Over my years as a martial arts instructor the question "what is a black belt?" is one that is asked as often as any other in my experience. Of course, we have stock answers: "A black belt is someone who is good at the basics", "a black belt is someone who has shown readiness to truly start training", "a black belt is the real beginning", etc. In truth though, many of these answers are just as ambiguous as the question posed in the first place. This is, of course, by design, since a black belt is someone who must derive his or her own meaning from the journey, but none of that really helps in this particular post, and it is decidedly unhelpful when trying to establish a curriculum or a set of criteria for advancement to this coveted rank. I have pondered this question for quite some time, but it was my recent opportunity to sit on testing panels for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degree black belt candidates that drove me to put it down in a more permanent fashion. As I had to make a determination for each of these candidates regarding whether I thought they were ready for advancement, I had to ask myself: "What is it that I really think a black belt is?", ""Are these candidates displaying the qualities of a black belt at the appropriate rank or level?", and "What are those qualities to begin with?"
In order to answer any of these questions, we do have to return somewhat to the ambiguous, and remember that our training is a journey, and not one with any fixed destination. In order to evaluate a black belt candidate, then, I must view the journey as a whole, but also as a synthesis of its component pieces. I must ask both where the candidates have been, and also where they are going. If we view the journey as a whole, we should be able to look back and see the journey (in the World Tang Soo Do Association) from white belt on through the ranks of orange, green, brown, red, blue, and finally to black, but we must also be able to see the desire for this person to forge ahead to the higher ranks of black belt as well, or what is the point? If we break down the journey to its component pieces, though, we must of course begin at the beginning: white belt.
When I ask myself what, in one word, I want a white belt to gain from his or her training, it is, quite simply, coordination. I hardly expect that a white belt will understand the intricacies of how the body mechanics of the technique make it work, or to be able to apply each technique in a "realistic" scenario. I do expect white belts to learn and duplicate the basic movements of required techniques, and expect that they will work towards making these movements more natural to them. I expect them to begin to learn how to move the various parts of their bodies together in a way that makes sense within the context of a given technique. In essence, I expect them to be trying to move their bodies correctly, and that is all. Anything else at this point is extra. Please let me be clear: it is not that I do not expect certain white belts to pick up more than this, and it is not that I expect every white belt who walks through the door to suddenly be coordinated in all of their movements. I do expect that the main focus to the white belt is to work on and develop basic coordination, both in terms of physical technique and in terms of coordinating their personal schedules in order to get to classes.
In the standard WTSDA curriculum, orange belt is the first step forward in terms of a belt color change for our students. Once again, if I distill an orange belt's development down to one word, it would be balance. In a very real sense, this is what I want my orange belts to be developing. I would like to have orange belts who can kick above their waists without falling over, certainly, but this balance extends to other areas as well. Students at this stage will begin to work more on multi-technique combinations, and in so doing, will begin to balance both left and right sides of their bodies in one step. Stances will gain additional importance and emphasis, and in so doing, the instructor will begin to stress specific footwork and posture in a more in-depth manner. Techniques will begin to become more fluid and less staccato in nature. In addition, the student must begin to balance their personal lives with their martial arts lives as the required curriculum begins to require additional time and effort. It is not only balance that is being developed, though. Balance is being developed by putting previously developed coordination into practice, which in turn develops coordination further as well. We begin to see that the journey is cumulative, and that we cannot simply discard the lessons learned at one step in order to move forward to another, as this would be akin to trying to climb a ladder while someone removes the bottom rung.
If we look forward towards green belt, then, the defining area in need of development, to me, is focus. In a practical sense, green belts must learn that no matter how good a technique looks (ie, how coordinated and balanced a technique is), it matters very little if one cannot hit his or her target. In this sense, focus is defined through aim and accuracy. The importance of vital points begins to become more emphasized by the instructor, and the students' development is measured by how well they can land their techniques on a given point. The importance of Shi Sun, or focus of eyes, is stressed further at this point as well. The student is tested on how well he or she can ignore distractions, and is expected to learn the value of stillness in addition to the value of motion. Additionally, it is at this stage at which many students are truly challenged for the first time. They must make a critical decision whether to let increasing difficulty overwhelm them or to focus on their goals and press forward. By developing this focus and stillness, students will find that control (coordination) and proficiency of technique (balance) improve as well.
At brown belt I expect that the synthesis of previously developed coordination, balance, and focus is power. In general terms, power is the ability to do something, the degree of control over something one possesses, or the amount of strength one has. Each of these is being developed at brown belt. Brown belts begin to find that their techniques are landing with additional force or strength due to the proper coordination and balance of their muscle groups combined with the ability to focus the technique on a given point. They begin to understand that they are in control of how much strength or force is being generated by a specific technique. They begin to understand that they can, and in this realization comes confidence and personal power as well. While greatly simplifying matters, science (physics) generally views power as the rate at which work is performed upon an object. In order to really understand this, we must know what "work" is in a scientific sense, but in a more general sense can comprehend that in order to develop power, one must be willing to perform work. In a very basic sense, work is determined by multiplying the amount of force generated on an object by the overall displacement of said object, or how much an object is moved from its original position. Thus, power is a measurement of force, speed, and movement. Force and movement we now have developed, so it is relatively obvious what must come next.
To me the WTSDA red belt is all about learning how to perform the required techniques and movements correctly, but with greatly increased speed. Scientifically, speed is usually expressed as distance traveled divided by time: 55 miles per hour, for example. In order to increase our speed, then, we either need to decrease distance traveled in a given amount of time, decrease the amount of time it takes to travel a given distance, or decrease both the distance traveled and the amount of time it takes to travel that distance. Given that acceleration is a function of the change in speed (or velocity) over time, and that acceleration is also a component of force, we know that in order to accelerate a given technique to a certain speed, we can apply additional force as well (Acceleration= Force / Mass). This is the mistake many new red belts make. They try to apply more force to a technique in order to make it go faster; to take less time to perform. What they should actually be doing is attempting to decrease the total distance traveled by the mass of their bodies. This is done by making one's techniques more efficient, and by cutting out all unneeded and extraneous motion. Thus speed is again a product of coordination, balance, and focus, and by increasing speed, we automatically increase power as well. Red belt is the synthesis of correct movement, but something is still missing.
Up to this point, students have been primarily working on the how, and, more specifically, how to move. It may seem shocking to some, contrived to others, and cliche to the rest, but it nonetheless remains true that until this point, we have merely been learning to crawl, then walk, and have just begun to comfortably run. The journey has barely even begun. In the World Tang Soo Do Association, blue belt is a stage between the Gup and Dan ranks, known as Cho Dan Bo, or black belt candidate. If we accept that white through red belt represent childhood, the blue belt is adolescence. We have learned how to move, and now must begin to learn why. It is here that application becomes paramount. When we learn how to move correctly and combine this knowledge with knowing why, we can actually begin putting our techniques to good use, and can begin to develop an arsenal of useful tools for both self-defense and self-improvement. This is not to say that students are not taught applications for specific techniques up to this point, nor that students are not capable of putting their knowledge into action prior to this stage. I do however believe that application of techniques up to this point has been, for most students, more through rote memorization of movement than by intuitive action, even when our goal as instructors is to teach and develop the latter. It is this intuitive action, or unconscious competence for those familiar with the term, that we strive to develop at this stage. Being able to apply a technique means being able to effectively use it without conscious thought, and while I do not believe that most blue belts can do this every time with every technique, I absolutely do believe that it should be happening sometimes. If it is, the challenge becomes finding a way to reproduce this, and the blue belt is on the right track. Doing something instinctively and without thought is a great achievement for the blue belt, but it is not, and should not be, the end.
Wait, there's more? Those familiar with the Four Stages of Competence know that "unconscious competence" is the final stage, right? Perhaps not. I would argue that if one is truly completely competent with something, one must be able to teach and develop that competence in another. In order to do that, we must be able to do more than simply perform a certain technique or skill without thinking about it. We must actually know how we perform the skill without thinking about it. This leads to what some claim (and I agree) is a fifth stage: conscious competence of unconscious competence. For the sake of simplicity, we will call this understanding. It is at black belt that we should begin to see how all the pieces we have been given fit together, and it is here that we begin to see the "bigger picture". No, I am not saying that I expect a black belt to show a complete understanding of his or her chosen art. That would imply and end where there is no ending. Instead I am saying that I expect to see at least a spark of understanding in candidates who are testing for black belt. I expect that they are just beginning to see how it all fits together, that it is in fact " all the same", and that the destination is not remotely important to the journey itself. I expect to see the potential for further understanding to be developed, and to see the desire to pass on what they have learned to others. I expect to see a synthesis and synergy of coordination, balance, focus, power, speed, and application. I expect to see this understanding grow and change as the student moves through the higher degrees of black belt. Finally, at some point, I expect to see black belts realize that they have in fact been unconsciously incompetent, and don't actually know what they think they know. It is then that they can begin their training and learn to become coordinated in a whole new way.
Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.