On the Journey to Becoming (Being) a Black Belt, by Tom Callos
This article is made up of two parts. First, I recap what The Ultimate Black Belt Test was/is —and then I point out some of what I’ve learned while overseeing the decade long project.
I have, for most of my adult life —but especially over the last decade —dedicated a good deal of thought (and lots of action) to the journey to and achievement of the rank of black belt, be it the first degree or the attainment of rank that denotes a “master.” I earned my own first degree black belt at the age of 19, in 1979. Today, at the age of 58, I am a 7th degree black belt in Taekwondo / Karate and a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Beginning in 2004 I conceived of and launched a project called “The Ultimate Black Belt Test (UBBT),” the purpose of which was to experiment with test preparation and black belt testing itself. What might we (people who want to and/or are eligible to “test” for new, higher rank) do, that isn’t done already, that would make our journey more legitimate, more interesting, and more meaningful (to us, our students, the martial arts community, and to the general public)?
I wasn’t seeking to discredit the processes instructors were already using, instead I was interested in seeing what would happen when we tried different, uncommon, and/or innovative processes. For example, what would happen if we saw the black belt test as a year-long event, instead of a week, weekend, or day of activity? What would happen if we based the test on documented repetition, as in 1000 repetitions of a kata or 1000 rounds of sparring?
Some of the things we made requirements for the UBBT included:
Mending 3 relationships gone bad and fixing 3 “wrongs” you had done in your life.
Performing and documenting 1000 acts of kindness.
Seeking out, meeting, and interviewing a master of another art, be they a martial artist, musician, visual artist, activist, writer, dancer, crafts-person, or what-have-you.
Publicly journaling the adventures, efforts, issues, victories, and difficulties of the process of preparing for a black belt test, once a week for the year of the test.
Seek to document the physical transformation brought about from the training and a disciplined diet, for the public, so as to show the behind-the-scene practices and progress of the testers.
Begin jiu-jitsu or another type of ground-based wrestling, if not already participating.
Get 20 hours of training with a professional boxing coach, if the tester didn’t have a boxing background.
Conceive of, organize, and execute a project, with students, that benefits your community —and document the process and outcome.
Attend a 3-day eco-adventure (with me), along the Pacific Crest Trail, for the purpose of meeting and bonding with fellow testers in an unusual situation (far better than a meeting at a dojo).
Raise money for and attend a 4 day house or renovation blitz-build project in cooperation with a non-profit organization in rural Alabama (an event I ran for 15 years to benefit HERO, The Hale County Revitalization Organization).
Learn to properly practice meditation for minimum of 10 minutes a day for a solid year.
Perhaps the most interesting idea we executed during the project was that each test was to be individualized for each tester. This meant that a test could be custom-designed to meet the needs and ambitions of the individual. My point of view was that the “ultimate” test wouldn’t be made up of things the tester was already good at, but of things that challenged the tester to grow and, if lucky, evolve as a practitioner and citizen-teacher.
Some of What I Came to Understand Over the Course of The Ultimate Black Belt Test
The standards for how one earns a black belt, in any martial art, is all over the board. There are teachers and/or organizations that produce, overall, outstanding black belts; young people and adults that represent the best benefits the practice of the martial arts can bring to one’s life. There are also teachers and organizations that have made the achievement of one’s black belt a joke, a money-oriented, watered down farce of a thing. And yes, there are many schools that sit somewhere in-between beautiful legitimacy and a shocking degradation of what the process is (or could be) all about.
What makes a great test , one that produces a noteworthy outcome, is one-part the focus of the tester him or herself, and two-parts the education, ambitions, goals, experience, and intention of the teacher administering the test. Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know, they only teach what they DO know —so better black belt tests come from teachers with the experience, intellect, knowledge and wisdom, and creativity to design processes that make better, smarter, more well-rounded students.
A black belt test isn’t a thing, a single thing, where one size fits all. A fine test, maybe the “ultimate” test, is where the test fits the needs, desires, and potential of the student. The test taken by the 19 year old could (and should) be far different than the test taken by the 58 year old. The requirements for training for —and the eventual rewarding of —a black belt, in a perfect world, should not only fit the technical requirements set by the teacher or organization, it should be, for the tester, a right of passage or a healing process and/or a process of personal evolution.
Some tests are about fighting, some about fitness, some about healing from wounds, be they physical or emotional. Some tests could —or should —be about transformation, about giving (and not just receiving), about victory in competition or over personal demons or…anything that represents the hero’s journey: The Exodus, the epiphany, and the return.
What we want in the end, is someone who has a chance to protect him or herself in a violent altercation. We want someone who is fit enough to represent the quality of our work. We want someone who recognizes the value of the training is found in the on-going practice of the skills, not in the achievement of some outward indication of expertise. We want people who use what we teach on the mats, what we practice so diligently in our schools, OUTSIDE of the dojo, off the mats, outside of the ring —and in the world, to the benefit of self and other people, places, and things. We want whatever the process we put our students thru, to make them stronger, more resilient and resourceful, more capable, and to be both skillful technicians and centered human beings.
Now, at my current age and with many years of experience, I’ve come to recognize that a black belt test is a tool. It’s a tool that may be used to strengthen, heal, cultivate transformation, and elevate the quality of life for practitioners —and thru practitioners, to others. The primary force behind what a black belt is, is what a teacher has the wherewithal to create; something that’s not too hard or too easy, something that’s not about trivial pursuits, but that is made to serve the student —and thus the community at large.
How that’s done in a way that serves all of the different people who attend our schools —isn’t something written in stone. It’s a process of listening, learning, trying, and adapting. Of course, a black belt test can also be, at its worst, much ado about nothing of much (or any) value.