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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The five worst things about being a black belt

by Emma Robins


Emma Robins Kata execution


Everyone always says how amazing it is being a black belt, how we’ve achieved the unattainable, become one with that which challenges us. We’ve done it! We should all pat ourselves on the back, and be mightily proud, of course we should! But no-one ever tells you of the pitfalls of being a black belt. It’s not all about being able to perform a half decent mawashi geri now, or being in the same line in the dojo as all the other black belts… there are hidden dangers!


1.       Anyone can be a black belt


It’s actually surprisingly easy to gain a black belt these days. There are hundreds of companies offering you a black belt, some in as little as six months (you train two hours a week and it costs around four grand…). I have even read on some forums that people are being ‘selected’ after a few days training to be included in fast track instructor classes, for the small price of ten grand… Each to one’s own. It’s even possible to invent your own martial art, from scratch or by merging what you see in others, and become a twentieth dan master and start teaching. And I am absolutely positive that there are people inexperienced/daft enough to buy into this, unfortunately. What it does mean is that those of us who took three years plus of hard training, and making mistakes, getting punched and accidentally punching others are lumped into the same category as anyone who holds a black belt around their waist. This also means that to the untrained eye, we are all equally worthy… and it’s only us people that have worked hard at our grades who truly know the meaning of the belt we wear around our waist.


2.       It turns your friends into idiots


This is truly the worst part about being a black belt. The day I got mine, it seemed to turn all my friends, and even some of my family into idiots. I went to school the next day, pretty pleased with myself for not throwing up during the fitness stage of my grading, which obviously came after kihon, kumite and kata, and so proceeded to gently brag to friends. I thought this was going quite well, what with all the ‘how cool’ and ‘well done’ comments that were winging their way to me, when I was grabbed by a large male fellow student who announced to the room “Ooh, a black belt! What would you do if I did this…?” And that was the beginning of the end. On a regular basis I was grabbed by the wrist, the hair, even the foot once, and asked that very same question. And there is no good way out. If you laugh it off and walk away, dragging a person along who is still attached to your leg, you look as though you don’t have an answer, and so actually are a very bad, bad black belt. Or you clout them, and show them exactly what you would do, and now, worse than being a bad black belt, you are a bully black belt. It’s a lose-lose situation. And I know I am not alone in this. It’s a common conversation, held in a darkened corner of a bar with other black belts, exhausted from the constant battle of being grabbed by friends, often a story told with a heavy heart and a big sigh…


3.       It should come with a health warning…


Since becoming a black belt I have had more injuries than I care to remember. I think it is a combination of things. One is thinking that since I have a two and a half meter piece of black material around my waist I am now untouchable; inevitably leading me to attempt things my body is clearly now must be capable of, usually ending in a pile of pulled muscles and bruised shins on the floor. The other is now moving up the ranks, training with other black belts who also believe I am untouchable… until that last gyaku-zuki separates my rib cage. I also, as a woman, have to have a small but significant moan about the state of my feet. Since becoming a black belt it seems perfectly acceptable to venture anywhere with bare feet. So not only do I train in bare feet, but I quite often wander into the dojo car park in bare feet, or find myself shoeless in work (force of habit). It means that the skin on the bottom of my feet is cement. I didn’t leave a word out there, this is no simile. My skin is not like cement… it is cement. I made the mistake of having a pedicure. They took the time (hours) to file (sandpaper) my feet, and make them all soft and pretty and ladylike. There is nothing ladylike about leaving the dojo the following day sobbing because every zenkutsu dachi ripped a teeny piece of skin from your now perfectly soft feet… leaving you with blood blisters.


4.       It turns you into the pied piper…


I have been an instructor for over ten years now, minus a few breaks for university and moving house, so this is a problem that was inevitable for me, but it seems to affect everyone who has a black belt. Children follow you. They need you to tie their belt… They need you to fix their sleeves, they need to see you do kata, they need to hear your kiai. It is endless. As soon as you get a black belt you become god-like to them. This comes with its own pressures. Teach them well enough and not  only will they follow you, but they will ask the inevitable awkward question, usually in front of a packed class. Hand goes up… “I thought your base foot had to rotate all the way around for mawashi geri?” Brilliant, you have now become the pied piper to the most unintentionally facetious demographic.



5.       It’s hard work!


People think that getting the black belt, that holy grail, they think it’s the end, but it’s the beginning. Being a dedicated black belt involves many a hardship, such as never seeing family, and arranging holidays around major karate events. I have a friend and fellow karate-ka who has begrudgingly agreed to miss a competition in order to go to a friend’s hen weekend. I told her, this is just the beginning. At the start of every year my friends each get a copy of my karate timetable (as does my boss) and they know that to book anything on these dates is asking for trouble. Not only does my black belt determine my special dates, it determines my friend’s too. I am just lucky they love me enough to abide by my karate shaped rules.


One of the other major difficulties in being a black belt is that inevitable self pressure. We are black belts, surely we should be able to do a perfect mae-geri by now! There is no feeling quite as bad as that of having a lesson on Heian Sho Dan and feeling that your technique is worse than the new kid who’s only been training a week. Having a black belt is a massive challenge, but keeping it and developing is an even bigger one! Statistics show that there are many people with black belts, less with ni dans, even less with san dans, even less again with yon dans and so on and so forth. Keeping the motivation is hard, when belts are no longer a goal. Admitting that even though I am a black belt, my Ushiro geri is still as bad as it was when I was a purple belt, that’s hard. Admitting you’re a black belt is the hardest thing ever, but admitting that it’s just the beginning seems almost impossible sometimes…