Mushin martial arts head coach , BJJ black belt and wellness mastermind Erik Owings hits another home run with this really well thought out blog post about what a black belt really means in any martial art.
Hands down one of the smartest practitioners in the arts Erik has a wealth of knowledge and anyone able to should take the opportunity to learn from him his main academy is located in Manhattan website is Mushinnyc.com
Erik Owings – Blackbelt stands for Beginner
The title isn’t click bait. It is a fact. At least for Japanese based martial arts. Shodan means “beginner’s degree.” Far too many people think it means you are a master. I have written much about the coveted blackbelt and sometimes I get a lot of slack from people in the community.
There are plenty of blackbelts who have a really solid understanding of the full spectrum of jiu jitsu and they actually have a really solid understanding of many other complementary martial arts such as judo, wrestling, kickboxing, and escrima. They have self defense, sport competition, and mma competition knowledge and often times experience. They are the complete package that continues to improve over the years through technical advancements in the art and resistive training.
Then there are those who get good at reciting a certain passage of jiu jitsu poetry if you will.
They have a really good passing or sweeping sequence. They have a nasty heel hook or triangle choke. A vicious spider guard or half guard game.
They are fairly ignorant to a vast majority of jiu jitsu but in a real life roll or competitive match they can drag you into their game and beat the piss of almost anyone. Because they can beat in competition any blackbelt, they are considered a world class blackbelt.
A specialist does great until they have to fight a well rounded person for real. To be fair, the specialist isn’t guaranteed defeat in the all out combat. As their opponent could be dumb enough to fight them where they are strongest, or they may just happen to be a real master and be able to coerce whoever they want to fight them on their terms. So I won’t say that all specialists are hackers. Some are quite intelligent, extremely skilled, and absolutely worthy of the ranking and praise.
great fight of one of canada’s most well rounded jiu-jitsu practitioners Carlos newton vs Pele Landi.
There is a wide variety in the quality of blackbelts in jiu jitsu (from my own experience) and I would imagine most other martial arts as well. Since there are many distinct interpretations of what constitutes a blackbelt I think it isn’t really fair to say the real way is beating the belt above you to get your next belt. I think it should be a curriculum. If I had to explain vaguely without giving away my secret sauce it would be as follows.
-Self defense against ignorant uses of force
-Kickboxing: Offense / Defense
-Closing the Gap
-Takedowns: Upper Body and Lower Body
-Closed Guard: Defense / Offense
-Open Guard: Defense / Offense
-Half Guard: Defense / Offense
-Back: Defense / Offense
-Mount: Defense / Offense
-Side Mount: Defense / Offense
-Transitional Positions Past Guard: Defense / Offense
-Choke Holds: Defense / Offense
-Arm Locks: Defense / Offense
-Leg locks: Defense / Offense
-Striking on The Ground: Defense / Offense
-Gi and No Gi Application of all of the above
That is what a blackbelt should know. Some categories only have a few really relevant moves and some have a dozen or more. This can all be taught coherently and systematically over the course of approximately 3,000 hours and the person would be highly skilled.
Some may cry, “3,000 hours is too short, everyone knows it takes at least 10,000 to master something!” I say to those people, “Stop quoting Malcolm Gladwell’s dumb ass!” His book Outliers was a gross manipulation of the research of Anders Ericsson. His research shows it takes 3,000 to 20,000 hours to reach mastery. Gladwell just said 10,000, and the world assumed that must be the facts.
Plus, lets go back to the beginning of the article. Shodan means beginners degree, not master. Blackbelt means you can speak. Any 4 your child can speak their native language just fine. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to learn more, it just means that they are able to speak.
That is what the blackbelt should be in jiu jitsu.
Then you don’t have this elitism, where all blackbelts walk around like they are a Renzo Gracie, BJ Penn, Murilo Bustamante, or Damien Maia. Those guys are legends and there are hundreds if not thousands more. However so many people act like getting a blackbelt is a major achievement, when in actuality is as significant as being able to speak a new language. It is a skill and just that.
Not to diminish it to nothing, but being good at jiu jitsu is no different than being good at Call of Duty or tennis. It is just where you choose to focus your efforts.
Now if you have logged in over 3,000 hours of real training and you aren’t good at jiu jitsu in both the gi, no gi, and understand how to fight for real. Then you may want to rethink your training program.
I was able to speak Portuguese fluently in less than a year. Why? Did I grow up speaking Spanish or some other latin language? Nope. I just studied and practiced with a nation full of Portuguese blackbelts. I made lots of mistakes and got laughed at a bit, but also had a lot of people correct me and teach me once they saw that I wanted to learn their language. Imagine if I just learned how to tell women they are beautiful, say witty phrases, some popular slang, and swear words.
Kinda like learning how to pull guard and leg lock or triangle choke. Maybe I would be effective at making people laugh and getting laid, but I probably wouldn’t be fun to talk to for somebody who can’t speak English. That is how most people are in jiu jitsu. They are fun to train with for another competitor but not for the average person because their jiu jitsu has too many holes and uses too much strength. The ego dominates the training and teaching.
Sticking to the language analogy. Imagine if you never learn the alphabet and never get taught correct pronunciation. Imagine if people tell you certain topics are off limits and you shouldn’t talk about them. You probably won’t learn the language.
Another thing to consider is application of what you learn. I consider myself a Shodan in Portuguese. I got to where I can have a fluent conversation but never went deeper. It served it’s purpose for what I wanted from it. I think that is how most people view jiu jitsu.
The vast majority of practitioners do not want to compete in jiu jitsu tournaments or mma matches. Most do not want to even get into a street fight. They want to learn a skill that could one day come in handy but hopefully that day never comes. They want a way to improve their health and fitness while being involved in a community of like minded people from a broad spectrum of society. However most people are being led astray about the difficulty and commitment of what it takes to get a blackbelt in jiu jitsu.
3,000 hours isn’t much, considering the average person watches tv or internet over 40 hours per week. That means in 18 months the person could put the same amount of time into jiu jitsu. To be fair the body would probably break down. So lets say 10 hours per week. That would take 6 years. That isn’t a lot of time when you get down to it, but it is way too much time if you don’t want to actually do it. In the end the only thing that matters is the journey, not the destination. I must say my 3rd degree blackbelt means nothing to me at this point in time. I know that I know way less than I would like to know about so many things. I’m not a master, I am a practitioner. Everyone can get their blackbelt and they should aim to be a blackbelt in many things.
Better yet instead of Shodan, beginner’s degree, I would like to suggest that we all strive to achieve Shoshin, beginner’s mind. I will leave you with the words of the great D.T Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Jiu Jitsu Kaizen Shodan Black Belt Shoshin