If you’re someone who is envious of those who have already received their black belts, and you’re anxious about when you will be the one honoured with the magical promotion, you might want to slow your roll a bit. The truth that many black belts won’t admit is that they were probably happier with their training before the milestone.
There are various points along the Way where students decide to take the fork in the road and depart. In my club, yellow, green, and brown are landmarks where people often decide that they’ve had enough. However, statistically the highest percentage would be at white and black belt—the two opposite ends of the spectrum.
For a white belt, it’s easy to understand: tried it, didn’t like it. But after so much time, money, and energy invested to get to black belt, you would think that those who make it through the meat grinder would be there to stay for life, right? So why do so many leave?
The easy answer is that their focus was misplaced—they were in it for the wrong reasons, not for the true pursuit of Budo. Once you receive a belt that you will wear for the rest of your life, that superficial motivation disappears instantly. In some cases, that conclusion might hold water, but for many, I think that is an oversimplification.
The reality is that many aspects of martial arts practice are significantly worse after you get to black belt. Here are some examples.
People Act Weird:
Recently, a middle-aged man who I’ve met all of three times in my life decided it would be a good idea to punch me in the arm while I was refilling my water bottle. The information he made this decision based on was that I am a Karate black belt.
I’m not sure why people feel the need to “test” the skills of martial artists in bizarre, socially inappropriate ways. If I found out a friend of mine liked swimming, I wouldn’t immediately attempt to drown them to find out if they are legitimate.
Though this kind of weirdness, inside and outside the Dojo, is not limited to black belts, it does get worse at that level. Whether it’s students who suddenly start sucking up to garner favour, people who are ready to prostrate themselves at your feet because they think you can walk on water now, passive-aggressive friends who want to undermine your accomplishment, or jealous peers who try to beat the shit out of you, all manner of weird behaviours come out when the black belt gets brought up.
For a period of my life, I actually lied about being a martial artist (I told people I taught fitness classes) because I got tired of these awkward reactions. Eventually I got tired of lying and resigned myself to the inevitable weirdness that unfolded every time the topic was breached.
If you know anyone who is a martial artist (at any rank or skill level), do the community a favour and just act normal. Be cool. Pretend they like crocheting or something.
You Improve Slower:
To be truthful, many plateau or get worse after they get to black belt. At brown belt, training can be very intense as you push to reach the big benchmark, but once you’re passed that point, many taper off or neglect to refine their abilities at all. Certainly, neglecting physical fitness is an embarrassingly common side-effect of having “made it,” particularly within the Karate community.
I received my first Karate black belt on my nineteenth birthday; I made a conscious decision that, after seeing many of my peers rest on their laurels, then subsequently get bored and leave the Dojo, I was going to try to get better. I did not want that achievement to be my peak as a martial artist, and, thankfully, it hasn’t been.
One of the reasons why many don’t improve is that they stop training and start teaching after black belt—it was certainly the expectation in my Dojo. This is an unfortunate trend, which is one reason why my Sensei separates the two accreditations—ranks for proficiency vs. ranks for instructors.
Teaching involves a lot of supervision, delegation, and selflessness, which is not conducive to personal skill development. Of course, we need leaders to impart the right way of doing things, but if you’ve ever been in a class or seminar with an instructor who is more interested in practicing than teaching, you will recognize immediately that they require two different mindsets. It is incredibly difficult to do both well simultaneously.
Even if you don’t teach, the likelihood is that, as you move up the ranks, your training partners will increasingly become less skilled and knowledgeable than yourself. This presents another dilemma: when practicing at a speed, intensity, and level of complexity appropriate for a novice, how can you improve as a veteran?
At black belt, you end up spending the vast majority of your “training” time working on things you don’t need to improve, and a miniscule amount of time, when you’re lucky, practicing the things you still need to polish.
This phenomenon is why I am a big believer in seeking out new opportunities to cross-train and expand your skill set. If you want to teach, great, but don’t teach for the purpose of training. You need to find a specific, separate time that is dedicated to developing your own abilities—which can be quite difficult to do when you are also teaching and running your own club.
Your Mistakes Get Scrutinized:
Everyone loves catching “Sensei” screw up. On the rare occasions when it does happen, students who couldn’t remember a three-move combo last week suddenly have a photographic memory of the moment the instructor turned left instead of right.
Naturally, expectations should rise as you progress, gaining knowledge and experience as you go, but somehow people’s expectations leap from “pretty good” to “absolute perfection” in a day when you go from brown to black belt. Part of this is the bizarre mythos in mainstream culture that surrounds an item which, originally, was designed only to keep your Gi closed.
Yes, we should hold black belts to a certain technical standard, but we are all human and make mistakes. Furthermore, if you actually do the math, there are typically seven Kyu belt rankings, followed by ten Dan levels. That means if you are a new black belt, you are at an intermediate level, not advanced.
You are supposed to continue learning and improving after you receive your black belt. Guess what? Part of that process is making mistakes—and some of them will be public, obvious, and undeniable. For some reason, witnesses who previously would have let things slide are unwilling to do so once you wear a black belt.
If you’re not one who can tolerate this kind of scrutiny and make friends with your demons, experiencing life as a black belt is not for you.
It Doesn’t Fix Anything:
I know many who espoused the idea, “Once I get my black belt, things will be different.” Then they got their desired promotion. Nothing changed.
Whatever problems you have as a brown belt still exist when you move up. You might have a bit more experience and technical ability than before, but your strengths and weaknesses remain until you work hard enough to change them. People often believe their bad habits and personal problems will somehow improve as a result of a new rank. The reality is that you have to fix your own issues; a belt will never do it for you.
The person you are does not change at all when you get to black belt. For those who are unhappy with themselves and looking for a quick fix, this is not it. You can’t suddenly see the Matrix the moment the knot is tied.
In the Dojo, people might bow a little lower or call you by a different title, but you are surrounded by the same insecurities, doubts, and fears you’ve always had. Those never disappear, nor should they—that is your motivation to continue the journey beyond the milestone that many perceive as the finish line.
There is a certain prestige and definite perks of being awarded your final belt. However, the reality is that, once the honeymoon wears off, the day-to-day grind of being a black belt is not as glorious as many make it out to be. The temptation to become complacent, finding challenge when teaching or training with juniors, and lack of time to focus on your own goals are real obstacles that lead many to flatline after they’ve achieved a milestone they worked so hard to reach.
For those who are not there yet, cherish the freedom to be selfish that you have at this point in the process. Don’t rush to cross that bridge unless you know what lies beyond it.
For those who are there, find ways to bring joy into your training—whether it’s starting over again at white belt in a new discipline, or simply reinventing your practices to keep them fresh and exciting. Don’t fall victim to the traps that have already claimed so many who used to be black belts.