Monday, August 11, 2008

It’s Time to Upgrade Your Idea of the Black Belt

It’s Time to Upgrade Your Idea of the Black Belt

by Tom Callos

Last year’s model was great. It’s a classic. We’ll never build them like that again! But this year’s model takes advantage of all the technology, all the learning we’ve done, all the mistakes we’ve made, all of the road-testing and repairs, and it’s designed, specifically, to deal with the world as it is today (and my, haven’t things changed!).

Nobody has to tell you that the world is a fast changing place. I just saw a video on YouTube of an anthropologist studying YouTube, who said that in just 6 months time there was more video loaded there than all of the TV programming created since the first television program aired in the 1950’s. Wow.

In the martial arts, some things have changed, dramatically, and some have not. One of the areas that I feel has not evolved enough in the martial arts is what it takes to earn, wear, and “be” a black belt.

Just the other day I watched a class in a martial arts school that was exactly like watching a black and white rerun of a TV show I first saw in 1971. The teacher was using the exact same methods, terminology, material, and class structure that I experienced when I started my first lessons in taekowndo in 1971. Now back then I thought it was all very cool. But now, 38 years later, I recognize it as not very cool, or practical, or even very refined. It might be “old school,” but it didn’t represent a school, in my opinion, that reflects the many years of growth, development, ideas, and education that have transpired since then.

What is a black belt?

No, the question should be, “What is the potential of a black belt?” It’s not what is that needs the most attention, it is what could be –if we changed our approach, intelligently redesigned our materials and methods, and modernized our expectations for being a black belt.

How does one prepare for the black belt test? What is the curriculum? And is it all physical? Does it all take place on the mat? Do we, as teachers, have the ability to teach our students to take their martial arts “out of the dojo and into the world?” And is there a way to measure, quantify, and record this process?

I am deeply involved in the 6th year of an experiment, a “project,” specifically designed to revolutionize the what, where, and how of black belt testing in the world. The program is called the Ultimate Black Belt Test (UBBT). It is less of a “program” fixed in stone than it is a flexible and dynamic experiment to see what happens when we dramatically change our thinking and approach to testing for –and living as –a black belt.

The UBBT is, in my opinion, less of a black belt test and more of a Master Teacher’s training course; the first of its kind in the world. It is an experiential course that requires the participant to walk the talk of his or her martial arts, but far more importantly, it requires the participant to be a better, more cognizant, participative, compassionate human being.

Here is an excerpt of an interview that I did with What is Enlightenment? magazine that defines how I think about the rank of black belt:

What Is Enlightenment: What is the Ultimate Black Belt Test?

Tom Callos: The Ultimate Black Belt Test is a hero's journey—exodus, epiphany, and return—and passing it requires a physical, mental, and spiritual transformation ... Preparing for and taking a black belt test should be like preparing for the Olympic Games: win or lose, you are shaped by it. You go for it, full out. You hold yourself to the highest standards. You step out on the line and reach for a sliver of perfection.... To me, being a black belt is more than a physical experience. Yes, a black belt should be able to execute precise, effective, beautiful, and technically proficient martial arts techniques, whatever the style. But just as importantly, a black belt should be able to execute precise and beautiful ideas, equal to or better than their physical techniques. A black belt should have an attitude equal in its brilliance to his or her physical skills. What makes a master is not physical skill alone but mental clarity, emotional maturity, and spiritual awareness.

To read more about the UBBT and/or to see a film made on the project by Academy Award Winning filmmaker Nancy Walzog, visit

The 13 month + UBBT 6 has begun, cut off for enrollment is January of 2009. I’m looking for a group of black belts, serious, career-oriented martial arts practitioners, who are interested in being in a project that’s intent is to change the martial arts world –and THE world –for the better.

It's time we re-design what it is to be a black belt in today's world. The UBBT is a training program for people who want to have a say in the best way to make that happen.

Tom Callos

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