Monday, November 3, 2014

Can anybody get a Black Belt? - The Ugly Truth

How’s that old joke go - How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Answer; Practice, practice, practice.  I have the good fortune of not owning a martial arts school, and as such my livelihood and children’s college education are not dependent on the income generated from selling karate.

This means that I can give you some good solid feedback without having to worry that you’ll actually listen to me (and therefore not sign up).

Today’s question is, can anybody get a black belt?  Variations on this question include; how hard do I have to train, how often do I have to attend class, Why am I not getting better, and the ever popular, when can I test for my next belt?

All of these questions are rooted in the subject of training effort, i.e. how much work does it take to become a martial artist.  Here is what most school owners try to avoid saying... You’ll be as good as you train - no better, no worse.  Most owners have a vested interest in keeping you in school, and will promote you on a time-based schedule, rather than using an ability-based evaluation.

The franchise in which I train and teach charges a flat monthly fee.  You can come to every class every day if you want (a total of 19 classes per week) and there is no more cost than if you attend once per month.  Come as much as you want. Tests are extra.

What I can tell you after 16 years of training and observation is that most people don’t come to class enough, virtually never train / review outside of class, and barely pass their tests - if you use “ability” as a measure.  This applies to “most” - certainly there are exceptions to this rule and the difference between the “most” and the “exceptions” is dramatic.

Most students can only remember their current forms (Hyung / Kata / Patterns) - the karate dances that become increasingly more difficult as you progress through the ranks.  Imagine a fifth grader that could not perform 4th grade math - you’d flunk them and send them back.

Martial arts is a business and very few schools can afford the luxury of failing students whose attendance / effort is too low.  But let’s be honest - the successful martial artist achieves proficiency through repetition - the kind of repetition that is guided by a coach / instructor / mentor.  There is absolutely no substitute for repetition.  None, Nada, Zilch.

I get it - you’re a fast learner and you picked-up your latest form in just one day.  Bull-Hockey - no you didn’t.  Your form sucks.  You have no balance, no grace, no snap, no timing, no rhythm, no style, and no embodiment of the fundamental concept behind the movements.  But forget about me and my bias - without generous repetition, your mind and body cannot form the bond that will cause you to act instinctively when attacked, to move effortlessly between offense and defense, to fight as instinctively as you read the newspaper while eating.

There is no substitute for repetition, i.e practice.  The choice is ultimately yours.  I strongly encourage everyone to gain the freedom from fear, the self esteem, confidence, and health benefits that martial arts can provide - but the ugly truth is that most instructors will pass you from belt to belt to keep you and your revenue in their schools.  

So the question isn’t, “Can I get a black belt”, but rather “if you get a black belt, what will it mean?”


  1. I definitely agree that there is a temptation for a student to focus solely on achieving rank instead of personal development. I think schools don't realize how much responsibility or influence they have in shaping someone's view. An individual who is consistently bombarded with the same message without other competing views gets into a lock-stop way of thinking that can be shallow and eventually destructive.

    I have great respect for schools that encourage their students to initiate conversations with their peers and others outside the classroom, so that they realize there is not just one opinion out there. Personally, I have struggled with that mentality of "I got it in one day, so why can't I move on to someone else?" It has taken a long time to realize that a person can't "get it" overnight; there's always something more to work on.

  2. I agree on the point that martial arts schools ARE business. However, what bothers me is when I try really hard to do my best, I train at home going over the materials that are needed in order to earn the next rank, and then I come to my school and a black belt who is supposed to review my test material tells me "as long as your check clears - you pass". I really wish that I did not hear him say that. I am an adult and I do understand the concept of business, but that was a very ignorant statement. Moreover - there were a few kids around who also heard that. I guess that showed me the attitude of that person towards something that I am struggling to get good at and he treats it with disrespect...

  3. Of course Eric is right, I practice parallel parking every chance I have, Do not laugh, I get a lot of parking places most people will pass up.

  4. To quote Julie Andrews: The amatuer practices until they get it right. The professional practices until they can't get it wrong.


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