This is one of the most controversial topics in Martial Arts everywhere, even in Benton.
“Can anyone be a black belt?”
I had never pondered this question until I was a teenager about 8 years in to my Martial Arts journey. As I moved through the years in Martial Arts, this question kept reoccurring. Depending on who you asked when, the answer was different. I had never decided for myself, and then one day, as a gym owner, I was smacked in the face and forced to answer this question once and for all. Keep reading, I’m going to give you a quick history lesson that led me to the shocking answer.
How did this question come about so many years ago? Well, an instructor at my gym was talking with my mom. We were pretty active in the gym and he would tell her all the latest happenings at times, even if he wasn’t supposed to. He told her he and the owner were discussing the topic. He didn’t feel anyone could be a black belt. The owner did. And that was a problem. Until that moment I had never entertained that thought. I suddenly felt very insecure and worried, even though I was already a black belt. I thought perhaps I might not “cut it” for advancement. I remember that day very clearly. I was a teenager, I think about 14 years old.
But let’s go back farther for a minute: From my experience training traditional Martial Arts since the 80′s and now owning a gym, I have been on the front end and experienced the “bubble” of 2 particular Martial Arts styles: Traditional TaeKwon-Do and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
When I began training TKD 20 years ago, it catered to the same age group as BJJ and MMA does now. Everyone who did it was tough. We trained in a skating rink actually, and it smelled funny. Then we moved to a new spot that had a thin layer of carpet over concrete floors, and that’s about it. A bloody nose was an often occurrence, and the word “retention” meant nothing to school owners. They only wanted the hardcore students. Testings at my gym above second degree were “secret” and no one could talk about it. To test for my 2nd degree black belt I had to demonstrate a number of skill, knowledge and physical demonstrations, one of which was going to my coach’s trailer park and running around the park for 2 miles. It was pitch black and I’d guess my age to be in the 10-13 year old range. I remember trying to think what I’d do if someone attacked me. I’m not quite sure what my coach did during that time. If you asked those school owners like my coach if anyone could be a black belt, they’d most certainly laugh and say no. A black belt was for those guys who “made it” and never quit. Dojo storms were common, and people always tried to “check” one another’s rank, or try to prove something.
I remember moving to a larger gym 7 years in to my training. This gym was a little more main stream and they wanted me to wear this protective equipment called headgear and mouth piece. It was absurd, or so I thought. You also couldn’t punch someone in the face until you were a certain rank, and white belts didn’t spar right away. You actually waited a good 6 months before you even started sparring. I remember one of my first days there we sparred. I was in the black belt teen class and paired up with a nice black belt girl. I punched her right in the face as soon as they said go. She fell down and everyone stared at me. I was so used to trying to stay alive, that I did not know there was a concept called “flowing” or going easy on an opponent. I later learned that. If you asked these people if anyone could be a black belt, you might get a different answer. I will say this was a quality gym with tough ranking standards, but it was evident that the thought processes were changing. As the years went on, it became obvious everywhere that the pendulum was swinging the other direction.
I began to feel myself wondering back to what I was used to and I would go train on the side at a local kickboxing gym that was less mainstream and much more hardcore. This gym equally smelled funny, and unlike the big gym with fancy mats, it was back to a place with a think layer of commercial carpet on concrete.
Fast forward to 2003. By this point the TaeKwon-Do and traditional Martial Arts bubble was bursing. “No Holds Barred” was the new “tough guy” Martial Art, and traditional Martial Arts schools catered to mostly children (who could earn a black belt at the age of 5 btw). I remember my first experience training BJJ. I enjoyed it because it reminded me of the times I first started training TKD. There wasn’t a lot of hooplah, the gym was small, no one washed their gi, the mats weren’t always clean, and some folks weren’t very nice, but I still liked it. There was no curriculum, you just kinda got beat tough and if you stayed you kinda made it, or so one might feel that way. I do remember I did feel a bit “gross” after every class. Some folks I can say with 100% certainty never washed their body or gi in their life! None of that mattered. The place was packed b/c BJJ was different than main stream Martial Arts philosophy at the time (by this time those TKD instructors would tell you anyone will be a black belt in 2 years).
BJJ didn’t hand out black belts to 5 year olds, it was real, it was hard! But ask these BJJ teachers the same thing: “Can anyone be a black belt?”, they would have most certainly said no. In fact if you reached blue belt status you might as well have been a god. I had no idea what I needed to do to get a blue belt other than wait and keep training. In fact my first BJJ teacher used to stand in front of the class and talk about how it took him 10 Years to get a black belt and it was gonna take us that long too (if we even made it). It was eerily similar to my past traditional Martial Arts experiences. Dojo storms started happening again. It’s the same deal repackaged all over.
Fast forward again to 2011. By now I’ve owned 2 successful gyms for 6 years. In addition to all of my years training and assisting at different gyms, I’ve now been 100% responsible for my own student’s progress. In this time I have often revisited the question “Can anyone be a black belt?”.
I was faced with a lot of different considerations. I’ve had older students who wanted rank and claimed they couldn’t train like the younger students because they had commitments, families, and were older in years. They didn’t want to be held to the same expectations physically as a young person. I’ve had people get injured and still come to class yet not get rank because, despite their hard work, they could not physically perform the task. I’ve had folks who put little effort in to class and considered it a social event rather than training expect rank because they fulfilled their “class requirements”. I have been faced with some tough decisions, and I was very stressed over my predicament. I was in a pickle and it was decision time.
Was I being to hard on the older students? Was I not being accommodating to their family commitments?
Was I expecting too much? Was I being unreasonable or “old school”?
I was sitting there holding that pendulum in my hand, trying to find the right spot. On one side was those who give out black belts like candy, on the other were those like many of the gyms I trained at. Both set their students up for failure: One for handing out rank to those who didn’t deserve it and for NOT having a standard, the other for not having a means to get to the end, essentially for not facilitating the student’s journey. I didn’t want to be either. I wanted my students to get to black belt. I wanted to provide them a path, but I also wanted them to earn it. As I began to ponder the right answer I began looking in other places. I began looking at other professionals and quickly reconsidered my time at a university. I then considered an idea, a theory if you will:
“Earning a black belt in Martial Arts is no different than earning an advanced degree”
All sorts of people earn degrees, some have learning disabilities, some have families and work 2 jobs, some are rich, some are poor. Some need to take remedial classes first. Some go to school full time and live there and take 21 hours a semester. Some go to 1 class a semester and take longer to earn their degree. Some have to take time off for various reasons, and then return. There are people all in between. But anyone who meets the requirements can earn a degree! Those who want it bad enough will do anything to meet the requirements to earn that piece of paper! Next I began to look at the expectations most college professors held of their students for earning an advanced degree:
- Did the part time students who had families and jobs receive special priviledges in class? Were they excused from excess work because of time contstraints? No.
- Did the “older” students get to take longer to complete a test, or did they receive special help or accommodations, or even receive an exemption for certain tests or performances? After all everything declines with age: eyesight, hearing, memory, etc. (and by older I mean those not just out of High School) But in fact these “older” students were held to the same standards as all other students. Whether you were 18, 60 or anywhere in between, you were held to the same standard.
- Were the students who intended to make a living from their degree treated differently than someone who just wanted to earn a degree for another reason (say a stay at home mom who just wanted an education “in case”)? No.
- What would happen if I went to class and said I’d like to be a surgeon but: “I really don’t have time for this internship b/c I’m not like these young guys who can live at the university and dedicate all their time to studies. Afterall, I’ve got commitments! I’m a bit more forgetful than I was, and the tests are too hard!” What would the professor say? He’d laugh. It’s absurd.
As I answered these questions, it became clear to me:
“You don’t have to be the top of Harvard’s graduating class to be a surgeon, and you don’t have to be a world champion to be a black belt.
But there’s one commonality: You have to meet the bar.”
There’s a standard of what it takes to be a surgeon, doctor, lawyer, etc. While there are variations between those who pass, there’s still a minimum performance requirement that must be attained and demonstrated, regardless of age, sex, life situation, natural born ability, etc. If you want to be a surgeon, you best be prepared to perform surgery. And you best be prepared to perform it correctly!
Ultimately that led me to my decision!
“Anyone who meets the requirements can earn a black belt!”
So now this brings the question…Which of my 2 instructors was correct? Well, both were. One felt anyone could achieve black belt, I agree with this. With hard work, perseverance, and proper instruction, anyone can. The one who felt that not everyone can be a black belt felt so because, well, there were a lot of people approaching black belt who needed to make drastic changes in order to actually perform as a black belt. Essentially “not everyone can be a black belt in their current state”. Anyone who didn’t come up as a lifetime Martial Artist would be wrong not to think that earning a black belt will require some drastic lifestyle changes. Afterall, if you are going to be a black belt, you had better be ready to perform like one. I’ve heard a number of excuses for people being black belts yet not being able to perform: I’ve heard 5 year olds justified as black belts because “their mind knows the moves but their bodies aren’t mature” I’ve seen folks who can barely raise a leg get promoted because “they know it, and if they were in better shape they could do it”. I’ve also heard the excuse “I don’t want to be a competitor, so I shouldn’t be held to a tough standard.” That’s crap! You’ve got to be able to do it. Period. If that means losing 100 lbs, waiting till a child is a tad older, training harder, or improving yourself any other way, you had better do it. Otherwise, you don’t deserve it.
The problem with Martial Arts is not that the arts themselves “suck” or are “ineffective”, it’s that in many gyms and organizations, it has become socially acceptable, even expected, that anyone can get a black belt even if they don’t meet the bar. In fact it’s so commonplace now that instructors lower the bar bit by bit so more students can reach it. Before you know it, the bar is on the floor and everyone is stepping over it with a bare effort to raise their leg. You don’t have to be a trained Martial Artist to notice it. In fact it’s a problem because many people noticing it are not trained Martial Artists. Show up at your doctors office and you can quickly tell if your doctor is qualified. Martial Arts is no different. This has trickled down to the students: In today’s Martial Arts systems, there seems to be a sense of entitlement running rampant amongst the students as well. It could be just the overall degredation of American Society, or perhaps folks are under the false impression that earning rank in Martial Arts is the equivalent of earning a cookie for your hard work. I’m not sure. So, I had found the answer and now it was time to act. I once had a college professor tell me “never lower the bar. Instead raise it and people will rise up to meet it”. She’s right. I set the bar. I expect everyone to reach it. I know everyone can reach it. It’s not a matter of “can do”, it’s a matter of “will do”.
“Everyone has the desire, not everyone has the will power to make it happen.”
So back to our question: “Can anyone be a black belt?” Yes! I did it, and you can too! But be prepared to rise up and meet the bar! In fact don’t rise up to the bar, surpass it!