Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

A Black Belt: 1 in 10,000

Black belt motivational poster

A while back, I saw this motivational poster online. I believe it’s meant to do a couple of things: to motivate students to get their black belts and to congratulate existing black belts for accomplishing a rare and monumental achievement. Grammatical and mathematical issues aside (if 20 people out of 10,000 get their black belts, then a black belt can’t be 1 in 10,000) if most of the numbers are accurate, I find this poster less motivational and more sad. (I have my doubts about said accuracy, but the numbers are fine for a hypothetical illustration.)

It’s sad because if it takes 500 students to get one black belt (that’s 20 people out of every 10,000), that doesn’t mean a black belt is a rare and special achievement. It means we have a serious retention problem.

Retention problem?

First of all, I don’t think I’ve yet seen a club that has had 499 students drop out for every one who makes it to first dan. I don’t know how a club like that would survive. But the fact is there is a lot of attrition at every TKD school. From an extremely rough estimate, I think I’ve seen clubs where just one out of every 100 or 200 students will make it to black belt. That’s counting students who try out TKD and quit almost immediately, and those who just stall out over time and never make it to black belt.

Even if the numbers aren’t as grim as the poster would have you believe, why do we still lose so many students? For one, despite what we all want to think, a black belt is not that special. At least not to the world at large.

Have you ever heard the saying “a black belt is just a white belt who never quit”? That saying exists for a reason. Wearing a piece of black cloth around your waist doesn’t mean that you’re an all-powerful superhuman being capable of destroying armies with your fists. It also doesn’t mean that you’re an elite athlete. It means that you’ve stuck with your hobby and achieved a high degree of proficiency, relative to your own personal abilities.

That’s not to say that a black belt isn’t special at all. It is… to the person who wears it (as it should be). But almost anyone can get a black belt if they want to. Yes, you have to put in lots of hours and pass some challenging tests. But those tests are designed to be challenging, not next-to-impossible. So the fact that very few people reach the rank of black belt probably means that most of those people—for whatever reason—simply didn’t want to continue.

Losing interest

One of the reasons they don’t continue is that most people in the world just aren’t super interested in Taekwon-Do. And that’s fine. People have varied interests and priorities.

Taekwon-Do is not really a mainstream activity, especially for adults. Sure, lots of people will try it, but they amount to just a fraction of the people who try activities like hockey or basketball. Most people in the world know that TKD isn’t for them without ever taking a class. Some people will only learn it’s not for them after trying a few classes. That’s to be expected. You can’t win ‘em all.

There’s also the fact that most people who play any sport will stop playing at some point in their lives. They might lose interest (especially kids, as they grow up) or they might have more important things to do. Life happens.

So some people will learn that TKD isn’t for them; others will have competing priorities that keep them from going to class. What about the rest? What about the people who just lose interest?

Back to that retention problem…

Every club can expect to lose students. But if an instructor is losing several hundred students for every one that gets promoted to black belt, that’s not something to be proud of. That instructor should take a serious look at what he or she is doing and find out why the students are leaving. Something probably has to be fixed.

I’ve heard Taekwon-Do get compared to school. White belt is like starting out in kindergarten. By the time you’ve reached black belt, it’s like you’ve graduated high school and are attending university. I think think that’s a fairly good rough analogy.

But can you imagine if we said the same thing about high school diplomas that we say about black belts? Can you imagine if for every 10,000 people who started school, just 20 graduated? And of those, only five finished their first year of post-secondary school? We wouldn’t be proud of the teachers. We would have to completely overhaul the education system.

Luckily, we put more value on education than we do on activities like Taekwon-Do. So people are more likely to stay in school than to stay in TKD class. But my point still stands: expect to lose some students; don’t expect to lose them all.

Yes, as the students climb the pyramid of belt colours, you can expect to keep fewer and fewer of them. And yes, no matter how many students come and go, the instructor will still be there teaching those who are in class at the moment. But if there are constantly too many new faces, that instructor should not feel noble for being the one to stick it out.


Homepage photo link CC logo Anthony

  • Hi Kevin! As you say, no matter what the real numbers may be (and I’d say 1/100 is more accurate than 1/10,000), retention is a frustrating puzzle. All we can do as teachers is provide as much value as possible to students… then try not to take it personally when they quit anyway! Keep kicking!

    • Thanks for the comment. Providing value really is the key. Every club will lose students because some people aren’t interested in TKD, and others can’t make it to class. That’s OK. But I’ve seen too many clubs lose people because they just didn’t provide enough value to their students.

      • Of course, the trick with providing value is that different students typically seek different things from martial arts. So, even when a teacher provides great value in one area, other areas may be left neglected. You just can’t be all things to all people!

    • Face

      Ando…..I would state that the numbers are correct(+/- 5% deviation)…..but then again…it all depends “if” the place someone goes to is a “belt factory” or the real deal…..BIG!!!! difference….my son attends both…

      • Right. One school may award a black belt in one year while another takes 10 years. It’s tricky to generalize about anything in the martial arts! 🙂

  • Thanks for the comment. Providing as much value as possible is the key. Every club will lose students because some people aren’t interested in TKD at all or they can’t make it to class. But I’ve seen too many clubs turn people off because they just don’t provide enough value to the average student.

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  • Face

    My son started when he was 5 turning 6…..he/I have endured and watched how kids come/came and went/go…..he is now testing for his 2nd Dan and is currently ranked #2 in our state and in the top 40 in the USA….unfortunately for him….he is only 11…but competes against 12-14 year olds….due to the structure of USA TKD…….needless to state…..I an/was quite amazed at how many kids quit after either reaching a certain belt or time frame….whichever comes first…..very sad…….the statistics are correct