Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fast Track To Black Belt

In our dojo, I return the phone calls from prospective students. The calls vary greatly. There are some callers that are only interested in price. Some people are looking for a specific style of karate. Others are just looking for self-defense. Lately a common theme in the phone calls has been time. How long does it take to get a black belt? Is there a fast track to black belt?

This question comes from our society. We eat fast food and drive fast cars. We have replaced phone conversations with instant messaging, email and texting. We abbreviate the English language. There are accelerated degree programs to speed up our education. In business, we want our products shipped faster and immediate answers to our questions. The Internet provides instant access to news, personal accounts, shopping and friends.

Should there be an accelerated black belt program? I think not. I am sure we could speed up the physical requirements. There have been many brown belts who knew the required material for black since 3rd kyu. I have witnessed children learning kata after practicing only a handful of times. On the flip side, I have seen people struggle to remember patterns. Everyone is different.

There is more to karate than the patterns and the physical requirements. An important element is the fundamental understanding of movement. It takes time and study to make the connections. Kata is the beginning and there is much to discover.

On a personal note...I was a three year black belt. I was in the dojo a lot and knew the physical requirements. I understood base level bunkai. But if I must took me another year to feel comfortable wearing the belt. Plain and took time. It would not have mattered if I logged more training time or learned more kata.

The phone calls will be made and the question will be asked. Is there an accelerated black belt program? If the person is looking for a fast black belt it makes me wonder why they want lessons.

I simply respond...."No".


Anonymous said...

Hi Michelle,

As a business person, that is a hard question to answer. I, like you, have noticed that people learn at different rates. Some styles don't have much beef to the 1st degree black belt but that was not the case with our flavor of kenpo. 240 techniques, 17 kata, basics and oh yes - you have to be able to fight your way out of a paper bag.

Without digressing to a discussion of stylistic differences - I can say we used to "allow" the students to "try" and speed up the progress from 3 - 4 years to about 2 years by purchasing an accelerated program that consisted of 2 private lessons a week instead of 1 private a week. That cost double and we cautioned the student that they would have to focus if they expected to make it.

Very few people including me were ever able to get the traditional black belt in kenpo in 2 years.

Getting back to how you answer the question... you might want to allow the student to make the choice if they are highly motivated (and willing to put in the time and pay extra?)?

At least that is how we dealt with such students. :)

BSM said...

The only way an accelerated program would work is if the student trained more than two or three times per week.

I'm pretty sure when Chuck Norris was stationed in Korea, he achieved black belt in about a year -- though he did fail his first test. The classes were longer than 50 minutes and the frequency was more than 3X a week.

I'm a 3 year black belt in tae kwon do. Given the access I had to the dojang, instruction times, and a full-time job, I'm happy I did it in three. In our group 1st dan takes 2-4 years depending on the person.


Narda said...

I suspect that what most people want to learn, and what they need to learn, are two different things. That superficial motivations change over time.

In the case of the 'advanced BB' question, my reply would be 'depends entirely on you.' ;)

Geeklet said...

I think we should list "patience" as a requirement. >:-)

Patience with ourselves, patience with our instructors, patience with our fellow students, patience with not having something given to us immediately a-la McDonalds and patience just with the passage of time.

It takes 4 years to earn a bachelors degree - some people can manage it in about 3. Most can't - some even take 4.5.

To become even a little bit good at anything takes time. And patience! Why should achieving black belt be any different?

Felicia said...

Five to six years is about average in USA Goju. I did it in four and a half but I was taking three classes a week (2 hours each) - and I still felt like it wasn't quite enough. Like you, Michele, I think it's totally individual, but I can't quite see opening a conversation about the training environment with "How fast can I get to black belt?" Makes me think that for the person asking, the end result - that shiny new black belt - is more important than the journey, which isn't even what martial arts is about.

Good for you, Michele, for just saying "No," LOL...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should ask them why they want the black belt in the first place: from their answer you might learn whether they need it for self-defense, whether they want to do well in tournaments or they just want status. When it’s the latter I’d suggest a black belt can be bought quite cheaply at a local sporting goods store and for mere minutes of their time. If they’re smart they’ll realize the belt itself means nothing but it’s the skill-level that counts, if they don’t than you probably wouldn’t want them as students anyway. If they’re interested in self-defense you can explain the skills they’ll be learning will be useful for self-defense almost from the start and it generally doesn’t take much time to learn to block or avoid a basic kick or punch and retaliate (basic self-defense can be taught in months given proper motivation, a sound plan and some good equipment) and the great majority of people don’t know squat about fighting anyway so not panicking will usually be enough. When they want to do well in competition you can explain you don’t need to be a black belt to be able to compete and that there are enough opportunities for everyone once the basics are learned. I wouldn’t say ‘no’ right away: although I certainly understand your motivation it might scare away people who do mean well (assuming they’re not the lazy, instant gratification kind) but they’re just rather naive or totally uneducated on the subject. Clearly you don’t want to sell out and grant belts to just anyone but you don’t want to scare off those who may have it in them to become good students (most people in the martial arts evolve from pure goal orientation, ‘I want that get that belt or learn that technique’, to training because it’s fun and fulfilling) but who just ask the wrong questions out of ignorance. If they persist I’d tell them to take a hike but you owe to those who are willing to listen a chance to experience training for themselves. If after a year they think they haven’t made enough progress then it’s their choice whether to quit or not.

As to the question of accelerated learning: it is very true that the more you train the more you’ll learn and the quicker you’ll get to test for black belt but there should never be a guarantee. If you’re good enough you pass, if you’re not you fail and have to train harder: it’s that simple. It’s like attending college: it’s not because you have paid your tuition or attended all the classes you’re guaranteed to pass. If you’re smart enough and know the material you’ll pass, if you don’t they’ll fail you. People have different talents and some learn quicker than others, I’m sure there are some people who can actually manage to get to the skill level required for black belt in just one year, just like there are those who are able to learn to play the piano in mere months or learn a foreign language in a similar amount of time. Should those individuals be denied the opportunity to prove they’re worthy? As long as a proper standard is maintained I don’t see why they shouldn’t be given the chance to test.

My answer would be on average 3 to 4 years (I’m assuming that’s the mean for most schools), depending on aptitude, regular attendance and motivation. If asked if there is a special program to accelerate this I’d say hard work and extra training (whether on your own or through extra classes). Surely you can be curt or retort with a koan but people won’t understand and insight into the art and eastern culture only comes with years of training and personal interest.

PS: I’ve got nothing against paid private lessons, as long as you treat them just the same as the other students and the requirements for grading remain the same. Some people really think because they spend a lot of money on something they’re automatically entitled to the reward (regardless of their skill or persistence) and some teachers actually go along with this because of financial gain.

Anonymous said...

If you award black belts, why shouldn't a perspective "paying" student enquire how long it will take to earn one?

"How long does it take to get a black belt? Is there a fast track to black belt?"

If they're going to have to pay to sit grade exams, don't they have a right to know the minimum time it will take to earn a black belt? And don't they have a right to know how many hours (or weeks) on average it takes to earn one, based on a mode, median or mean average of previous students who have earned black belts at the club?

Also, I can't see why you would have any difficulty in creating an accelerated programme. Some people want that. Anyone who trains at my uncle's judo club would be training at an accelerated pace. In judo the average length of time to get a black belt in a decent judo club is 3 years but in my uncle's club its 2 years. They train extremely hard and its a very competitive environment. His motto is: gold, silver, bronze, or c**t. The club is not for everybody. I used to train there when my Dad was head coach - I hated it, but my brothers and cousins loved it, they all got their blacks belts there at 15. I gave up judo after I got my yellow belt but I would probably have enjoyed it a lot more at a less competitive club. Not everybody wants the same thing from a martial art club.

Michele said...

Thank you for your comments. Our recommended guideline for black belt is four years training two to three times per week. Training intensifies during the six-month period before testing. Most students test for black between 3 ½ and 4 ½ years. Our program is karate and kobudo. For black belt, there are 8 weapon kata (bo, tunfa, sai, nunchaku) and 10 open hand kata in addition to basics, self-defense, combinations and sparring. The students test for shodan rank in kata and kobudo. It is after the time guideline was discussed that the question about a Fast Track was asked.

Anon: Thank you for sharing a business perspective. My husband and I have a small dojo in addition to full time employment. How long it takes to earn a black belt does depend on the student. As you pointed out, it sometimes takes longer than expected.

BSM: I was a three-year black belt and a four-year nidan. It took that extra year until I felt comfortable. After my nidan test, there were members of the testing board that commented on my improvement during that year. It was not a physical improvement but rather an increased confidence.

Narda: Good answer.

Geeklet: We will have to talk to Mr. A about that!:) My tai chi instructor told me it would take ten years before a student could use tai chi for self-defense.

Felicia: Thanks. “How fast” was the focus of the conversation.

Zara: Thanks for adding to the discussion. My answer was not an immediate “No”. It was after the recommended guidelines were discussed. Many factors outside of our control affect time. The Federation we belong to holds two formal testing a year. When a student starts and when the formal testing falls can adjust a timeline up to six months. I say “No” because more likely than not it takes longer than the student expects.

Stephiblog: Absolutely…a potential student has the right to inquire about time. I appreciate your comments and I re-read my initial paragraph. My post incorrectly suggests that I am completely against the question of time. I invite all callers to visit so I can spend time discussing our program. Lately callers have been more interested in “how fast”, “how soon” or “how quick” than inquiring about the recommended timeline. The focus was on the end rather than the process in between.

“Not everyone wants the same thing from a martial arts club”…so true

Unknown said...

There is a martial arts parable about this. Actually there are 2 of them!

The first one goes like this :

A prospective student is going from dojo to dojo asking the masters how long it takes to get a black belt in their art. He comes into one dojo and asks the master how long, and the master replies "5 years". The prospect then asks "What if I work twice as hard?". To which the master replies "then it will take you 10"

The other one starts out the same way, and when the student asks the master how long it takes in his art, the master reaches into a cabinent and takes out a belt, and bestows it upon the prospect with full honour and ceremony. He then makes a few motions and several of his senior students scurry out onto the mats and start looking all surly. The master then looks to the new shodan and says "now we invite you to defend your newly-won title".

Di Ling said...

I once heard (I don't know where) a great answer to the question "how long does it take to get a black belt?" Just tell them the truth, 4-5 business days, faster if they're willing to pay for express shipping.

Michele said...

Bushidoka: Thank you for visiting and sharing the parables.

Chuck: I'll have to remember that one! Thank you for commenting.