Have we forgotten about our most important students?
Before we discuss whether Black Belts are students, we need to ensure that we are referring to a student who has committed a number of years of effort into attaining that rank, or similar, depending on the styles equivalent.
The Black Belt is the most recognisable goal attainable in the martial arts. It is what the general public perceive as being the benchmark to attain if you study one of the martial arts. Due to this perception the focus in most schools is in creating students worthy of earning a Black Belt. This is where the problems begin, from the first day a new student steps into the Dojang their focus, whether directly or indirectly, is to achieve the goal of Black Belt. This is reinforced over time with the progression through the belts/levels. It becomes the goal for so many that once they have attained the rank there is nothing else. The total focus on getting to Black Belt can make that seem like the completion of the journey.
It also becomes clear that people consider Black Belts to be instructors; of course they have more experience. However that experience doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to teach. This only reinforces the mentality that there is nothing beyond Black Belt. For those people who want to continue to progress they often feel they need to go elsewhere. This is commonly when people leave to study other styles, mainly as they seek to continue to learn. Chief Instructors also make the mistake of getting the new Black Belt to help with teaching and it isn’t uncommon to have new Black Belts open a branch Dojang. Being a Black Belt and being an instructor are two separate roles and should be kept that way.
There will be students who want to teach and they will follow that path and there will be students who want to be just that. This is regardless of level or grade, a Black Belt should have just as much right to only train as the newest white belt. Having an instructors program that is not tied directly to rank as a requirement but more as a choice is a major part of being able to keep Black Belt Students.
Becoming a Black Belt is a major step in most styles and it marks the end of the apprenticeship. The achievement should be recognised and celebrated as just that. However, throughout the process of preparing a student for the Black Belt test a small focus should be on covering the idea of post Black Belt progression. It is our responsibility to give Black Belts as much if not more chance to train than a regular student. After all they have shown their commitment and respect by putting in many hours of effort. If you split classes according to rank for your normal students you should also provide a class that caters for the seniors, this may not be purely Black Belts but the highest couple of Kup/Kyu levels. This not only gives the Black Belts an environment to learn but also gives you a great atmosphere to motivate the senior coloured belts.
Another area that is commonly weak and results in unmotivated or quitting Black Belts is the curriculum. So many styles try to cram all the knowledge into the belts before Black that there is nothing to learn afterwards. Coloured belt material should cover all the base movement and motion mechanics required for your style. Then the combinations and exploration of more advanced techniques should be Black Belt material. Your curriculum needs to reflect to what rank you are happy to have students. If you only want Black Belts that may or may not stay, your curriculum ends at Black Belt. If you want to create Masters your curriculum covers material to that level.
Your post Black Belt material has to be not only exciting but also challenging. The new Black Belt has worked hard to get where they are and should only expect to keep working at that level. Make sure the material is based on ideas from your coloured belt requirement but also pushes their knowledge and ability to perform those requirements. Ensure that there is also a clear cut testing procedure for testing beyond the rank of Black Belt. After most schools provide a fairly clear map to get to Black Belt, why not have the same ready for the progression beyond.
The process in my Dojangs is simple in that the prospective Black Belt is often asked about their post Black Belt goals; they are pre-framed for the idea that there is much more to learn. They are given choices on whether they want to be an instructor or student and both are supported. They are provided with a clear curriculum and guide to post Black Belt progression that takes them to the level of Master. They are shown the path that can be a lifetime of challenges and learning.
Grandmaster Geoff J. Booth