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Kiwikarateka's picture
Qualified to be a black belt?

I'm aware that a black belt is an arbitrary measurement that differs from organization to organization and dojo to dojo but, as my own shodan grading approaches (end of this year), I've been pondering what actually qualifies a black belt. After being exposed to so much through seminars, books, videos, etc, I've developed a bit of a cognitive dissonance, in which my expectations for what I think (or would hope) a black belt should be, are a potentially a lot higher than what my organization expects.

I've some small confidence that I can grade if I just follow the usual advice, polish my kata, remember the standard bunkai, work on my cardio. However I'm not sure that after all that, if I will still feel qualified to wear a black belt.  Yes, if I met the qualifications I'm literally qualified but, I'm not sure if that is enough to satisfy me.

I like to think my dojo is practically minded but, most of the time we're trapped in the orthodox of contemporary Karate which means we don't spend a whole lot of time practicing "practical" self-defence/fighting skills (though we do spend some time on them), and a decent number of our bunkai are not something I'd call upon without some (or a lot of) modification. Overall this means that a lot of the 'extra' skills I expect: adept in standing grappling/clinching and throwing/takedowns from those positions, ability to close the distance and fight in close, ability to draw practical applications from kata, adept at footwork for maneuvering around opponents, to name a few, aren't really drilled, at least to the point where I can say I'm competent in any of these things.

After reflecting upon this I'm definitely going to be more proactive in trying to develop these skills from now own and I might approach my instructors to see if we can work a bit more of some of these things into our training. I'm also looking to try find some people to train with outside of this club so I can log more hours working the skills we don't touch in the dojo.

Hopefully if all goes well I might be able to become a bit more 'qualified' in time for my dan grading.

Has anyone encountered this? What solutions did you come up with?

If anyone has relevant advice, or anything else to share, I'd love to read it.

Katz's picture

For me, being a black belt is mostly about being able to teach. The way I see it, at some point, teaching is the best way to keep progressing.

As you say, meeting the requirements is in most styles a matter of training hard. But to really be a black belt, you need to be able to think about your martial art. From your post, I can see you are already doing great in this : Thinking about what is missing from the syllabus, and how to introduce it there is black belt stuff.

Also, since humility is usually a strong tenet of most styles, I'm thinking you worrying about not being really ready is a good sign you're on the right way. It's a bit like becoming a parent: You're never ready. But then you get there, and you're probably thinking "Holy s*, I' not ready!" And you'll keep thinking that, and then you'll realize you've been thinking that for years now, and since your kids are still alive, you were probably more ready than you thought. :D

PASmith's picture

Personally I have my own idea of what a black belt should 'be' or be able to do and it's different to what is expected from the organisation I'm currently in. Quite honestly I don't think I'd give myself a black belt going by my own standards! I still feel I have so much more to learn and areas I need to strengthen. I really like Iain's idea on constructing a syllabus based on what you expect a black belt to be able to do and working back from there in manageable chunks (gradings) that start from complete beginner and progressively build on each other. One analogy I've thought of for what I require of a blackbelt is this... Fighting a blackbelt should be like trying to give a feral farm cat a bath. You may ultimately succeed but you will get hurt, it will be painful and you won't enjoy it. :)

Kiwikarateka's picture

Thanks for the replies and encouragement! Nice to see I'm not alone in these thoughts :) Constructing a syllabus seems like a good way to figure out my steps for improving in the areas I'm lacking, might give it a go when I have some spare time.  

PASmith's picture

Also look into the phenomenon called 'imposter syndrome'. Could be you are being too harsh on yourself?

Kiwikarateka's picture

PASmith wrote:

Also look into the phenomenon called 'imposter syndrome'. Could be you are being too harsh on yourself?

This is actually quite common amoung people in my industry (software development) so I'm aware of what it is. It is quite possible I am experiencing it to one degree or another. I think one cause (in addition to what I've already detailed) is that I don't really remember what my peers were like when they were shodans. I look around and see these awesome ni dans and san dans and can't help but compare myself to them in their present state rather than how they were.

PASmith's picture

This is actually quite common amoung people in my industry (software development) so I'm aware of what it is.

I work in game design and feel like an imposter everyday! :) :(

At the end of the day if you pass the shodan requirements for your association then by default you are a shodan. You may not feel qualified/good enough/etc but someone thought you were so you are.

Another thing to bear in mind is how much information there is out there and how that can effect your view on your own skills.

When I was coming up through my TKD coloured grades I had aspirations to become an instructor and open my own club. I got A passes for many grades, could kick pretty well, won a few competitions, etc.

Then Geoff Thompson came onto the scene, the first UFC's started and I branched out into other styles where I met genuine skilled versatile martial artists that could kick, punch, grapple, joint lock, stick fight, throw, clinch, etc.

All major eye openers.

In the space of a year or so my skills (such as they were) stopped looking so good (when outside of the TKD bubble) and my aspirations to teach died off. I got a degree of context to what I was doing that made me realise how short of what I considered to be required to teach I was.

I got my black belt but by that time was disillusioned with what I was doing so stopped that and then seriously started my "ronin years" of trying to address the shortfalls and holes I was now aware of (something that is still a work in progress).

What I'm getting at is that with the internet and the wealth of information we now have at our fingertips it can be easy to compare ourselves to thousands of world class martial artists (which can be good of course!) and be harsh on ourselves.

Marc's picture

Please keep in mind that any rank (coloured belts, black belt levels) is always relative to the standards of the association/group/school where you train and test.

As others have already said: If you pass the test then by definition you are qualified for that rank - within your group.

If the skillset your group teaches is different from what is taught in another group, then your blackbelt is not worth less or more than a blackbelt from that other group. They are simply not comparable.

I have a driving licence that allows me to drive stick-shift and automatic cars, small lorries as well as small motorbikes. If your driving licence includes heavy trucks but excludes motorbikes, does that make any one of us a better driver than the other? - Of course not. Being a good driver has nothing to do with what types of vehicles you are allowed to drive. My licence simply documents that I have passed the driving test as required in my country in 1989.

I have a "blackbelt" in vehicle driving, and so do you. If I now see you skillfully reversing your 16t truck into a small parking space, I might feel that I too want to be able to do that. I still have so much to learn. But that does not diminish the value of my own driving licence. And altough I am not qualified to drive a heavy truck, I may still be a decent driver when it comes to regular cars.

And should I ever want to learn to drive heavy trucks, my 30 years of experience in driving regular cars will possibly give me a headstart compared to total beginners.

If your group teaches judo then your blackbelt in judo does not qualify you to be a blackbelt in aikido, karate or taekwondo. But if you start in any of those other martial arts, I bet you'll gain rank much quicker than other beginners because you've already learned lots of transferrable technical skills and meta-skills. Similarly, if you are experienced in empty handed fighting and you decide to join a stick fighting class, you will probably pick it up much quicker than other beginners.

In the end, a rank is a formal recognition of your skills. No more, no less. Whether what you've learned is what you want to be able to do, is not part of the requirements. And it does not say anything about your non-required skills. - My driving licence does not make me a good road-safety instructor. I still might be, though. And you'll never know. ;-)

Take care,


deltabluesman's picture

Great thread.  I found myself in a similar situation after I received my shodan.  Although my grading was a good experience, I still felt very insecure in my skill set.  This eventually led me to cross-train out of my martial art (which was a derivative of Shotokan) and into other styles.  Since I've been through this before, I can share a few thoughts on where I personally went wrong.

You mentioned in one of your posts that the nidan and sandan grades in your school are very impressive and you feel inadequate next to them.  That's actually a very good sign, because it shows that your school's curriculum has produced (and retained) high-level black belts.  With that in mind, I'll make some suggestions on possible ways to structure short, medium, and long-term goals.

Short Term

In the short term, I would encourage you to take these doubts and set them aside as best you can.  It's good to be critical of your martial art and to search for gaps in your skill set, but I don't think this is the ideal time to fix them.  Instead, I would focus on optimal preparation for your shodan test.  After all, you've worked hard to reach this point and you should enjoy the challenge set before you.  You're training with a good set of higher-ranked belts that you respect.  If you pass the test, then you pass the test, and that means your organization deems you qualified to hold their black belt.  So I would strive to enjoy that as much as you can this year.  

Medium Goals

After you pass the test, it makes sense to look for gaps in your skill set and to start patching them up.  I'll throw out a few opinions here just to give you something to react to.  (This is pure opinion, I'm not implying that my answers are the best or the only way to look at things.)  You mentioned standing grappling/clinching skills.  I do think those are important for a complete fighter and for a black belt to possess.  The only issue is that they tend to take quite a bit of time to develop, especially if you're looking at "black belt level" clinching.  So I would slide those over to the "long-term goals" category. 

You mentioned throwing and takedown skills.  For what it's worth, I don't think that a first-degree black belt has to be good at throwing or takedowns.  Obviously, if they are part of your curriculum, you'll eventually want to own those skills, but I don't see much urgency.  And I say that as someone who practices takedowns 2 or 3 days each week.  (I could expand on the rationale for this recommendation, but I'll try to be succinct and leave it at that for now.)  Instead, it's much more important to have solid takedown defense.  I would prioritize that on my list of medium-term goals (and of course, that ties back into your clinch skills as well).

You mentioned that you were concerned about your ability to close the distance (which I take to mean moving from a long-range exchange of strikes into a closer grappling range).  I don't think this is a priority.  In my experience, traditional karateka tend to worry about this much more than other stylists . . . because they're used to sparring with people who like to keep the distance and who are good at keeping distance.  (I don't mean anything negative by this, I just mean that I wouldn't prioritize that or worry too much about it.  It's kind of like how BJJ guys are always worrying about passing the guard, which is key for grappling competitions but nowhere near as important in other martial arts.)  

You mentioned fighting in close/in the pocket.  This, like clinching, takes a very long time to develop.  So I would place this onto my long-term goals list.

And lastly, you mentioned footwork/maneuvering drills.  I do think these are essential for a black belt, because understanding distance and angles will enable you to bring your other techniques to life.  So I would prioritize your footwork skills.

Summing up, that's only two medium-term goals:  takedown defense and building instinctive/natural footwork to support your other skills.  Of course, these goals sit on top of whatever else you're doing for the shodan rank. 

I would also add in:  drills involving escapes from the mount position on the ground (with opponent throwing controlled strikes), basic escapes from the "side control" position on the ground, at least two sweeps from the guard (on the ground), fighting back to standing from the floor, and (mobility permitting) a decent upkick from the ground.  (These are just the things that spring to mind at the moment . . . it's not really a well-considered list.)

Long-Term Goals

Long-term, you can pursue mastery of the full curriculum of your style (if you want that) and try to develop the other tools in your arsenal.  You can work to embody your own ideal of the black belt.  You can hone your clinching skills to black belt level, integrate them with whatever takedowns and throws they do in your style, build your in-close fighting skills, etc.

Just a few general suggestions.  (Based on what I've seen in the thread, I think a lot of these points have already been touched upon by other people.)

Kiwikarateka's picture

Thanks for the detailed reply Delta! This is a good way of framing it (short, medium, long term). Going to use this framework to help plan out my training :) You're also right that I should probably spend my time short term focusing on my test, I've got plenty of time to learn stuff after that lol.

Kiwikarateka's picture

Just wanted to update this thread to say I passed my Shodan exam in Okinawa at the beginning of August! Thanks for everyone's advice :)

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Kiwikarateka wrote:
Just wanted to update this thread to say I passed my Shodan exam in Okinawa at the beginning of August! Thanks for everyone's advice :)

Congratulations! That’s awesome! Thanks for letting us know.

Peter P
Peter P's picture

Kiwikarateka wrote:

Just wanted to update this thread to say I passed my Shodan exam in Okinawa at the beginning of August! Thanks for everyone's advice :)

Congratulations! Not only for passing but also for having that open, critical mind going in.

In my case, I graded to Nidan in my previous club - entirely 3k in its approach - before leaving. For Shodan, the grading was thoroughly exhausting, especially the "shark tank" sparring at the end and thus very satisfying. Nidan on the other hand, was awarded out of the blue on a grading night that was not my own and while I trust my instructor's judgement on this, it made for a pleasant, but somewhat anticlimactic, surprise.

I joined my current club last June, having discovered Iain's YouTube channel a month or so prior and seeing not just the many impracticalities but this hitherto untapped gold mine of karate for the first time. While this did renew my enthusiam for the art - I was on the verge of giving it up entirely - it also left me thinking my Nidan wasn't entirely deserved, given the huge glaring gap in my knowledge pool now revealed to me.

Fast forward to today, I still sometimes feel like I haven't fully grown into my rank yet, despite the praise from my peers on the occasions when I've had to run lessons in sensei's absence. Not to the point of getting depressed, mind you, but rather I see it as that healthy "Are you sure?" itch that can prevent complacency.

So here's to your dilligence and vigilance.