Taking the Black
I’ve been asked more than a few times how long it takes to earn a Black Belt in a martial art. The quick answer I always give is “five to six years, depending on the student and the school.”
I’m going to delve into that a little more, using some of my own experience to fill out the numbers. None of this is set in stone, but there are a few certainties.
A typical class goes for about an hour and a half, unless it’s a weekend, which can go for at least two hours. That’s about five hours a week, 260 hours a year. At the six year mark, that racks up 1440 hours — sixty days.
Doesn’t sound like much does it?
Clearly you can’t do that time all at once. Not even at eight hours a day (which expands the overall time frame to 180 days). Any sort of exercise is a controlled form of self-inflicted damage and healing. When you consider that martial arts involves a good deal of impact based conditioning, that makes recovery even more important. And that doesn’t even take into account the time off you have to take due to work, vacation, sickness or injury, or even the extra hours you put in drilling in kata by yourself.
That’s why it takes five to six years to get just that far, and as I’ve said before, black belt is just a milestone, not an end state.
There’s some “You Wills” along the way:
You Will Get Hurt
You’re studying a martial art. That means you’ll be hitting things, whether in the course of conditioning, bag work, or sparring. If you’re not doing that in the course of your training, you’re not in a very good school. Martial arts is an application of physics, and with every action comes an equal and opposite reaction, so when you hit something it hits back. You bruise a shin, pull something in your elbow or shoulder, or get a black eye because you led with your head*. You take the time you need to heal. You put ice on it to keep the inflammation down. You take a little more time to stretch to make sure you don’t make it worse.
And you endure.
You Will Doubt Yourself
You make mistakes along the way, and you’ll get the corrections you need to improve. Sometimes, though, you just can’t get that step right, or that one piece of a kata or bunkai gets away from you. Maybe you get that bit of instruction you need and you go “how the hell did I miss that?” You wonder if you’ll ever get it right, get on track, pass that test for rank when it comes. Even if you’re in a school with a regular testing schedule, you still have those spans at specific belts, and they only get longer the further you train.
And you persist.
You Will Hit A Rut
The only way to get good at a martial art is repetition, tempered with good instruction. That repetition gets to be a pain in the ass. You find yourself enduring the boredom, because if you don’t you won’t make it. You don’t ask the instructors when your next test will be — that only holds you back. And then that kata just does not get any easier because you keep finding corrections and nuances upon which you can improve.
And you repeat.
You Will Be Humbled
Along the way you realize that being a Black Belt does not make you a master. Maybe you’ve become stronger, quicker, more aware, but you’re not superhuman. In fact, you’ve become cognizant of the dichotomy between the power and frailness of the human body. You understand the difference between the years you’ve spent and the decades your teachers have undergone, and that there’s still a lot to learn.
And you accept.
If you don’t, you’ll never make it. You’ll stagnate, get frustrated and quit, most likely before you take that last critical test.
After I passed, I got something from the Okinawan KarateDo Association. It’s like a diploma — definitely something I would frame and hang on my wall — but the three most significant words on it are “Certificate of Proficiency.”
It’s a good reminder that once you get there, you’ve only just begun.
*True story: I never knew there was a floating bone in the ankle until I popped it out of place after landing a round kick off my sparring partner’s elbow. Didn’t hurt. Luckily, there was a chiropractor in our dojo at the time and he popped it back in with no fuss. THAT felt weird.