Printed in MAWired, Vol. 6, No. 2, Feb. 1999

Black Belt Definitions...

Thomas Howard




How do you define a black belt? How do you classify someone as a "black belt ranking" in a martial art? A friend and I got into this, with myself playing the devil's advocate (a position for which many people apparently think I was born) and after awhile, I realized that I was having troubles with my own definition of what "black belt" means, after shredding my friend's arguments. (I'm kind of nasty that way.)

We then traded positions, to be fair----and I stumbled around a lot.

How do you define a black belt?

Way back when, I used to say that anyone could be a black belt in hapkido. As long as they kept trying, kept working, and didn't give up, anyone who took the classes for enough time would, after 3-5 years, earn a black belt in hapkido.

My thinking at the time went along the lines of "In my opinion, everyone can learn to defend themselves adequately against 95% of the people out there, and hapkido teaches self-defense, so anyone can earn a black belt in hapkido." (1st dan begin my at-the-time perceived level of basic solid self-defense learning.)

I've changed my mind. :/

Several obvious reasons, and a couple of obscure ones. Obviously ones are pretty simple----hapkido may indeed teach self-defense, but that isn't all we teach. The above logic train (if you can dignify it that much) just doesn't hold up under an entire martial art.

So what became my basis for believing everyone could become a black belt in hapkido (as long as they kept trying)?

Not much. I had to seriously re-think it----and attempt to figure out my definition of what "black belt" means, in terms of what is required. (You'll note I'm skipping my other reason, both obvious and obscure---primarily because they show I'm an idiot for not thinking more in the first place.)

Definition of a black belt---for some people, it is easy: If you can do the techniques during your testing, and you've spent the time-in-grade, you are a black belt.

So it is based on what you can do? Let's take taekwondo as an example. TKD has a number of jumping/spinning kicks. I know a 7th dan TKD practitioner who no longer can do those jump-spinning heel kicks. His body simply won't do them anymore. By one definition, he wouldn't be able to pass a 1st dan test. Should he not be a black belt anymore?

Higher rankings have different requirements, you might say. Oh, so the higher ranked you are, the less you have to be able to do?

But they aren't physically capable anymore, one might argue. Ok, so now you don't have to be physically capable, you just have to know how to do the techniques? So, in other words, you can get a black belt from reading books and watching videos. After all, I can read a good reference and be able to tell people how to do techniques that way.

You don't think so? Okay, so what is the criterion?

For some people, it is the ability to compete and win, that gives them the "points" necessary to advance to the next rank. (Pardon me for errors in this thinking, I've never actually practiced an art where this was true, though I hear a number of Taekwondoin and Judoka practice this way.) So, if you can do the techniques, show the kata, teach the art----but can't win, you don't count?

What if you consistently win, using two techniques. (Bill Wallace comes to mind here.) You can't do anything else (okay, now we aren't talking about Mr. Wallace anymore) but those two carry you enough to win a number of tournaments. Are you a black belt?

I don't think so.

So, how do you define a black belt? Is it an attitude? Is it physical technique? Is it a levelheadedness with regards to physical confrontations, with emotional control? Is it an ability to teach?

Is it something that you reach once, and after that, don't have to ever demonstrate again?

There are a number of people out there in wheelchairs who are aikido practitioners, some of whom are black belt ranks. The question is, how so? They obviously can't do the footwork, the distance training, entering techniques (based on their physical movement) etc----a large section of their art, they can't do.

And yet, they are ranked. Was someone feeling sorry for them? I don't think so. I think they worked hard, and earned their rank. Does that mean that rank requirements change depending on the person's abilities? So a blind quadrapalegic can get a black belt somehow? That doesn't seem right. So where is the line drawn? (And no, I don't mean to pick on aikido----I just read an article about handicapped martial artists and self-defense, so this example came to mind.)

There was a blind man (well, actually about 17 years old) who had a black belt in TKD (or karate, I'm not certain). I read about him, and once saw him demonstrate a kata and some breaking techniques. He was Impressive. (And yes, I meant that to be capitalized.) He broke two boards at head height with a jumping back kick, did several kata with power and control, and overall, was very technically oriented.

On the other hand, his sparring was pathetic. He had no distance game (for obvious reasons) and as such, he'd never win a tournament in sparring. Similarly, he'd never be able to teach. A teacher could use him for demonstration, but he could never evaluate students in any meaningful way.

And yet, he is ranked as a black belt. Again, is it based on techniques? Is it not? Based on teaching ability? How about on self-defense ability? How do you define a black belt ?

We all say "black belt" and it means different things to all of us---and yet, there are certain things we expect of a person we call "black belt." But what is it? Our requirements, while obviously different for each art and each style, seem to also change based on who we are dealing with.

And yet, we seem to expect many of the same things from our black belts, even though we can't seem to define what those things should be. And of course, people get in arguments as to what a "proper" black belt can do and be.

I think of my instructor, who doesn't kick above the waist anymore, because his back and an injured knee. I think of that blind kid, who had the best jump spinning crescent that I'd ever seen at the time. I remember a guy from Omaha who visited down here one day who was technically proficient, (quite good actually) but wasn't a black belt, and who had the willpower of an unrepentant heroin addict, and the emotional maturity and control of a 14-year-old on cocaine. I'm not even sure how he stuck with it enough to gain that much physical control---but he certainly had it.

A woman I tested with once would just take you apart with her self-defense techniques. Her locks were sharp and solidly in control, her pressure points were precise and effective, and if you grabbed her and tried to restrain her you'd end up a close, personal acquaintance of the floor, wondering if your body was ever going to work correctly again, IF she ever let you up. And yet, none of her breaks worked during that particular test. Not one. She didn't break her bricks, her hand techniques didn't break the boards, and she bruised her heel badly on her spinning heel break. By some testing criteria, if you don't break (if you even miss one) you don't pass.

Should she be a black belt? By what criterion?

My friend and I finally came up with a tortured, mangled, alterable-but-working definition of a black belt, according to us.

Black belt: Someone who has a thorough, proficient grounding in the basic techniques of an art, such that they can effectively demonstrate and/or teach those techniques. Additionally, someone who has the mental and emotional control to both use those techniques effectively and appropriately in society.

That seems to cover just about everyone I know that I consider to be a black belt, and disqualifies everyone that has some knowledge but whom I do not consider black belt material. (Hey, I can be subjective---this is my definition, after all. :)

That blind man----he may not be able to teach, but he certainly can demonstrate. That wheel-chaired black belt----she may not be able to demonstrate footwork, but of all people she understands the concept of effective distance, and can teach it. That woman who couldn't break that day----I've seen her break before, and I'm sure she'll be able to do it again. She is a wonderful teacher, and an excellent practitioner. It just wasn't a good break day.

They are all black belts, and should be.

And that one from Omaha who visited? Nope. "Appropriateness" is a word outside his vocabulary. (Actually, "Duh" was about his limit, but let us not be unkind. Well, not TOO unkind. Ahem.)

The definition of a black belt differs greatly from art to art----and yet, when we say "dan rank," "black sash," or whatever term reflects that particular rank, we expect the practitioner to know certain things, to act certain ways, and to be an example for lower ranks.

We don't always get it----I've seen black belts that I would not let get anywhere NEAR my students, and others that I think need remedial emotional control practice. However, that doesn't change what I expect:

A person with emotional, mental, and physical control, teaching or technical ability, and above all, the capacity to be an example of a good martial artist to lower ranks.

A black belt.


Thomas is a hapkidoist who just ran into another example of someone who shouldn't even being wearing a MA uniform, much less a black belt. When he comes down off his high horse about it, he'll probably be decent to speak to again. To see what he and his art are normally like, take a look at the Nebraska Hapkido Association page.