What does it mean to be a Black Belt? By definition the meaning of Black Belt is, “Opposite of white, therefore, signifying the maturity and proficiency in Taekwon-Do” (Gen. Choi Hong Hi, 1999, pp. 373). As any Black Belt would know, the journey towards gaining a Black Belt is a long and arduous undertaking, and every individual who undertakes this journey, will have their own perspective on what being a Black Belt really means.
As an instructor and examiner I have heard many Black Belts talk about their experiences. Most speak of many hours of study and practice, others describe their Black Belt grading, others even describe the extra benefits of becoming a Black Belt. In the case of one recently graded Black Belt who trained for nearly six years before finally gaining Black Belt status. He was a Black Tip (1st Gup) for two years. He said that he never really knew why he waited for so long, mentioning that he often told himself that it wasn’t really that important or that he wasn’t ready. It wasn’t until after a conversation with a close friend and senior training partner of his at our Dojang that he finally decided to do his grading. She told him that getting your Black Belt wasn’t just a symbol of your training. She said that she couldn’t explain it but you change, you feel different and people see you differently. After that he booked his grading and had six months to prepare. Like everyone else he spent hours in the garage laying into boards and repeating patterns a thousand times. For six months he trained with one goal in mind, waiting for that day to come.
Upon returning to training the week after the grading, everyone congratulated him. Many of the Black Belts asked how it went. He told them about seven hours in the heat and joked about getting really hungry. At that point he said that he felt no different, he didn’t feel like a Black Belt. Shortly afterwards a group of juniors came running up to him. They all wanted to see and touch the new belt. It was then when a young yellow belt looked up at him and said, “Wow, some day can I be like you? Can I be a Black Belt?” It was that moment that he knew what his friend had tried to tell him, he knew then what it meant to be a Black Belt
What does being a Black Belt mean to you? Or for those still on the journey to achieve it, why do you want to become a Black Belt? Everyone will give a different answer to these questions because every ones journey is different. We all must achieve the same basic requirements, but our struggle is as different as the individuals themselves. If everyone’s journey is different and everyone’s perception of what a Black Belt really is then how can we describe it? It is often much easier to compare it to what it is not. You don’t have to look far on the Internet these days to find forums and bulletin boards that talk about martial arts. Often the people talk about having the ability to do tricks or fight multiple opponents. Often there is criticism towards children or elderly Black Belts, usually in reference to their physical capability. Does being a Black Belt automatically mean that you can do flying kicks or fight any opponent? Of course not. Unfortunately these days, Black Belts are viewed almost with a mystical superhuman quality. Most likely due to the influence of movies of men and women doing these fantastic stunts. How many Black Belts out there can honestly say that they can fight multiple opponents and expect to win? Now of those Black Belts, how many can say that they can take on one 120 kg man who has your young child? No amount of flying kicks and tricks will help you. Being a Black Belt has much more to do with maturity, intuition and discipline rather than physical ability.
A student who begins studying as a white belt is considered a beginner with no prior learning. They will begin with the basic fundamentals and gradually climb the ranks through a structured training program. Each new rank means new techniques and harder grading requirements, each of which the student is tested on. All ranks up until you have achieved Black Belt are structured. General class time is spent specifically on the necessary requirements up until Black Belt. After that it’s up to the Black Belt to take on their own self directed learning. Becoming a Black Belt is a new beginning. You have learned the basics and now you are ready to start your real training.
Requirements for Black Belt
In ITF Authentic Taekwon-Do there are two different categories per say of Black Belt 1st Dan. There is a Junior Black Belt and a full (senior) Black Belt. The only difference between the two as far as grading requirements go are the number of boards broken during the grading. To begin with the student is usually content with just learning the basic techniques and only train in their regular class time. As the student progresses through the ranks their thirst for further knowledge increases and Taekwon-Do becomes an increasing part of their life. To achieve the Rank of Black Belt a student must be committed to the Art, a great deal of hours and hard work go into any grading but by the time a student achieves the Black Belt rank, Authentic Taekwon-Do is a part of Life.
As the student grades through the Gup ranks their knowledge of techniques and applications increases. Once the rank of Black Tip is achieved the grading syllabus requires the student to actively train for a minimum of six-twelve months before they can grade for Black Belt. In this time frame the student will be expected to learn their new pattern Choong-Moo, but they are also given ample time to perfect the techniques from previous Gup patterns. The Grading syllabus for Authentic Taekwon-Do has been standardized in that each person grading for the rank of Black Belt will need to perform patterns, sparring, board breaking, self defense applications, theory and write a thesis. The Patterns required are exactly the same throughout the world, in this sense General Choi has left behind an International Style. The techniques a student learns here in Australia are the same as a student in Korea, England or Slovenia. A Black Belt student can therefore go to any other country and perform the same techniques.
Unlike Gup gradings, Black Belt gradings are conducted in front of a Grading Panel. In Authentic Taekwon-Do this panel is made up of at least one Master and 5 -6 Internationally ranked Seniors. Throughout the grading each member of the panel has the opportunity to comment on each individual’s performance and give positive and at times negative feedback to the student grading. With so many eyes scrutinizing every aspect of a grader’s technique one can imagine the preparation that goes into perfection of oneself as a martial artist.
In the following section we are going to break down each aspect of the Black Belt grading and explain what it means.
Patterns are the basis of the Art form and as already stated they are exactly the same throughout the world. A student is closely watched during their performance of patterns as it is here that the examiner can judge not only a student’s physical ability to execute techniques, but also their knowledge of the art form. To look briefly at the Black Belt pattern Choong-Moo you see quite a complex set of techniques. The student is required to perform their first flying kick and a 360deg aerial turn and guarding block. Both of these moves along with the others in the pattern test a student’s ability above the level of Gup patterns.
The next section of a grading is sparring, a student is required to spar in a predetermined number of rounds. The number of rounds may vary slightly at the examiner’s discretion (e.g. An older adult with injuries may not physically be able to go as many rounds a 19 year old male with no injuries) Sparring is an individual thing and each person spars differently to the next. The examiner gets to see what techniques a student favors and their ability to execute and score a technique. They can also judge a student’s fitness level and determination.
Board Breaking is demonstrated to show the examiner that the student has the correct technique to break the board. It is widely thought that a larger person can break more boards than a smaller person. In reality it is the person with the correct technique that generally breaks the most boards. Without correct technique one cannot create maximum force and power to perform the break. In a Black Belt grading the number of boards required to be broken vary on the individual. As an example Female students break fewer boards with their power hand and foot than males, and students grading for a Junior Black Belt break fewer boards again. The techniques used to break the boards are more advanced and at this level the student performs their first flying kick over people to break a board. If the student successfully breaks their boards the examiner can see that the student has correct technique and understands the theory of power, breath control, equilibrium and balance. All important aspects of Taekwon-Do
Students testing for Black Belt must demonstrate an understanding of their art in a pre-arranged self-defense scenario. The scenario must contain 2 to 3 attackers and must last for a satisfactory length of time. It is up to the student to design and choreograph the scenario. Examiners will look for correct use of techniques, realism and more specifically their relevance to Taekwon-Do. Unfortunately many students make the mistake of demonstrating a scenario using pre-dominantly techniques introduced by other arts or choosing techniques that are beyond the students current level of training.
The last requirement on grading day is to answer theory questions, at this point the student is expected to have a broad knowledge and understanding of all aspects of previous grading theory as a student may be asked questions from any of the previous ranks. A student must also have a firm understanding of the Tenants of ITF Taekwon-Do and must personify each of them. At each rank a student is required to deliver answers to questions on the following things:
The meaning of the pattern Choong-Moo
Choong-Moo was the given name to Admiral Yi Soon-Sin of the Lee Dynasty. He was reputed to have invented the first armored battle ship in 1592 AD.
Number of movements in the pattern Choong-Moo
Parallel Ready Stance.
The meaning of each belt color.
White, Yellow, Blue, Red and Black.
List the three Kingdoms of Korea
Koguryo, Silla and Baek Je.
Recite the Hwa-rang Warrior code
Be Loyal to your King.
Be obedient to your Parents.
Be honorable to your Friends.
Never Retreat in Battle.
Make a Just Kill.
Understand the Theory of Power
The student must also have a firm grasp on what attacking tool to use on various vital spots on the body.
Prior to grading a student is required to write and submit a thesis on any aspect of Taekwon-Do. The thesis gives the student the opportunity to demonstrate their thoughts and knowledge of the art form. Not only does this prompt the student to do some reflecting over their many years of training, but it also gives the examiner an insight into the student’s readiness to become a Black Belt.
All of us begin our training for different reasons. We all do consider the prospect of becoming a Black Belt one-day, but at our first training session that goal seems along way away. In fact the student who begins training with the specific goal of becoming a Black Belt, are usually the least likely to achieve it because they become discouraged easily and aren’t prepared for the commitment required. Most of us begin training for self-defense or for fitness, sometimes even because it is a challenge. Whatever the reason, the student is an ordinary person who begins the extraordinary journey on the path to becoming a Black Belt.
The White Belt
The white belt by definition is a ‘beginner with no previous knowledge of Taekwon-Do’. As some may remember being a white belt is a very daunting experience. You have to stand down the back of the class and everything you do is brand new. You feel clumsy and awkward as you try to perform the techniques as you learn them. You see the Black Belts at the head of the class and they look intimidating because they appear so confident. As a white belt, the student will learn all the basic fundamental movements. Stances, basic attack and defense techniques are drilled out continuously, all in preparation for the next phase of training.
The Yellow Belt
“Yellow signifies earth from which the plant sprouts and takes root as the Taekwon-Do foundation is being laid” (Gen. Choi Hong Hi, 1999, pp. 373). At this stage the student is learning their second pattern, “Dangun”. At this point you feel more confident. You have been training for several months and the training is becoming a part of your weekly routine. You are learning more about the techniques and there application. The only real goal in mind is your next belt.
The Green Belt
“Green signifies the plant’s growth as the Taekwon-Do skill begins to develop” (Gen. Choi Hong Hi, 1999, pp. 373). This is the point where things get really exciting. You are learning Won-Hyo, your forth pattern. You are developing strength, control and you begin to notice that you have started using your legs to do things that you used to use your hands for, like opening doors or moving chairs. You have the bug.
The Blue Belt
“Blue signifies heaven towards which the plant matures into a towering tree as training in Taekwon-Do progresses” (Gen. Choi Hong Hi, 1999, pp. 373). At this point the student’s progress begins to slow down. The original reasons for joining Taekwon-Do have been long since forgotten. Taekwon-Do has become more than a hobby, it’s a way of life. The student has competed in a number of tournaments and attended seminars. Every now and then the student also helps out with events such as demonstrations and community events.
The Red Belt
“Red signifies danger, cautioning the student to exercise control and warning the opponent to stay away” (Gen. Choi Hong Hi, 1999, pp. 373). The student now has the goal of becoming a Black Belt firmly in their sights. The goal can be very humbling as the student often waits on red belt for a period of about a year, sometimes more. Many thoughts come to mind, “Am I really ready for my Black Belt”? The thought of going from senior gup student to a 1st Degree Black seems like a big jump. Often the student who believes that they deserve their Black Belt is the one who is probably a long way from it. Many students see it as the end of their training, the highest achievement in their art. It is easy to understand this misconception because it is the last color belt the student will receive. Of all the gup ranks, red belt demands the greatest growth and maturity of the student as they prepare to become Black Belts.
The Black Belt
“Opposite of white, therefore, signifying the maturity and proficiency in Taekwon-Do” (Gen. Choi Hong Hi, 1999, pp. 373). The new beginning. The student has undertaken their grading and have proven their worth. They have demonstrated maturity and an understanding of the five tenants of Taekwon-Do. You don’t feel different but you know that you have changed. The student looks back on the years that have passed since they were that timid white belt at the back of the class. You remember the faces of the training partners that have come and gone and the people that inspired you along the way. You remember the challenges you faced and how they don’t seem that difficult anymore. While reviewing your own journey you see that the Black Belt itself is not as important as the lessons learned along the way.
Choi, Gen Hong Hi. 1999, ‘Taekwon-Do’. International Taekwon-Do Federation.
Boosabum Alecia Lawrie (3rd Degree Black Belt)
Boosabum Gareth Tomasini (1st Degree Black Belt)
Written by: Master Jamie Moore - 12th April 2006
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