The Making of a Black Belt
‘It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end’
- Ursula K. Le Guin

by Stuart Anslow
Apart from the main bulk of the book, there were a few sections at the end that were
mainly my views on things and the one here is one that I received a lot of contact about,
praising it for its honest view of things, so as it’s something many feel strongly about, I
thought it appropriate to relay it here as it concerns all of us!

When a student walks into a dojang they have this vision in their head, perhaps attained
through television or films, or from the legendary stories of the masters, recited by their
friends or read in books but no matter where it comes from, it is still the same – the dream
of mastery of a martial art and a ‘Mcdojang’ instructor steals these dreams!

Parents bring their children to martial art classes for a myriad of reason, not least
confidence and the same eventual dreams as the adults – maybe it’s a parents wishful
thinking, but there is no reason their children cannot grow up and mature into competent
and capable martial artists. The problem is parents have no bench mark as they often
start their children in the first martial art school they come across as they believe that
every black belt is a master, every black belt is a great instructor and every black belt
will guide and shape their child into a competent and capable martial artists – only
someone who has been round the block or dared to venture further afield than their own
school knows this isn’t the case! My advice to parents these days, unfortunately, is to shop
around and to do a lot of shopping!

I had a parent of a student call me once, saying she was unhappy with her present school as the instructor was charging more and more each time. He changed the uniforms every six months, forcing the students to buy the new ones and sold them equipment when they joined that they had never used! The final straw for this parent was the instructor trying to make her sign a new three year contract into the ‘masters club’ for her son, who was six years old! Incidentally, this club costs £600 per year more than the Black belt club, which was £600 a year more than the non-black belt club members paid! I felt a little sorry for the parent, knowing she had been sold by the sales hype, so I invited her down to the school as she wanted and asked her what grade her son was – to which she replied he’s a black belt! I was shocked, but nevertheless intrigued as to what qualities a six year old black belt would have. The parent was most concerned with her six year old retaining his grade and I had to bite my lip!

The parent turned up and this young black belt bounded into my class full of confidence, but as the class started the warm-up session he seemed concerned, looking around for his mother, eventually, before we had even finished this section he started to cry as he was completely out of his depth and this was just the warm up. After sobbing for a bit, he went to his mum for a cuddle and I asked her what he did to achieve his black belt, she said he had to do some combinations, punch some pads and show some kicks. I ask what patterns he learnt and she asked what was a pattern! Upon explaining, she said he hadn’t learn any as it wasn’t required for his age! Suffice to say, he never returned to my school. His former club had indeed given him something, they gave him a black belt he didn’t earn, that didn’t have any worth except to his parents pride (however misplaced it was), but worst of all they gave him bucket loads of false confidence that was taken away the minute he stepped out of that school into the real world of martial arts!

This is not an isolated case as many other parents have been sold similar things, with these unscrupulous instructors pandering to the parents and students ego’s, by waving a black belt in front of them and letting them know just how achievable it is, as long as they pay the right price! Adults have been fooled in the same way as well, though they are more capable of handling the fact that they have been sold a dud and usually blame themselves for not doing their research properly in the first place and some, even if not all, are resolute about learning proper martial arts, so are content to start over. These students I hold in the highest regard, it is not an easy thing to admit and even harder to do – these students have the right spirit, one that can really take them where they want to go!

Students reasons for starting a martial art and then sticking with it can change over time and are varied, but every student, who attains the lofty rank of black belts wishes and hopes, at least initially, to be worthy of the grade, after all ‘the clothes maketh the man’ and so in Taekwon-do, ‘the belt maketh the student’ so the worth of that belt needs to be maintained.

Once a black belt held much worth, simply because it was only obtainable with diligence and hard training. Now it is seen as obtainable by anyone, even with little effort, but more so as part of the schools ethos or part of their advertising campaign as long as they turn up and pay their money! A black belt should never be guaranteed, it is a celebration of blood, sweat and tears, of over coming many obstacles and a celebration of passing into the next phase of Taekwon-do training. The fork in a tough hard road that is meant to represent the wearer being ‘Impervious to darkness and fear` - a road that many are simply not capable of travelling (well actually they are, but it’s a damn hard trek)! Its worth has been devalued.

Though some argue that Taekwon-do places a different emphasis on what a black belt means, as do some other arts, but one only has to think back to when they began Taekwon-do and think what a black belt seemed to them, whether correct or not this is actually what it should mean (or at least pretty close to it). I sincerely doubt that any beginner has thought of a black belt grade as lacking in knowledge or skills, or not being able the perform ‘black belty’ type things! I guess the essence is that in my mind at least, a black belt should have three attributes:

1. Knowledge in the areas related to the dan grade and skills at a certain level in applying that knowledge
2. A certain mental toughness fostered from many years of hard training
3. The ability to ‘hang’ with others of equal grade. By that I mean at all areas they should be roughly equal. There will always be students who can break more than others, or spar faster etc. But no black belt should look way out of their depth in any areas next to a fellow dan grade.

All three of these areas have been eroded over time, as clubs, instructors and associations give away black belts to one and all, claiming to make the black belt more accessible or simply ignoring what it originally represented to them, but its really an exercise of increasing numbers or not losing students income and the one who loses in the end, is actually the student who placed their faith and hope in you to begin with!

A black belts worth shouldn’t be bought but should be affordable by all, affordable by way of hard work, sweat, tears and perhaps even a little blood on occasion – as these are the traits and trials of hard endeavours and nothing of any value comes easy. By making the road to black belt, a hard though not impossible journey, we can retain its value and its worth – though I feel it may be a little too late for that, but as Gandhi once said ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world’ so I for one will keep on keeping on!

Within Taekwon-do some feel that the black belt is simply a representation of someone who has a good grasp of the basics of our art and even though what actually represents the basics is debateable, some do not even seem to have done that in order to gain the right to wear the black belt around their waist. But even then, saying it simply represents the basics doesn’t relate to the meaning of black belt in Taekwon-do, which says the wearer should be‘ impervious to darkness and fear’ – how many six year olds feel like that? In my mind, simply having a grasp of the basics doesn’t correlate to being impervious to darkness and fear, which takes me back to the aforementioned 3 attributes that should make a black belt! And that to me is just the minimum requirements in my mind, to me there is more to being a black belt than just that, but that’s a whole new discussion!

Reproduced from the book “Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-do Hae Sul: Real Applications To The ITF Patterns”
Copyright © 2006/7 Stuart Paul Anslow

Book available via

The Making of a Black Belt
‘It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end’
- Ursula K. Le Guin

by Stuart Anslow