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The Hardest Part About Getting a Black Belt


The coveted black belt is often considered (erroneously) the Holy Grail of martial arts training. We hear expressions such as "Black Belt Excellence" and "Black Belt Attitude." So many eager students enter the dojo for such a milestone, yet, only 1-3% of people who begin to train in the martial arts ever reach this goal.

Why is getting a black belt so hard? I mean, just go to or your favorite retailer and order one. It’s that quick. Even quicker if you have Prime.

But let’s talk about what it takes to earn a legitimate black belt. I think the main reason achieving a black belt is so difficult is what I call Art Fatigue. Becoming proficient in martial arts requires a lot of patience, dedication, focus…and unfortunately, tedium. Unrelenting repetition is essential for a student mastering an art. More techniques are added and the curriculum builds steadily over time. This can lead to said fatigue, and it's not uncommon for students to stall out at around 2/3 of their way to black belt. For arts that measure progress or rank with colored belts, this is typically around brown belt (typically equivalent to 3-5 years in the art).

In my art of American Kenpo the traditional ranking is white, yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, 3rd degree brown, 2nd degree brown, 1st degree brown, and then black belt. In fact, most karate styles have three levels of brown. This means that students spend around two years or even longer at the same “rank”. While this should not affect a student's attitude toward their training, sometimes when people see a lack of progression, it can have a psychological impact.

In addition to the tedium, there is often usually an increase in the difficulty of material. Combine this with the novelty wearing off and it’s at this point we see people taking a break. Here’s the unfortunate truth. For most people who take that “time out”…the break becomes permanent. Getting back into the martial arts can require more motivation than starting fresh, and the longer the gap…the likelihood of returning diminishes.

The second part of the challenge involves external factors that may be out of the student's control. Life happens, and sometimes training may need to be put on hold, or reprioritized. Unexpected events, such as an injury, a move, or a school closing, may disrupt one's training. These factors often put students at a crossroad, and solutions must be found.

I started training at the age of 14, and after two years, my instructor converted the school to a completely new curriculum. This meant that I was effectively frozen at the brown belt rank. Despite the discouragement, I decided to continue training and learned the new curriculum while finishing the previous curriculum to earn my first-degree black belt. In fact, the majority of black belts I know personally got stuck at some point around black belt, for various reasons. I refer to this as the “Brown Belt Curse”, and it’s real.

It’s important to remember that reaching the black belt

does not mean that the training is over. It signifies the real beginning and proficiency in the basics of the art. Reaching this milestone means that the student can begin to study the deeper threads of the art.

So, what is the hardest part about getting a black belt? It’s letting life and fatigue get the best of you. I heard an awesome expression recently that I’m totally going to steal. A student asked his instructor, “how long does it take for the average person to reach black belt”. The instructor looked at him and said, “The average person doesn’t reach black belt”.

I think that’s an important perspective. If you really want it…”average” isn’t enough.

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