The Black Belt Myth (What They Never Told You About Being a Black Belt)

For years, you’ve been told a lie.

An ugly, dirty lie.

Indoctrinated by people you trusted, with the implicit purpose of “protecting you from reality”, you’ve been secretly brainwashed since you first discovered martial arts.

Why?

The short answer:

Because a convenient lie is safer than an inconvenient truth.

The long answer:

Because if you knew the truth, the whole truth, you’d probably never have started martial arts to begin with – and you’d most likely not be reading this paragraph.

I know…

Mind-blowing, right?

Let me explain:

The Black Belt Myth

They wanted you to believe it.

They really did.

And for the most part, they actually succeeded.

  • Books.
  • Movies.
  • TV shows.
  • Magazines.
  • Advertisement.

The list goes on.

Everywhere you looked, you were made to believe that the highest achivement, the ultimate sophistication of traditional Karate, was to get the legendary black belt.

A belt – so black, it defies both time and space.

The image of that dark, mysterious and exotic belt – flawlessly tied around the six-pack abs of a fearless fighter – was projected at you day and night, by everyone around you.

That fighter?

It could be YOU.

That fearlessness?

It could be YOURS.

(Those abs too.)

Just get the black belt, and everything would be perfect.

Well…

At least that’s what they wanted you to believe…

Until you realized the following:

No matter how many times you watched The Karate Kid, Kwai Chang Caine or Ninja Turtles, the ancient cornerstone principles upon which Karate rested would NEVER have anything to do with a piece of black cloth hanging around your waist.

Never.

The black belt was a lie.

A myth.

A fairytale, based on a fundamentally flawed fact.

You see, the day after you got your black belt, when all the partying and hoopla stopped, you undoubtedly came to a pretty disturbing realization:

Nothing changes.

Let me repeat that.

Nothing.

Changes.

Sure, you probably have a few more bruises. Maybe even a black eye, or a sore rib. And your wallet is probably a bit slimmer, from that hefty grading fee you had to pay.

But you’re still the Exact Same Dude.

  • You still forget tiny details in kata.
  • You still make “stupid” mistakes in kihon.
  • You still get your ass kicked in kumite.

And yes…

You still have trouble with self-confidence, motivation or injuries.

Just like the day before – when you didn’t have your black belt yet.

What a…

Relief!

Now you can finally stop focusing on “that belt”.

And start focusing on yourself.

Because a black belt is not the end.

It never was.

It is the very beginning.

That’s why it’s called sho-dan in Japanese (lit. “first-level”).

worn-out-black-belt

So…

Once you understand this fact, which has been kept hidden from you for way too long, you’re finally free to pursue Karate for its true and most important purpose:

A vehicle for discovering and developing the human potential.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.
In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

~ Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971)

And that’s the dirty secret of being a black belt.

Black is the new white.

69 Comments

  • Black is the new white.... Motto of 2014 in my Dojo:-DHappy new Year to all Karate-Nerds out there!!!
    • Great motto, Danny-san! ;) Make 2014 a kick-ass year!
      • Keenan
        I thank you for this post, to the point and nothing but the truth. Achieving mastery, Has nothing to do with a clothing symbol tied around your waist. I wish all people read this before embarking upon any martial arts journey. This point is not just limited to karate, but all martial arts. Maybe if white belts knew this before chasing black, we would see less egos inflated over there shiny new waist Décolletage. Yet real humans, dedicated to self discovery and the passing on of an ancient lineage. Thank you Jesse
        • Erin
          Wouldn't "waist décolletage" actually be butt crack?I'm spending a ton of money and just starting this journey in my mid 40s! It's scary, exciting, unknown, intimidating, and I have a long way to go. But maybe, just maybe, along the way I'll learn something about myself that will bring joy and understanding as I enter the last parts of my life.
    • andy
      "the new white" I like that a lot. I understand it completely.
  • Sonya Marie Botnick
    Thank you for sharing..... "The Paper Tigers" is an Excellent Book to read and have on hand for references and learning purposes. It was just published by my Sifu Allan David Ondash! It speaks VOLUMES about these very same issues! I think you would Truly Enjoy it! Be well!He could be reach at: The Tigers Ark Kingston PA www.thetigersark.com
  • Good Stuff, Jesse Sensei! Happy New Year!
  • Rob Donnison
    The only thing i felt when i achieved my shodan was i know nothing! I am now a san dan and am still learning! My motto is, you should never get a black belt, you should become one! Its not what you wear around your waist, but what you have in your heart! Oss
  • Tyler
    that's exactly what i'm realize after a long time in karate. I'm still facing with my own mistake every time in my kata. My Mawashi Geri not really flexible and my hip not support much as it should be. And i realize black belt is nothing. U get a black belt it not means u can stop training. it not means u can't get knock out in the street.
  • Alex
    Thanks for this Jesse. It's something I always knew tbh but it does need re-stating, especially for lower grades who have fantastically high expectations of both their senseis and the mythical prowess that it supposedly instantly bestows on shodans.Even worse is the ignorance of non-karateka who expect some sort of superhuman ability & are disappointed when you can't do backflips while simultaneously fending off several armed ninjas.
  • Florian Pean
    Noooo!! I thought I was going to become a wise all-knowing, high kicking, lightning fast fists of fury,super duper awesome ninja when I got my black belt. Now I'm depressed... LOL Seriously, no matter what, getting my black belt over 40 years after I started martial arts will certainly be an achievement for me. Even though I know it won't turn me into Bruce Lee, maybe Mr Myagi if I'm lucky.
    • Nela
      Don't mock Mr Myagi, he's awsome. After all he did fend off several baddies. When I watched this movie with my son last summerit made me realise that my sensei resembled more the sensei who trained the bullies and I definitely wanted a Mr Myagi. Club changed.
  • vic
    Are not they all krav maga kapap CQC mma etc based on the myth of invincibility ?
  • John McDonald
    To give this a positive slant and to provide those who aim to attain shodan, keep the following in mind. In a traditionally oriented organisation gaining that belt after 4 or more years will MOSTLY recognize a degree of technical proficiency related to the dictums of the style - whether that proficiency is as effective, as many may wish to imagine, is another question. Gaining that belt SHOULD mark a critical stage in your own development - from now on, improving your skill, understanding and capability lies more with yourself rather than with any teacher. That's why the new beginning. It's about how you learn to strike faster, stronger; develop a range of defenses/offenses suited to your own limitations and capabilities; to understand what works for you and what doesn't and how you make something work.
    • Joerg Hickman
      Very well put.
  • Church-boi teekay
    True Jesse-sensei... I have been encouraged and motivated.. I grade to my shodan next year :) thank you
  • You speak the truth, Jesse-sensei.Black belts still make mistakes and battle personal issues...but hopefully, they're not always the SAME mistakes and SAME issues!
  • BF
    The closing comments remind me of the first time I witnessed someone becoming a shodan (I was a 7th kyu then; I'm a 3rd kyu now): Immediately after being congratulated by our sensei he was told: "Now the trainig really begins!"Happy new year everyone!
  • I think it is a good reference point for cross trainers. By that I mean if you have cross trained in another style enough to get a black belt you may realize it is time to return to your main style. Or not. I think the biggest myth is that black belts are invincible. Another one is that getting it is NOT important. It may be the beginning, sure, but it is still an important step. You cannot walk a road until you step on it.
  • Bryan Alstat
    Great article. It only took me six years to learn that the belts (Kyu and Dans) are only mile posts on the road to knowledge. Keep practicing and the next time someone in the Dojo is in awe of your Black Belt just take it off - hold in your hands and yell sick em!. The day my belt kicks someones tail isthe day I stop training.
  • Couldn't agree with you more Jesse. I was reminded of this just a few days ago when an acquaintance, on learning I had a black belt, asked a question I have been getting on and off for twenty years. "Did you have to register your hands as deadly weapons with the FBI?" The origins of that myth deserve an article too and, if anyone knows where this idea originated, I would love to hear it. Happy 2014!
    • Lil John
      The origins of the myth about registering your hands as lethal weapons started after WWII I believe. U.S. military personnel stationed in japan were interested in martial arts and would leave the base in search of training. The sensei in the dojos would use the American's as demonstration persons while showing techniques etc. These individuals would return to base beaten and injured and needing medical treatment. The bases started to require the American students who were studying to register with base and list the school they were attending. This help to keep the abuse of the service men in check as the military would hold the dojos accountable or make them off limits. As the trained servicemen returned to the states then the stories of them having to be registered started circulating and the myth of having their hands registered as lethal weapons came into being. This is the way it was relayed to me by my Sifu.
  • Sean
    "What a… Relief! Now you can finally stop focusing on “that belt”. And start focusing on yourself."This is absolutely fantastic! It's sooo true. For years I was "obsessed" with that stupid belt and learning all the fancy stuff required for it. Since I have it I've felt so much more relaxed. Now I spend an our and a half doing straight punches or palm heal strikes to feel my ki better. I didn't really have the patience for that before, where it was all about the next kata which had new cool and mystical moves lol
  • Lucas
    My Sensei told me from day one... Shodan is considered "advanced beginner" . I still think it is an achievement to reach Shodan because it means that my Sensei looks at me as "advancing" past "kindergarten" .... So to speak.But let me ask a question: Is it common practice to require full knowledge of hiragana as well as katakana kanji and their meanings before black belt is acquired? (Among other things) The higher ranking teachers from my area feel that one should not only know the physical aspect but the mental as well. So along with this requirement is a list of martial arts books they require you to read.I think it is great to understand what each stroke means. It shows not only an understanding of what you are doing but why and how! Granted I am young in the world of martial arts with only 2-3 years.... So that is why I ask the question.
  • Jason Ng
    Even when your black belt becomes white again you realise you still don't know enough. Never stop learning, stay humble.Happy New Year.
  • Joël
    Getting a Black Belt is a major milestone. But it's just a milestone, not the final destination. When you reach that milestone, stop for a picnic, reflect on all that you accomplished since you started your journey, then get back on the road.If we compare ourselves to yesterday, no we won't notice much difference. But if we compare ourselves to when we first started karate, then we should see significant changes. No, we're not perfect, we still need to work at our karate, and so we keep practising.
  • Donald Miskel
    Okay so now you tell me this after I've devoted over five decades to studying the martial arts. Thought I had arrived. I am now permanently traumatized. P.T.H.D. You'll be hearing from my lawyer. Dr. Donn Miskel
  • Ian
    The belt represents someone's expert opinion of your progress in karate ... probably several expert opinions, since most (all?) black belts are awarded by a panel of senior senseis.So it ain't "nothing".But it's not a "target" to be achieved (and then the foot taken off the gas in celebration). Think of it like those elevation lines on topographical maps. You know, every hundred feed above sea level the cartographer draws a line, and every thousand feet he draws a big, thick line. But when you climb the mountain, you don't see the lines actually drawn on the mountain: they don't really exist. You spend most of your time looking directly in front of you to get good footing or hand-holds when it gets steep; you glance farther ahead to see what's coming next, and to see if you can see what might be the summit of the mountain; you glance behind you to see how far you have come.
  • Igors
    Happy New Year all Belts! All said in this is true in case your Dojo instructor is spiritually week or is working only for money. Then instructor do using this lie to keep you in his Dojo, to involve you in trainings and don't care what happens with you in future. Many students, blaze of glory, long line of strips on the his Belt. If Dojo instructor is strong enough to lose a half of his students and to tell them the truth in the first of trainings he must say you that martial Arts is the Way chosen by you and Shodan is only first of the milestones on this Way. Osu!
  • love what you've done with the website and nice article P.S I'll be a black belt next year
  • AlexM
    It is definitely true that shodan isn't the be-all end-all. But there is danger in false modesty or, worse, pointless modesty. The expression "the more you learn, the more you realize that there is left to learn" is true, but saying "the more I learn, the more I realize I know nothing" is dangerous and untrue.Those of you that have been practicing for years and decades and such, do in fact possess knowledge. Knowledge that may be worth sharing - and in order to even begin taking the step to the teaching/sharing stage, you have to recognize that your knowledge is worth sharing. And even if your intentions are not related to sharing and teaching - you have amassed a wealth of knowledge, certainly relative to where you were when you started out.The danger of traditional martial arts is that it is really easy to mistake denigration of one's accomplishments as "humble and open". Not standing up for your own views on martial topics in the face of seniors and others becomes "serene". If you have your belt, be proud. Be proud and keep on keeping on in your pursuits. You've earned it. Sure. you're not Bruce Lee, but you know what? Not even Bruce Lee was "Bruce Lee".
    • Joerg Hickman
      Well put.
  • Nice article. I'll keep this in mind when I become a black belt P.S Listen to this if you couldn't celebrate new year with a bang http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuuypjzzqRw
  • Sid
    I got my Sho-dan black belt two days ago at our award ceremony. My Sensei said exactly those words - a 1st Dan is not the end , it is the beginning, like passing high school but you need to go to college, study further, explore more.
  • Hi! I'm glad while reading this article and the comments. My sensei always told me that when he got his black belt he thought he was invincible and later, while training with more traditional judokas, focused in the study of the art, he realised he was ignorant and start almost from zero. I knew some of his masters and all of them say the same thing: you start to understand how new you are to art once you get to black belt. Keep with these awesome work Jesse!
  • Naomi
    This article made so much sense to me, because everyone in my dojo sees black belt as some sort of legend. For Pete's sake! It's a piece of black cloth! My Sensei is always telling me that the black belt is a simple rank.
  • KarateMama
    My daughter and I have both seen far more of the human side of many Senseis since she started training a few months ago. They do worry about injury, they do get discouraged, and yes, sometimes they need us to say something affirming and positive (and they're tickled pink when it's words they themselves have used). At the very least, they need us to thank them often.
  • Ras C
    a timely article for me, that really highlights the truth of earning a black belt: now you have the basics, so it's really time to learn! I see the black belt much like the bachelors degree in that you are definitely competent and ready to de,ve deeper into the field. Great post.
  • Donald Miskel
    I started training in the martial arts in 1957. Still fairly active. I head an international organization and I do a little teaching. Most of my efforts these days is in study and research and writing the occasional article. I've seen a lot of transition in the arts in my fifty seven years of involvement. Let me illustrate just how old I am. I remember when it took years to earn a black belt if you were able to do so. In those days time in grade didn't particularly translate into a black belt. Few made the cut. Also in those days we knew little of nothing about degrees in kyu or dan rank. You were either a white belt, a brown belt or a black belt. You became a senior black belt because of years and time in grade not because of stripes on a belt. I saw that begin to happen in the mid sixties.
  • Jay Torres
    Nice article.
  • Anthony
    This is exactly how I felt the day after receiving my black belt! Wow Glad to see I am not alone :)
  • peter swallow
    Hi Jesse The kanji for "Sho" is the same as "Hajime" So the actual reading of Sho-dan is beginning level.
    • Exactly, Peter-san. And as you know, there are many readings when it comes to Nihongo.
  • Robert Traylor
    Well said Jesse san,only a few nights ago, one of our students said to me, "for a Black Belt, you aren't half keift ( stupid ) ". I was disappointed with this remark from a rather young and inexperienced junior grade, however, it reminded me that ~I am still learning and often make mistakes in training and teaching. I had in fact made some daft mistakes, for whatever reason. However, when I got home and had time to reflect I though that she was lucky that I was not fully engaged in the moment with her. As any Black belt worth his or her salt would know. I'm not always on " point " but, when I am. look out.
  • rEEt
    “One becomes a beginner after one thousand days of training and an expert after ten thousand days of practice.” -Sosai Masutatsu Oyama.After becoming a black belt you truly understand what he meant OSU!!!
  • garry firth
    it is the same with the Royal marine green beret ,its the beginning
  • Frank Harvey
    Great article and true. Started when I was 46 and now past 60. Still learning and still on the journey to enlightenment. Oss.
  • I have been in the martial arts for 34 years and still consider myself a beginner because every day I learn something new. Maybe an advanced beginner but still a beginner. A true black belt is not around your waist but in your heart, mind and spirit. I do not teach for profit but rather to help my shodans grow in a balanced way. One should not walk around with a head full of just destructive knowledge but should also have healing knowledge to be balanced.
  • Extremely well said.I've been practicing martial arts half my life (and teaching for 8+ years) and I think the perceivable difference comes when you realize you are not 'less vulnerable' or invulnerable but in fact far more vulnerable and somewhat fragile then you ever realized, that's when you really begin to chase the higher levels of training that most people fail to train for (well, in my experience).I remember it was originally a feeling of trying to reach a skill level that would help me to not feel that way but instead it's become an acceptance of that feeling, which I think really allows you to understand your 'game' in any art (standup, grappling, whatever).The beauty of progression I think is that even after years of feeling on top of your game a and having strong history of dominance - a beginner can come in to your class and put you in a position where you start to think "how the hell am I going to escape this?".I think this is a point when you start to become humble and realize you're just as human as everyone else. I think this is what makes us better people than we once were and the true value of a 'black belt' status. (one aspect anyway :) )
  • Mark
    Having earned my black belt in Tae Kwon Do I can honestly say that it is a huge achievement in a martial artists life. By the time you have earned your black belt you have overcome many obstacles. It's not just time invested, but hard work, discipline, overcoming injuries, bravery to fight other trained fighters, and the willingness to give back to the discipline that has helped shape the individual. Of course there are costs involved as everything, however the fundraising and team building that comes along with being a part of a training facility is also a part of it all. I can appreciate your objective view of the black belt, I just don't agree with it. Peace, Mark
  • bill watts
    When I was 14 I was five feet 8 inches tall and weight of 85kg. I was white belt judo. I fought black belt 20yres old 6 feet and 65kg. My first time to fight and I beat him.
  • I love this! I am testing for my first degree black belt in taekwondo on Saturday, and this is a good reminder to stay humble and stay relaxed. I didn't even get back into taekwondo (I did it as a kid) to get a black belt. I just wanted to get out of the house and do something good for myself. The confidence and happiness I've gained will be with me forever, no matter what rank I am.I'll be ready to get back to class as usual and help my fellow students. The journey never ends.
  • Jesse-San, I so FRIGGIN LOVE YOU!!!!The Black belt myth.... yeah it is everything you said and prolly a lot more as well :) It is just a FRIGGIN BELT!!! it is NOT imbued with Super Powers (None I have noticed so far at least, HEY a guy can at least dream cant he :D)Then again, My sensei said it real nice: Once you get your Shodan, you just managed to pass your drivers licence, you will be a bigger danger to your self then any one else around you....KEEP PRACTICING! :D
  • Mansoor
    Right now I'm 3kuy and I realized the exact same thing. Black belt is just the beginning of my karate journey. And after becoming black belt my next target would be to make that belt white. And in reality belt doesn't matter it's who you really are. I've seen slacked black belts. I had sparring with black belts when i was green. So real belt should be "seek the perfection in karate"
  • Caz
    Being a 1st kyu for over two and a half years, upon five years of training before that, I have recently failed my second shodan pre-grading. This was something of a blow as I had been working hard for the test. The advice given afterwards was to keep working.With another failure on my hands I did some serious soul searching. I asked my sensei if he would be willing to allow me to continue to train in the dojo if I had made up my mind never to take the shodan exam, but on the premise that I would simply continue to train with the aim to improve.His response was to encourage me to continue to aim for the black belt, but no time scale has been attached to this. I feel that I am supposed to want something, yet not want it at the same time.Some people may not be cut out for shodan, and I may well be one of those people. My motivation to grade has hit an all time low. I feel embarrassed when people I know outside of karate ask me if I have made the black belt yet. When people, who were white belts when I was a brown belt, achieve their brown belt, it is hard to celebrate their success when I cannot help but measure it against my own failure.I will be training as usual tonight, but I am attending out of loyalty.Don't ever assume that you will achieve shodan. I always assumed I would get there one day, and that hard work and dedication would take me to that place, but I have had revise that assumption.
    • I was a brown belt 35 years ago. Left karate and because my son got involved, I started training again at 46 yr age. I started from orange belt and slowly got my black belt 4 yrs later. In my opinion karate has change. It's more of a sport today. In the 80"s you needed over 5 yrs to get your black. Today people expect it for turning up to train. Keep on training and do not give up.
    • Ariel Olivera
      Did You get your black belt?
  • Ab
    I have to wait a freakin 6 months on the belt before black now. I've already waited 6 months which sucks. It's because of the new grading syllabus. We changed it and by the time it come i would have been on the same belt for a year!!! No matter what this article says I want my black belt NOW.
    • Dan
      Don’t mean to pee on your training parade. But there are no “ training syllabus in old school martial arts. You will be tested and advanced when your ( siefu, sensei, kru, ajarn etc etc., ( teacher ) has seen the skill and dedication he / she deems adequate to advance you to the next level. Keeping in mind, whatever belt you hold gives you a certain position and respect amongst your peers. ( a true honour ) I personally spent 3 years alone as a brown belt in the discipline of full contact kickboxing. I come from an “ old school martial arts club” this club has both a karate element and a kickboxing, Muay Thai element. In the 35 years history of the club there has been many karate blackbelts and less than a handful of kickboxing blackbelts. No difference in the dedication level. The difference in my opinion is the contact level. Full power, full contact is very hard on the body and the mind...not many people make it to true black for one of those two reasons. I was “invited” to test for my black! This is not a rite! Or something you pay for. It is a privilege!! That is earned through not only demonstration of skill but sacrifice, effective teaching hours and sheer dedication to your chosen art. If it’s in your heart, you will become what your heart already is......... There is a tattered old darkened small piece of paper 3” by 5” on the wall of my Dojo that broke it down step by step....1 in 10,000 people that sign up proudly earn a true black belt. Which by the way...means you have been accepted to now train hard and truly learn your art....... at this level...it is who you are...not what you do. Just my humble opinion...thanks
  • Leo
    Great post Jesse-sensei! Very inspirational and motivational. I just have a question about a personal feeling on this topic, why even when I've chosen to practice by myself just to improve my techniques and increase my knowledge on martial arts (not only karate) sometimes I have the need to get my own "black belt" as I don't know, kind of recognition, even when it might come from a Mac Dojo? I meant, I practice only for me, not shows, not competitions, no ranks, just me, but still sometime need this black belt.PS: don't worry, I won't go to MacDojo!
  • Aung saw moen
    When I wore my black belt and i was really going through depression as my batch mates wasn't cooperating with me and bully me indirectly , I cried at home and my sister says "Here your journey starts now of Karate" ..Your article reminds me again of her word Sensei Jesse Oss
  • Tom
    Brilliant my friend. You could expound a book from this.
  • Random Taekwondo 2nd dan
    I can relate but also I had idea what the terms meant,I do taekwondoya
  • Judith
    I have my black belt since some years now, and I still suffer from depression and in rare cases I have anxiety. Those miths arround the black belt have made it more difficult for me to seek the help I needed, but on the other hand, the discipline I acquired in my karate training have given me a better chance to get better.
  • Mr.knowitall
    Becoming the black belt is the start of you journey, getting the black belt shows where in the journey you are so your peers can help you and you can help your peers.
  • Mr.knowitall
    Becoming a black belt means you have the agility to teach others and learn more advanced things
  • Peter Gonzalez
    I recently moved from California to Texas and found out I had to register myself as a black belt in kempo. I had no idea this was neccessary if you were already registered with the department of justice in another state. Also i'm told that I must 1st disclose this to the person I am about to defend myself against, and must carry my registration card with me and present this to any law enforcement afterwards. Really? Maybe I should just shoot 1st instead since I have a liscense to carry. What do you think?
  • Michael
    Hi Jesse, first of all i want to say i enjoy your videos on YouTube. I think what you wrote should be told to all students. And i try to talk to my students about perspective in life, given how many challenges people may face, getting this belt is rearlly not that important. One should have goals, looking after family being the most important one. Shodan is a start that many don’t advance from (in rank) I think it has to do with mind and heart in the end. Osu.

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