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The Black Belt Attitude

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

L-R: Lisa Perkins, 1st Dan, Sally Gleaves, owner of Worcestershire Martial Arts, 5th Dan

It’s often said that having a good attitude counts for far more than your ability in martial arts, but why is that the case? Any martial arts student is expected to live by the tenets and, although we might not be aware of it, even from white belt we are ambassadors for the martial arts community - that means that our attitude and actions, both in and outside of the dojang, can have an impact on our peers and on the martial arts community as a whole.

Having a good attitude is even more important when you reach the position to be able to take your dan grading. Black belts are seen as role models and are expected to lead by good example.

But what constitutes ‘having a good attitude’ in terms of how we should behave outside of the dojang, and how you should prepare for your first dan grading?

Preparing for your dan grading

Sally Gleaves, 5th degree black belt and owner of Worcestershire Martial Arts, explains what she is looking for in students who wish to dan grade: “For me, a student being ready to dan grade isn’t just about how well they can recall or perform the syllabus, obviously this has to be to a high standard, but for those with learning difficulties or disabilities, performance of the syllabus will be on a sliding scale according to ability.

"However, something that everyone can achieve is dedication and commitment to their training, a good attitude in and out of class, the ability to be a fantastic role model and mental toughness in the face of failure, setbacks and low points in their training.

"Basically if they have been a coachable student from white belt, by the time they are reaching their dan grading they should be outwardly displaying the attitude and character traits that are required to become a black belt”.

We all have different strengths and abilities. Lisa Perkins, 1st degree black belt, says that one of her favourite things about training in Taekwon-do is that it’s a personal journey that’s based around the individual: “One of the things I love about Taekwon-do is that you do not have to be the best… it’s all based around you. It’s not based around what someone else can do, it’s what you can do. I love the fact that they do it that way. It’s your training, your progress, the way you see yourself”.

However, Lisa emphasises the importance of putting a high level of effort into your dan grading, whatever your ability: “When you’re in your black belt grading, you have to show the examiners you’re putting the effort in… you could be against somebody who is technically flawless but has a bad attitude. They’re there just to gain a black belt, that’s the only thing they want, not the prestige of having the black belt and working for the black belt. Some people can sail through and get to the black belt grading but they can fail it as well due to attitude”.

Amy Pullen, 1st degree black belt, says that both the physical and mental challenges of her dan grading were a lot harder than in her previous colour belt gradings: “Colour belt grades are a lot easier. You’re graded by people you know, whereas going to Cambridge and being graded by someone that you’ve never met before is a lot more scary. There’s a lot more pressure as you’re travelling a lot further to do it so [there’s the feeling that] you’ve got to get it… in a way it pressures you more, but it also empowers you more to do it. It’s definitely a lot different. I found the 1st dan grading a lot harder than all the colour belts. [The panel] ask you a lot of intricate questions, they put you under a lot more pressure as in they ask you theory in front of everybody and [each member of the panel is] asking one question while everybody else is watching… it’s also a lot harder physically, you do a lot more and it’s a lot more intense”.

As black belts are seen as role models, your attitude over your martial arts journey so far and willingness to get involved with the community will also be considered if you wish to dan grade.

“The other thing we look at is the preparation the student has put into their previous and current gradings and their own personal development,” Sally explains, “for example [the student] offers to teach elements of the class/support lower grades, attendance at competitions, events and seminars. Readiness to help the school progress and becoming an ambassador, for not only the school, but the martial art. Dedication to learning the theory and asking questions about things they are not sure about. If potential dan grade candidates are not asking questions and working on their more in-depth knowledge or personal progression, we will be questioning what kind of black belt they will become and this will determine if we allow them to grade or not”.

Do you have the right attitude outside of the dojang?

It’s expected of all students, not just those going for dan grade, to practise regularly outside of the dojang and to learn their theory. Most students consider the theory to be the least exciting part of learning a martial art; however, learning and understanding the theory is vital to be able to teach. Additionally, part of the theory that you are expected to learn to grade to black tag and black belt states the attitude that students aspiring to dan grade should embody.

Part of the meaning of the colour black is that it states “the wearer’s imperviousness to darkness and fear”, but what does this actually mean in the context of how a prospective dan grade student is expected to behave outside of the dojang?

Jamie Haden, 2nd degree black belt, interprets the meaning as: “Having the courage to stand up for what’s right in the world and not let negativity get to you no matter how much it’s there in everyday life. I interpret it as avoiding all the bad things for you such as drug addiction etc; it could be shoved in your face, but standing up and saying no is what could be interpreted as imperviousness to darkness and fear”.

It’s seldom said that doing the right thing was ‘easy’ and, in some cases, opposing peer pressure and sticking up for your values can bring conflict. Facing conflict and peer pressure can be scary, whether you are a white belt or a black belt. Becoming a black belt does not mean that you are expected to live without ‘experiencing fear’; rather, you should develop the confidence during the journey from white belt to black belt to not let fear prevent you from making the right decision or sticking to your values. Black belts cannot be bribed, swayed, threatened or bullied into doing something that they know is wrong.

How do black belts deal with conflict?

There’s a common misconception that martial artists will deal with any sort of conflict in an overly aggressive manner. The majority of the general population are aware of what martial arts are, but are not familiar with the values of the art; therefore, people tend to believe that it’s all about fighting. But how do black belts really deal with conflict?

“Avoid conflict if possible, but if you must deal with it, then do so with indomitable spirit and integrity,” Jamie says, “the situation could always be difficult, but don’t let it get to you! And never be afraid to ask for help. With that in mind, break it down into smaller more manageable chunks to help lower the difficulty if possible”.

In reality, martial arts teach that self-defence is always the last resort, and there is far more emphasis placed on de-escalating the situation, or avoiding a risky situation in the first place, than most people would think.

Training in Taekwon-do can improve self-confidence, and the importance of respecting others is emphasised from day one. The combination of self-confidence and the intrinsic value of respecting others can help people to deal with conflict in a positive manner, while still sticking up for their values and beliefs.

Jamie says that training in Taekwon-do has helped him to deal with conflict more effectively: “[Before training in Taekwon-do] I would always try and avoid conflict if possible, but I would completely blank away if it was in front of me”.

“I think I am definitely more conscious dealing with conflict now,” Lisa says. She describes often feeling frustrated with difficult situations in her life before she started Taekwon-do, but says that taking up the martial art has helped her to deal with conflict: “When I started Taekwon-do, I learnt different methods of dealing with it. For me, Taekwon-do was an outlet, it’s my way of dealing with things. Conflict-wise, I don’t tend to dwell on [bad experiences] as much. I think I’m a lot calmer than I was when I started Taekwon-do”.

Amy says that when approaching arguments or disagreements, it’s important to treat the other person with respect and to try to think about their point of view as well: “You’ve got to see it from the other person’s point of view as well and how they view the situation. You’ll have valid points… but they also will have done [what they did] for a reason, so you’ve got to look at their side and points too”.

Making the decision on whether you feel ready to take your dan grading can be a difficult one. While you can examine your own behaviour and attitude in and outside of the dojang to help you make the decision, Lisa suggests that you’ll instinctively know when the time is right.

“I think you do have to be confident going for black belt,” Lisa says. “That’s something that you know yourself - there’s no point going for it if you have that doubt”.

By Georgie Bull


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