How Does It Feel to be a “Black Belt?”

On hearing the news that I earned my Shodan (1st degree black belt) sometimes someone will ask me how it feels to be a “black belt.” Mostly this comes from friends who are not themselves martial artists. Sometimes a fellow karateka or other martial artist will ask. No matter who is asking this question they all have at least one reason and, at some level they want to show their interest in my experience. Maybe they’re making polite conversation and acknowledging my success. Perhaps it’s curiosity with a tiniest smidgen of envy. Some enjoy comparing their own experiences with mine. Sometimes it’s a kohai (a student who is lower in rank) who is anticipating their own future achievement. A few people challenge me to look deeper and really think about my feelings regarding this milestone.

Let me back up to 10/15/21, the day before the test. I drove out of state with my parents to get to the motel near the hombu dojo (headquarters for the karate organization I belong to). This was a rare treat due to the pandemic and we were very glad to have had our third round of vaccinations against COVID-19. We chose to drive through a rural area to bypass the traffic in a major city. All along the way I noticed the gorgeous fall colors. The sunlight through the autumn leaves was striking. The trees were in transition. Something in me resonated deeply with this. I felt like I was in transition too.

A couple of days after my successful test the trees started letting go of their leaves. I felt like I was letting go of some things too. I let go of the stress of training for a test that might be cancelled again. I had already been disappointed by the cancellation of the 2020 Dan-rank (“black belt”) testing. The uncertainty of whether or not the test would happen in 2021 was one of the first leaves to blow away. I also let go of some of the intensity in my personal practice time and restructured my workouts back to normal (versus training specifically for the test). I feel like just as the trees are preparing to rest, I am too.

That’s not to say I’ll goof off – I most definitely won’t. After the test I allowed myself two days of rest then I was back on the mats for the first class after my test. But it’s very restful to be in “winter mode.” I have time to learn more, to fix the things I need to fix, to take time to learn my new kata(s) (forms) well. This is now my journey, and right now my idea of making the most of this time is to tinker, to recalibrate, to adjust, to delve deeply into bunkai (application of forms), improve my kumite (sparring), and most of all to just enjoy this stage in my training. Now that I’m not training for the test I’m back in “learning mode” and it’s great.

Being in “learning mode” doesn’t mean I won’t be teaching! I have already covered for my sensei since earning my new rank. But that’s nothing new, really – I’ve been substitute teaching and assistant teaching for years. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have plenty of experience teaching karate. So what’s different now that I have a pretty black bit of cloth around my waist? Um, they call me, “Sensei,” (teacher) now, not “Senpai” (more senior rank). That’s pretty much it. Or is it? I admit I feel like I’ve come into my own and I like having the formal credential that acknowledges I know the material well enough to teach it.

There’s a full-length mirror in the locker room and for awhile my reflection with the beautiful new black belt startled me a bit. “Whoa – that’s Sensei Joelle!” I’d think to myself. I’m starting to get used to my reflection. It didn’t take me long to get used to being called, “Sensei Joelle.” I think perhaps my awareness of being in transition helped.

I told my sensei I was super excited to be able to learn and grow for awhile without a test looming around the corner. My sensei told me the soonest I can expect to test for Nidan (2nd degree black belt) is two years. I very nearly said a bad word. It absolutely does NOT feel to me like two years is enough to prepare for Nidan. To be honest I don’t think I would have done as well on my Shodan (1st degree black belt) test if the test had been held in 2020 as planned. I feel the extra time was very beneficial to me. So there is a silver lining to this infernal plague after all.

It all worked out. In spite of COVID-19 I earned that belt. Or maybe because of COVID-19 I earned that belt. Stay tuned for my next blog post, “In Spite of X / Because of X.”

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

5 thoughts on “How Does It Feel to be a “Black Belt?””

  1. Congratulations on achieving your Black Belt! I have been catching up with your blog. So exciting. It was hard to have things delayed due to the pandemic. This affected my testing schedule too, and it was frustrating, but you are correct: There are some benefits to slowing things down and using the extra time.

    1. Thank you so much, June – and apologies for the late response! What did you test for? How’d it go?

      1. Thanks for your reply. I also tested for Black Belt, the only rank we call by a belt color, all the others in our kung fu program are called levels. We have a two part BB test: the first is broader and tests the breadth of your knowledge (and your stamina, lol). I took this in March 2020, just days before the quarantine! (It was just when it happened to be scheduled.)
        The second test usually occurs about 6 months to a year afterwards, and it focuses on one or two forms and/or movement that our instructor thinks we need to work on. It is not nearly as physical, but targeted more on technique. This one I had to wait for closer to two years, but it was fine. The pandemic really made me slow down and I did not stress about it nearly as much as I did the first test. I was just so happy to have online tests during quarantine that it made me appreciate what we have in our studio. It sounds like this happened for you too.

      2. Wow, June! Definitely some parallels in our experiences. Congratulations!!! That is so exciting. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! All the best to you in your new phase.

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