortment of cute patches and fancy uniforms, skating parties and sleep-overs (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). The larger schools tend to focus more on recruiting young students with these incentives. Some schools will display shelves of large trophies and awards they’ve received and openly boast about how great the school is and how many so-called black belts they’ve produced (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). I believe that these schools give away belt rank and even reward their students, whether they are kids or adults, with a black belt. You even have the adult student who will purposely join the “easy” school to receive their black belt more quickly (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). Many are drawn in by the largest, most colorful ad in the phone book or the fanciest website (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53).
You also have parents that put their children in these martial arts schools who are more concerned that the kids have fun first, rather than actually learning the discipline of defending themselves (Lowry, 2005, pg. 52-53). To go one step further, these children are not even being taught by a qualified black belt instructor. They are being taught by a lower-ranking belt; just higher than the ones they are attempting to teach. How do you expect to learn anything about the style when you have someone instructing the student that actually doesn’t have a clue about how to teach? I’ve personally seen this happen many times. The results are that you have 15-20 kids in a line, flailing their hands and feet, and achieving nothing.
Like I said earlier, there are people involved in martial arts that have trained for only 2 years, received their black belt, and go out and open their own martial arts school. What qualifies them to be teaching martial arts to others? I feel that they do not possess the knowledge to be teaching what they have learned in that short period of time. “A first degree black belt is an advanced beginner. The belt signifies his passage from the ranks of those who are still learning to the ranks of those who’ve learned how to learn” (Maberry, Vol. 44 No. 1). Most instructors must be taught how to teach under the guidance of other instructors, who’ve had many years of teaching experience, in order to learn how to pass on their knowledge correctly to others. “An instructor must be well-rounded and experienced in as many facets of his art as possible since martial art contains an unfathomable amount and wisdom and knowledge that you must experience directly to understand” (Kim, 1997, pg. 37). How well the students are taught is the ultimate responsibility of the instructor.
In contrast, most martial arts schools are run by instructors who love to teach (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). Some of these instructors refuse to lower their standards just to make it easier for their students to receive their black belts (Unknown, 2004, pg. 14). They take the time to teach their students, sometimes individually, and to talk to them and explain how the moves are actually executed so that they understand. Many instructors must hold regular jobs in order to keep their school open. I have a personal belief that I share with all my students. I tell them that under the threads of your black belt there are white threads. So as a black belt, you have just reached a point where you begin to learn. The learning process has just begun.
It should be left up to the Head Instructor of the school to decide if their student possesses the knowledge, and most importantly, the teaching skills to pass on the proper instruction of their style of tae kwon do correctly. Ranks should not just be given away for the sake of the student “sticking it out” long enough. Just because a student has been at a given level in the ranking system for a minimum timeline does not necessarily mean that the student is ready to go to the next level. Sometimes it’s necessary for the instructor to hold a student back for however long it takes until the student realizes how everything has to be done correctly in order to go to the next level. To earn each rank, including your black belt, a set of guidelines requiring specific learning requirements and a timeline to achieve the rank needs to be followed and not be earned as a means of reward.
Author Unknown. “Gone and Forgotten.” Black Belt Magazine. February 2004: 14.
Kim, Sang H. Teaching Martial Arts. Wethersfield, CT: Turtle Press, 1997.
Lowry, Dave. “What Does A Black Belt Mean?” Black Belt Magazine. April 2005: 52-53.
Maberry, Jonathan. “Myths and Misconceptions, 10 Tall Tales of the Martial Arts Debunked!” Black Belt Magazine. Vol. 44 No. 1. Black Belt Magazine. Online. 10 August 2006
Sullivan, Tom. “Belt Rank Guidelines.” Karate North Handbook. 1975: 6.