Friday, November 19, 2010

The Black Belt: What It Takes

Have you ever wondered what it means to be a black belt? When I started in martial arts training, like all of the other lower belts I was in utter awe of the black belts. It was like the superheros from Justice League had descended to earth to walk with the mere mortals.I knew what I had to accomplish to get to my next belt level, but I had no earthly idea how someone attained a black belt. All I knew is that they had to be very very good, I could tell that when I watched them practice. They were fast, lightning fast. Their moves were powerful and sure, their stances were strong and steady, their kicks looked like they could break you in two. At the time, my punches felt awkward, my stances a bit shaky, and kicks... well let's just say that kicks were my weak point for a loooonnnggg time.

So now that I'm at the point where my goal has gone from achieving a gold belt to a blue to an orange, purple, green, and brown... I'm staring at what it takes to become a black belt.  By now, the years of drilling the basics (blocks, punches, stances, kicks) have moved my technique from the shaky to the solid, from the slow to the at least reasonably fast. Adding in the kickboxing recently has started taken my kicks and punches to the next level of speed and power. I'm beginning to think that they might be approaching black belt quality. That's good!

But wait, there's more. A lot more. Learning the basics is like learning the alphabet: you can say your ABC's but you can't really read a book. Being a black belt isn't just about knowing the alphabet, it's about stringing together words, sentences, paragraphs. So the next thing you learn is combinations. This comes in the form of sparring combos (backfist, sweep, punch), defensive techniques (in our dojo, each belt learns a new defense, from defending against wrist grabs to bear hugs, chokes, and eventually to defending against knife and gun attacks), and elbow techniques (deflecting an attack and following up by using your elbow as the primary weapon). These techniques comprise the "words" of karate, just as the basics were the alphabet.

But words are no good if you can't put them together into something meaningful, and this is where kata comes in. A kata is a series of moves that you learn, almost like a dance routine (think Electric Slide, but with kicks and punches). Some of the kata are quite ancient. My favorite, Bassai Dai has many different versions, and has a lengthy history, dating back over 400 years. It is comprised of somewhere around 40 - 50 moves, depending on the version. For our black belt test, each of those moves will be watched by the hawklike eyes of the other black belts in the dojo. They will be scrutinized for form, speed, power, recoil, timing,  targeting and more. So in a nutshell, each of those moves has to be perfect or as close as we can get it.

But wait, there's more. For black belt, we have ten kata to memorize. Each of them with many moves, each of which must be performed approaching perfection. We think about and practice every detail, down to which direction our toes are pointing on each move, and where our eyes are looking.  I'm breaking out in a cold sweat already just thinking about it.

And that's just the start of it. For each kata, there are Bunkai, which are the applications of the moves in the kata. Every section in the kata is a combination of blocks, punches, kicks, turns, fisthammers, heelhands, knees, and sweeps. Each section has its own Bunkai, which is several of these moves put together and practiced with an attacking and defending side. There are often 5 - 10 bunkai per kata. You perform these with a partner.

For the cherry on top, there are the two-person sets. This is a combination of all of the bunkai in the kata, plus some other moves thrown in for good measure. Now there is no longer a single attacker and defender, but the action flows backward and forward between the two people. One person downblocks and punches, the next executes a rising block, then a strike to the forearm to take down their opponent, a kick to the chin and punch to the head. The opponent dodges backward, throwing their own rising block, followed by a fisthammer to the temple. And so it goes, trading back and forth the moves of the bunkai which have been extracted from the kata. We have five of these sets for our black belt test.

So, getting  a black belt is pretty straightforward but utterly intimidating. Simply, be a superhero. Where did I put my WonderWoman belt anyway?

1 comment:

Liz in Seattle said...

Cool! Now that I'll be testing for my black belt, God willing, I've been trying to find out what is done in other disciplines. In our TKD federation, we basically do the same kind of thing, but (natch) with more kicks. And we do the last three forms, and fewer one-steps. But we add board breaking, and three sparring sets against black belts at various levels, including two or three against one. In January, we're adding joint locks and pressure points to each level.

Oh, and if for some reason there's a physical problem that keeps you from performing a technique at 100%, an alternate method is devised. We have a 4th degree with only one functional hand/arm, so all her stuff is done one-handed. And she's so fast I can't even see her move.