Sunday, November 1, 2009

Once A Black Belt...Always A Black Belt?

I have been thinking a lot about the subject of being a black belt. Last week in the dojo, my husband had an excellent discussion with a 1st kyu student about the process of being a black belt. Yes, there is a test, a list of requirements and long hours needed in the dojo. But, there is something more. It is the hard to describe, intangible quality that he referred to as "becoming" a black belt. It is something you know...when you see it.

I think of students who passed through our dojo and earned the rank of black belt. Some students continue to train, learn and teach. They have become my training partners and together we continue to learn and explore.

Other students quit a few weeks or perhaps months after receiving their belt. I imagine their belt hanging on a display like a prized trophy. It was something they wanted to acquire not become.

I believe there is another group. The students trained, earned their black belt but for some reason (family, work, school, injury) can no longer actively train. Even though they do not walk through the dojo door on a weekly basis, I still consider them part of the dojo. They "became" a black belt. The lessons learned in karate class became part of who they are and shaped the person they became. These students could step on the floor at any time and be a black belt. Sure...they may need to re-learn the patterns or the drills but the essence of their training and study is still part of them.

What do you think....once a black belt...always a black belt? If the training stops... should the rank stop with it? Or does it depend on the person and if they actually became a black belt rather than acquire one?


John Vesia said...

Some students continue to train, learn and teach.

You put those concepts in the right order. It's the last one that determines how long one stays in the game. At least that's been my experience.

Few who aren't cut out to teach or can't be bothered last very long after acquiring black belt. It's a huge goal, but once achieved it can become anti-climactic.

So the newly arrived shodan can teach. It's a form of altruism and does shed light on the subject matter that isn't available from the student's perspective. Of course teaching is not the same as training, which is what it all comes down to. Finding the time to train (or teach), coordinating it with one's personal life and work schedule can be daunting. Needless to say these conditions exist all along anyway.

Once a black belt...always a black belt? If you don't train or teach, I'd say the black belt as a rank becomes moot. But if one takes their lessons learned in the dojo into their outside affairs, then this could be the difference between "acquiring" and "becoming" a black belt. Hence Musashi's aphorism "the warrior must make his warrior's walk his everyday walk."

Sue C said...

Wish I had a black belt so that I could join in this discussion! Oh well, may be one day....if I train hard

Becky G said...

I think it depends on the individual as to whether one remains a black belt. I think it depends on why that individual started training in the first place, and on why that individual is no longer actively training.

I don't believe one should be required to teach to maintain his rank, either. Some people just aren't teachers. To say that one must teach or be stripped of his rank makes me wonder why bother training in karate in the first place? Shouldn't you be taking teacher education courses in that case?

I believe there are legitimate reasons why one can no longer actively train. Financial reasons--especially in this current economy-- injuries, family concerns, all can prevent a person from making it to the dojo.

On the other hand, there are those who think shodan is "it". They got their black belts, don't see the need to train any more. These people usually pass through the McDojos, which makes me wonder about the legitimacy of their rank in the first place. We can't always know what is in a person's heart and mind. How then can we say, "You haven't been to the dojo in x amount of days, you are forthwith stripped of your rank"?

If a person is a true black belt, he will know it in his heart.

John W. Zimmer said...

While becoming a black belt is certainly more involved then academic studies because of the mind/body/spirit melding that takes place in a good practitioner, I think once a black belt has been attained and not dishonored - always a black belt.

Martial arts teach lots of skills that help one in overall life. I know just having confidence in interpersonal relations has helped me achieve almost anything I've tried to do in life so far. I'm not really a people person but can easily get up in front of a crowd of people and speak off of the cuff and sound somewhat intelligent because of the confidence gained by learning how to fight.

Earning my first masters degree in the studio made actually earning an MBA later in life seem easy... you know, I had already achieved a master’s degree. :)

One word of caution, if a person values the black belt it will have continued meaning in his or her life. If not it is just another colored belt.

Felicia said...

Nonsense, Sue. Of course you can participate because not only are you on the path, but you know folks, I'm sure, who can fit into any of the catagories Michele talks about in her post...

I agree with your husband's assessment of "becoming a black belt" Michele. It's so much more than just studying for years, taking a test and getting a new belt. I think it is definitely something that we grow into.

When I was a brown belt, one of my instructors and I had a great chat at a summer seminar. "There are people who have black belts and there are those who ARE black belts," he said. In other words, just strapping on a black belt does not a yudansha make.

True story: there is a woman in our sister dojo who earned her shodan rank two years before I did. Content to have finally reached her goal, she still comes to class on a regular, but refuses to continue her learning - meaning when a new twist on a tried and true technique or kata bunkai is shown, she balks and flat out refuses to learn it, giving a literal half-butt effort. In her mind, she knows all she needs to, which is ridiculous. So, although she trains twice a week, she is a prime example of one of those "black belt havers" my other sensei was talking about.

I guess training is not enough. Learning is such a key component - and one of the reasons I love karate so much because there is always, always, always something new to learn.

Great post, Michele :-)

elizasmom said...

Yes, great post! I've got experience with several sides of the issue: I've seen people who saw the rank as a possession and gave up once they got it, and I've been one of those people who couldn't train.

Between pregnancy, new-mom-hood, work, etc., I missed about 2 years of training between 2005 and 2008 and was only able to train minimally for big chunks of that time. However, (and I hope this doesn't sound braggy because I'm citing myself not as some golden example but as a case study) I never stopped thinking about karate, considering its lessons, figuring out how they applied to my life, etc. When I tested for my sandan rank, I wrote my essay about how I'd applied certain movement and breath techniques to the process of birthing (probably the first essay my sensei ever read on that subject).
Anyway, my point is even when I wasn't on the deck I never felt like I had walked away from training and my sensei recognized that in the way he welcomed me back by throwing me immediately back into the deep end of training (new kata on my first night back, hello!)
Now that I'm an instructor again, too, I've found that I am getting better at being able to tell when someone's for real and when they're just looking for status. There are definitely those who are doing it for the deep reasons, and those who aren't. It's not necessarily the best "natural' athletes, either, who are in it to stay.

BSM said...

While I was approaching my black belt test I had an older friend who had also achieved his black belt. Due to family commitments and his counseling practice he simply did not have the time to continue on. In fact, he was at least 10 years removed from his achievement.

He no longer considered himself a black belt but he did say that the achievement was something that nobody could take away from him.

Perhaps how we view the former black belt should have a lot to do with how the former black belt views his or her self?

Michele said...

Hello everyone...

I want to thank you for your excellent comments. I also want to apologize for my delayed response to the comments. My computer was sending me warnings..."emergency shut down warning" and "service immediately". My computer would not turn on. I thought it died completely. I learned a valuable lesson on backing up documents. The CPU fan burned out but could be replaced.

I bought a new computer (it was on my to do list) and was able to repair my old computer (which has all my husband's CAD drawings on it).

Thank you again for your comments!

jelemans said...

In Japan they have a kotowaza (proverb);

If you are not getting better, you are getting worse. The traditional way of thinking is that you cannot stay still when it comes to martial arts.

Charlie on the PA Turnpike said...

I earned my 1st Dan in taekwondo (WTF) in February and over the summer suspended my training. As you suggested, family commitments have gotten in my way, but I do intend on resuming training in the Spring.

My oldest son is still training (4th gup), and I sit on the side and watch his classes. Other students - adults and children - still greet me and we chat. Often the lower belts will ask me to observe and critique how they perform their poomse, and I do so gladly. To that end, I believe, I am still teaching, and it helps inspire me to practice my poomse in order to stay sharp.

Our Master does direct Black Belts to formally teach classes - generally no more than 1-2x month - and clearly there are those who are better at teaching than others, and those who dislike doing it, while others enjoy/don't mind doing so.

This does not mean, however, our Black Belts are not teaching at any other time. The dojang reminds all students they are teachers, who can provide instruction or insight to all others. A White Belt can certainly learn from a Yellow Belt, and so on. And as an over 40 year old adult who has sparred 20-somethings, I've learned some moves from lower belts, too.

Michele said...

Hi Charlie,

Thank you for visiting my blog.

I learn from my instructors, training partners, through teaching and from the students.

Personally...teaching inspires me to continue learning and training.

Thanks again for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Once you earn a black belt it's yours forever and no-one will ever be able to take that away from you. However, I think there is a difference between masters and mere black belts: masters are basically black belts that continue their training after first Dan and continue their quest for knowledge and excellence, not for the belts themselves but because it's in their nature and they have devoted their life to their chosen art. There are indeed many people who quit after shodan: apparantly they saw it as the ultimate goal and they craved offical recognition, they probably never did it because they really enjoyed training or they felt drawn to it. You could compare it to different motivations for attending uni and getting a degree: for some uni is actually about the experience and the knowledge they gain, their motivation comes from within and they continue in their chosen field long after officially graduating or landing a good job because of it. Others see a degree merely as a means of getting good employment (hopefully even getting rich) or the status it gives them in the eyes of others. For them motivation is external and if they continue to study after graduation they'll most likely do it because their job requires it (keeping up to date) not because they actually want to know even more about it.

To me true masters are almost always teachers: if you are really good at what you do and you have a passion for it you'll want others to reap the benefits and experience the immens joy that results from honing your talents and doing what you love.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to add something to my comment: while I certainly don't believe discontinuation of training should ever result in stripping rank (like I said once a black belt always a black belt) I'd make an exception for teachers. If you as a teacher don't continue to enhance your skills, train with others who are more knowledgeable than you and live under the illusion you know all there is to know and you're the best thing since sliced bread you really do not deserve the title of teacher or master. I saw this with my old sensei: all his life he had been training in the martial arts (he retired with a 10th degree black belt and high rank in several styles) and he enjoyed great succes and esteem as a teacher but from his 65th birthday on he just lost his appetite for teaching and this resulted in classes who were stale, repetitive and boring. You just knew he didn't really care anymore, his classes were almost always improvised and he stopped attending seminars altogether. slowly the number of students started to dwindle and this led to even more passivity and disinterest on his part: near the end he used to waste up to half an hour each class chatting about the old days and while his stories were quite interesting and entertaining it did take time away from actual training (too much time) and even the best stories get old after you've heard them for the 10 or 15th time. He was a great teacher and a superb martial artist yet he should have retired sooner, better to quit while you're at your peak than diminish your reputation by an ineffectual attempt at retaining old glory. Yet I salute him, both as a teacher (no matter who I learn from, to me he'll always be 'sensei' not just a sensei among many) and as a human-being. He gave me my foundation and when I get my black belt (soon I hope) it'll be in large part due to him (I received my foundation from him and my current teacher was one of his best students). Lets hope I can convince him to preside in the jury for my federal exam, hopefully the rules allow this since he is no longer my teacher.

In the interest of their students teachers should always keep their knowledge up to date and continue to be a student themselves otherwise they'll become stale and not able to identify with their students challenges and difficulties. Besides that you can never know too much and basics too need constant practice to keep them sharp just as a car cannot continue to run without proper maintance.


Nick said...

My sifu used to say, "you're only as good as your last training session". I believe that sums it up neatly.

But that said, he himself has been forced to retire, so is he still a sifu?

Etali said...

I'm a lowly purple belt, but I've seen a few people from those categories, but luckily most people seem to stick around at my club.

The club instills a sense of black belt being just another part of the journey. Once you get there, you're encouraged to do what interests you - explore other arts, teach, keep training, or do other things around the club. If you have to leave for a while they're understanding, and most people do keep coming back - even if it's just to drop in for the occasional session when real life permits.

Personally, I don't think I have the patience to be a good teacher. I will gladly assist, but can't see myself leading a class. I got my first taste of officiating at a tournament last weekend, though - and could see myself doing score counting, registration, and other admin work.

There are a few people who race to 1st dan and then never come back, but I've noticed that most people seem to come to understand that the
black belt isn't "the prize" pretty quickly. Either that or they stop training once the gradings get hard.

Michele said...

Hi Etali: Thank you for commenting and adding to the discussion.

Marshall Artest said...

Hi, love the topic! I think that a martial artist that receives their black belt never truly ceases being a black belt. They always think about it and they nearly always imagine or even practice every once and a while. Even though they may forget some of the combinations or katas, they are still black belts.

Anonymous said...

When I was younger about 11 I became a black belt and after all the years of training, I just wanted to relax and not have to g to the dojo. But now that I'm older I wish to go back, I just don't know if I will have to start over or if I can still be a black belt.

Anonymous said...

The person who coined this phrase “once Black Belt, always Black Belt” probably quit. Why does work,school, busy life only happen after the Black Belt? Owner of a 30year old school, my crew knows there is no such phrase in Martial Arts. Yes, there are exceptions like College, Moving and so on. However, it is up to the student to maintain his belt and not rest on your laurels. Once a Marine always a Marine...YES. Black Belt NO. This is primarily another lazy American thing. Having traveled and lived in Asia for a few years. I can tell you Europe and Asia do not believe in this phrase. Sorry, to be so blunt, but I take this position seriously. Any school Owner or Instructor will tell you it hurts when someone gets their Black Belt and looks at it as a break time or finish line. I personally have revoked a 3 Black Belts over the 30 years I have been teaching. Loyalty, Ethics, Respect, Discipline is the Martial Art Morality Code for all styles. ✌🏻✌🏽✌️