We Are A Black Belt School!

dojo culture May 25, 2018

I could never get this.

You’ve probably been in a martial arts school that has this in giant black letters on their wall. You may even have it on your wall. If you do, I am in no way trying to offend you or anyone else.

And if you have no clue what I’m talking about then let me explain.

Some years back, a major industry trade group conjured up the wonderful idea that every Karate academy should have “WE ARE A BLACK BELT SCHOOL” written in giant letters, front and center in the training area and in a place for everyone to see.

When you walked through the door of the academy, you immediately knew you were in a Black Belt School. Parents entering the school see this and immediately have visions of their child one day wearing a black belt, breaking bricks with their knuckles and doing three-sixty spin kicks to the freckle faced bully. The big letters were to keep the goal of black belt in front of everyone during training.

Actually, this was meant to preframe new and prospective students for a membership upgrade, most often called the Black Belt Club. This upgrade was nothing more than a means to rope a member into a more expensive and long term contractual obligation.

I was at a school not too long ago that wanted to re-institute tradition back into their student culture and teaching regimen. The head instructor is a great guy, very passionate about what he does, but felt his school had dangerously drifted from their historical anchor so he hired me to come in and consult with the owner, his partners and staff.

One of the first services I offer school owners and training group leaders is to evaluate their classes. There’s alot to this, too much for this article, but let’s just say I watch a class, take a few pages of tough notes and then begin asking the owner a barrage of questions they most likely don’t want to hear.

So I drove to my friend’s town to pay his academy a visit and start asking questions.

I took a seat on one of the plastic lawn chairs set up in a designated space for guests. Yes, lawn chairs. For some reason, lawn furniture in commercial martial art schools has become as normalized as soda machines. As students entered the training area, laughing and chatting away about the latest Twilight episode they would nonchalantly slap their thighs and bow so fast you’d think they would head butt their knees.

Then back to the discussion and giggling. That was odd, but then.. out of no where.. everyone in perfect military attention began to yell, 

“We are future black belts, we are future masters! We are dedicated, we are motivated, we are on our quest to be our best!” 

One senior student then yelled at the top of his lungs, “Future Black Belts Sir!” 

Then they all crossed arms and snapped to a Harley Davidson riding stance, short the Harley.. and all the students responded with an enthusiastic, “Ooos!”

Whoah! I somehow missed that cue. Then I realized that my friend was at the edge of the training area ready to step onto the matted floor, but was waiting until being recognized by his saluting class.

Looking at the Senior Student who presented the future black belts to the teacher, my friend quietly said in a deep voice, 

“Areegato” and arrogantly nodded his head without even making eye contact with the students.

“These guys are tight” I thought and couldn’t hold myself back from smiling, “But what the heck are they doing?”

Of course I knew, I’ve seen this stuff hundreds of times in commercial schools. Maybe it’s twisted up Tony Robbins neuro linguistic programming tactics, hijacked by the board breaking hucksters or possibly it’s a hodge podge of bullshit fed to unknowing men who didn’t get enough hugs when they were a kid. Regardless of where this came from, I was there to do a job and serve my friend who came to me for help and his students.

So honestly, what exactly were they saying?

Most of us traditionalists smirk at this type of clown act, just thinking it’s silly. You know what though, I’ve never been down with those holier than thou types who smirk at well intended people and I truly felt my friend had the best intentions for his students.

The way it looked was that he’d allowed himself to be misled by applying a collage of self-help systems and popular martial arts business speak. His heart was certainly in the right place but it seemed he was following the wrong path.

To me, I never really could put my finger on the “Black Belt” thing. What did does it mean?

Every self proclaimed master had a different definition of the word so why the big letters on the wall?

Why was my friend acting like this to appease future black belts?

Choosing to hold off on the evaluation, I wanted to hear if these students themselves knew what this was all about. I was looking to see if there was a consistent and comprehensive shared goal they were all working toward. Before getting into my notes, I asked my friend if I could ask a few questions to his students following training before I ripped into him.

I was in my uniform also so I could be seen somewhat as a fellow student in their eyes. Of course upon asking, he felt obligated to slap his hips, bow and say, “Ooos Sensei.”

After their training I sat down with a diverse group of super charged black belts and brown belts. Knowing that I was someone who their teacher looked up to, they were overly respectful to me and extremely courteous.

I was careful to not upset this role and made sure the respect they held for their teacher was reinforced by my words. So here’s the discussion from my notes that night:

“I want to thank you guys for taking time out of your evening to sit down with me and answer some questions I have for you.” I said.

This was followed by several of the students responding with, “Ooos Sensei”

Looking around at the group I asked, 

“Guys, I notice on Master Rob’s’s wall there are the words, “We are a Black Belt School”…..What does black belt mean to each of you?” 

I cleared the circle of students sitting on the floor around me in one lap of eye contact. There were a few shoulder shrugs and head shakes. After a few uncomfortable seconds, one of the young ladies, a Second Degree Black Belt answered, 

“Having a Black Belt means that we are able to teach what we have been taught. To be a Sensei.” 

I nodded, neither approving nor disapproving and continued looking around the room. I just wanted to listed, 

“Anything else?” 

A couple of students nodded in approval with what this young lady had said. After a few moments of thought, an older gentleman said, 

“Black Belt to me means that I have gotten closer to mastering ego.”

It dawned on me that these good people had no real definition of what their collective goal of Black Belt actually meant. They were grabbing at ideas without a clear understanding of what all this stuff they’d been doing over the last hour was about. Each day they happily bark out a pre-class pep-rally, summoning their master to the Dojo and making the promise of becoming a Black Belt one day, without actually knowing what it means. This is the power of suggestive technology at work.

There is something extremely important and often overlooked at work here. When you hang the Black Belt on your wall as the first of the ultimate goals in your training, how much emphasis are you putting into the actual definition of that belt and what it means?

What does it clearly mean to the martial art you study? In other words, what are the curriculum requirements? Then, what are the philosophical and esoteric requirements of your teacher? In other words, what values, congruent to the tenants of your Budo, does your teacher expect you to possess in order to represent your Budo at the level of Black Belt? And finally, you should know very well what it personally means to you and the life you live.

There is no ancient connection here that links the wearer of the Black Belt to some Shinto deity nor are you written down in the annals of an ancient warrior klan, but you rightly are obligating yourself to a higher order of new expectations in your Budo, expectations that need to be clearly established and recognized.

Does your school do this, or do you just run students through some rigorous test and imagine they know what being a Black Belt means?

This school that I was consulting literally had their students programming themselves each class to say they were future Black Belts. That’s cool, in their daily lives they believed it too.

And my friend’s suggestive system obviously worked well, as his school has dozens of members who wear black belts at his academy of well over three hundred students. But not one of them could confidently define for me what the Black Belt meant in their academy.

Was there even some definition behind it? I would think so after the tightly choreographed pep-rally that kicked off each class…. It had to mean something other than correctly going through some forms in front of a testing panel, right?

Realizing that these Black Belts all had very different ideas of what they earned, I asked my colleague his definition. He too could not clearly give me an answer other than the, 

“It’s just the beginning and you’ve got the basics down.” Interestingly, this is quite opposite to what his students feel.

That’s a problem, considering the Black Belt is one of the main products of this guy’s business model.

I wondered if all this self-help motivation chant during each class is really centered around getting your basics down? I was confused.

Do the students think this, or do they think something different?

Of course we worked through this dilemma by designing a really positive outcome, but it does raise a serious question for commercial school owners. Can each of your students clearly and consistently define for you in one sentence what earning a their Black Belt rank means in your school?

Have you yourself?

So I challenge you.. ask a few students in private what being or becoming a Black Belt means or meant to them. Compare their answers and see if your school has consistent and comprehensive expectations of making it to the beginning level, 初段 – Adam


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