Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Test for a Black Belt

Hi, I’m Tom Callos and I’m just about as experienced in the martial arts as anyone (Oh sure, there are lots of people who started studying before me in the 1960’s and even in the 1950’s, but with 38 years of study “under my belt” and having been involved in almost all aspects of the martial arts –and considering I’m sitting here at my computer typing this, I hope you’ll give me a few minutes of your time).

When it comes to black belt testing, there are no universal standards or requirements. I mean, while there are some organizations that have set their own fine standards, there isn’t a single requirement that every school of every style in the world says, “This is required!” In fact, the truth is that any school can set their own standards and requirements for black belt testing –and they do, and those requirements can range from the ridiculously easy to the life-threatening stupid (and everywhere in-between).

Now this lack of universal standards isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like regionalism, as in going somewhere and not seeing the same fast-food restaurants, the same giant box-stores, the same everything until every town in Wisconsin looks like every town in California looks like every town in Texas, if you get my drift. Styles of martial arts shouldn’t look the same –and the circumstances that an art like judo developed under aren’t the same as the Russion art of sambo or the Filipino art of kali or the French martial art of savate, so it’s very OK that styles should have different customs and requirements.

What I’m here to fill you in on, is HOW one should test for a black belt (or if the “black belt” isn’t used in a particular system of martial art, then whatever it is that marks the passage between knowing nothing and knowing a lot –and having from between 3 and 10 years of experience). The black belt test should be an event that causes the participant to have to “rise to the occasion.” It should be an event that is a right-of-passage, sort of the way some cultures put their young men and women through some kind of arduous test (you know, like going out on a “vision-quest” or a “walk-about” or living through one of those big debutante balls where your family has to spend more money than God to get your picture in some blue-blood newspaper or magazine).

Of course, nobody on the planet Earth has any authority to make martial arts teachers tow-the-black-belt-line, if you know what I mean; so some black belts are just handed out (“Ok, here you go, you’ve earned it. Now let’s go out for pizza.”) and some look like some kind of college frat-house hazing (Sorry, no water or food for 3-days and you’re going to sit here and meditate for 8-hours, then you’re going to fight these 10 black belts until you can’t hold your arms up --and then we’re going to start your test. Oh, and at the end of this thing, we’re all going to kick you in the stomach. Good luck.”).

With all of the above being said, let me get to the point here –and tell you how I think black belt testing should be:

A black belt test should be your Olympics. It ought to make you reach, grow, stretch, and change. It should be something you work for, in advance, 1, 2, 3, 4, and even 10 years; and I mean “work for” as in “in-training” –where every meal, every workout, every day is lived with an awareness that the test is coming. Why? Because life just doesn’t give you many of those kinds of opportunities (any more). Testing should make you eat differently (and with great awareness). It should be a reason to get in the absolute best shape of your life. It should cause you to look deeply at how you deal with stress, conflict, and anger. A black belt test is one of those rare opportunities where you can change just about anything about yourself that you want to –and that you should, and nobody would think less of you. In fact, people would say something (in each other’s ear after you walk out of the room) like, “He’s getting ready to test for his black belt.”

If everyone treated their black belt test as if it were THE MOST important and empowering day of their lives, well...shoot, people would change (and for the better), the martial arts would get more recognition and respect for some of the things that are, really, most valuable about studying, and if we were really lucky, the world might be a wee bit better for it –as it would be filled with more people who hold themselves to higher standards.

To see more on black belt testing and how it might look if it were, indeed, treated as something important; visit the experimental black belt testing project called The Ultimate Black Belt Test ( You’ll find some very, very serious martial arts people there (people like us, and/but living with a serious case of “I’m on a mission.”).

Oh, and see my martial arts association at

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