Sensei and I have been discussing Black Belt Cycle a lot lately. It’s a difficult process, and we have figured out that since 2007, when we had our first black belts entering cycle, he has led about 27 cycles.
Every single one is different. And it’s a learning process through each individual cycle.
Our first candidates had to do all the classes, were made to run each week and were timed, and had to run three miles under 24 minutes. They also were timed at doing 100 pushups under three minutes, 100 crunches under two minutes and 100 squats under two minutes. Our Power Weekends and Exams were a lot more intense and demanding. It was intimidating – yet very rewarding. And even though I was his first real student, I did not make the first cut of Black Belts. Yes, I was recycled. I was recycled again for my second, and my third degree, which resulted in Brandon getting his third degree before I did (even though I got my second degree when he got his first degree). I feel I am right where I should be.
We always try to keep the finger on the pulse of what Shihan Sgarlata is doing, and he adjusted his to two miles under 16, so we changed ours. We have run into the struggle of feeling like we had to award a Black Belt to someone because they had put in the time, could check things off the checklist of requirements, even though they were not really a Black Belt in the truest sense of the word.
Many schools do just that. Their Black Belt tests consist of getting in front of a group of judges, breaking a few boards, performing a kata or two, and sparring a couple of rounds. You pay the fee and get your Black Belt.
Others require you to spar all the other Black Belts in the dojo and beat them to get your Black Belt.
To us, Black Belt is much more than what you can do physically. It’s more about overcoming a struggle to learn the indomitable spirit required to get through life. That doesn’t mean you can neglect the physical requirements, however, it makes earning a Black Belt so much more special and rewarding.
Imagine a Black Belt who can run two miles under 16 minutes, do all the crunches, sit ups and squats, can do the katas well and spars relatively well, but is a jerk to the other people in the dojo. Imagine that same person is a bully. Is that a Black Belt?
Now, imagine someone who can perform all the physical fitness requirements, has a good attitude, but can’t remember basic katas? Are they ready for Black Belt?
The next scenario is another student who can perform all the physical fitness requirements, can remember the katas, has a good attitude, but has terrible form. Is that person a Black Belt?
How about the student that can do everything easily, doesn’t have to work at it, is not a jerk, but doesn’t go out of their way to make an effort to improve or be stronger? Are they a Black Belt?
How about the one that’s trying really hard, can do the physical requirements, struggles with form and remembering the katas, is a good student and meets all the requirements for attendance. Are those things alone worth awarding a Black Belt?
Much more goes into the evaluation of a Black Belt than what meets the eye. It’s not a checklist. It’s a journey. Just like everyone’s life journey is different, everyone’s Black Belt Journey is different.
I, personally, love the recent approach to Black Belt. Some students will have it easy and the requirements won’t be difficult. This approach allows us to challenge them further by increasing the requirements. Some students have it hard. Maybe they have a physical disability that we can make adjustments for. This allows us to do that. Some students just need a better attitude in some way, and we are able to help them improve and make their world a better place.
We have never had a the parent of a Black Belt who we have “recycled” come back and say they believed their child was ready before and we should have promoted them. No student has said that they felt they were ready before either.
Daily we get parents coming to us sharing that they wish their child would be more responsible in their training, that they don’t want this given to them, etc. So we have always felt we are on the right track.
This is not a race. This is a journey. A worthwhile one. One that I hold very highly in my life and would not trade for anything.
When Sensei and I see something in someone that we feel we can bring out of them, in time, that will make them feel the same about their martial arts journey, it would be robbing them of that experience if we were to settle for where they are. We get no reward for them getting a Black Belt, other than being proud of them. As it is our name that represents the Black Belt, we feel it is our responsibility to make each student the best Black Belt that they can be, so they can be proud of their achievement, and not have it be belittled as something everyone gets.
We get no joy in telling someone they are not ready. It’s heartbreaking and we risk that student or their parents giving up on the goal.
It’s something we carry with us all the time. Is Black Belt training tough? Hell yes. Should it be? Hell yes.
If it wasn’t, wouldn’t everyone do it?
Now to the point of this message.
We have been informed that it is confusing to discuss first cycle, second cycle, prep cycle. And that it demotivates the students. We apologize for any confusion. We had thought it was clarified in the meeting and handouts. We received no questions about it, so we didn’t understand it was such an issue until it was brought up by a parent who informed us that all the parents are confused.
These terms are not meant to be demoralizing in any way. We explain clearly that if you are not training, you are not really ready for cycle. We have also explained that this cycle is not a full cycle as we are adjusting the times to make it more palatable for families with holidays and summer and school. In order to do that, we have three cycles this year. This is challenging. We apologize for the confusion.
Here are the definitions and then some explanations for each of the terms.
First Cycle – You received your High Red Belt recently and have not really done much training to prepare for Black Belt. You probably need some improvement on your techniques, don’t remember many of the earlier katas and have no idea what pumping kicks are. You will probably enjoy this cycle to get to work, learn how to train for Black Belt and prepare to promote in the next cycle. This is also for those who are going for Second Degree, Third Degree, etc. as they are required to do two six month cycles. Those that were eligible for their first cycles to start in February have begun, but will actually not be promoted until next April (extending their year by two months).
Prep Cycle – This is really a synonym for first cycle, but the terminology changes because it makes it less stressful to the student. You’re preparing to enter a final cycle. You’re getting a feel for what it’s like to be in cycle, but not really putting in all the work because you are not getting promoted at the end of this cycle. If we recommend a prep cycle, it’s because there is a lot of work to be done and that it may not be reasonable to see all the results in one cycle. This can also be for students who maybe had to take a break for injury or life.
Final Cycle – This is where you must be not only training hard, six days a week, but your training should be demonstrated by clear improvement in class. Your spirit and energy should be high. Your form on every single technique should be picture perfect. You should have a creative ready to go. You should be able to run two miles without stopping. You remember all the katas and train them regularly. You are focused on what you need to do, not what you want to do. This should be a rather difficult time. As we said above, if it is easy, everyone would do it.
Last year, our cycles began and ended in August and February. There were six months of cycle during which time you completed your training logs and attended the required number of classes. During the first two months, we did not have candidate class. As the third month began, candidate classes began, along with checkpoints (Precheck 1, 2, Preexam and Power Weekend) during which time you were evaluated for the progress you had shown and were recommended to continue training or recycle to the next cycle. We implemented the Boot Camp in September and it was met with enthusiasm so it will be something we do each cycle.
This year, our cycles began in February and will end in June, cutting two months off the preparation time. So if you are starting your first cycle, which you can’t begin until you have had your red belt, we recommended going for the October/November Graduation because it is basically three months of cramming in training and examinations. We really recommended this only for those who were just not quite ready in the last cycle which ended with our February Black Belt Spectacular (that began with 25 people in it).
If you are determined to complete the cycle in the first one, at the point of our meeting in January, you really should have been prepared with all the requirements listed on this handout for Final Cycle.
Our next cycle will start in June, with candidate classes that begin when school starts back in August, with the Spectacular happening at the end of October/beginning of November.
The following cycle will begin in November, with classes beginning in January after we come back from Christmas break and will complete in April, which is when Sensei will be going through his own final cycle and we hope to have Shihan Sgarlata down to award him his 5th Degree.
You may not know that Sensei has to go through cycles as well. Often it requires him a lot of travel to New York for training and testing. He may be training right along side of you during these cycles, as he is about to enter his year of training for 5th Degree. If he completes it in April, it will be the first time he has not had to overcome injury to promote. Yes, Sensei has been recycled as well. He knows it’s not easy to hear it, but he is always respectful of the recommendations for improvement by his instructors.
We are always faced with doing the right thing and doing the thing that is easy.
It’s easy to let someone slide into a Black Belt they don’t deserve, but it’s robbing them of something supremely special. It’s robbing them of a chance to prove their abilities, to test their indomitable spirit, to find their perseverance. The right thing, and the thing that Sensei is really good at is seeing potential in people. He’s amazing at seeing where they need growth and helping bring the best out of them. That looks different on each student. And it’s a struggle because he feels it is his job to help prepare these students for what the world has for them. This causes him a lot of turmoil because he truly cares.
Our world is filled with lots of wonderful things, but it also has bullies, threats and people who are trying to tear you down. This doesn’t go away as an adult. We are always trying to find the good in things, Sensei feels he must also prepare our students to deal with the not so good. As a Black Belt, we should be confident telling someone to stop hurting us, whether it’s our feelings or physical pain. As a Black Belt, we should be able to deal with someone yelling at us and not cower in fear. We praise a lot. A lot more than other martial arts, a lot more than school and a lot more than life does. However, we can’t go through our cycle telling kids they are doing everything “great” if they are not. They cannot know what is necessary to improve if they are not corrected on what they are doing wrong.
As a Black Belt, we should be able to hear advice as it is given and apply it to ourselves. It’s important to be aware of our body, our surroundings, our strengths, our weaknesses. We should be able to take criticism from our mentors and apply the necessary correction. If we are not able to do that, how can we really be a Black Belt?
The goal is to be proud of that belt. Not just to get it, but to earn it. People who are jealous of your achievement will test you. They may try to belittle your Black Belt. Sometimes it will be physically, sometimes it will be mentally. However, wouldn’t you rather feel strong knowing in your heart and mind that you had undeniably earned it?
Martial arts is about mind, body and spirit. We want to challenge your mind by having you remember things, apply your knowledge to your body, be aware of the form that is taught and apply it. We want to challenge your spirit by helping you believe in yourself. The best way to believe in yourself and learn to not give up when the going gets tough is to overcome something you thought you couldn’t and experience the pride, the belief in yourself.
When we express that a student is not ready, it’s not a punishment. It’s not revenge. It’s not that we want to hold everyone back so only a few get it and it’s definitely not because we want more money from you, in fact, we expect to lose some students when we tell them they are not ready.
We have had people bring in their whole family to yell at us when we have recycled them, only to have them go on and become that amazing Black Belt and continue on to this day, thanking us for building that perseverance in their child.
We love each and every student and want them to experience what we’ve experienced. We want them to feel that feeling that comes from overcoming the things they thought were impossible.
If you have thoughts on this, we welcome you to share them below.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and more importantly, thank you for being part of our dojo family. We don’t invite people to become part of our dojo family that we can’t care about, you’re here because we invited you to be, and we are honored that you allow us to be part of your life and share in your journey.
Sensei Crissi Boyer