Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Your Belt is Meaningless, pt. 2: Don’t Train for Rank

Read part 1.

Unlike a lot of activities, martial arts usually have a built-in motivational system. Belt ranks, because they are inherent indicators of individual progress, allow us to use them as goals. Virtually everyone who joins taekwon-do wants to get their black belt one day, and the other belts act as stepping stones toward that larger goal.

Instructors push that goal of a black belt, and for good reason. Keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize is a way to retain students. But even the least selfish instructors still want to see their students attain the competence and prestige that a black belt is supposed to symbolize.

Something that most of us know, but may not always think about, is that there’s more to TKD than just rank. No one starts out just to become a black belt. And what happens when you do get your black belt? What’s your goal then? Using belt ranks as motivation can be a good thing, but it’s a good idea to have that take a backseat to other, more personal goals as well.

Have you ever been playing a video game, or other sort of game, and just gone through the motions of unlocking multiple achievements even though you don’t find it fun anymore? You’re no longer playing because you enjoy playing, you’re doing it just to win.

Putting your primary focus on rank can feel like this. The black belt becomes an end in itself and you can be left wondering why you’re even training anymore.

Your interest in TKD, like anything, will have its peaks and valleys, and sometimes keeping your eyes on that next belt level is all that’s needed to keep you active until you re-awaken your passion. But if your only goal is a black belt then your training is hollow. There is no magical promised land at black belt. You will not suddenly unlock the Hidden Ninja Secrets of Mystery™ that will make you an all-powerful being. If you don’t enjoy yourself now, you won’t enjoy yourself then.

Thankfully, very few students train solely for the reason of getting a black belt. Most do it because they enjoy TKD as a hobby. But sometimes we still put too much emphasis on the attainment of rank instead of on personal development.

By personal development I don’t mean becoming better people through TKD. I mean becoming better at TKD itself.

Yes, the longer you train and the more hours you put in, the better you will likely become. And advancement in taekwon-do tends to happen alongside advancement in rank. However, your instructor can’t understand exactly what drives you to train. Another person can’t really understand what improvement means to you.

As instructors, we can only go by what we see and define what your improvement is to us. We want to make you into the best technical martial artist that we can. But there’s more to TKD than being able to perform a perfect block or kick. There’s room for personal goals as well. And we can’t define those for you.

Whaddya want?

There was a time when I was on hiatus from formal training and I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to return. I knew I had enjoyed TKD in the past, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of it anymore. Rank had been one of my main goals, but now it didn’t mean as much to me. From a competitive point of view, I knew I would never be the best in the country. From a self-defence standpoint, a lot of TKD schools aren’t geared toward effective street self-defence (and what’s the point of training mainly for self-defence anyway?). As a workout, I could get exercise in other ways. And I didn’t think I wanted to be an instructor again.

But eventually I started to miss the regular training at an actual dojang. I got back into it and realized how much fun it is to me; how much of an intellectual and physical challenge it is. But I still wasn’t 100% sold.

One thing that helped me was to define some of the things that I wanted out of my training. Having a fun hobby was the most important thing, but there can be so much more. Reaching your next belt level is great, but it’s a good idea to sit down and really think about what you want to get out of your practice aside from your eventual rank.

Do you want to get in better shape and have fun while doing it? Do you want to be able to defend yourself should the need ever arise? Do you want to try to become a national champion? Do you want to become an instructor? Do you want to try to understand the ins and outs of the history and methodology of a unique martial art?

What you want out of your TKD training is personal to you. But once you have your goals defined, you can start to work toward them. And a good instructor will try to help you with that if you ask them. Sometimes you’ll be on the right path anyway. But sometimes you’ll have to make some drastic changes to how, or maybe even where, you practice.

As instructors, we should be encouraging students to find their own goals independent of rank. This will foster a culture of more engaged students, and will hopefully help us to become better instructors as we figure out how to help people achieve what they’ve set out to do.

The reason I say all of this this is because becoming a black belt may not unlock the Hidden Ninja Secrets of Mystery™, but it does open a new world. You’ve reached the goal that was set in front of you for so long. Now what?

A black belt doesn’t make you a master. It means that you’ve learned the basics and can now move on to really understand taekwon-do. There’s so much more than what you’ve learned so far.

A lot of people quit at black belt because they no longer have goals for their training. They’ve reached their goal of rank and haven’t found anything else. Getting to the next black belt degree takes so long that they lose interest. But having rank-independent goals can help you overcome this.

Maybe reaching your black belt is a stepping stone to help you achieve those goals. Maybe you can work toward them without having to worry about your rank at all. Either way, having objectives besides the color of your belt can keep your training fun and challenging even when interest in some aspects of it are temporarily waning.