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Richard Wilkinson

What's the big deal about earning a black belt?

What’s So Special about Earning a Black Belt?
I was approached by a parent this past week that told me her child was quitting martial arts.  (In an earlier conversation, she had told me that her son had a history of quitting things that challenge him or make him step outside his comfort zone.  As an instructor, my ears perked up because improving things like this is what I do.)  I tried to explain the ‘Big Deal’ about earning a black belt and was told that she didn’t think it was fair or reasonable to ask her child to commit to several years of training.  This kind of conversation has happened several times over my 30 years of training and teaching.  So, I decided to write some of my thoughts down about the subject.
As I gathered my thoughts to write this, I was invited to a ‘black belt test’ in Sherman, TX at Master Rick Arnold’s school.  After watching the belt test, I decided that I HAVE to write down what I saw.  Keep in mind I have been teaching martial arts for almost 30 years.

I saw….

About 100 young people and adults participate in the test.  The test was actually a week-long event and the ‘test’ that I went to watch was the final day.  It wasn’t set up like a normal test.  It was an EVENT! 

When I walked in the door of the Church gym, there was an arch made of balloons.  I saw a mat set up in the middle of the floor for the students to perform their moves, patterns, self-defense, sparring, board breaking and a microphone at the front of the mat for the students to give an oral presentation.   There was a judges table decorated with a few recently won trophies that had gold medals hanging from them.  The judges’ tables had a banner behind with the school’s name and more balloons on either side of the tables further celebrating the day.

There were students jumping rope on the mat preparing for the ‘test’ when I got there.  I found out later that before the test actually started, the students had been taken a mile away in trucks and had to run all the way to the facility where the test was held.  There were kids as young as 7- 9 years old participating!

As I watched the test, I was struck by the enthusiasm and overall attitude of the event.  It didn’t feel like a ‘test’…it felt like a celebration!  These students had NO fear in their eyes.  They were 100% completely prepared and looked like they were having a great time.  There were smiles everywhere from the parents (full of pride) to the students to the judges.  It was laid back yet disciplined and there seemed to be no threat of failure.  Personally, I couldn’t see why it was called a ‘test’.

Everything the MC asked the students to perform, they performed. ..without hesitation.  They appeared to have zero issue remembering moves.  It didn’t matter what they were asked to do, they were prepared.  I loved it!

By the end of the 4 hour ‘test’, I had my answer to ‘What’s so special about being a black belt’.

For me, Martial arts are all about ‘Life Skills’.  Martial arts have always been known for courtesy, respect, integrity, self-control and discipline.  I even like to describe a martial arts class as a mini motivational seminar.  ‘What are we motivating the student to do?’ you ask.  We are motivating them to find their personal best every day they come to class.  We want them to wonder about and seek out what their personal best looks like.  Over the course of several years in martial arts, they seem to find it.  However, we see improvements in just a few weeks.  It’s an amazing process!

Earning a black belt affects everything….their grades, their performance in other sports, the friends they choose to hang out with, the activities they choose to participate in, their helpfulness around the house, their relationships with their siblings and family and their desire to do their very best at everything they choose to do.  They learn to live in ‘present time’.  ‘Present time’ is the ability to live right now in this very moment without thinking of the outcome, without thinking of past failures and without concerning yourself with what people will think of you when it’s all said and done.  Living in present time, is the only way to find your personal best.  It allows for NO distraction (hey!  There’s another life skill – focus).

There is NO other accomplishment like earning a black belt.  There is no other activity that has a focus on what martial arts do (Life skills).

So, back the testing that I attended….

Students demonstrated respect for the leaders (people above their status or rank) of the test by responding with a ‘YES, SIR!’…and then RAN to where they were supposed to go and had a great attitude doing it!

They demonstrated respect to their peers by not hitting too hard, and giving them an opportunity to shine.  No one dominated anyone else.  They seemed to have a desire to help their peers succeed.

They demonstrated respect to the students that were of lower rank or status by encouraging them with a smile and a simple nod (as if to say ‘good job’).  There was NO ‘I am above you and you annoy me’ type attitude. 

The students demonstrated a sense of ‘I am here to serve anyone that needs it WHILE being an example of leadership by demonstrating MY techniques to the best of my ability…with enthusiasm and a grateful heart’.  WOW! 

That spirit alone was golden!  But that wasn’t all.

I saw a student that was asked to break boards and had a little trouble doing it….instead of the room being silent (seeming to wait for the collective ‘Awe’)…some of the students started clapping and yelling out ‘c’mon!  You can do it!  They did this with NO prompting from the judges.  They did this because the collective student body wanted them to succeed…..not because someone told them to want it..but because they truly wanted that student to succeed.  There was no trophy or championship to win….there was only one student that had an opportunity to excel…and the student body got behind them….and cheered them on…and when that little girl broke the board, the crowd erupted in clapping and cheering.

That was powerful!  That’s the ‘Black Belt Attitude’!  That’s part of what it means to be a black belt.  Remember…this was a ‘black belt’ test.

That’s not all…

Every time a student was asked to do something, they RAN to get it done.  There was NO walking.  Isn’t that what we all want for our kids?  …to be asked to do something and they RUN to do….no whining…no complaining…just the act of getting things done as quickly as possible…Immediately after being asked to do something.   That deserves another WOW!

This ‘test’ lasted 4 hours!  There was NEVER a loss of enthusiasm, energy or focus.  I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those kids were originally diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  There was NO getting tired.  They were like machines!

But…that’s not all..

There were about 15-20 kids in the leadership program at Master Arnold’s school.  Some came in to help and were NOT testing.  They just came to support their fellow students and help the event go smoothly.  One cool thing that they did when it was time to hand out the belts was…Master Arnold had one helper getting the belts ready behind the judges table…after everyone lined back up, he asked the leadership team to come up and grab one belt and find the student that had earned it and go and lay it down in front of the student as they sat there...back straight, legs crossed with hands in their lap.

Another cool thing about the leadership team was that they sat in the back behind the students.  Historically, the leadership teams sits at the front.  I took this as a metaphor that means…If you are sitting in the front, you have to look back to see if anyone needs help…but if you are sitting in the back, you look forward to see if you can see if anyone needs help and can get it taken care (you can see the people that may need help).  Leaders were in a better position to serve…they were with the people…..behind them all the way to success.  What a cool concept!

The leadership team had a sense of service towards the other students.  They truly cared about the people…which is Impact America’s first rule of instruction…it’s ’No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care’.
This test was a representation of students that ‘unrealistically’ trained for several years and were asked to commit to an idea of excellence that takes several years to achieve.

Earning a black belt is about the people...the relationships that are built…it’s about learning how to get along with people socially in every setting…it’s about understanding personal excellence…it’s about pushing through obstacles and stepping outside your comfort zone… it’s about getting things done through goal setting…’s about learning how to be a good follower AND a good leader….it’s about attitude and enthusiasm….It’s about giving up pieces of yourself so that you can serve others…it’s about being tough…being strong mentally and physically and emotionally…..and you know what?  It does take a few years of “unrealistic” commitment regardless of age.

So..THAT’s the ‘Big Deal’ about being a black belt.

Those who have never earned it will never understand and there are NO WORDS you can use to explain it to them.  Those that have earned it share a bond that comes from shared personal experience.
August 25, 2013