The Myth of Black Belt
Many achieve black belt….few achieve more
It’s a well known fact that many people quit martial arts after achieving their black belt. I’ve always wondered why this is?! Do they think that once black belt is achieved, that that’s the end of the journey, there’s nothing more to learn? If they are studying martial arts for self defence, do they have the misguided belief that they are now indestructible and able to effectively protect themselves in all situations based on the skills they have acquired? If they are looking at martial arts for fitness or the acquisition of techniques, do they feel they have reached the peak with nothing more to learn? Or is it that the black belt as an image is so engrained in the martial arts, this is what people aim for, not the study of the martial arts itself?
Everyone who has looked at martial arts in any depth knows that there is a distinct difference between martial arts and effective, real world self defence. This was highlighted and emphasised recently in my three part interview with one of the leading figures in the self defence world – Geoff Thompson (Link to part one of interview can be found here). Geoff attained a high grade and skill set in the martial arts, but found through his real world experience that his training in the traditional martial arts had given him overall, a very poor impression of real world violence. We constantly see martial arts schools offering effective self defence training for those that join up, but you have to ask yourself, what is this based on? Does the instructor have any experience of real world violence, or has his self defence experience to date been based on techniques practiced with a partner in the comfort of the dojo or academy? An image is associated with martial arts, and with the idea of a black belt. You think martial arts, you think Karate Kid, you think Bruce Lee, able to defeat anyone with his bad-ass skills! Someone finds out you hold a black belt in a martial art and the usual response is either “Oh better not mess with you then”! or “Waaaaaayaaaaaaa show me some moves karate kid”! I like to think a very small minority of people sign up to the martial arts purely for training in self defence, as martial arts can offer so much more than this and to join for this reason is a very one dimensional view. I like to think an even smaller amount believe that once they achieve that somewhat illustrious rank of black belt, they are now able to handle themselves effectively in any given situation! Teachers or academies that promote this view are in my opinion dangerous, giving people false ideas that if you learn the techniques and achieve the grades, it will then make you effective in a real world situation.
I hope the view above really is the tiny, minuscule, teeny weeny proportion of people who study martial arts, but it still begs the question as to why people seem to leave after achieving the rank of black belt? I was always told that achieving black belt means you have a solid understanding of the basics – that’s it! Now it’s time to really start getting into the technical detail and that for me was the driving force behind my training. I wanted to get more in depth information and try (and mostly fail) to understand the trickier concepts associated with the martial arts and this was due to my instructors. I wanted to do what they did, to throw with that amount of power, to be that quick and to have that knowledge. The fact that they had a black belt around their waist wasn’t nearly as important to me as the knowledge they transmitted. I’m fortunate, I’ve had good instructors, but I wonder if some schools or academies simply wish to get people to black belt as quickly as possible so that they can say they have “progressed 100 or more people to black belt status”. I’m all for martial arts becoming more recognised within the business community, the same as personal training or yoga has become, but quality still needs to be assured. On-line courses to achieve black belt, or quicker promotions to black belt done internally in order to set up more satellite schools are in my opinion a waste of time. The belt means nothing, the knowledge acquired on the road to the belt is what matters. Those rushed through a course, or promoted quicker than usual to become an instructor can easily miss the details needed to teach, leading to a dilution of the martial art, and frankly, people making it up as they go along. Have you ever trained with someone who had an instructor level status, but could barely perform basic movements and was unwilling to answer questions as to why we do the movements and the reasoning behind them? I know I have and it makes you question how these people became instructors. Maybe some people are rushed through these belt progressions, ultimately to gain a black belt, then when that belt is achieved, the realisation sets in that they are not a rarity as they have a black belt, and that their knowledge is not what they first thought it was. Some people may either rise to this challenge and want to achieve more, whereas others may simply go “well I’ve got my black belt, that’s the main thing, let’s start working on something else now”
People may quit a martial art once they’ve reached black belt for a variety of reasons, but it’s interesting to analyse possible reasons so that instructors can set up safeguards to this happening. Black belt is the start of the fun in my opinion, where you get into the more technical aspects and start looking at the art in more depth. Instructors should acknowledge this from the get go, saying that black belt is only the first rung on a very large ladder! Courses that promise a black belt in 6 weeks, or 6 months are one-dimensional and will lead to more dilution of the martial arts! Try doing a 6 week on-line business course then going out and teaching it. I’m sure it would be exceptionally difficult as the underlying understanding and deeper knowledge simply isn’t there. Good instructors can draw from experience and knowledge to provide insight and effective transmission of learning. Poor instructors simply teach the syllabus as it was taught to them then make the rest up as they go along. Martial artists need to realise that black belt is only the first stage and that so much more learning is required. The image of a black belt is engrained within society through media, yet the reality is a very different image.