Updated: Apr 17
For most people who start training in martial arts, achieving a black belt is their main goal. But what does it really mean to be a black belt and what qualities should those who have one possess?
Sally Gleaves, owner of Worcestershire Martial Arts and 5th degree black belt says: “A black belt should display mental toughness and determination in the face of intense training, gradings and setbacks. They must be the embodiment of the Tenets and display that they live their lives following them. A black belt student or someone aspiring to be one needs to have the ability to question instructors/masters without fear and display devotion to furthering own knowledge, not relying on others to motivate them to study, research, practice and progress”.
Not many students who start martial arts make it to 1st Dan and even less will progress beyond that. Achieving the rank of 1st Dan takes years and the journey can include many setbacks and failures - you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Dan-grade martial artist who hasn’t had to overcome some sort of setback, whether that’s a failed colour belt grading, or an injury or medical issue that has affected their training. Your attitude will carry you further than your ability in martial arts. In all of my Dan-grade instructors, I have seen a determination to succeed, the ability to adapt around issues - such as injuries - that make it difficult to train and a commitment to practising outside of the dojang. There are some things that can’t be taught, such as dedication and the willingness to learn: these things have to come from you. Students who have made it to black belt have accepted their setbacks, used them as learning experiences and have persevered through difficulties.
“For me, being a black belt means passing on the knowledge I have. That’s something I have always wanted to do. I wanted to be community-based. I didn’t want to gain anything from doing it, I just wanted to pass on [knowledge]” - Lisa Perkins
Lisa Perkins, 1st degree black belt, explains that black belts should want to be good ambassadors for their martial arts community, as they will be a role model for other students: “To be a black belt, or to become a black belt, you should be part of the community or willing to become part of the community, in the sense that you pass on your knowledge to other students and lead by example as they look up to you”.
In traditional martial arts the rank of 1st Dan promotes you to assistant instructor; therefore, it’s important to have an interest in teaching and in the martial art itself. Jamie Haden, 2nd degree black belt, says that “a good attitude is a must” as your attitude can have an impact on other students: “It’s important to have a high level of interest in Taekwon-do as you will, at some point in your journey, be responsible for placing the seed of interest in an aspiring student. Having a low amount of interest could be reflected onto such a student and could have a negative impact on their journey and ultimately end it”.
“A black belt is a person who is respected by others, but ultimately should have respect for everyone else, regardless of their abilities… You never look down on a fellow student just because they can’t do what you can do. After all, a black belt was once a white belt!” - Jamie Haden
“A black belt is a teacher and a role model so they need to show dedication to their own learning as well as the progression of others learning by passing on their knowledge with kindness, compassion and respect for others rights, abilities and opinions,” Sally explains. “They have also got the opportunity to further and evolve the art form themselves so they have to have a sense of their own strengths and how these strengths can be applied to enable growth”.
For Sally, an unexpected benefit of achieving the rank of 1st Dan (and beyond) was the ability to use her knowledge and skills to support the local community: “We use the hashtag #morethanjustmartialarts regularly due to the fact that our school delivers more than just martial arts classes. We deliver fitness, personal growth, connection to others, support and signposting for those with low mood/poor mental health, signposting for people who do not have English as a first language and, most importantly, we encourage our members to fundraise for local charities. It is not an obvious part of taking up a martial art - fundraising - however as a black belt and the leader of an organisation I have the ability to use this to do good in the community and influence change, something I wouldn’t have been able to do had I never taken up martial arts in the first place”.
“People think that martial arts are all about punching, kicking and gaining a black belt, but as a practitioner and as a black belt you gain so much more! You gain a family, a support network and a chance to have your voice heard. Not all instructors/black belts use these powerful tools to do meaningful things for the art form or their community, which is a shame and makes you question the value of their black belt” - Sally Gleaves
One thing that really sticks out for me is that my instructors wanted to achieve a black belt for unselfish reasons and wanted to do more with their black belt than just wear it and have the prestige of being a black belt - they wanted to use their rank to be able to teach, help others and grow the martial arts community.
The martial arts community as a whole relies on the people who have achieved the rank of 1st Dan and beyond wanting to give back to the community. Colour belts are taught and graded by black belts; if every student who became a black belt only wanted the rank for personal gain and had no interest in teaching, the martial arts community would collapse - there would be nobody to teach new martial artists. Obtaining the rank of 1st Dan opens up opportunities to teach, to grow the martial arts community and to help develop the martial art itself. The true meaning of your black belt is what you decide to do with it.
“I love seeing people learn what I help to teach, and when they have the penny dropping moment when they realise they CAN do it, that’s what makes it special and all worth it” - Jamie Haden
The skills learnt in training for and achieving the rank of 1st Dan and beyond can lead to personal growth. Becoming a black belt led to Sally realising that she was a natural teacher, and the skills she gained from training in Taekwon-do helped her to make a career in education: “Becoming a black belt made me realise all that I possess all of the character qualities, life lessons and perseverance/grit needed to become and maintain being a black belt. Not many people reach dan grades, fewer reach my grade and beyond due to one of more of the required character traits being absent. However, becoming a black belt made me realise that I can teach and pass on knowledge at ease. Gaining this knowledge about myself allowed me to make a career in education as a teacher and now a manager coordinating the delivery of educational courses within my community”.
Jamie says he has learnt a lot about himself through teaching: “I have learnt to welcome patience and develop a broader range of understanding which I didn’t have before. I have learnt to not take things for granted and to approach obstacles in more ways than one; akin to recognising how people learn differently to each other”.
For Jamie, becoming a black belt was a very personal journey and he has overcome many challenges on the way: “The biggest challenge was a personal one: mastering the 4th Tenet, self control. I fell off the right path unfortunately a few times and have spent a lot of time making amends for that; in fact I still do, it will be a lifelong commitment to make amends but I am on the right track. Obtaining 1st and 2nd Dan is a testament to overcoming the challenge”.
He says he has “learned a lot of discipline” on the journey from white belt to 2nd Dan and that training in Taekwon-do has helped him develop as a person: “I have found much more respect for myself during this journey. One of the biggest revelations in myself is that I CAN do Taekwon-do. [An example would be] learning my 2nd Dan patterns: beginning of the year I struggled with leg strength. Six months later I have had the drive and perseverance to develop my leg strength. Taekwon-do has also helped me to become a much better person overall; my family have often commented on how much I have changed for the better over the years”.
“Being a black belt doesn’t mean you know it all. You can always learn from a junior belt, you can always pick up something else, but [kup students] do look up to you and they do follow you and they do ask questions” - Lisa Perkins
Black belts are as human as the rest of us and everybody makes the occasional mistake. However, it’s how you then deal with your mistakes that’s important. Sally explains, “It is important for a black belt to be accountable for their own actions, their consequences and how to move forward after they have failed or made a mistake. They must have a growth mindset, not a fixed one, displaying the confidence, work ethic and boldness needed to progress as a black belt”.
Jamie says, “A black belt isn’t a trophy, like winning 1st in a race; it’s a developmental milestone for martial arts. Think of reaching adulthood for a person as soon as they turn 18…are they the same person they were the day before? Yes they are…it’s how they develop after that time that’s important. The same is said for a black belt; it’s the start of another journey very similar to white belt. It’s taught me that no matter what grade you are, you are always learning, and that’s the same in life.... A black belt could be metaphorically stated as reaching adulthood; there’s still so much more to learn”.
In martial arts, we would be nothing without our teachers. Every black belt was once a white belt, taught by an instructor. It’s important for all students and especially those aspiring to achieve a black belt to stay humble and to respect those who helped them on their journey. “All students, but especially black belts who should emanate this, should show respect to the school and instructor who has taught them,” Sally explains, “not to take advantage of them or their kindness and finally never betraying them. Remembering that they are the ones who have facilitated their journey”.
The journey to black belt can be long and difficult but very worthwhile. Jamie advises aspiring students: “Never give up, no matter how hard it seems right now! You will get there with regular practise. Perseverance and indomitable spirit are key! And also read your theory at least twice a week”.
About the author
Georgie Bull is a freelance content writer and journalist based in the West Midlands and 1st kup Taekwon-do student at Worcestershire Martial Arts. Website: https://www.georgiebull.com/