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Black belt


A chief is a seaman that never quit!

The Navy is run by chief petty officers. They are highly regarded and respected by both enlisted and officers. When a recruit enters the Navy, the first person he or she will probably deal with is a chief. Anywhere in the Navy, when sailors have a question, they are told to "Ask the chief!" For these reasons, most sailors aspire to become a chief someday.

A black belt is a white belt that never quit!

The martial arts are run by black belts. They are highly regarded and respected by all martial artists. When potential students enter a martial arts school, they immediately notice the black belts. When students have a question, they are told to "Ask the black belt!" For these reasons, most students aspire to become a black belt someday.

What are black belts?

Black belts exemplify the virtues of the martial arts and should be emulated by students. Black belts should be respected and should earn respect. Black belts are martial artists, but they are also leaders and teachers, whether they are aware of it or not.
motions with rather short intervals between them, so they have a way to check on their progress and inspire themselves. Black belts have many months or even years between promotions, so they have no easy way to judge their progress; they must use self-motivation and dedication to the art for inspiration.

Black belts are a repository of martial arts history and techniques. They know why and how their martial art was developed, why and how its concepts were developed, how it evolved over the years, where the art is now, and where it’s headed. They understand what techniques are to be used for, how they are to be performed, why they are performed in a certain way, and why they are taught in a certain way.

Students watch black belts perform techniques to learn the proper way to perform techniques. If you are a black belt, you must always perform techniques properly, no matter how tired you may be. Black belts should never just go through the motions of performing a technique or pattern; they must always execute techniques and patterns with precision, power, and enthusiasm. If you are not willing to do your best in every class, either return the black belt or don’t come to class.

Students emulate black belts. They do not separate the black belt from the person, so, if they see a black belt outside the school, they see the person as a black belt, not as a regular person. Many times, black belts are noticed and watched by students outside the school without being aware they are being watched. This means black belts must exemplify the virtues of their martial arts at all times. Black belts must practice what they preach, at all times, inside or outside the school. One false move at an unsuspected moment that is witnessed by a student may negatively affect the student's martial arts career and even his or her life.

During his trial in 399 BC for being disrespectful by not keeping his opinions to himself, the Greek philosopher Socrates said he led "an examined life, "that everything he said or did was scrutinized because of his position in society. However, Socrates also said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Being a black belt means you will be living an examined life, but, if you are up to the challenge, it will be worthwhile. Being a black belt is an awesome responsibility; if you are not ready to accept the responsibility, do not accept or keep the black belt.

Significance of a black belt

A great public misconception is that all black belt holders are experts. This is understandable since the public's knowledge of the martial arts comes mostly from motion pictures and television. This is compounded by the fact that some novice black belt holders advertise themselves as experts, and, eventually, even convince themselves they are experts.

A first-degree black belt is only the beginning of another stage in the training of a martial arts student. Until this point, the student has merely been building a foundation. It will be many years before the final structure is completed. The job of building the structure lies ahead, but, if a firm foundation has been laid, the building process will be less difficult.

A diligent student may attain first-degree black belt in about 2-3 years of continuous training. This is the equivalent of an associate of arts college degree. Much more training and many more rank promotions are required before reaching the Ph.D. level (master ranks) and being considered an authority on the martial art.

From my experience, if a student diligently trains 2 to 3 times a week, it will take about 4 years before it all comes together, and the student understands what the martial arts are about. At that point, the students' techniques will be quick, powerful, and precise, a proper understanding of patterns will have occurred, and the student's sparring will be reflexive, not planned. At this point, when the student spars, he or she will be doing very little. Instead, he or she will be at the right place at the right time, be able to read opponents' intentions, and will only attack openings when they occur or are created.

All these should be attributes of a first-degree black belt, but regrettably, by the time these things occur, the student is usually a second-degree black belt or higher. This means that the student was not ready to be a black belt when promoted to a first-degree black belt. It is a shame, but that is how the martial arts have evolved. If things keep evolving this way, students will not be achieving these black belt attributes until third degree or higher.


Kong is a Korean term for the merit or credit you gain from your service and achievements.

In the Navy, if two deserving sailors were being considered for promotion, their records would be searched for their achievements. The one with the most awards and achievements would probably get the promotion.

In some martial arts schools and organizations promotions, especially to the senior color belt and black belt levels, are awarded not for just attendance and physical ability, but also for kong. Without kong, a student should never be promoted to black belt. To build kong, a student must show leadership abilities, set an example as to what a true black belt should be, volunteer for school projects, do what needs to be done without being told, be available to junior students when they need assistance (all the time, not just during class), be a mentor to junior students, work within his or her community to make it a better place for all to live, etc. When any problem arises, people should say "I will go to her; she is a black belt. She knows what to do and will help me."

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a black belt may be compared to a U.S. Navy chief. Being selected to be a chief petty officer is a great accomplishment that puts the person into a unique fraternal order of other chief petty officers. As a chief, your every action will be scrutinized by the lesser ranks, so chiefs must constantly set an example for them to follow. A chief is considered an expert in his or her job field. With many years of dedicated effort, a chief may earn the coveted highest rank of master chief petty officer.

Black belts are also members of a fraternal order and must set the example for lower belts. With years of hard work and study, a novice black belt may one day be considered an expert, but regrettably, many novices harbor the misconception that they are experts and thus will remain novices forever.

Man of Tao

In the parable of A Man of Tao (Do) and a Little Man, a student asked, "What is the difference between a man of Tao and a little man?"The sensei replies:
"When the little man receives his first-degree black belt, he can hardly wait to run home and shout at the top of his voice to tell everyone. Upon receiving his second-degree black belt, he will climb to the rooftops and shout to the people. Upon receiving his third-degree black belt, he will jump in his automobile and parade through town blowing the horn, telling everyone."
The sensei continues, "However, when a man of Tao receives his first-degree black belt, he will bow his head in gratitude. Upon receiving his second-degree black belt, he will bow his head and his shoulders. Upon receiving his third-degree black belt, he will bow at the waist and quietly walk alongside the wall so that people will not see him or notice him." 

How long to earn a black belt?

How long does it take to earn a black belt? The answer is illustrated in the parable of the boy and the taekwondo master.
A young boy traveled across Korea to the school of a famous master. When he arrived at the school, he was given an audience by the master.
"What do you wish from me?" the master asked.
"I wish to be your student and become a black belt. How long must I study?" the boy replied.
'"At least 10 years." the master answered.
"Ten years!" the boy exclaimed. "What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"
"Twenty years!" replied the master.
"Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?" asked the boy.
"Thirty years!" was the master's reply.
"Why is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.
The master answered, "The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way."


Black belts are ranked in degrees from first degree to ninth or tenth degree. Time in rank, time in the art, and skill requirements for earning each degree vary within the scores of martial art organizations. One organization may require more to earn a first degree than another organization requires for its higher degrees.

Black belt degrees are practically meaningless outside the organization that awarded them. A black belt within an organization is similar to being a star football player at your high school. At your school, you are a star with all the prestige and rewards that come with the designation. However, at other high schools, you are considered just another student; and, once you graduate, you are considered just another person, one that played football, but otherwise, nothing special. You may brag about your high school football accomplishments and think people from other schools care about all this, but they do not. Likewise, within your martial art organization you may be a highly respected black belt, but, outside your organization, you are just another person claiming to be a black belt.

The following are generic descriptions of the black belt degrees. The responsibilities, accountability, and skill requirements of each will differ among martial art organizations.
  • First-degree. First-degree black belts are rookie black belts. They start out feeling proud and maybe a bit boastful, but they quickly learn that with the rank comes greater responsibilities and accountability. Behaviors and poor skills that may have been tolerated at the color belt levels are no longer accepted. Many students consider this end of their journey; they have reached their goal, so they stop training and move on to other interests. Some students may be selected to begin training to become instructors and be allowed to assist instructors in classes.
  • Second-degree. Second-degree black belts lose their rookie status and begin to become real black belts. They have crossed the “attain the black belt” hump and are now on a new journey.
  • Third-degree. Third-degree black belts begin to become leaders in the school and find that first and second-degree black belts look to them for guidance and directions. They begin to solidify their position in the school and become vital assets to the head instructor.
  • Fourth-degree. Fourth-degree black belts are permitted to teach lower rank black belts. They assist the head instructor in regional seminars, demonstrations, and other public functions at which the school and the art are represented. Their technical expertise should be noticeably above that of junior black belts, particularly in terms of speed, power, timing, and perfection of technique.
  • Fifth-degree. Fifth-degree black belts begin to teach the art beyond the realm of the school. They begin to develop national responsibilities within their organization. 
  • Sixth-degree. Sixth degree is usually when black belts enter the master levels; they are considered subject matter experts. After this point, their growth is within the leadership and management of the organization. They begin to formulate national concepts and principles within their organization. 
  • Seventh-degree. As masters, seventh-degree black belts can ascertain and develop changes in the national teaching curriculum to tailor it to persons, cultures, and agendas. They begin to teach and spread the art internationally. 
  • Eighth-degree. As masters, eighth-degree black belts are senior black belts that are admired as true masters of the art.
  • Ninth-degree. Ninth degree black belts are masters who have served a lifetime of dedication to the art. Their years of sacrifice and service to the art have made them an integral part of the art itself; they have internalized the art until they have become a part of it. They are a part of the senior leadership of the organization.
  • Tenth-degree. Tenth-degree black belt is sometimes awarded to the founder of a martial art or the head of the organization. Within an organization, there is usually only one active tenth degree; there may be others who are inactive. The rank is so respected by peers and students that even a casual statement by a tenth degree may affect the course of the art and the organization for years to come.


A black belt was once an awesome status. It not only signified a lifetime devoted to hard training and perfection of technique and character, it also carried with it an awesome responsibly.
If a person is unwilling or unable to perform as a black belt or to accept and uphold the awesome responsibilities of a black belt, then the person should neither be awarded a black belt, accept the black belt, or be allowed to keep the black belt.

All certificates or diplomas that are awarded for achievement have certain requirements that must be met before they may be awarded. If you cannot meet the requirements, then you do not get the award. You may not have attained the skills needed to meet the requirements, you may not be old enough or too old to meet the requirements, or you may not be mentally, physically, or emotionally able to meet the requirements. For an award to retain its prominence in society, it must enforce its requirements strictly. Any deviation from the requirements will weaken the status of the award.

Giving the award just because the people tried very hard to meet its requirements, but, due to their age or mental, physical, and emotional abilities they could not meet the requirements, or giving the award as honorary award, lessens the status of the award, until at some point, it becomes meaningless This is true of black belt requirements and the black belt’s status.

Although I sing all the time, I still cannot sing. No matter how much I sing, no one would ever consider me a singer. Should I be considered singer just because I try so hard to be a singer? Should a person be awarded a black belt just because he or she tries so hard to become one?

Children are too young to meet all the mental, physical, and emotional requirements of a black belt and to accept all the responsibilities of a black belt. As a society, we have set 18 years of age as the legal age of adulthood, the age at which a person has the maturity make adult decisions. This should also be the minimum age for a black belt.

Some people, due to their mental, physical, and emotional abilities cannot meet all the requirements of a black belt or carry out all the responsibilities of a black belt. These people should not be awarded a black belt

At some point, a person is too old to meet all the physical requirements of a black belt and to carry out all the responsibilities of a black belt. This point is different for each person, depending on their mental, physical, and emotional status. When this point is reached, the person should not be awarded a black belt.

As a young sailor, I wanted to be a chief. When I could meet all the requirements of a chief, I became a chief. Now that I am older and retired from the Navy, I am a retired chief. When I was a child, I wanted to be a black belt when I grew up. As an adult, I became a black belt. At some point in life, just as I now am a retired Navy chief, I will have to say that I am a retired or inactive black belt. This is the progression of life.

At some point, a person is too old to maintain all the physical requirements of a black belt. This point is different for each person, depending on their mental, physical, and emotional status. What happens now? This is a touchy subject for many people. Once you earn a college degree in say, accounting, you are always a college graduate, even if you have never worked in accounting and have basically forgotten all you learned about accounting. So, it may be said that “Once a black belt, always a black belt.” However, since a black belt may be awarded by any organization, school, or instructor who wants to award one, and since black belts, along with a valid appearing authentication, may be purchased on the Internet, any black belt is only worth the reputation of the person who claims to be a black belt.

Once a person cannot behave as a black belt, whether the person is 20 years of age or 80, he or she should no longer be considered a black belt. An older black belt may no longer able to physically perform as a black belt, but still be able to behave as a black belt, have the integrity of a black belt, and perform all the other duties of a black belt, such as pass their martial art down to other generations, help make their martial art known around the world, or act as the wise patriarch or matriarch of the art.

Nothing is absolute

A black belt should be all the above-stated things, but that is not always the case. There are lawyers, doctors, teachers, clergy, etc. who are liars, frauds, and criminals and there are black belts who are liars, frauds, and criminals. This is nothing new, it has been this way for centuries, but it seems more prevalent today. Attaining a black belt is still a lofty dream but its prestige has been diminished by liars, frauds, and criminals, by its lowered standards, and by its being awarded to anyone who pays and stays in a school.

Example of a bad black belt

Reference: 6/7/2001 article by Noel S. Brady, reporter for East-Journal in Washington State.

A martial arts master yesterday struck a plea bargain with prosecutors and admitted to wielding a samurai sword that caused the death of a Bellevue businessman. Hui Son Choe, 40, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for the death of 37-year-old Ki Gol Lee, which occurred after an argument between the two men turned violent. King County Prosecutor's spokesman Dan Donohoe said the state will recommend a judge sentence Lee to 9½ years in prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 29.

At the time of the April 2000 melee, Choe lived in Spanaway and ran a martial arts school in Federal Way. A seventh-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Choe also was well respected as a master and innovator of Hap Ki Do, a lesser-known martial art about which he has written a book. A Korean immigrant who helped other Koreans secure home and business loans, Lee showed up at Choe's dojo and confronted him in a parking lot there, prosecutors say. Witnesses told police the two began arguing, but a fight broke out after Choe rushed Lee with a drawn samurai sword. The fight ended after Lee sustained a 2½-foot-long gash to his inner right thigh, severing his femoral artery. He died early the next morning at Harborview Medical Center.

Detectives followed a trail of blood into Choe's school. Inside, they found a bloody samurai sword and blood-spattered clothing that matched witnesses' descriptions of the sword fighter. They later arrested Choe at his Spanaway home. Donohoe said it is still unclear what the two men were arguing about. Prosecutors originally charged Choe with second-degree murder, but that charge was reduced for lack of evidence.


Being a black belt is like being considered a “good” person. You are considered a good person for only as long as you do good.

In 2007, a Winston-Salem, NC,  television station had a young up-and-coming reporter, Tolly Carr, working for them. He appeared to be a clear-cut all-American guy who had a bright future ahead of him in broadcasting. Then late one night, after drinking too much, he drove his pickup truck around a barricade on a street that was closed for repairs. After reaching 50 mph on a 35 mph street, he lost control of the truck, jumped the curb, jumped a small wall, and careered into a young man getting ready to enter his home, killing the man.

From the very start, Carr was repentant. He refused bail and accepted without argument anything that the justice system did to him. At trial, he pleaded guilty and said he would accept any sentence awarded him without appeal.

Even though his whole life was in shambles, he said he was wrong, he had caused a man to die, and he accepted full responsibility for the death. Here is a good man who made a terrible decision to drive one night, but who is willing to do the honorable thing and take his punishment.

How many of today's black belts do you think would to the honorable thing in this case, and how many do you think would try to use every legal, or even illegal, loophole possible to avoid taking responsibility for their bad decisions?

Instead of strengthening, the status of the black belt has been weakening for decades. It is now just something you get by just paying and staying in the martial arts. If we, as black belts, do not tighten black belt requirements and enforce them, the weakening will continue until the status of the black belt will be meaningless.

  • Tatum, L. (1999). The Qualities and Characteristics of Rank. [Online]. Link Unavailable.
  • Tobin, R. (1994). Insights for Instructors. Sixth Dan Thesis. December 1994. 

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