Printed in MAWired, Vol. 5, No. 6, July 1998

 10 Year Black Belts
Thomas Howard

Awhile back I was getting information on a tournament that is going to be held here in Nebraska in the next month or so. I had a choice as to exactly what I was going to be doing---sparring or forms, Karate rules or TKD rules. (Matter of fact, two different types of TKD sparring---Olympic style, and a light-to-medium contact point style that allows hand strikes to the head.)

Anyway---I was talking with the person in charge of the TKD part of the tournament, and specifically, was talking about what rank category I should be in. I'm one rank in Hapkido, and a different rank in TKD, and I wanted to do both forms and sparring. Would it be fair to enter two different rank categories? Should I spar at a lower rank than I actually am, since my TKD rank (and thus, my forms category) is my lower rank? Is that fair?

He said he didn't think it would be a problem (my sparring at my TKD rank) and then he said something that caught my attention:

"I wouldn't be too hung up on a one degree difference. After all, some of the people who will be there will have been black belts for ten years or so."
Huh? We were talking about the 1st degree black belt category. There are some people competing who have been black belts for 10 years, and still consider themselves 1st degrees?

Now, I know different styles run ranks differently---but this was TKD. Since when does someone hold a first degree rank for ten years, and not be eligible for 2nd degree?

I remembered a conversation with my first instructor, when we were talking about testing and test fees. He said, "When the time comes, when you are ready, you test. If you can't pay, we'll work something out. But when it is time, you don't get a choice---you have to accept the responsibility. I'm not going to have anyone sitting here at a lower rank, sliding by and taking it easy when they should have the responsibility of a higher rank."

In the style I'm used to, a higher rank might indeed give you some perks---but the responsibilities far outweigh them. (Plus, you have to work harder. :) Higher belts need to set an example, need to help the lower ranks, need to be able to teach, assist, and instruct any of the techniques they know, at any given time. They don't have the luxury of feeling grumpy, frustrated, or un-energetic if they are needed as part of the class. Or, if nothing else, they don't have the luxury of LOOKING grumpy, un-energetic, etc...

They are supposed to set an example. Working hard, being helpful, teaching when required, assisting when required, and above all, showing the lower belts it CAN be done as long as they keep trying.

Plus, higher ranks work on different things. There is more to learn, more to work on, and they are expected to be able to handle things that are more difficult. People who have been black belts for 10 years shouldn't be working the same techniques as 1st degree belts----at least, that certainly isn't ALL they should be working.

I can only think of two reasons why someone would be a 1st degree black belt for 10 years: 1)they aren't with their old school anymore, and thus haven't been able to promote, or 2)they were injured, got out of practice, and with therapy and such have slowly gotten back into it. (Must have been quite an injury. Ouch.)

Other than that----why would someone wait? Do they not want the responsibilty? Yes, I know it can get expensive, for some TKD schools. However, in 10 years you can probably manage to test once or twice.

Maybe my association just thinks of it strangely----but where I'm from, if you want to practice, you take the responsibility, and you try to give back to the art somewhat, which includes taking the responsibility of helping pass on the art. (This doesn't mean you have to open your own school----but higher ranks should be able to assist in teaching class under their instructor.)

And they should take the responsibility that their time-in-grade gives them.

Thomas is a Hapkidoist (among other things) that thinks everyone should have to teach a little, since it REALLY informs you of what you know, and what you don't. (In addition to causing a little bit of panic the first time you have to stand in front and teach.) For more thoughts from Thomas, you are welcome to visit the NHA Home Page, or you can mail him.