What is a black belt?
What does it represent in the martial arts?
In this training guide we are going to take a look at what it represents, the skills it puts in action, and the training tools needed to help you achieve it by passing your upcoming black belt test.
In the now twenty five years that I have been fortunate enough to study the martial arts I have participated in many black belt tests as a teacher and coach, and through all of them there was a main theme and transmission that it represents regardless of tradition, style, or school- and that is what we are going to examine in this training guide.
I want to get you ready with the tools and martial tech for your test…
…ready for success?
In the martial arts a black belt represents a level of maturity and skill in the martial arts, one is not a master, but not a starting student. A black belt is someone who is knowledgeable in their art, proficient in skill, and is a solid representative of their school, style, and tradition.
It is a blend of physical skills, mental understanding, and reasonability.
Many new students only see a black belt as a level of skill, and certainly there is skill involved, but there are other qualities which compliment and magnify this level of skill.
As you prepare for your black belt test keep these “other” skills in mind also.
What are the three parts of a black belt?
ONE: Physical Skills
TWO: Mental Skills
THREE: Dojo (tradition) Responsibilities
The exact physical skills of a black belt will be a bit different depending on the art and disciple that you are studying- is it a primarily striking martial arts, a mixed martial arts, are traditional training weapons involved?
Regardless of the exact list of black belt skills needed for your art, there will be the following common element found through all of them. An element on three levels that you will need to know and most likely demonstrate.
As an example, let’s say on your black belt waza (skills) list punching is the first training item.
At a basic level you will need to know how to execute a proper punch- in good form, balance, and striking through the target with sufficient force.
The second level of understanding is being able to take that perfect execution of a punch and do it under pressure- perhaps against a moving target, in sparing, or striking a heavy bag.
And the final element of black belt knowledge would be in understanding of the mechanics that power a punch- the how and why it works, and how one would communicate those principals to another student or training partner.
For a black belt there is not only a needed level of skill, but the ability to show and express that skill to others in class or training if needed.
For many students in preparing for their black belt test they will stop that the physical, and certainly some martial arts school only focus or care about the physical aspects, but with this guide I want to help coach you, or give you the ideas to not only PASS your test, but to BECOME a black belt, and with that there is always a spiritual component.
My choice in using the definition “spiritual” refers to the set of skills in the martial arts that is a blend of mental and emotional abilities, and not spiritual in terms of religion. A black belt should be able to demonstrate the following, and have the following martial arts tech powering their movements:
Awareness: As you are training, are you aware of what is around you? The other students, what is going on in class? When you train with your partner, is there a focus, a heightened awareness (zanshin) that you always have “on”.
A good way to develop this awareness and presence is each time you are training with a partner, and you have finished your technique, pause for a moment and be ready for the next attack or multiple other opponents. In this way you are always training to be ready for the “next” or whatever situation might happen in a moment’s notice.
Another spiritual skill of being a black belt is having an immovable spirit (fudoshin). The ability to continue training, pushing yourself, keep going in class no matter how tired, hot, cold, or sparing exhausted.
The ability to finish to the end no matter what.
Certainly a part of this is physical endurance, but it is also knowing how far you can push yourself, and how to push yourself even further.
Over time this is developed by constant repetition of techniques.
In the Japanese martial arts, there is a spiritual discipline for developing fudoshin by becoming what is known as a “hundred day person”.
What is one of the basics (kihon) of your martial art?
Perhaps a certain strike, block, or downward cut with the sword?
To become a hundred day person, every day you do one hundred repetitions of one of these simple kihon moves, and you do them for one hundred days.
As you are practicing them, if you make a mistake, or it is not movement perfect, you start over and reset the count.
If you miss a day, you start over and reset the count.
For one hundred unbroken days, you perform one hundred unbroken movements.
Complete this exercise alone, and you will have both fudoshin and a clarity of purity in the martial arts.
The third main skill of a black belt is having no mind- mushin.
No mind doesn’t mean not tactically assessing a situation, but rather executing a technique without having to think how to do it, or what the steps are in performing it or making it work.
You develop mushin by always finishing a martial arts technique no matter how badly you are performing it. Always condition your martial mind and thinking to finish your movement and never stop moving.
Think about the black belt’s in your dojo or gym.
Think about the black belts that you respect or look to for inspiration in the martial arts.
Look at the champions and the best in the arts.
100% without question they have skill, but in addition to that skill they have a certain spiritual focus to them- develop that focus as it is key to earning and becoming a black belt.
The final element of what goes into making a black belt is often discovered after the fact, and is very hard to see before becoming a black belt, yet at the same time, it is an important element.
Something that your teacher or coach will be looking for as they prepare you to take your test, and this element is the new-responsibility you will have as a black belt to your dojo, school, or training group.
To borrow a Japanese martial arts term, you will be a sempai- a senior to the other junior students in your group. They will be looking towards you and your action, just as you looked towards the black belts ahead of you in both skill and behavior.
A black belt is not about going your own way, but rather going deeper into the tradition, training, and your studies in the martial arts.
Before we move to part two in this guide and start preparing a success outline for the day of your test I’d like to share with you a part of my black belt test, and some mistakes NOT to make.
Now, in my role as a martial arts coach, my ultimate goal for my students and those I advice is to cut down their learning curve in the martial arts.
If it took me six months to learn a certain skill item, or to get to a belt level, now with my experience and hard won lessons, I should be able to get YOU to that level in half the time, or perhaps even less.
When I was awarded my 1st degree black belt in 1999 it took me a good two years or so to FEEL like a black belt.
The reason for this is that I had a number of self imposed notions of what a black belt should be- entirely of my own creation. Strong, a certain body image, how I thought I should behave, move and act.
There was a level of immaturity there, and it slowed down my momentum and learning in the martial arts.
I’ve certainly long ago corrected my mistakes, but it did cost me a hard amount of lessons and time…
…don’t make this mistake when you become a black belt.
When you receive your black belt, be proud, be confident, be bold, but don’t put a definition of what a black belt should be- remain empty.
Let the movement and teachings of your martial art define and mold you as to what you should be as a black belt.
Allow yourself to start over as nothing, and let the martial arts build you back up. This “new” foundation will serve you well as you move to 2nd, 3rd, and beyond black belt levels.
At the very least it will leave less to undo and unlearn as you progress beyond black belt.
A good teacher will not let you make the same mistakes they did in their own martial arts journey.