In the martial art industry, there is a very broad spectrum of what it means to be a black belt, and what it takes to achieve it. Time requirements range anywhere from as little as a few hours/week for two years up to hours/day for a decade. Some schools require efficacy in sparring; many put more emphasis on kata, poomse, or taolu. A student’s character, leadership, and “life skills” are also common qualifiers for black belt. Some systems award black belts regardless of age, while others reserve this rank for adults.
As should be apparent, this results in a tremendous range of skill and knowledge (or lack thereof) within the black belt community. The internet is packed full of video evidence to back up this claim. One can find videos of black belts performing amazing feats, and extraordinary fighting prowess, and black belts demonstrating skills that are, to put it kindly, less than awe-inspiring. This is a natural result of the vibrant diversity of our human condition and the free market.
But should it all be representative of being a black belt?
If everyone understood that a black belt was simply a level of achievement specific to the confines of a particular system, then such diversity wouldn’t be so problematic. However, that simply isn’t the case. As a social construct, Black Belt implies a certain level of expertise. According to dictionary.com, a black belt is “a black cloth waistband conferred upon a participant in one of the martial arts, as judo or karate, to indicate a degree of expertise of the highest rank.” Merriam-Webster says a black belt is “one who holds the rating of expert in various arts of self-defense (such as judo and karate).”
Let’s be honest. People don’t aspire to be a black belt because it symbolizes “better than average.” They strive to be a black belt because it represents the highest level of achievement – as an athlete, as a martial artist, as a human being, and as a leader. They want to be a black belt because it represents expertise in the art of kicking butt.
Each of my three daughters has their passion: one loves to run, one loves to dance, and the third loves gymnastics. Each has the same choice to make in pursuing these activities: is it a recreational hobby, or are they going to pursue EXCELLENCE? Each can choose to dabble in their “art” a few days a week. The runner can go out and put in her miles at her leisure, while the other two can attend recreational programs for just this purpose. Over time all three will reap the many benefits that come from such participation. However, at these levels, they will NEVER become experts in these endeavors.
The runner puts in 1+ hours of training six days a week during the on-seasons for high school track and cross-country, and tapers to an hour/day in the off-season. Experts in these fields train/compete through high school and college, which works out to around eight years. Then they put in additional time getting a degree or certification in order to coach. The ballerina puts in 20+ hours/week at the studio during the school year, and does an annual three-week intensive (six hour days/six days/week). By the time she’s considered an expert, she will have been training in this manner since sixth grade. The gymnast is currently just recreating a couple times a week. If she decides to pursue it, the competition team starts out at about 5 hours/week for her age, and builds up from there.
The average karate/taekwondo school utilizing the standard twice a week, 45-minute class structure promotes students to Black Belt in three years. Throw in six months of Saturday morning intensives, and it’s still less than 500 hours total. Compare that to the 2,250 hours in Brazilian jiujitsu (1.5 hours @ 3/week for 10 years), the runner’s 3000, the gymnast’s 6,750, or the ballerina’s 10,000!
There’s nothing wrong with training martial arts a couple times a week. It’s a fun way to stay active, fit, and learn some cool stuff. Just don’t confuse recreation with expertise. If you seriously want to be a Black Belt, you can make it happen – you’ve just gotta be willing to put in the work. Next week we’ll discuss our Brazilian Jiujitsu belt system, to give you a better idea of what it’s going to take.
See you on the mat.