Whenever I walk around in publc in my gi (generally when grabbing food or water before teaching a class), I am almost always asked ‘Are you a black belt?” Which makes me chuckle because I’m generally wearing one. The next question is almost universally ‘how hard is it to get a black belt?’
The answer I give (‘it takes years of training to achieve the rank of first degree black – here’s a card for a free lesson at RDK San Dimas’) isn’t the one that immediately pops into my head whenever I hear that question…mainly because Shihan Casamassa would kick my butt if I said what I was actually thinking.
Black belts don’t really mean anything and anyone can get one.
You see, getting a black belt is one of the easiest things in the world these days. There are an increasing number of schools out there offering them to students with very little actual training – you pay your monthly fees and, at the end of a certain period, you get your shiny new black belt. There are just as many places online where you can submit videos to gain black belt ‘certification’ in a system created by some over-weight guy, generally with a mullet. Heck, you can even cut out the middleman and head over to eBay and buy one of your own.
For those of us who spent years (in the case of my Aikido black belt, almost a decade) training to receive ours, all a black belt really does is act as a visual acknowledgement that we’ve passed a curriculum set forth by whatever school of martial arts we attend. That’s right, it’s a diploma. It doesn’t really mean any more or less than that. It doesn’t mean we are masters of anything – it doesn’t even necessarily mean we’re even very good at it (and I’ve seen more and more black belts who are terrible at their forms).
But, wait, you say. Your karate instructor told you stories of how a black belt was originally a students white belt that became so dirty, encrusted with the blood, sweat, and tears of training that it finally turned black. Well…it was all a bit of a fib.
The color belt system is only about a hundred years old (give or take a decade or two) and was inspired by the ranking for the Japanese board game, Go (essentially their version of chess). It was adopted for use by Jigaro Kano as he was developing Judo for use in Japanese schools.
Yeah, that’s right, that legendary black belt that was going to give you the mystical powers of the dim mak was inspired by a game.
I was a bit disappointed to learn that little fact myself.
Now, I don’t want you to let facts get in your way…as I always say: facts never proved anything. 😀 Earning a black belt (which is different than getting one) is an achievement. If you’ve trained hard, learned your forms and what they mean, then earning your black belt is a great accomplishment and one you should celebrate – briefly. Throw a party, have a cake. Then, get back to training because you need to make sure to keep it.
That is one of the most over-looked pieces of the black belt puzzle. You’ve got to keep training to stay a black belt – sure, no one is going to come and take your belt away if you don’t train, but without that active training, growth, and exploration, all you have is a something to hold your pants up.
A black belt without training is just an accessory. As an instructor, I’m constantly asked by parents or former students if they can wear their old black belt to class. My answer: I guess…as long as you aren’t wearing brown shoes because that’s just tacky.
So remember: all getting a black belt requires is a credit card or Paypal address; achieving one takes a whole lot of training; keeping one takes practice.
Don’t focus on the belt. Focus on learning and continuing to learn. Belts aren’t as important as knowledge and experience.
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