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Remote Aikido Dojo

When there is nowhere else to train

Quotes that need to die #3

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Our quote that needs to die this time is that old chestnut that appears all over social media. It usually takes the from of an ‘inspirational’ meme. I can see why it would work that way for some people but really, this one is just dumb. Ready for it? Here we go:

“A black belt is just a white belt that never gave up.”

Are they though? I mean it’s a lovely sentiment, but that’s all it is. Importantly though it really doesn’t hold true. If you aren’t a black belt then sure, it’s totally inspirational and that’s a good thing. It encourages the new beginners to keep training and they will eventually get that black belt. For those of us that already have a black belt it affirms that we are better than the students that quit.

So what’s the problem with this? If it encourages the new people and makes the experienced ones feel better, why do I think this quote needs to die? Well, it’s really very straightforward and focuses around a simple but utterly undeniable fact. It’s a lie.

Yes, you read that correctly. There is nothing about this quote that is actually true. Well, in fairness, a little of it is true, but the wider implication of it, that in order to get a black belt you just need to keep training, is not.

I grant you that seems harsh. In some ways it is, I’m suggesting that a black belt is beyond the reach of some people. The horrible truth though is that it really is. We’ve all been on the mats with people that you just know will never achieve one. It doesn’t matter how much they train, they’ll never attain the standard. It’s sad, but also the reality of the situation.

A great many things go into attaining a black belt. Many of these things are dismissed, mostly because we never consider what actually goes into earning one. The implication from this quote is that it’s nothing but time. Maybe a bit of patience and some determination, but really, just time. Keep on doing this and you’ll get there.

Before we get too far into what the quote leaves out let’s take a better look at why the aspect of time is simply not true. Allow me to rephrase the quote to leave the sentiment but make the absurdity of it clear in all it’s erroneous glory:

“An Olympic Games gold medal winner is just a beginner that never gave up.”

Now hopefully you can see how ludicrous that is. While both that statement and the original quote are technically true in that the second case (the black belt/winner) was a white belt/beginner, that only applies in the specific case and this quote is making a wider generalisation. It is true that every gold medal winner was at some point a beginner, every black belt was at some point a white belt. Unfortunately, this in no way means that every beginner can win a gold medal, or that every white belt can become a black belt. The conclusion does not logically follow the stated argument.

Sidenote: Obviously there is a big difference between being good enough to win a gold medal in the Olympics and being good enough for a black belt. I’m well aware of the enormous gulf between them; however, it’s the sentiment that we’re looking at here. The exaggeration in my version highlights the flaw in the original.

If you accept the supposition that time is the only determining factor in what makes a black belt then yes, this quote would be true. I’m pretty sure there isn’t an examiner out there that thinks time is the only factor. This raises the inevitable question of what else makes a black belt?

Quite a lot of things actually. Let’s look at them, but in no particular order.

Knowledge of the basics - without a mastery of the basics of aikido then you cannot obtain a black belt. That seems to be a generally agreed upon factor in awarding the rank of shodan. Where it differs is in the interpretation of ‘mastery of the basics’. Some people have much higher standards, some people have much lower ones. Regardless, all agree that you need mastery of the basics. This is where we run into a major problem. Despite what some people would like you to believe, we are not all physically equal. Not everybody can do everything. It just doesn’t work like that. It would be wonderful it was but it isn’t. Someone that is ambisinistrous is extremely unlikely to attain the required level of skill. It’s not impossible, just very unlikely. Mastering something requires some modicum of natural ability. It doesn’t have to be much, but you do need some. Without it, mastery will always remain just out of reach. In this case, that would mean a black belt too.

Dedication - this is so important. Without the commitment to turn up to training, day after day, year after year, you will never reach the stage of black belt. Although I have just stated an element of time there, this is not a time thing. This is force of will thing. It requires mental fortitude to train enough to reach the rank of shodan. Especially at the beginning. It’s all too easy to skip training and have a pizza instead. The journey is littered with students that missed a class because they were busy, a second because they were tired. Then a week became a month, a year, and finally a story about how they did aikido once while their gi gathers dust in a drawer. The dedication required should neither be overlooked nor underestimated.

Sacrifice - this goes hand in hand with the dedication but is such a big factor that I consider it separate. Anyone that attains a black belt has made significant sacrifices to get there. These aren’t just the obvious ones either, like time. You clearly can’t reach the standard without sacrificing your time, time that could have been spent doing something else. It goes a lot further than that though. Money is the next obvious one here. It will cost you a quantity of cash to reach the standard of black belt. Some places charge for gradings, some don’t. Almost everywhere charges for training. If you were lucky enough to find a place that doesn’t charge for training you still need insurance, and a gi. You also have to get to the dojo. Not everyone lives within walking distance, travel costs money (so do shoes). Another sacrifice that you are going to make is your health. It is almost impossible to train for the length of time and with the commitment required to reach shodan, without injuring yourself. It’s not inevitable but accidents do happen. It’s a simple numbers game. You get thrown at the ground thousands of times and chances are that on at least one of them you’ll land badly and injure yourself. Maybe you were tired, maybe the nage was tired, maybe somebody got distracted. These things happen and an injury is just a mental slip away. It’s far too easy to tweak a tendon when applying a joint lock, especially among kyu grades.

There are a few others as well, and they vary depending on who the coach is, but most agree on the above things when you ask them about it. It’s a fairly safe bet that you can never achieve the rank of shodan without these things. It clearly takes more than just time.

A final aspect of this quote that is worth pointing out is that a black belt isn’t the end of your journey. When people are awarded their shodan a huge number of people say something like, ‘congratulations, now the real journey begins’. They’re indicating that now you’ve mastered the basics you begin to really learn the art. This is not a completely insane statement. Depending on your organisation there are at least 8 levels of black belt, of which shodan is only the first. This is not good news for the quote.

As alluded to before there are very definitely limits to your progress. For some people those are in the kyu grades, for others, it’s in the dan ranks. Just as with reaching black belt some people will not attain the standard required to progress beyond it. They will never reach, for example, sandan.

Even if they are then a further harsh reality comes to light. They may find themselves lacking in an unexpected skill. Politics. Many an aikidoka fails to get promoted in their organisation because they aren’t well liked by the right people. As terrible a thing as it is, in many organisations, the key to advancement in higher dan grades is dependent on who you know, and whether or not they like you. It can be a highly political exercise to reach a level beyond yondan.

The concept that all you have to do to get a black belt is keep training, is simply false. While it may be inspirational it is still a lie that students are being told. No instructor worth their salt should be lying to their students.

This quote, needs to die.