Black Belt Attitude
What is it and is it important in today’s society?
As students were preparing for their black belt testing this past Saturday, it allowed me the time to think back along my journey and rediscover why I do what I do today. I started training in the Martial Arts when I was 16 years of age. I thought I could be the next Bruce Lee, wow was I wrong there. I studied a Martial Art called Tracey’s Kenpo. I did this for a couple of years up until the time I was to graduate from high school. After high school I joined the Air Force and did not think about the Martial Arts for a few years as life blissfully continued. I came back to Cleveland and in 1981 I started training again. I have continually trained and taught since receiving my first black belt in 1984. I also emptied my cup and started over four times in my career, three times in Hapkido and once in Taekwondo. I trained in three different styles of Hapkido in two different schools and at one point in my training I decided I had to train with an Asian Instructor so I studied Taekwondo.
I have added the above so you understand a little of my journey and that I have seen a lot in my Martial Arts career. I have had great instructors that I would take a bullet for still today, I have had good instructors that were horrible people and I have had bad instructors that only cared about what they received from training people. I have learned something from each of the instructors I have trained under, some of what to do and others of what not to do. The one thing I have learned over all is Martial Arts is something you become not something you do.
So what is “Black Belt Attitude”?
I would like to challenge the Martial Artist’s to post feedback on this topic. I would like to know your thoughts. Is it real, or is it passé? Does it still mean something, or is it so esoteric that it cannot be measured? I would like to know what the Martial Arts community thinks. Below is my opinion only. It is why I am asking you all for your feedback. I may be living in the dark ages of what Martial Arts used to be and need to pull my head out of the sand. I am looking to this community to tell me the truth as they see it.
Students come into your school for many different reasons and those reasons are different between Children and Adults. Children come because their parents bring them and because somewhere along the way they think punching and kicking are cool and they want to be like the TMNT’s or like someone on one of the cartoons they watch. Many parents bring their children to Martial Arts classes because they have either trained in the past and know what it has done for them or have a child with challenges that a doctor or others have told them that Martials Arts can help with. Many parents bring their children in because they are being bullied and have heard that we can help build confidence and protection skills. Adults come for their own reasons and they are just as wide a ranged. I have had students come in because they want to learn how to fight so that the next time they are at the bar they are ready. I have had adults join because they want to have an activity they can get involved in or in many cases they join so they can train with their children. Whatever the reason they come into the school they stay or leave based on what they learn. I have had both children and adults leave because they realize this is work and they will not be given anything without work involved. They cannot walk in and get their black belt in a month. I have had adults leave because they found out we don’t teach people how to hurt others, we teach them how not to fight unless it is absolutely necessary.
We all know the statistics, 1 in 10 students make it to Black Belt, 1 in 10 of those makes it to second degree and beyond. Why is this? Why shouldn’t all students who start make it to black belt? They have paid their money, why shouldn’t they get a black belt? While there are many reasons students quit training there are only a few reasons that would disqualify a student to test for their black belt. One of the reasons students are not allowed to test is physical in nature. The other is mental. Mental is where I believe “Black Belt Attitude” comes in.
First and foremost I want to state that Black Belt Attitude does NOT start at black belt. It should start much earlier in a student’s training. It should be shown to students from the moment they walk into your school and should be exemplified by the students, teachers and instructors present. In my estimation Students normally start to understand black belt expectations and the meaning of “Black Belt Attitude” by Green Belt or after training for about a year in your school. Some get it much earlier and others never get it. It does not mean the student is kicked out of the school it should mean that more time is spent trying to get this student to understand what is expected and how to meet those expectations before testing for Black Belt. If they still do not get it by the time they should be ready to test for black belt, then it is up to each individual instructor to make a determination on the outcome. I believe without the proper attitude towards what black belt is, a student is just going through the motions and is looking for the end goal instead of being part of the journey.
Black Belt Attitude starts and ends with Respect. Respect for self, Respect for others, Respect for Instructors and black belts, and Respect for your school.
Let’s break this down further:
- Respect for self – This means that a student that has a Black Belt Attitude comes to class on time and ready to participate every class. They have a clean uniform with the correct belt and are present during the entire class. They strive to do their best (not some idea of what best is) and they give 100% during each and every class period. They take their training seriously and perseveres when training get tough.
- Respect for others – Respect for others goes well beyond the training hall. Those who respect others use words like thank you and you’re welcome. They call people Ma’am and Sir and mean it when they say it. They try to help others when possible and they listen when others are trying to pass along knowledge. One of the oaths state “help to build a more peaceful world”. This is done through a respect of others. Treating all people as you want to be treated. This goes for both adult and children. Children must learn to respect those above them and in authority.
- Respect for Instructors and Black Belts – This is also not just what is expected in the training environment. We all have teachers, mentors and people we learn from. In Martial Arts we are taught to respect the belt. I have always believed in this and have gone as far as to bow to someone who wanted to kill me because I was bowing to the belt not the person. This being said if you do not or cannot show respect to your Instructor or to the Black Belts around you then wherever you are training is not the right place for you. Instructors have spent many years perfecting their craft and then passing it along to their students. If are a part of a school and are being taught you are expected to show respect for that training. We show respect inside the DoJang so that we get in the habit showing respect to those outside the DoJang. Respect comes in many ways within the DoJang from bowing upon entering, to using terms like “Yes Ma’am or Yes Sir”, to doing what is asked of you. This is not to bolster the Instructor’s ego or to show students in a subservient way. It is because in all walks of life we should be thanking those and respecting those who bring things into our lives. Respect is also a two way street. Instructors and Black Belts should show respect to their students. They should call them by name or using terms such as Ma’am and Sir. Within the DoJang respect is always given to the belt. It does not matter if you like the person wearing it or not. Respect for the belt is to be given.
- Respect for the School – Respecting your school comes in many fashions. Getting involved in helping the school is one way to show respect, another may be to tell others about and to help recruit students into the school. You should never do anything that sets the school in a bad light. Fighting outside of the school is dis-respecting the school. Taking what you have learned from your school and going out to teach other without your instructor’s permission is dis-respecting the school. Teaching of any kind without your instructor’s permission is dis-respecting the school. The school is not just a place where people go to learn stuff. It is a place of solace, a place of camaraderie, a place of learning, and a place to pass on information from generation to generation to help the society of tomorrow grow and prosper. The school is a living, breathing entity. It doesn’t matter if classes are held in a park, or church basement, or a huge building, the school is a living organization that can either be bolstered or destroyed by the respect students and non-students show it.
I could write a lot more about respect, and I want to hear more from all of you on your thoughts when it comes to “Black Belt Attitude” and respect.
Another piece of “Black Belt Attitude” is trust. Although trust and respect go hand in hand, I believe one without the other will not allow success. If we break Martial Arts down to its root form we have Martial, meaning warrior, battle, fighting, etc. and Arts meaning, tradition, creativity, learning, helping, etc. I believe our ultimate responsibility is to train people, give them confidence and show them a path towards personal growth and personal protection. All sports may teach confidence, teamwork, body mechanics and more, although the one thing missing in sports training is the ability to know if push comes to shove you have the skills to protect yourself. This does not mean I know how to fight. There are many levels to protection and the first is awareness. I write all this to say that training in the Martial Arts has inherent risks which go along with training. If you do not trust that your Instructor and school have your best interest at heart and is willing to sacrifice your safety then you need to re-evaluate trust issues as by the time you test for black belt, you have been there long enough to build trust with your Instructor and black belts. While people can get hurt during Martial Arts practice over my years of teaching I have seen many more injuries from sports, walking down the street and just plan living then I have ever seen in any of the schools I have been a part of. Do we push people, yes, do we uselessly put them in danger, No, and are there bumps, bruises and pain, yes, jammed and broken fingers, yes. The difference is we are training people to be able to react when a situation takes place. Preparing for a Black Belt test at our school can be intense. This includes putting people in uncomfortable situations and teaching them how to overcome what the mind and body are telling them what they are capable of and continuing when everything else is telling you to quit. Trust is huge in this area. Students must trust that the instructors and the black belts understand what they are doing and have the student’s best interest at heart. Again if the student does not have trust in this then it is time to leave. We have been training and testing students the same way for almost 30 years. I would consider our black belt test to be one of the most demanding tests out there. The entire test culminates in 2 on 1 sparring and if the students cannot go through the wall and keep fighting they will have to test again. Is this fair? You tell me. If you are ever put into a life or death situation and you have to fight your way out I believe it is important to know that you are capable of doing what it takes. To be able to fight beyond what the mind and the body are telling you.
I believe Black Belt Attitude is real and can be measured. It can be measured every day. It can be measured in how students act within the DoJang and outside of the DoJang. It can be measured in how they act among their peers and those both above and below them. It can be measured in how they speak to those above and below them. It can be measured in how, when, and with whom they train with. It is about how you treat others, yourself, your Instructors/teachers, and your school. Attitude and character come out most when no-one is looking and when people are put in difficult and scary situations. It is easy to pick out those students who are ready for the next step. It is more difficult when a student has put in their time and does not understand the why behind it.
Black belt is not a set of checkboxes to be checked off. It is not a set of requirement or a kick or a technique. Black belt is not a thesis, a test or a board break. Black belt is a mindset, a mindset of respect, trust and of CANI (constant and never-ending improvement). It is something you become not something you do. If you understand what is written here and are willing to live up to it then train hard, learn well and I look forward to seeing you with a black belt around your middle.
So now it is your turn. What is “Black Belt Attitude” and does it still exist today? I am looking for honest feedback. If you disagree with me I want to know. If you want to add more to it I am listening. If you think it is passé and as long as students complete the required steps they are entitled to their black belt, I want to know that. No answer is necessarily right or wrong, although this is my truth and what I believe and what I have believed since I started training those many, many years ago. I look forward to a lively debate and I hope as a community we can come together and respectfully agree and dis-agree.
Parents, spouses, friends and family of this community I welcome and want to know your thoughts. You are a part of this community; you are affected by what that training person does. Let me know how you feel about the training and the expectations place on the person in your sphere of influence as they train.
Thank you for reading and I hope at the least this get you thinking about what you are doing and feeling today.