What Does Black Belt Mean?

Many martial arts schools today focus on belt-rank as an end goal. They have black-belt clubs, accelerated black-belt training, etc. That’s fine, and I’m sure most give good instruction. I take issue with the view that a black belt – or any rank should be an end-goal. The myth that the black belt makes you a master is strengthened.

It’s been said that, of those who start martial arts training, 1 in 100 will stick long enough to gain a 1st degree black belt. Of those, 1 in 100 will stick long enough to get their second degree. This means that out of every 10,000 people starting out on what’s meant to be a life’s journey, at least 9,999 quit along the way. I know many who get their black belt and then never walk into the dojo again – what a waste.

I am of the strong opinion that we, at least here in the U.S. Overemphasize rank and external accomplishment – or at least the symbols of those accomplishments. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of achieving my rank in my chosen martial art, but not because I get to wear a black belt to show off to people. I am proud because I stuck with my chosen art for over 14 years, trained hard, and learned a lot. Getting my first dan a number of years ago didn’t mean I was the master of anything.

Today, I see a ton of martial arts teachers with 10th degree black belts giving themselves huge fanciful titles like professor, doctor, great grandmaster etc. It leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. To me, it’s the focus on the external, the rank, the title that is just crazy. Being called superhuman power master 33rd degree doesn’t mean you’re a good martial artist, or a good teacher. What makes people good martial artists and good teachers is very simple: be a good martial artist and a good teacher.

I’m not saying that all titles are bogus. Certainly some are meant to convey organizational structure or teacher licensing. In this case, there may be a quality control measure.

However, we live in the land of marketing. We are a jaded society and we need proof of credibility. Many teachers look for certificates, titles, etc. to prove  they are the most awesome martial arts super-humans on the planet. The truth is, sometimes they are. The flip-side to that truth is that sometimes they are not. Having been around the block a few times, seeing 9000 patches on a uniform combined with a belt with 47 stripes and a list of titles tends to set off my BS detector.

The term “black-belt” is now used to market just about everything else as well. I am reminded six sigma business training which awards actual black belts. Stuff like this takes away more meaning.

My sensei told me the following, and I’m sure he got it from someone wise as well: “black belt means that you are starting to learn.” Wrapping a piece of black silk around your waist does not turn you into Yoda or mean that you are going to be Donald Trump in the boardroom. It means that you have gotten good enough that you’re no longer an idiot and the real learning can begin.

When does that learning stop? When you exhale your last breath. Then, depending on your belief system, you get to carry on in the next life.

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