The Black Belt is a famous symbol in martial arts that is often mistaken as the sign of a “master” who has achieved the apex of their combative studies. Of course, anyone who has spent a little time studying martial arts will know that the black belt is just the beginning of study, and in fact, “shodan” means “first level” in Japanese. Still, with many martial arts styles, organizations, and instructors, the black belt may be awarded at just about any skill level, and the symbol is only meaningful within the entity that awarded it. Indeed, a certified black belt can be purchased through an online fast-course, or it can be earned through 8-10 years of arduous study and a grueling hours-long examination. The meaning of the belt on your waist is, as ever, only as good as your capabilities on the floor. Despite the ambiguity, I would like to offer my thoughts on what shodan means to me.
I believe a black belt is a person who has absorbed the basic physical principles of their chosen art. They can move, generate power, and defend themselves effectively within the framework of their martial art. They should be motivated to adapt their training and learn independently, too. A black belt should be a capable martial artist: one who possesses the physical tools of attack and defense, but also possesses the mental tools to create and adapt in the presence of new information. A shodan is someone who has the physical and mental capacity to improve themselves and has the willpower to fulfill that capacity.
For Shotokan students, I look for the ability to apply power from the hips and legs in a wide variety of martial movements. Body shifting, stepping, sliding, rotating, etc. should be coordinated and driven from the body center. Power generation should be based on driving from the floor with the legs and hips, and connecting the torso mass to the technique with very precise timing. The student should have developed instincts for fighting as well; understanding an opponent’s movements relative to your own movements and adjusting appropriately is important for success. The student that is ready for black belt has internalized these physical elements and can perform effectively in many situations without conscious thought.
As part of the preparation for black belt, I also look for a student’s psychological preparation. It is more difficult to measure, but I look for students that can take information from class and synthesize new information or ask deeper questions based on independent thought. I also look for a student’s attitude and awareness in their approach to training. Do they recognize the martial nature of the practice, and are they mentally focused during training? Do they maintain concentration on their practice, or do they drift in and out? Do they make an effort to follow directions and adapt to feedback from the instructor? What is their attitude toward dojo etiquette, punctuality, and attendance? These are a few of the signals I’m looking for that indicate mental preparation for a black belt rank.
Finally, based on my definition of shodan, I believe that black belt training should be internally driven and personal to the trainee. I rarely offer my opinion to black-belt students, visitors, or training partners, because they should be responsible for their own development. I expect them to perceive the lessons offered in class and apply the training without my interjection. If they want my opinion on their karate, I am happy to provide it, but otherwise I will leave them to their training. After black belt, martial arts training should become more and more internalized, and the constant insertion of external feedback acts as a barrier to the internalization process. For me, a shodan candidate should demonstrate the “first level” of internalization and self-improvement.
Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan