The old cliché is certainly true – when you reach black belt, you become a beginner. Those not in the know (and we’ve all been there) usually view yudansha with a certain level of expectation. I’m sure you’ve had people ask if you can do flying kicks or kill someone with your bare hands. If you’re anything like me you’ll either reply with some pithy remark or launch in to a treatise trying to explain everything there is to explain about the mystical black belt. What most people don’t realise however is that being a Shodan isn’t necessarily all that special, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve come as far as you can in the karate world! In essence all it means is that you have learnt and can execute the core techniques to a certain level of proficiency. It’s like getting your GCSE in Karate.

I’ve been a Shodan in Shotokan Karate for just over a year now. In total I have been studying karate for around 7ish years. Getting your black belt is not just like getting any other belt. You get a whole new level of responsibility and expectation, along with much more freedom and time to start training for real.

Reaching the Milestone

Ironically, many people give up karate when they reach black belt. Some think they’ve learnt all they can or need to learn, whereas others simply can’t handle the less regimented life of the black belt, with less emphasis on syllabi and short term reward in the form of gradings. When you spend years focusing on learning the next kata, the next set of techniques, different forms of kumite or whatever it may be, it can be hard to be thrown out in to the big wide world with much more emphasis on independent learning and thought.

I fought long and hard to get my black belt. I spent a long time in an association I was far from enamoured with. I failed my black belt grading multiple times and failed to receive constructive feedback on how to improve. It almost cost me my karate. I still can’t look at a first kyu belt! But then things changed, and I passed with the same club but a different association. I was more nervous grading in front of my own sensei than I was my old chief instructor. Regardless of who you grade in front of, the Shodan grading is a nerve wracking experience. You can’t count on all that gym time and conditioning to get you through. This one is much more about the mind than it is the body. You won’t be asked to perform anything too complicated. You’ll go back to basics, and you’ll be judged on the small things: is your back leg straight in zenkutsu dachi? Are you rotating your hips enough? Are you off balance? Is your stance low enough? Your first dan grading is probably one of the few times where multiple rounds of kumite will feel like a break!

A Change of Pace

After you pass (because there’s no room for negative thinking!) you may very well end up taking time off. When you’re used to grading every three months or so, two years is a very long time before you can think about grading again. Skipping the odd session is not unusual and, in my opinion, nothing to worry about. Just don’t lose the routine. When I started training as a Shodan I felt a noticeable change of pace. I could focus more. Kata became about more than just learning the moves. Bunkai practice became more in-depth and creative. I started doing techniques slowly and with little power so I could really focus on the technique. And instead of being told to put more effort in, I was left to it. You obviously still follow the instruction of your Sensei, but your training becomes more self-directed. It was a freedom I longed for when I was a kyu grade and finally earning that freedom breathed new life in to my karate.

Freedoms and Responsibilities

The change isn’t necessarily big, but it is noticeable. As a kyu grade I was constantly told to close my hands when fighting, but now I can fight open handed. I’m big enough and ugly enough to get the odd broken finger and learn from my mistakes (yes, it has happened…). In pre-arranged kumite drills I can now experiment with techniques. In short I can start tailoring my karate to suit me because I put in the hours grafting with the basics. You earn the freedom through the work you put in at the lower grades. The less you slack the more you will be rewarded in the future!

But with freedom comes responsibility. You can’t take a breather anymore – no more doing the odd set of push ups on your hands instead of your knuckles, no slacking off in the line – people are looking up to you! There can be a lot of pressure when as a new black belt you see people watching you as an example of what to do – especially if you’re not sure yourself! You may have earned the belt, but you have to prove you still deserve it. You want to find out more about your art? The onus might be on you to go find it yourself. Your instructor might be too busy teaching or helping the lower grades to devote enough (or any) time to what you really want to do. As another cliché says, it can be lonely at the top.

Learning More and Testing Yourself

Without the structure of gradings it can be hard to know if you’re improving or not. A lot of the time gauging this is down to you. Again it might be the small things such as ‘am I quicker than I used to be?’ Do I strain as much as I used to when throwing a jodan mawashi geri? You may find it worthwhile to visit other clubs. How do you compare to other first dans? This is something I try to do, but being a poor student means I don’t get the chance very often. When you get to black belt your focus has to be more than just working on getting your next grade. You can’t keep training like that forever because if you do one day you will lose interest. As you tailor your karate to suit you, you will find specific things that interest you. Embrace them. Even if you only ever study one art it is easy to become a jack of all trades but a master of none. Don’t be scared to focus on one particular thing for a while, just don’t neglect everything else. In the end it’ll make you a better karate-ka.

In the end getting your black belt is just the beginning of the journey, but although you are only a beginner, don’t underestimate the achievement that getting a black belt is. You know if you’ve earned it or not; you know how hard you worked to get it. Don’t let that hard work go to waste! Enjoy the freedom the black belt brings, and embrace the responsibility is bestows. As you advance, never forget the basics. But most importantly, make karate your own and enjoy yourself.

matthew donoghue

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