At about three to four years into training a student starts to look at grading to Shodan or black belt. The student has normally put in, on average, three days a week training for that time and is starting to understand the basics of Karate. They have worked on form, Kata, techniques, Kumite and changed physically. They often approach seniors at this point and ask “what do I do to get ready for my black belt”. The question itself kind of lets me know that they don’t actually understand what a black belt is!
First off most students, even those that have been around for five years don’t actually understand what a black belt is. They see what the Movies suggest they are…or at least what old movies suggest they are, and they see what TV and books say they are. But stories of exaggerated skills and ability are things of movie magic only.
Normally we see three levels where students fade out of Karate; the early stoppers (white to orange belt), the “nearly theirs” (1st Kyu) and the raw black belts (Shodan). The reasons that people drop out at these levels are simple…They don’t get it at all. Early drop outs happen when students think they will never “get it” and or they see other black belts and think “man they are not Chuck Norris”…I have news for you…Chuck Norris is not Chuck Norris.
The “Nearly theirs” drop out after years of work thinking that they cannot make it, don’t deserve it or start to question their ability or want for a black belt…again missing the point. They look around and see that outside of a hand full of people who can make Karate look very easy and know a lot about it, there are a tone of black belts that struggle with Karate and don’t fit the “NINJA MAN” mold….again, they don’t get it!
The Shodan drop outs are normally because a student thinks…”I reached the end finish line” and don’t get it that Karate is a life time goal, it makes us better people…not better fighters. It helps us look into ourselves, not concur others all the time. Again they don’t get it!
So, with all the “that aint it’s” what is a Black belt and how do I train for it? You should be training already for it if you are going to the Dojo. While each club/ organization has a curriculum laid out that they should be giving you so you know what to expect, you may have passed or failed your test already! See, being a black belt is a lot different than wearing one or Passing a test. It’s do some degree the amount of interest, pride and effort you put into the running of your club. Its also to some degree the amount of dedication you show to your instructor and training. And then the physical makes up the other component of being a black belt.
The physical component seems to be what everyone focuses on when they talk about people being black belts. But they also forget the two things that will dictate a person’s ability to perform Karate to high levels…first is physicality and the second is age! Physicality is basically a person’s ability to perform physical tasks like sports and Karate techniques. We will always have athletes who look better than those of us who are not Mesomorphs that react better to athletic endeavors…along with that goes gender, physical limitations like injuries and the like.
Two of the most gifted Karate men I have ever read about were Stan Schmit and Ray Dalke. Ray was a crazy Kumite guy that could take out most opponents and was said to have the heart of a tiger. He would punch through someone’s elbow to get at a target, and Schmit Sensei was not just good at Kumite but if you ever have watched his lectures he knows his stuff. Both men have injuries that limit their movements, Schmit Sensei having had a whole hip replaced. They are both high level Karate-ka, but have limitations physically. Some people are also just not physically gifted, inflexible and uncoordinated. To train for and attain a black belt is a dream and with the right dedication and work even physical limitations can be overcome. These black belts won’t be world champions but they will attain a higher level than they started out with, they are a high level for them, and that’s what counts.
For me, as an instructor, Before I would look at a Ikkyu and say that they are ready to be tested I would also want to see that they have gained a degree of Knowledge about Karate from my classes as well. If a student does not demonstrate an understanding of Karate I basically see them as a recreational Karate-ka and not a serious Karate student. I want to see that they are studying Karate and not just dressing up to get a work out. Yes it depends on each student and how much interest they have in learning, but some simple questions need to be asked before a student should go for shodan…things like what is the Dojo kun and what does it mean! Who was the founder and a bit of history. Then I want to see them teach a beginner for a bit. This way I am seeing if they have actually absorbed any information and details I have been teaching. To me there are not students that should be considered for Shodan who has not basically grasped the fundamentals of what Karate training is to them or what the where it came from!
Owning a black belt and having graded to that level means that you represent a Dojo/instructor. In order to let a student test I have to see that they have given to the organization, Dojo and instructor as much as they can. It should be noted before you even start training that if you want to be a black belt…its not just about showing up to learn Kata, kick and punch at each other and be able to pass physical tests. Its more so about dedication and commitment to a club and instructor. Allowing someone to test for Shodan and take the first steps into training in Karate (really training) is a privilege and a sign of respect for the dedication and commitment that the student has had for the club and instructor. Far too often I see black belts worn by people that feel entitled. Entitled because they have stuck it out and paid their monthly dues longer than most and or those that feel physically better than others in the club, both of which don’t make black belts…they do however make whinny children!
When considering people for candidates to black belt I also look at the amount of effort and pride they take in their club. If someone refuses to participate in things outside of training (like marketing, promotion, helping other students and basically just show up to train and go home) I am way less likely to vote to let them test. Some think that’s harsh, but the truth is, when you wear a black belt in our club you represent us…why am I going to let someone represent us that treats us like a gym? I will however make them wait as long as possible and see if they change. If they don’t…they may get to test eventually but they won’t ever get past Shodan if the organization let them wear the black belt…and they sure wont get any extra attention once they hit that self-imposed glass ceiling.
Being a black belt and having a piece of paper on your wall and fancy silk black belt are two different things! I have met a HUGE amount of people who graded up to Shodan and even higher who did not understand the relevancy of things like honoring your instructor, being committed to Karate, Trying to improve themselves, Being Faithful to the organization and those that brought them to Karate..and I don’t consider a single one of them as a senior, a black belt or even a solid Karate person. The biggest issue we have in Karate is Ego and people getting their black belts way to soon and some who should never have gotten them seems to be one of the worst contributing factors to “paper tigers” in Karate. We as instructors have to look at our students really hard and see if and or when they have what it takes to represent us and take Karate forwards.
When you grade to first step or shodan you are not ready to learn more about teaching, deeper meanings and lessons in Karate and contribute more to Karate. I see Shodan as a “now you know the basics” kind of level, Nidan as a now you can apply the basics level and Sandan as now you can teach the basics level. Everything above Sandan is more like teaching levels. Degrees can also indicate the level of commitment and time served in an organization. I must say that my instructor is a 6th dan and I have met 8th dans that paled in comparison to him. So Degrees to me are more important when you are talking about how hot/cold it is outside than when you say someone is a 5th dan in some other organization, I know of two or three that would not make it to Nidan in our organization and know less about dedication and being faithful than some white belts I know.
Having said that degrees are not important, and basically saying that rank is out of control in some organizations and greatly repressed in others…there is no normal level of advancement in Karate. I know of one instructor, Oshima Sensei, who has never elected to accept a rank above 5th Dan…having shared this I know of one guy that is not yet 40 who has been training ¼ of the time as Oshima who holds a 5th Dan as well…..are they equals…I think not!
Okay, with all the rank bashing I have to say that Shodan is still an important step in a Karate-kas life. It shows that you have now graded and mastered the basics and can now represent the organization/Dojo/Instructor. While I don’t want to make more of it than it is…like some….Shodan means first step and its an important one. The time up to Shodan allows for us to see if your character is strong, help you learn about yourself and Karate, let you know your weak points and also work with your strengths. The most important thing about Shodan…you are now a active member of the Dojo and have responsibilities to it, as it does to you!
So, what should you be doing to get ready for Shodan. Outside of working on Kihon, Kumite and your Kata. You should be looking inside yourself a lot. Not to see if you are “worthy” , that part is not really up to you….but to see if you are ready to commit to being a good person. To working on personal flaws and to take your ego and leave it behind. Getting a Shodan is more than a right to wear a black belt, it’s a sign that you are ready to accept the Dojo as a family and help others realize that it’s a home and the members select to be their and help each other. And you should be ready to really look outside of yourself at others and see them as family. You should be openly seeking to improve your own character and accepting that you have flaws and be willing to work on correcting them, not just physical flaws as well.
In our past incarnations as part of a large organization in North America I saw many black belts that had egos and were basically morons with black belts. They were power hungry, did not get that Karate is about personal growth and not oppression and power. I saw rankings personal standards go out the window and as long as you could do a kata pretty and went to tournaments to get golds you were aces when it came time for rank promotion…actually it became more about ranking than anything else. Eventually, after we left it was not even and secret that they kind of hid…it was way out their for everyone to see…they were a black belt factory…a McDojo as it were. The training was still solid because my instructor laid the foundation s for them to continue with good training, but ego was rampant in the organization locally and on a higher level and rank and power became the norm and focus for the leadership.
In our new organization we monitor rank a lot more and we as a committee get together and vote to see who can grade past 3rd Kyu and up. We slow some people to give them time to grow personally and we hold some back to make sure they understand that they need work..and mostly not physically. Rank is a honor not a right and we often work with people to let them know this. Some people no matter how long we hold them back and let them see ranking is more than the belt around your gi…still don’t get it.
Anyone can buy a black belt (heck I can sell one cheap), to earn the respect and show the dedication to an organization, that is a completely different thing all together. So my suggestion on how to train for a Shodan….make sure you give as much as you get and make sure you help grow your organization, this way you are showing that you value the organization as much as they value you. And in the end…shut up and train!