What is a Dan grade and how to deal with becoming one - some personal reflections

Discussion in 'Karate' started by Llamageddon, Apr 19, 2011.

  1. Llamageddon

    Llamageddon MAP's weird cousin Supporter

    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.
    Monkey_Magic and Sarute Uchizaki like this.
  2. Osu Llamageddon,

    A very agreeable read; thank you for sharing a little bit of your personal experience.

  3. John Titchen

    John Titchen Still Learning Supporter

    Gosh, this does get around doesn't it?

    Good article Llama. :)
  4. Llamageddon

    Llamageddon MAP's weird cousin Supporter

    Indeed! Some fool even put it on their website!
  5. Simon

    Simon Administrator Admin Supporter MAP 2017 Koyo Award

    Facebook, jwt's site and here. Are you on a bonus?

    Good article LLama.
  6. Llamageddon

    Llamageddon MAP's weird cousin Supporter

    Pay-per-click ;)
  7. Kwajman

    Kwajman Penguin in paradise....

    Llama's make wonderful blackbelts, they have great kicks, hard to punch, and will spit at you if all else fails...
  8. JackMcCann

    JackMcCann Valued Member

    I'm a judo and jiujitsu guy, but really as your article focused on karate, it can be applied to all martial arts with a belt system. Thought it was great, thanks for sharing.
  9. LawOfEye

    LawOfEye Valued Member

    a very good article , helped ground some of my wondering thoughts . thought i was the only one who felt like this .
  10. 47MartialMan

    47MartialMan Valued Member

    Nice article. But often I wonder, if the black belt had not existed, how many would remain to some area of further progress. To what would have become of those, who had not it as a symbol.

    Still, a great read
  11. jujitsu91

    jujitsu91 New Member

    Osu, that was very enjoyable . My experience was once i achieved my black belt the next time i came into class wearing a white belt . it was very hard for me to accept what i had become. i have been training in kokoro kia jujitsu for over 11 years , and compared to my shihan i feel like a white belt
  12. ArthurKing

    ArthurKing Valued Member

    Black belt = the end of the beginning.
    Nice one Llama, diolch'ti.
  13. nidan82

    nidan82 Valued Member

    After years of training the black belt begins to get worn and fade, returning to white almost. Ironically, this could be seen to symbolise the return to the beginning, completing the circle and coming close to achieving the ultimate goal. The empty mind.
  14. dentoiwamaryu

    dentoiwamaryu Valued Member

    Black belt (1st dan)= mastery of the basics only, but with the understanding that the basics must still be constantly looked at everyday with fresh eyes. Anyone who trains for grades has no understanding of BUDO. Anyone who trains with no interest in the grades will. I got my shodan in 2002 and sandan 2006, I always try to look at the basics as its my first time (which is hard), I never think I know how do IT.
  15. kitkatninja

    kitkatninja Valued Member

    How did you know? :)

    But seriously, excellent article :)

  16. JackMcCann

    JackMcCann Valued Member

    Also ironically, in judo when you become 10th dan you get a broad white belt with a bit of red in it. Looking somewhat like a beginner! lol
  17. selenagemez

    selenagemez New Member

    good article..thanks for sharing
  18. quietwalker

    quietwalker Valued Member

    Well said. I was strangely conlicted after my first shodan. It felt like a journey of ten thousand miles was placed in front of me. I was expecting to feel.....more accomplished but all i felt was, "i know nothing".
  19. gorinnosho

    gorinnosho Kendo Addict

    Very good article. I'm a shodan of a few months and i'm finding training harder and more frustrating than ever. It is good to know this is normal. I'm told in my assosiation you grow into the belt, so i intend to keep training. My sensei also trains Koryu Uchinadi, so that helps shake things up. I attend Gasshuku and seminars and want to start looking at other clubs to, not many in town have Shodans though. I'm not up for black belt competition yet though.
  20. querist

    querist MAP Resident Linguist?

    Diolch yn fawr, Llama! That was well written.

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