Following the completion of the much-delayed Black Belt Tests (Dan Shim Sa) in late November, I thought it worth looking at what, in my opinion, is a Black Belt?

In martial arts schools, there will be a sign somewhere that says, ‘My goal is Black Belt’. Advertisements for martial arts schools will often contain a statement such as ‘This is a black belt school’ - our Centres at Prestwich & Oldham (as well as the other full-time Centres in the Family Martial Arts family) have a variation of this up on the wall. Ask any non-black belt student what their goal is and most will tell you ‘to get my black belt’.

There is a huge difference between ‘being a Black Belt’ and ‘having a Black Belt’

We should not dismiss the goal of black belt - it is a very worthy & admirable goal & is one of the primary reasons we have belts in martial arts. We use those levels to set goals - for both yourselves & for Instructors to challenge students. However, the more advanced you become, it should become less & less about what drives you to keep going. As a Beginner, gaining the next level is a huge achievement, but at more advanced levels, with large numbers of years between Dan levels, it should be less of an issue.

It is well known that a significant percentage of students give up their training within the first six months of having gained their Cho Dan (1st Dan Black Belt). Having set their sights on achieving this goal, they often feel that there is nothing left to motivate them & drive their training. These people are able to say they ‘have a Black Belt’; however, they are NOT a Black Belt in the true sense of the term.

Students who have gained the rank of Cho Dan (1st Dan) have made the first complete step on their training journey. One translation of Cho Dan is ‘beginner student’. In the early days of belt ranking, a black belt was the first coloured belt you gained after your white belt - other coloured belts were inserted to help differentiate between someone who’d been training 5 days & someone who’d been training 5 years. They also help with having a sense of progression & achievement on that journey.

Let us not downplay the level of achievement that goes alongside attaining the rank of Dan Member. It will often involve many hundreds or thousands of hours of training and a not insignificant level of pain & effort.

Being a Black Belt is different from having a Black Belt as it involves living up to the ideals associated with being a senior members of your club/organisation. It involves being a role model for younger /more junior students. It is a leadership role in your club as other students look up to you to set the example. As such, you also become an extension of your Instructor(s) as you help to set the tone of the club, ensure discipline & rules are followed and support more junior students to achieve their goals too.

Giving up after being awarded your 1st Dan is just like learning to drive, passing your test & then never setting foot in a car again. You can drive, but you are not a good driver - that comes with time & much practice….. just like in martial arts.

Earning your Black Belt should not be seen as an award to display on your wall, never having placed your belt around your waist. If this is your driving force, maybe it’s time to examine your motivations for doing martial arts?

It takes time after earning a Black Belt to actually become a Black Belt - being a Black Belt is a long-term pursuit of excellence both technically and philosophically. Otherwise you simply just have a Black Belt.

Which one will you be?

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