Tag Archives: martial art belt

Small Steps to a Big Black Belt

Newsletter 935

Problems with Promoting People to Black Belt

Just to warn you,
there is a lot of meandering this newsletter,
so get your head ready
to turn left or right
on a whim or a blink.

I was talking with another instructor,
and he told me how he got black belt.
He spent five years at the belt below black belt.
He was in his mid thirties,
and he finally went up to the head instructor and said,
‘Promote me,
I’m not getting better,
I’m just getting older.’

Just getting older.
How grim.
Which brings us to the point of it all.

In the beginning,
a person was promoted when he finished
the requirements necessary to promotion.

Chuck Norris did it in a year and a half.
Mike Stone did it in 7 months.
Joe Lewis earned THREE black belts in a year.

they are superstars,
but why can’t we finish our requirements and get promoted?

It was Kenpo that established the standard,
they introduced the famous ‘car contracts,’
which were contracts designed by an Arthur Murray dance instructor.
Kenpo spread out the material
so the contract would last four years,
keep the student paying tuition for four years.
Survival, man.
And within a couple of years
all systems of martial arts lasted four years.

Then we have people like my friend,
who are kept at a belt level,
brown or purple,
or whatever,
for five years plus,
until they finally confront their instructor
and demand to be promoted.

let me digress a moment,
I knew a fellow,
it was kenpo,
who set up a program for his students
to reach black belt in…17 years.

That’s right.
His students were signing up for
What’s funny is that,
at the time,
he had 12 years experience.
That’s right,
he had never completed his own system.
But he was demanding students do…what he hadn’t.
Can somebody spell ‘crazy’ for me?

back to the issue at hand,
when should a person be promoted?
When he shows competence at the level he is at.
If he is required to do a form,
a certain set of techniques,
he must show that he understands
the form and the techniques…
and can do them.

So how long does it take to become competent?
If your system is properly arranged,
3 – 6 months per belt.
If your system is matrixed
1 – 3 months per belt.

And some individuals can go faster.

The test is simple.
If you are doing a form…
do you understand what the moves mean?
Can you take a move and apply it?
Without thinking?
To anybody?

You don’t need Bruce Lee’s speed.
You don’t need to pluck arrows out of the air.
You just need to know what something means,
and show that you can do it.

It’s like a plumber.
He knows what length to cut the pipe,
how to connect the pipe.
And that’s it.
for one level.
No mysterious standards,
just simple level
after simple level.

I remember somebody telling me
to sail a boat they needed to take a course,
read a 500 page book,
take a test,
and hope they remembered enough to pass.

But I was told that there is a rudder,
and a sail.
Two moving parts…plus the wind.
500 pages and a test to learn how to point the rudder
away from your destination,
and fill the sail with wind.

My ultimate instruction for karate is…
don’t get hit…hit the other person.
it is sadly lacking,
but once the person fills his sails
you can tell him about currents.
And once the person is looking at a fist in his face,
you can tell him about blocking.

with all these sad understatements,
let’s talk about what you are really looking for.

You are looking for control.
Not whether a person can remember a pattern,
or a series of techniques,
but whether he can control his body.

Is he falling over…
I like to call this falling off the floor…
because his stance isn’t being used to sink his weight?

Is his butt wiggling because
he is putting power in his butt instead of his fist?

Is he out of breath because
he isn’t breathing properly?

Do his blocks collapse under impact?

These are the simple questions I ask,
and I ask them of ALL belts.
No hidden standards.

a white belt is sloppy,
and a black belt is snappy,
and in-between there are gradient steps,
never too big for the student,
never so small.
Just a staircase of simple steps
leading to more and more body control.

I once observed that white belts and black belts,
in a class,
were doing the same things.
The black belt just looked better at it,
didn’t get out of breath,
and so on.

Nothing mysterious,
no hidden tricks.
Just…a slow climb to competence.

let me make some points.
These are the points I usually lose readers at,
they read this stuff,
disagree so loudly,
that they immediately cancel the newsletter.

There was a rumor,
once upon a time,
that a student had to fight,
100 other black belts
to earn his black belt.

This was a rumor taken from Kyoshinkai,
where they have a 100 man kumite.
Nobody ever defeats all the 100 men,
in fact,
by the time they are in the last 50,
they are pretty badly bruised and beaten.
By the time they reach the last 10,
they are usually getting beaten pretty regularly.
But the question is…do they finish?
Or do they quit?
It is a matter of spirit.
Do they have it or not?

Interesting reality behind this rumor.

I have seen schools
where they do demand a brown belt
to defeat black belts before they are promoted.
But there is a severe wrongness to what they are doing.

To beat somebody doesn’t show any degree of competence,
it just means you can beat up people.
And beating up people is not the point of the martial arts,
learning how to be a competent human being is.

when somebody is enrolled in a type of school,
where they are expected to ‘roll’ for four or five years
on a single belt level,
before getting a black belt,
that does not show competence.
It shows endurance,
and a variation on 100 man freestyle,
proving that you can beat somebody up
to qualify for black belt.

But I just told you,
if you are learning how to beat people up
you are not learning martial arts.
you can beat people up with the martial arts,
but the martial arts are really about…competence.
Achieving a skill level.
Not proving that you can ‘take it.’
Or endure.
Or beat people up.

the people i lose?
They are the ones stuck in a belt level for half a dozen years,
they are stuck,
can’t take any perceived criticism,
need to beat those people up,
and quit the newsletter.

The people who need this advice the most
are the ones the most put off by it.


My advice is this:
select a system with standards,
even steps between the belts,
without dominating personalities
demanding you to beat people up.
Find a system where you can see
the small differences between belts.
Where you can see people taking small steps
to make the big leap to black belt.

if you can’t find one,
better learn some matrixing.
Learn how to understand the martial arts,
it will be ten times easier to learn an art then.
Even an art that demands endurance instead of competence.

Here’s the first course on matrixing…

1a Matrix Karate

Have a great work out!


Here’s a link for an article about when I first started doing this book on Kenjutsu.
I intended to finish it quickly, but it’s actually been five years!

New Book About the Samurai Sword is Coming

here is the page on the new book on Matrixing Kenjutsu

Matrixing Kenjutsu