Black Belt Blues

There was a figure that went around years ago that only 1 in every 10,000 people who started a martial art made it to black belt. It’s certainly something my first instructor used to bang on about all the time. In fact, he would be at pains to point out that he had taught hundreds and thousands of people over the years and hoped he had changed even one life.

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Today though, I want to talk about something that makes me really sad. It’s something that I call “The Blackbelt Blues” and it’s probably a worse statistic than the one in the previous paragraph. I’d love to have some scientific facts about the number of people who make it to blackbelt only to then give up. At the time that I took blackbelt I was training for competitions etc. so I was never in a position where I could lose interest in training so over the years I’ve thought a lot about the reasons that people do in fact stop.

There are a few main areas worth considering here…

-The training towards *the* grading
-Finally getting a black belt

The training towards *the* grading

For most people the road to black belt is long and hard. Someone once told me that the hardest gradings are the first ones and then the blackbelt grading. In the beginning it’s all about the belt colours and moving up in the lines but at a point of training the black belt comes into focus and it’s suddenly (and scarily) not that far away. So all the training starts to pay off and as belt colours change then around brown belt things start to get real. I remember the time before my blackbelt grading as being the most intense I had ever felt, but interestingly I could really see progress and improvement. I was a “black belt candidate” for 6 months before the grading and it meant that I had to go the extra mile in every class, be seen to try exceptionally hard and most importantly be a “good citizen” in the dojo. It was a great time, honestly it was also fraught with nerves and at any point any of us black belt candidates could be asked to answer a question or demonstrate something with the ever present threat of a wrong answer removing the chance to test. Candidates were always fodder for more senior grades and we were often run ragged in the dojo. It was great training. As a group going through the test together, we bonded like nothing else, we picked each other up when anyone was down. As I said, it was a wonderful time.

Finally getting a black belt

The first time I wore a black belt I felt like a superhero, I’m sure it’s the same for everyone, but I remember opening the box to a shiny new belt with my name on it. We were now blackbelts in the blackbelt class and a whole new group of candidates took our place. I was lucky in that I had competitions etc. to train towards and so I never really felt the “Black Belt Blues” but plenty around me did. I get it, the training post test was completely different, goals become much further apart and in some ways the intensity dissipates. This is why I feel it’s important to have new and personalised training plans, goals to focus on and ways of continuously measuring improvements. I see a lot of people fall away at this stage.

There is also the feeling that with a Dan grade somehow things will be easy. But I’ve seen so many new Dan grades start to work with other more experienced Karateka and realise that there is still a huge hill to climb.

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Grading times…

In fact, post blackbelt it’s almost impossible to know what level other Dan grades are operating, at least with Kyu grades you have some idea…but I’ve trained with Dan grades who have left me completely amazed with their skills.

I have no answers as to why people stop training, for there is such a thing in my mind as the “Black Belt Blues” and it’s a shame to see so many people move away from something that they would have worked so hard to achieve.

Like all training there are good days and bad days and all too often post black belt it can be felt that there is not so much to celebrate by way of improvements. Of course this can all reduce motivation and then on the nights when it’s cold or wet it then becomes easier to just find a reason not to train. One day becomes two days training missed and before you know it… it’s just too hard to go back.

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Start of a grading weekend…

Then the group who took your place as candidates are more senior grades and the door firmly closes. I have great respect for those who do make it back. It’s not easy, all I can say from my own opinion is find new goals and work with your Sensei to ensure that you are on the right path, and have faith that the blues do go… but you need to train through it.

Of course, for others getting a black belt is a release of sorts and they just soar…


  1. Me gustó mucho el artículo. A veces solo vemos el cinturón negro como la meta final, sin darnos cuenta de que es un nuevo comienzo. Gracias sensei por compartirlo.

  2. Thank you for that well written article. When I first started karate I was told it was for everyone. But after so many decades of training I tend to think it’s not for everyone. Not everyone will train until they die. That might be a good thing I don’t know. All I know is that I’m still enjoying training after 35 years and I intend to carry on training until my death bed.

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