What Does it Mean to be a Blackbelt
One of the questions most commonly asked of martial artists is, "How
long does it take to get a black belt?"
There are many different answers to this question and most people would
be happy if I would say it takes just a couple of years to get a black
belt, but unfortunately it does not. And though I am afraid some people
would not be happy with my answer, I think the general misconceptions
about "what is a black belt?" should be clarified as much as possible.
This is not a popular subject to discuss in the way I am going to. Indeed,
I don't expect my students to ask the question in the first place. The
answer is not what they want to hear.
The general public today sees black belts worn by very young children,
contracts at martial arts schools that gaurantee a black belt within a
short time, mail-order black belts for sale in martial arts magazines,
and demonstrations of black belt skill involving walking on nails, swallowing
swords and other feats. This raises general questions about the meaning
of the black belt, and threatens the legitimacy of all martial arts ranks.
The founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, created the rank system used by almost
all modern martial arts. The black belt was the first rank he created
to signify completion of the first step of training, and it was the first
time a belt rank was awarded in martial arts. At the time it replaced
the traditional scrolls or diplomas used in older martial arts. Essentially
it was a symbol of a student's graduation to another step in training.
How do you get a black belt? You find a competent teacher and a good
school, begin training and work hard. Someday, who knows when, it will
come. It is not easy, but it's worth it. It may take one year, or it may
take ten years. You may never achieve it. When you come to realize that
the black belt is not as important as the practice itself, you are probably
approaching black belt level. When you realize that no matter how long
or how hard you train, there is a lifetime of study and practice ahead
of you, you are probably getting close to a black belt.
At whatever level you achieve, if you think you "deserve" a black belt,
or if you think you are now "good enough" to be a black belt, you are
probably a long way from reaching your black belt. This is why ranks are
earned by the student, but awarded by the instructor who is more likely
to recognize all the factors that make up a black belt. These factors
include more than just the physical skills and techniques. They also include
conduct, character, and internalization of the principles of Judo. Application
of the Judo principles to life outside the dojo is one of the unifying
commonalities that brings black belts together. As a black belt, you strive
to apply all the principles you have learned in class to the rest of your
life. For example, when you learn that you must be committed to a Judo
throw and follow through to make it work, as a black belt you should become
conscious of how these same principles will help you to achieve other
goals off the mats.
Train hard, be humble, don't show off or complain, and do your best
in everything in your life. This is what it means to be a black belt.
Black belts are often ordinary people who try harder and don't give up.
Black belt can be achieved in spite of any weaknesses you may have. I
have promoted men and women who began training very late in life, people
who were disabled or blind, and people who were very afraid of physical
activity when they started. It is how you face and overcome difficulties
that determines your character, an important component of a black belt.
To be overconfident, to show off your skill, to look down on others,
and to show a lack of respect characterize the student who will have difficulty
achieving black belt. This is not to say that black belts don't have faults,
they are just the ones working on improving themselves. Striving for perfection
as a whole person is a sign of the black belt. What they wear around their
waist will always be more than simply a piece of merchandise bought for
a few dollars in a martial arts supply store.
The first level of black belt in Japanese is called shodan. It literally
means "first level" or "beginning step". Sho (first) is an interesting
ideograph. It is comprised of two radicals meaning "cloth" and "knife".
To make a piece of clothing, one first cuts out the pattern on the cloth.
The pattern determines the style and look of the final product. If the
pattern is out of proportion or in error, the clothes will look bad and
not fit properly. In the same way, your initial training to reach black
belt is very important; it determines how you will eventually turn out
as a black belt. After years of training you have cut the pattern and
learned the basic techniques. The promotion to black belt is a recognition
of this hard work and a level of accomplishment that one can be proud
of. On the other hand, shodan is really just the beginning, the base,
for learning Judo or any martial art.
In many years of teaching, I have noticed that the students who are
solely concerned with getting their promotion discourage easily, as soon
as they realize it is harder than they expected. Students who come in
just for practice, without concern for rank, always do well. They are
not crushed by shallow or unrealistic goals.
There is a famous story about Yagyu Matajuro, who was a son of the famous
Yagyu family of swordsmen in 17th century feudal Japan. He was kicked
out of the house for lack of talent and potential, and sought out instruction
of the swordmaster Tsukahara Bokuden, with the hope of achieving mastery
of the sword and regaining his family position.
On their initial interview, Matajuro asked Tsukahara Bokuden, "How long
will it take me to master the sword?" Bokuden replied, "Oh, about five
years if you train very hard." "If I train twice as hard, how long will
it take?" inquired Matajuro. "In that case, ten years," retorted Bokuden.
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