When I look at a black belt candidate–a high-ranked student who is getting close to black belt–I usually rely on a gut feeling to tell me whether or not they’re ready for black belt.
By black belt, I mean 1st degree. Provisional black belts are not yet black belts, they are on probation and have to prove themselves worthy of that rank. By “candidates” I mean everyone from brown belt to provisional black belt–people who aren’t yet there but are trying to get there.
Today, instead of relying on my gut, I want to try to articulate some of the things I’m looking for in black belt candidates: all brown, advanced brown, and provisional black belts.
Hopefully my tone comes across as serious. I don’t intend to be negative–being a 1st degree is a big responsibility. We want our students to already be at that level by the time they test–rather than testing before they’re truly ready.
These expectations are high, yes. But would 1st degree be meaningful if they weren’t?
- Black belt candidates should consistently seek to go above & beyond minimum standards, rather than just meeting them. Earning a black belt means becoming part of an elite group. If you don’t meet the standards of the group, you lower the standards. Whether the standard is your effort, your physical fitness, or your morals (seeking to do the right thing, always), you should be doing your best to live up to these high standards.
- Black belt candidates should be improving. We see far too many upper ranks who become complacent after earning a high rank. Candidates who want to earn a black belt should be finding, admitting to, and fixing their bad technical habits. The difference between a really good person and a black belt is martial skill. Black belts should be good at martial arts; technical errors should be very few. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to improve at a high level, but if your effort is poor, it will take even longer.
- Black belt candidates who want a 1st degree should always be going full power full speed, unless the situation requires them to tone it down (like working with a lower belt). All warm-up exercises, basic techniques, and drills should be done to the highest of your ability. All techniques should look like they could break a board. A black belt doing Kibon 1 should look like a black belt, in stance, in hand technique, in speed, in power, and in smoothness & grace of motion. Being lazy, sloppy, & refusing to correct errors are signs of bad attitude–and it should go without saying that those with bad attitude are not ready for 1st degree.
- Black belt candidates should resist the urge to make excuses. If you are injured, let us know briefly and use your brain to find a substitute for anything that aggravates your injury. Making excuses for behavior or slacking is unacceptable. Don’t be the boy who cried wolf. Accept full responsibility for your actions AND your training.
- Black belt candidates should be attending class regularly & training at home regularly. 3 class hours a week adds up to 150 hours a year. This is, frankly, not enough to get good enough to be a 1st degree. At this pace, it will take you many years to improve to the level you need to be at to be a black belt. The more time you spend in class getting critiqued, gaining sparring experience, and practicing, the faster you will get better.
- Finally, candidates for 1st degree should be discovering whether or not you have a deep passion for the martial arts. We like to see our 1st degrees intend to continue training for years to come. Candidates should search inside, search their ego, and ask themselves why they are training. If the honest answer is because being a black belt feeds your ego, then you have some serious thinking to do. 1st degree is a huge responsibility, as well as an honor, and you should be taking that very, very seriously.
Rewards don’t have to be tangible. A candidate for black belt who embodies excellence, patience & willingness to work for no reward, and impeccable character: that is some of what we look for in our brown, advanced brown, and provisional black belts. Oss!
Please feel free to share any other ideas you have about what you look for–specific & concrete examples–in candidates for 1st degree.