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…

4 thoughts on “Black Belt Blues

  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.

  3. It may depend on the journey to black belt. These days failure is not an option so grading especially for children can just be a formality to getting to black belt and therefore whilst it’s great to move up perhaps the effort required in a lot of modern clubs lessens the achievement and a black belt doesn’t carry the weight that it used to. When I started the age limit was 14 upwards so you were quite mature and strong and wanting to channel all of your effort into technique and power and to increase your strength but these days kids start from say 4 years and achieve black belt in a few years when they are still so young and they have none of the desires, strength or ability of a 14 year old so a new belt is really just another badge to keep them interested. I’m lucky enough to have experienced the best of both worlds in that I was classically trained by Japanese instructors who thought nothing of failing a student, perhaps indefinitely, to a more certain type of present day instruction whereby the grading although severe is merely a summary of all you had learnt to that point and a new belt was certain even though your grading performance may not have been perfect. In my opinion it is your own interest in Karate, the knowledge and teaching ability of your Sensei, your pride in your club and your enjoyment in training with the friends you’ve made over the years which keeps you practising long after attaining your black belt. As a final thought as more and more black belts are handed out then the numbers of people who stop training once they have a black belt will continue to increase and it may be that as a milestone we need to consider perhaps that 3rd Dan is the new 1st Dan.

  4. Sometimes the pressure grows too big after the black belt exam. What you used to do with pleasure now becames a too high responsibility, with new classes and seminars you almost force to attend, with some senseis start asking too much after the dan grading… to people that usually already have to study, work, have a family… That is the school faults and not the person. Too many martial arts too closed to cults behaviour that often everybody misses until black belt, and young people that have more free time also usually don’t realice that masters are asking more than they should.

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