What It Means to Be a Black Belt?


Respect in Taekwondo

(Written by Kenneth Yi in 2011)

On a popular social networking Internet site called Facebook, as I write this essay, there are currently 12,904 members that have joined “I’m a Black Belt in Taekwondo.”  My guess is that many of those black belts were asked the same above question as one of their requirements before obtaining their black belt in Taekwondo.  Furthermore, when you google the exact above question (Webster dictionary finally made “google” an official verb), you will be able to read all the different responses for many days as the search will give you 1,740,000 results.  If you google “what black belt means to me,” you will get 4,160,000 results.  In reading a few of the posted answers I realized that each person went through different  experiences in reaching their black belt.  Therefore, at the end, it appears that everyone has a different opinion about the meaning of being a black belt. When you compare some of the answers posted, only a few writers really try to answer the question “what it means to be a black belt.”  Instead, one can not help but notice that most writers are telling their stories about their journey in finally obtaining the black belt in Taekwondo.  Possibly, one of the reasons is that most writers obtained their black belts at a young age.  At younger age, it is more difficult to understand  what being a black belt  truly represents. My grandfather was a life long practitioner of Kumdo reaching 9th  degree and served in Korean athletic development  in many capacities.  Now he is mostly remembered as a founding coach of a Kumdo team at a major university in Korea (http://medikumdo.com).  He wrote an article which said that martial artists not knowing the meaning of “Do” are just simple hoodlums that learned how to wield a stick.  He stressed  that the meaning of “Do” should be realized by all of us and practiced  not just inside the dojang but more importantly outside in our daily lives.  Furthermore, he emphasized that we are never perfect but constantly striving to reach that perfection.  He said, possessing those characteristics and attitude constitutes a true martial artist. Similarly, Casimir Loeber wrote,

“In my opinion, there is a huge difference between being a black belt and having a black belt.  A black belt is after all a black piece of cloth that is tied around ones waist.  On the other hand, being a black belt is something profound that represents who you are to the core.  With enough effort almost anyone off the street can work out enough to accomplish the physical feats associated with having a black belt, but if takes someone truly special to embody what being a black belt represents.  A black belt represents the never ending quest to perfect your mind, body and soul; to treat others and the world with respect and to hold you to the highest standards possible.”

Although written many decades apart and at two extreme ends of the earth, Mr. Loeber’s and my grandfather’s article tell the same inherent message.  Mastering the physical techniques is required in order for one to advance in ranks to reach the black belt.  Many hours of dedicated training will transform a student to perform physically at the level that is expected of a black belt.  But one must at the same time learn and understand “The Way of Taekwondo,” the “Do” portion.  Striving to apply the tenants and commandments of Taekwondo in our daily lives is very important.  Understanding what the true meaning of being a black belt is just as important as knowing how to execute the poomse to perfection.  Therefore, I believe that being a black belt means that one sets an ultimate goal of trying to reach that perfection of the mind, body, and the soul. Most professional athletes retire before reaching 40 years old.  The physical demands of a sport will take a toll on an athlete’s body.  Soon, one will realize that they can’t compete at the level that they are accustomed to or wanting to.  When an athlete realizes this fact, they will usually hold a news conference and tearfully announce to the world that they will quit.  Achieving  the goal of a black belt in Taekwondo has taken me 6 years.  I will be turning 48 this year.  I can remember many days that I was so sore from training that I could barely walk.  Adam Aronson wrote,

“I have always believed that difference between a black belt and a white belt is the black belt just did not quit.  This is to me the most important meaning black belt and the reason why I am still pursuing it.” (http://www.mhka.com/index.php/black-belt-essay-mainmenu-52)

Not quitting and reaching the black belt has made me feel younger and my body stronger.  Becoming more flexible has alleviated many aches from simple daily tasks.  The confidence that I have gained allows me to feel more youthful in spirit.  The realization that you are coordinated enough and that you can control you body to perform Taekwondo techniques gives you an increased sense of empowerment.  Being able to train in Taekwondo with younger classmates has been a blessing.  The grimacing faces of the fellow students next to you as you stretch and cheering each other as we spar will always be cherished.  Because I will continue to tie the black belt in dojang means that camaraderie we share with each other will continue.  Finally, the sense of improvement I gain from day to day as I train further is satisfying.  So, being a black belt means that you are maintaining your strength in your body and nurturing your youthful heart. Here is a part of the essay written by Thomas Lynch, 3rd Degree Black Belt.  He concluded his essay by writing,

“I’d like to thank my mom for enrolling me in Tae Kwon Do at the age of four, and taking Tae Kwon Do with me.  I’d also like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Lightfoot for putting up with me when I was a crazy little kid back in the day.  Without their faith in me, I would not be standing here today.  Thanks for a great 10 years, and here’s to many more.” (http://leadbyexampletaekwondo.com/benefits/testimonials/thomasl.html)

Taekwondo has been a great activity for my family.  Just riding to and from the classes together with my kids has been fun.  Sharing about Taekwondo has brought us much closer than any other activities that we have done.  There are only two kinds of people in this world.  Either you are a black belt or you are not.  Once you are a black belt you are forever recognized as a black belt.  Quitting at blue belt in Taekwondo is never mentioned as a person’s list of accomplishments.  The legacy was left from my grandfather to us.  Being a black belt means that I can continue that legacy down to my kids.  Becoming a black belt along with my kids will always remain as the biggest accomplishments in my life.  One of the most important reasons of becoming a black belt for me is that I will be able to continue this common bond with my kids forever.  To me that is priceless. I have observed that most students stop training once they reach their black belt as if they are graduating.  I like to tell them that black belt means that we have just learned the basics and it’s a new beginning.  Becoming a black belt means reaching a fork in the road that will start a new journey.  The kicks have to improve; the forms have to be done with more precise stances and more life lessons to be learned inside dojang.  I was told by a professor that when he was conferred his PhD degree, his mentor told him that it’s only a license to do further research and continue to learn on his own without supervision.  He emphasized that the degree wasn’t to show that now he knew everything.  I know there are so much more to be learned.  That’s why black belts are given as 1st dan and not as 9th dan in Taekwondo.  Even as a black belt, one must maintain the commitment to learn as if you were a lower colored belt. Written by Dan titled: Does your black belt define you, or do you define it?  He concludes by writing,

“It’s the opinion of other martial artists which are most influenced by the ‘dilution effect.’  Telling other martial artists that you have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do means little if anything (I believe this effect has most damaged Tae Kwon Do).  This, of course, is not limited to Tae Kwon Do, but applies, to some degree, to all styles and schools.  The people that truly know what your black belt is worth, is your fellow students, and your instructor.  Finally, you are the only person in the entire world that understands what your black belt means.”  (http://roxomedia.wordpress.com/blackbelt/)


“Respect has a great importance in everyday life.  As children we are taught (one hopes) to respect our parents, teachers, and elders, school rules and traffic laws, family and cultural traditions, other people’s differing opinions.  And we come to value respect for such things; when we’re older, we may shake our heads (or fists) at people who seem not to have learned to respect them.  We develop great respect for people we consider exemplary and lose respect for those we discover to be clay-footed, and so we may try to respect only those who are truly worthy of respect.  We may also come to believe that, at some level, all people are worthy of respect.  We may learn that jobs and relationships become unbearable if we receive no respect in them; in certain social milieus we may learn the price of disrespect if we violate the street law:  “Diss me, and you die.”  Calls to respect this or that are increasingly part of public life:  environmentalists exhort us to respect nature, foes of abortion and capital punish insist on respect for human life, members of racial and ethnic minorities and those discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, or economic status demand respect both as social and moral equals and for their cultural differences. And it is widely acknowledged that public debates about such demands should take place under terms of mutual respect.  We may learn both that our lives together go better when we respect the things that deserve to be respected and that we should respect some things independently of considerations of how our lives would go.” (http://plato.standord.edu/entries/respect/)

Black belt means to me ‘respect.”  I believe that because I have the respect for what Taekwondo is and all that encompasses, I was able to reach to black belt.  Without that respect that I have gained along the way, I probably would have given up and stopped training.  Training in Taekwondo has a mystic quality.  It feels like I did not become a black belt but that Taekwondo slowly transformed me into a black belt.  It is hard to explain with words.  Taekwondo deserves the utmost respect.  The advancements in ranks were exciting and challenging.  But, there had to been more than obtaining that next belt.  The whole training process has been a humbling experience for me.  And, I realize that it was the respect for Taekwondo and what Taekwondo represents that helped me persevere through the training  to reach the black belt.    At the end, it will be the respect for my black belt that will further me along in ranks.  The understanding what respect is and more precisely what “mutual respect” represents, is what I believe to be the true meaning of being a black belt in Taekwondo.  The black belt in Taekwondo signifies “mutual respect.”  A mutual respect is the only way that will lead to positive results in everything we do.  At the end of each class, all students recite the 10 commandments of Taekwondo.  The black belts should add as 11th commandment “respect your black belt.”