Taking The Martial Art Black Belt Exam Beyond Technique

Is a martial arts black belt more than just a piece of cloth to your students?

Is a martial arts black belt more than just a piece of cloth to your students?

Ah, the Black Belt test.

That rite of passage that marks the entryway from beginner into the ranks of those who are recognized as no longer being novices, but something closer to fully accomplished martial artists.

Now, I’m not about to get into what I think the physical requirements for a Black Belt test should entail; that’s something each school owner needs to figure out on their own, based on their own style and curriculum.

However, what I am going to discuss is making your Black Belt test mean something more than just a workout and a rank promotion – to instead build into your exam a learning and growth experience that will help students expand their awareness of the need for having an interest in and a caring attitude toward others.

The Need for Instilling Interests that Go Beyond Self

With the widespread onset of the fractured family unit, and the proliferation of two-income households where both parents work outside the home, working adults have been ever more hard pressed to effectively parent their children.

And, while the trend in child development has been toward providing constant positive reinforcement and praise for children, the results of children hearing this constant positive reinforcement are playing out in quite the opposite manner than child development and pop psychology pundits originally intended.

According to a 25-year study released in early 2007, we are now seeing the most self-centered generation ever entering colleges and the workplace. Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University studied this trend toward self-interest and narcissism during her involvement in that study. In her words, “We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back. Kids are self-centered enough already.” (Source:AP article http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17349066/)

Without a doubt, there’s a need for instilling the values of community involvement and helping others in younger students. And, it goes without saying that by having adult students participate in kind, we present a value system to our communities that transcends winning tournaments and beating the bloody pulp out of someone in a cage fight.

So, let’s examine a few ways we might implement tried and true methods to make your students’ Black Belt test into a true growth experience.

Requiring Volunteer Teaching Hours

In my schools we have always required red belts and brown belts to log 50 – 100 “classroom assistant hours” before they can qualify to test for first dan. The purpose is to instill a sense of responsibility in the students. Moreover, it’s their chance to give something back to the school.

My ultimate goal when I have a student doing classroom assistant hours is that they learn how to be invested in the progress of others. And, in light of the aforementioned study, I think you’ll agree that there’s never been a time when the value of servant leadership has been more relevant.

Key to this approach is reminding the student of their role in the school as an advanced student, and emphasizing that they were once in the same shoes as the students they are working with. This helps engender empathy in the candidate, which could be considered a prerequisite to developing more than a purely self-serving interest in the needs and goals of others.

Putting It In Words

Another requirement for my students who are testing for Black Belt is that they write an essay on what Black Belt means to them. I’ve seen this done in many ways in other schools around the country. While this practice may be familiar to you, I’d like to offer a few pointers on helping your students get the most out of the experience.

First and foremost, you should instruct the students to present their essay in their own words. A good way to do this is to ask them to include a particular experience they recall from their journey to this point, and to expound on how that experience helped them become a better person.

Just allowing your students to regurgitate a bunch of platitudes they’ve heard you or other martial artists spout about the Black Belt is not going to serve them at all. Make it clear that you expect them to tell you quite honestly how they benefitted from their training, what they are most proud of, and what, if anything, they might do differently if they could repeat the experience.

By forcing your students to reflect on their life experiences, you are helping them learn to identify, clarify, and verbalize their values. Even with younger (“Jr. Black Belt”) candidates, this sort of exercise can be of great benefit.

– Mike Massie

P.S. – If you haven’t implemented a martial arts character education program in your school, now is a great time to start. Check out my book on Amazon, Martial Arts Character Education Lesson Plans for Children, for information on how to start a program in your school.


  1. Brent on January 16, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Hi Mike,

    I get your newslettter and I like the look of this site as well. You always offer some nice stuff. The ideas mentioned above are good, too. I hope you can add more on this topic – as I bet a lot of teachers need it.

  2. Mohanakrishnan on January 21, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Hello Mike
    Thanks for sending me this link.It was interesting to read.However I feel that all rankings should be done away with.Certificates of proficiency can be awarded to students who are not into the arts full time.Those who are full time instructors should get a graduate and post graduate degree with instructor training.This is about five years full time so that means you get instructors who are serious about training.Senior instructors could get a Ph.D in martial arts.Im looking forward to the time when martial arts are offered as University programs.There would be no ego hassles.No body asks you what your rank is.They only ask you which year you graduated.Hope you will expand on this in your forthcoming articles.

  3. Mike Massie on January 21, 2009 at 5:24 am

    Interesting comments on rank Mohanakrishnan! Yes, I agree – dan ranks are not all they once were. However, it’s become a part of martial arts culture that I believe is here to stay, for better or worse. And, the challenge with offering martial arts in university is deciding which arts to teach, and then deciding which curriculum, etc.

    I personally believe that university programs are a valid way to train instructors (like the program at Radford U). However, I believe that to *completely* confine martial arts instruction to the academic setting would essentially be passing a death sentence on the arts; those in the educational field have a tendency to want to freeze those fields of knowledge they study in time. Keeping an art stagnant and under glass is the antithesis of what the martial arts are all about.

    Having said that, I certainly appreciate your viewpoint, and agree that it would be nice to see the martial arts taught as a formal program in more universities. Perhaps as the industry evolves into a recognized profession we’ll see more programs follow.

  4. Susan Walsh on March 24, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Was looking on the internet about “volunteerism” in martial arts schools because my sons’ school “encourages” teacher training and volunteering. They are to put in countless hours training, cleaning, teacher assisting and then teaching. I was bothered with this. I looked it up in the labor code, and any “commercial business” is not legally allowed to use volunteers. To take it a step further, if the business can’t run without volunteer hours, that adds to the fire. You might want to check into the law when it comes to requiring the “giving back to the dojo.” Community service not service to the profit-making business of the martial arts school is a way to get students to “give back or pay it forward.”

  5. Mike Massie on March 24, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Susan, it sounds like you’re angry at your son’s instructor, and perhaps you have the right to be so.

    Still, my students always enjoy chipping in, and the fact is no one has to complete their requirements for black belt – it’s an opt-in process. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.

    Getting back to your issues with your school, maybe it’s time to find another school, or another activity. It’s a free country, and you can choose to go to a school that doesn’t ask the students to help out around the studio.

    As for the legal aspects, thanks for the heads up. It’s funny though… when they do it in the public school system, I believe it’s called “good citizenship”.

Leave a Comment