Being a black belt…lesson on respect

You know, as a practitioner of martial arts for over 38 years now, I look around quite often and try to understand what I am seeing being passed off in terms of training these days. While I believe in some ways we have excelled over the past in how we train and teach students in many other ways we are seriously lacking. One of the things that bothers me is the number of schools who have dropped teaching etiquette and traditional standards of instilling both expectations and respect for their Sensei. It seems that many modern schools don’t teach their students what is proper and what is not in terms of being a black belt, or even a student for that matter. To help outline some things that every good, valuable and honorable martial artist should know I wrote them down for you.

  1. Visiting other dojos, attending seminars or camps. When a student wants to visit a different dojo or attend a seminar / camp they must seek approval from their Sensei first. Going to another dojo without the approval of the Sensei is considered very rude and disrespectful. Today many people skip from school to school as if it were no big deal but one must always seek their Sensei’s guidance in terms of attending other places to train. Most Sensei will not care and some will even write you a letter of introduction but this is an important process that must never be taken for granted.
  2. Thinking one’s training only takes place on the mat in the dojo. Many students today do very little for their dojo other than show up and participate in classes. The reality is that every student has a responsibility to help their dojo grow, keep it clean and help with projects, moves and other things. Your training doesn’t just take place during your scheduled class and to ignore this part of your training is very disrespectful to your Sensei. Many schools schedule cleaning days, spruce up days or big project days like moving to a new location and what not. When a senior student, brown belt or black belt, doesn’t even bother to show up to help out then they need a lesson in humility and integrity. It is even worse when a high ranking black belt student doesn’t show up or thinks they are above helping out. If that is the case then that person should go back to wearing a white belt for some time to teach them that they are expected to lead by their actions…they haven’t earned any entitlements…in the martial arts you must always be the student period.
  3. Missing events made mandatory by the Sensei. While most students will think they don’t need to attend an event the Sensei says they will participate in I am here to tell you that they are very wrong. When a Sensei makes an event mandatory every single student owes it to their Sensei to be there no matter what. By tradition if the school is hosting an event then every single student MUST attend and represent their school, the other students and the Sensei. It is part of your obligations as a good student to your art and teacher.
  4. Helping out at the dojo. Every single student who has attained brown belt or higher in rank owes it to their dojo and Sensei to help out around the dojo. While I am not talking about being an employee of the dojo I am pertaining to assisting in teaching classes when needed. Most Sensei teach five to six days a week. Sometimes they need a break or they will get burned out. There is nothing worse than a burned out teacher so all senior students should volunteer to help cover classes if they notice their Sensei is experiencing such an issue. It is part of your obligation as a student to help your Sensei at all times.
  5. Being a black belt means training. Students come and go, this is a fact, but black belts should always make it a point to train as often as they can. When I was in college I always made sure to stop in and train when visiting home. During my summer break I made it a point to be in the dojo at least a couple of times a week. Why? Because I am a REAL black belt. Sure I trained while I was in college with friends or on my own but whenever I was home it was my duty to be at the dojo and train with my Sensei. That is the only honorable thing to do and should be considered a duty by every person who earned a black belt under a Sensei.
  6. Never expect anything from your Sensei. If your Sensei gives you something that is a sincere gift. It means they thought enough of you, your training and abilities to award you something. It could be anything from a nice word about your Kata all the way to a gift like a uniform. Failing to show appreciation for the gift is very rude.
  7. Students take care of their Sensei, not the other way around. There are literally hundreds of stories from the old days about how students took care of their Sensei. Everything from bringing them groceries all the way to providing care of their property by cleaning, mowing or other things. Today times are different and most Sensei don’t need students to do these things for them but there are many other ways you, as the student, should take care of your Sensei. If a project, tournament or event is coming up then step up, ask what you can do and then do it to the best of your ability. If you noticed that something is broken at the dojo and can fix it then just do so without being asked. Basically treat your Sensei as a very important person and do so without ever wanting, expecting anything in return. This is called Giri in the martial arts and if you train and don’t know what that is then I would strongly suggest you find a different dojo to go to.
  8. Respect the Sensei. Your Sensei has sacrificed more than you can ever imagine to get where they are. Never take them for granted, their lessons, their stories or the training…ever. A Sensei will be respected no matter what and if you fail to do so then you may just find yourself being asked to find another place to train. The Sensei has walked the path you are on, they have not only been through more than you but they have triumphed over all sorts of hardships, failures and more…and they are still right there, teaching, training and improving. I often get very upset when I watch students, especially black belts, talk ill of their Sensei. 95% of the time it is just their ego talking…the other 5% of the time it might be warranted but, in the martial arts, we don’t talk negatively about our Sensei to others…we address it with our Sensei upfront period.

Being a black belt means more than just wearing that color of belt around your waist. It means you are trying to emulate your Sensei, enhance and grow your dojo…all while perfecting your martial art. So many today were never taught these lessons about etiquette and how to conduct one’s self as a black belt. Where did we go so wrong? When did training in the martial arts lose its integrity and honor? There is a reason why a GOOD martial arts school is demanding…these same lessons above define how we must treat our seniors, our superiors and more. If more people would teach this way the world would become a much better place because we all know that young people today need to learn about the values of hard work, respect and discipline more than ever.

One final word…if you are not sure if something is proper, correct or allowed ask your Sensei. In the dojo the Sensei’s word is the law and that law is unbreakable. That is part of what made martial arts so valuable at instilling respect and discipline in people.

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