Is every student capable of earning Black Belt?

I’ve often heard it said by senior instructors – and I’ve said it myself – that any student who chooses to do so is capable of earning a black belt. Hypothetically, of course. They’re going to have to put in the hours, months, and years, the tears, sweat, and yes, blood.

If they’re stiff, slow, or clumsy, they might have to put in more time – maybe a LOT more time – than their more athletic counterparts. If they have trouble remembering sequences, or are fearful of matwork or weapons, they’ll have to make the effort to overcome these weaknesses. If they keep getting beaten at sparring, they’ll have to stick with it and develop new strategies. But we never discount the possibility that they can and will do so. All it takes is the right measure of perseverance and dedication – so we say.

But is it really true? What about the student who, year after year, in spite of best efforts, continues to perform awkwardly and forget important details. Maybe they’re just clumsy. They’re doing their absolute best – and it’s a hundred times better than when they started – but standing next to the others on the test, they just might not measure up, from the look of things.

Add to the hypothetical: Suppose this student has always trained with the right attitude. They rarely miss class. They come to extra classes. They help put on tournaments, help with assistant teaching, clean the toilets without being asked, always go the extra mile. They’ve never complained about advancing slowly through the ranks. But still – every time they have tested, they’ve stiffened up, forgotten things, performed poorly on at least a portion of the material.

Should this person be invited to take a black belt test? Should allowances be made? Should they pass if they look stiff or clumsy, or forget one of their katas?

What about the person who is athletically gifted, who puts in minimum hours, doesn’t help with a thing, and grumbles about not being tested sooner? (See previous post.) On a lucky day, this person could fight their way through a test and look decent. Should they be invited to test, and should they pass?

Are there students who should never be promoted to black belt no matter how long they stick it out? Are there students who should be promoted purely on dedication and perseverance?

Or – are there times when the hypothetical should just remain hypothetical. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with being brown belt forever.

I’d love to hear your opinions.

13 Responses to “Is every student capable of earning Black Belt?”

  1. Interesting problem. But black belt means different things to different schools and styles. Maybe you just need to decide, and say, what the standards are. Some schools promote through the ranks based on matches: you have to defeat everyone at your level to get the next level. Pretty clear cut.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Good point, watape. I guess many of us see fighting skills as a central, but not sole focus, with some weight going to things like character, dedication to self-improvement, teaching skills, – role-model qualities. But then, how much weight to each, and is it different for different people?

  2. I think that that to aspire to black belt should be a combination of certain things: adhering to a certain standard – the ability to spar effectively and teach basics to beginners are two – and definitely attitude and commitment.

    Your summation reminds me of a story about Ed McGrath, a longtime instructor of Isshinryu karate. When he first started training, all he wanted was a brown belt. The brown belts, as he observed, were the most determined students of all. They’re hungry, they’re shooting for that black belt. And for the few who do eventually get promoted to BB, they come to rest on their laurels after a while, especially the ones who aren’t involved with teaching, tournaments, etc..

  3. serpentstaff Says:

    Great observation about the brown belts! Yes- aspire to be like the ones who are giving it their all. Whoever they are.

  4. I, by no means want to “spam”, but I did a post about the meaning of a black belt after my test several years ago.

    To sum it up, anyone that you give a black belt to will be seen as a representation of your school. So, the real question is… do you think that person represents the spirit, dedication, skill, blah, blah, blah that you want people to identify with your school?

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks, no spam taken, Dan 😉
      I read your post, and I agree with your conclusion: the only person who knows the real meaning of the belt is the person wearing it, and in a different way, that person’s instructor and classmates. It’s not the art; it’s the artist– and similarly, it’s not the belt, it’s the person wearing it.

  5. Hmm, tough one. Certainly there needs to be a minimum requirement where the practitioner must be able to perform the rote physical basics/kata/etc of a style so as to properly represent it. There also has to be a basic understanding of the activities being performed.

    There is no way to draw a universal line as to where this minimum rests, and it’s up to the system head with his/her years of experience to determine it.

    One important thing to keep in mind is that black belt represents a willingness to begin learning. Many people use that concept as a catch phrase, but it should have deeper meaning. If a practitioner has shown a willingness to commit themselves to the style, their dedication should be taken into consideration for black belt.

  6. This is my first post and hopefully not one that causes too much friction. The question is one that I think everyone in the martial arts has addressed at one time or another. My personal experience is only from the opinion of my sensei. His thoughts on this are that a black belt is not an end, but a beginning. He equates the kyu ranks to be “grade school to high school” and all that a black belt represents is that you have dedicated the time and effort necessary to indicate that you have learned the basics of your style. Once you have achieved a black belt rank it is time for the real work to begin and when things start to gel. The problem is you have to rediscover (in some cases) why you started training in the first place. The one thing that is difficult to understand is why people move on or stop training all together after working so hard to obtain the black belt in the first place. I have seen many of my contemporaries cease to train for one reason or another after getting their black belt. I still continue to follow the guidance of my sensei and will continue to so as long as I have something to learn (the rest of my life).

    Only a thought shared.

  7. I work with a guy who is about 42 years old. He says he has 7 black belts. Is this possible?

    • serpentstaff Says:

      It’s possible…I have known people who “collected” black belts by hopping from school to school. If you’ve earned it in one style, it’s easy to re-earn it in a similar style — and it’s a good way to avoid the effort and challenges of going deeper into your training after black belt. Like earning many high school diplomas instead of going on to college in a major field. Now, I can’t judge the situation of your co-worker, but I do know some genuinely skilled and dedicated martial artists who have earned belts and high ranks in 3 or 4 distinct arts…and they never brag about it…

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