What is a black belt?
What does it represent in the martial arts?
In this training post we are going to take a look at what it represents, the skills it puts in action, and the training tools needed to help you achieve it by passing your upcoming black belt test.
In the now twenty five years that I have been fortunate enough to study the martial arts I have participated in many black belt tests as a teacher and coach, and through all of them there was a main theme and transmission that it represents regardless of tradition, style, or school- and that is what we are going to examine in this training guide.
I want to get you ready with the tools and martial tech for your test…
…ready for success?
In the martial arts a black belt represents a level of maturity and skill in the martial arts, one is not a master, but not a starting student. A black belt is someone who is knowledgeable in their art, proficient in skill, and is a solid representative of their school, style, and tradition.
It is a blend of physical skills, mental understanding, and reasonability.
Many new students only see a black belt as a level of skill, and certainly there is skill involved, but there are other qualities which compliment and magnify this level of skill.
As you prepare for your black belt test keep these “other” skills in mind also.
What are the three parts of a black belt?
ONE: Physical Skills
TWO: Mental Skills
THREE: Dojo (tradition) Responsibilities
The exact physical skills of a black belt will be a bit different depending on the art and disciple that you are studying- is it a primarily striking martial arts, a mixed martial arts, are traditional training weapons involved?
Regardless of the exact list of black belt skills needed for your art, there will be the following common element found through all of them. An element on three levels that you will need to know and most likely demonstrate.
As an example, let’s say on your black belt waza (skills) list punching is the first training item.
At a basic level you will need to know how to execute a proper punch- in good form, balance, and striking through the target with sufficient force.
The second level of understanding is being able to take that perfect execution of a punch and do it under pressure- perhaps against a moving target, in sparing, or striking a heavy bag.
And the final element of black belt knowledge would be in understanding of the mechanics that power a punch- the how and why it works, and how one would communicate those principals to another student or training partner.
For a black belt there is not only a needed level of skill, but the ability to show and express that skill to others in class or training if needed.
For many students in preparing for their black belt test they will stop that the physical, and certainly some martial arts school only focus or care about the physical aspects, but with this guide I want to help coach you, or give you the ideas to not only PASS your test, but to BECOME a black belt, and with that there is always a spiritual component.
My choice in using the definition “spiritual” refers to the set of skills in the martial arts that is a blend of mental and emotional abilities, and not spiritual in terms of religion. A black belt should be able to demonstrate the following, and have the following martial arts tech powering their movements:
Awareness: As you are training, are you aware of what is around you? The other students, what is going on in class? When you train with your partner, is there a focus, a heightened awareness (zanshin) that you always have “on”.
A good way to develop this awareness and presence is each time you are training with a partner, and you have finished your technique, pause for a moment and be ready for the next attack or multiple other opponents. In this way you are always training to be ready for the “next” or whatever situation might happen in a moment’s notice.
Another spiritual skill of being a black belt is having an immovable spirit (fudoshin). The ability to continue training, pushing yourself, keep going in class no matter how tired, hot, cold, or sparing exhausted.
The ability to finish to the end no matter what.
Certainly a part of this is physical endurance, but it is also knowing how far you can push yourself, and how to push yourself even further.
Over time this is developed by constant repetition of techniques.
In the Japanese martial arts, there is a spiritual discipline for developing fudoshin by becoming what is known as a “hundred day person”.
What is one of the basics (kihon) of your martial art?
Perhaps a certain strike, block, or downward cut with the sword?
To become a hundred day person, every day you do one hundred repetitions of one of these simple kihon moves, and you do them for one hundred days.
As you are practicing them, if you make a mistake, or it is not movement perfect, you start over and reset the count.
If you miss a day, you start over and reset the count.
For one hundred unbroken days, you perform one hundred unbroken movements.
Complete this exercise alone, and you will have both fudoshin and a clarity of purity in the martial arts.
The third main skill of a black belt is having no mind- mushin.
No mind doesn’t mean not tactically assessing a situation, but rather executing a technique without having to think how to do it, or what the steps are in performing it or making it work.
You develop mushin by always finishing a martial arts technique no matter how badly you are performing it. Always condition your martial mind and thinking to finish your movement and never stop moving.
Think about the black belt’s in your dojo or gym.
Think about the black belts that you respect or look to for inspiration in the martial arts.
Look at the champions and the best in the arts.
100% without question they have skill, but in addition to that skill they have a certain spiritual focus to them- develop that focus as it is key to earning and becoming a black belt.
The final element of what goes into making a black belt is often discovered after the fact, and is very hard to see before becoming a black belt, yet at the same time, it is an important element.
Something that your teacher or coach will be looking for as they prepare you to take your test, and this element is the new-responsibility you will have as a black belt to your dojo, school, or training group.
To borrow a Japanese martial arts term, you will be a sempai- a senior to the other junior students in your group. They will be looking towards you and your action, just as you looked towards the black belts ahead of you in both skill and behavior.
A black belt is not about going your own way, but rather going deeper into the tradition, training, and your studies in the martial arts.
Before we move to part two in this guide and start preparing a success outline for the day of your test I’d like to share with you a part of my black belt test, and some mistakes NOT to make.
Now, in my role as a martial arts coach, my ultimate goal for my students and those I advice is to cut down their learning curve in the martial arts.
If it took me six months to learn a certain skill item, or to get to a belt level, now with my experience and hard won lessons, I should be able to get YOU to that level in half the time, or perhaps even less.
With my 1st dan blackbelt I had to work through a number of self-imposed challenges.
The reason for this is that I had a number of self imposed notions of what a black belt should be- entirely of my own creation. Strong, a certain body image, how I thought I should behave, move and act.
There was a level of immaturity there, and it slowed down my momentum and learning in the martial arts.
I’ve certainly long ago corrected my mistakes, but it did cost me a hard amount of lessons and time…
…don’t make this mistake when you become a black belt.
When you receive your black belt, be proud, be confident, be bold, but don’t put a definition of what a black belt should be- remain empty.
Let the movement and teachings of your martial art define and mold you as to what you should be as a black belt.
Allow yourself to start over as nothing, and let the martial arts build you back up. This “new” foundation will serve you well as you move to 2nd, 3rd, and beyond black belt levels.
At the very least it will leave less to undo and unlearn as you progress beyond black belt.
A good teacher will not let you make the same mistakes they did in their own martial arts journey.
TEST PREP SYLLABUS
Now in part two we are going to explore a training syllabus to prepare you for your black belt test.
An outline based on the dozens and dozens of test I have participated in as a judge and the many that I have been responsible for giving myself.
I want to give you a sneak peek of what to expect so you can be a bit more relaxed and at ease.
Being RELAXED is the most important skill you can have, and the one you need on the day of your test. It is and will be natural to be nervous, but being nervous creates tension, and tension breaks down your movement and unbalances your mind.
Worry never worked in school when taking tests, and it certainly doesn’t work on the day of a physical movement exam.
This training outline will help you prepare and help you to relax now that you have the outline to be able to perform to the best of your martial ability.
In preparing for your test we are going to take the list of skills that you need to know- what you are going to demonstrate and perform and work on them from three levels:
(Part three of this guide is going to focus on KEY points for your list of skills in more focus detail, but for now we are exploring the big picture scope of the test.)
The starting point of our test-training outline is going to be repetition. You are going to be called on to demonstrate the skills on your list, and they are going to have to be perfect- so how do we get to that perfection?
Repetition to build muscle memory and confidence doesn’t mean just going through the motions of each kata, waza, or skill you need to know.
Being able to break down each part of that skill, move by move, bit by bit and perform each movement with correct balance, distance, and timing is what we are aiming for.
In preparing for your test at this point you have been studying the martial arts for a bit of time- perhaps a few years or more, so I feel it is safe to assume that we know how to break down a technique into its component parts.
The KEY is to be able to perform all those parts together and slowly.
Going as slow as possible is the important part of repetition drills.
For many of us, we equate “correct” with speed- the faster we perform something the more impressive it looks, the more power it has. But often when we go “fast” we not only make mistakes, but we fail to see those mistakes or how to correct them.
Practice your skills slowly so you can see and feel what is going wrong, what needs to be corrected, and what is working and moving correctly.
Finding those last minute mistakes before your test and having time to correct them is what we are aiming for.
Practice your techniques a few dozen times each training session, slowly, in an almost yoga speed like manner.
The second and next practice point is going to be developing what is called nagare in the Japanese martial arts, which means flow or fluidity.
The ability to chain one technique after another without pause, loss of balance, or noticing a break is important.
Part of your test might involve going from one set of techniques to another, or demonstrating multiple techniques in a row on the same training partner, or perhaps even an element of sparring.
Lots of stuff in quick succession.
Nagare is generated though correct footwork- by being in the right place at the right moment with your training partner so you can effortlessly flow to the next technique.
If your footwork is off, when it comes time for the next technique you might be far away, or not facing the correct direction, causing you to take an extra step to catch up- breaking the flow and smoothness of what you are looking to demonstrate and perform.
In the weeks leading up to your test review all the footwork drills in your martial arts.
Pay attention to the direction and alignment of your feet and where they are facing with regard to the technique.
Work to develop nagare, which will power the perfection of your techniques and skills that you have been working on and building through repetition.
The final part in our training syllabus is developing relaxation.
Relaxation is the capstone to good technique and nagare/flow.
If you are relaxed your body will be working to make what it has learned and performed better, while on the opposite side if there is tension it will be slower, less crisp, and not as smooth moving.
So just how do we move in a relaxed manner?
Naturally you should be stretching and warming up before each practice session, but when looking to cultivate relaxation in your movement pay extra time and attention to stretching out all the major parts of your body.
When you are limber and in a relaxed state, pick one of the skills you are going to need to demonstrate and perform it at a moderate pace for fifty or so repetitions.
After the last set, stand ready, and pause.
Take a moment to mentally review your body and make note of any places you feel tight, sore, or are a bit off in your body.
These are tension points that are not correct in your movement- either because you have done them incorrectly, returning to the first point of our syllabus, or based on the mechanics of your body you are a bit tight in that area of your body- that area is going to need some more stretching, or relaxation to limber up.
See what points as your practice are not relaxed and work on those body areas, joints, and parts over the next couple of weeks leading up to your test.
Think of these three points: repetition, nagare, and relaxation as a formula to work through for each skill, waza, or demonstration expected for your test. Work through your list taking each point through all three elements of this syllabus to help position you in a good point for your test.
In the final part of this PDF guide we are going to explore some focus points in the martial arts for striking, grappling, and postures (kamae) to help guide you to perfection.
We are going to explore these three skills sets from the perspective of movement on the martial arts- what makes them “work” from a body mechanical perspective vs. a single school, style, or discipline.
My plan is to give you another diagnostic tool to explore your movement with outside of your style so you can examine how you are moving and improve it for your upcoming test.
As you practice any techniques that fall into these categories use these training points to help refine your movement: Are you doing or not doing the following.
Footwork naturally powers any striking technique, stepping through the target, putting your body behind it, using the hips to generate force, but what about your feet?
As you move to strike are they always completely on the ground as they move?
After you finish your punch or strike are both feet completely flat on the ground- or often with your lead foot are you shifting your weight forward to the balls of your feet and lifting your heel off the ground.
If you are doing this, you are shifting your center of gravity, weight, and balance a bit forward beyond your movement. This will cause you to move less smoothly as you have to follow by shifting back to not lose your balance, and it will make transitioning to the next strike or technique a bit harder.
When kicking it is extra important to keep your base foot flat on the ground and NOT lift your foot up on your toes taking your heel off the ground. This creates massive imbalance when you are already on one leg vs. two legs.
Finally, pay attention to the direction that your feet are facing as you strike, or move to strike.
Are they facing and moving in the same direction as the rest of your body and your leg/arm in the strike?
If not, you are losing some transference of power- part of your generated power is moving in the direction of your foot and the other part of your power in the direction of your body. You want them both aligned for maximum fluidity and delivery of power.
That is what turns a hit into a strike.
Grappling techniques be they throws, takedown, or immobilizations are about unbalancing your training partner while remaining in perfect balance yourself.
Bluntly put if your spine remains straight as you execute a grappling move and your feet are under your hips you will be in balance, while if your training partner’s spine is bent and their feet are not under the hips they can easily be thrown or taken.
Get them unbalanced ahead of time with footwork or movement, while you are in balance, and then perform the technique.
Likewise your hips control the center of gravity in a technique so if you want to make it easier to perform a grappling waza/move make sure your hips are always lower or below your training partner’s hips.
Martial arts postures known as kamae, stances, or ready positions have two aspects of movement in the martial arts.
They allow you to protect the weak points (kyusho) on your body that a training partner can attack, while at the same time making sure that if your training partner does attack, they will be forced to expose weakness in their own movement in order to attack you.
These martial arts postures also allow you to use the best and most powerful footwork to power your techniques.
Spend time drilling your postures as a foundation using the syllabus in part two.
If any element of your black belt test involves sparring or randori against a training partner, make sure our postures are PERFECT.
Before you even apply a technique to them they will be in a weak spot with their body in terms of balance and timing if your postures and movement make it hard for them- making your own technique that much easier to perform.
READY FOR THE DAY
As we close out on the training guide here, I want to wish you the best on your upcoming black belt test and offer one last piece of advice to help you on the day of the test.
The very fact that you are able to take the test, that your teacher has recommended you for promotion or signed you up to take it, means that you DO have the tools, martial tech, and talent to make it happen and pass.
It will be a stressful event, it has to be, and it will be one of the hardest and most personally challenging events in your life.
But it is only a single moment in time, and a few steps on the path of your martial journey.
Work through the guide here, review your own lessons, and look to the senior students and other black belts in your school or training group for advice.
I will be with you in martial spirit on the day.
See you on the mat.