What Makes You A

Black Belt?

When I started training in Krav Maga, back in the late ’80s of the last century, I didn’t know quitting was even an option. I had the honor of being trained by great people who learned directly under the founder of the system, and some of them have done a lot to contribute to the safety of their community and others, to the security of the state of Israel. Krav Maga instructors were not easy to find back then. I was lucky, very lucky, to be around the right people, at the right time of my life.

They say a black belt is a white belt that never quit.  there is, obviously, a little more to it than that, but the basic principle still applies.  not only in martial arts but in life itself.  life is (or should be) a journey in constant self-improvement.  how to be a better person, parent, spouse, friend, worker, manager, etc.

I mention this because I recently awarded a black belt / expert level in krav maga to a lifelong martial artist and a very dedicated instructor & a student, Breo Vazquez.

the myth about how the different belt colors in martial arts were formed is a great analogy (and a good story) to the evolution of learning;

Back in the early days, the function of the belt was to keep the gi closed. The belt was white, just like the gi. belts aren’t washed, and over time turned into black.

 you could identify the level of experience based on the belt color and that became a sign of respect on the mat.

the belt would start to deteriorate after long use and slowly turn back into white again.

When I was a student (I still am, and always will be), I used to think that when I reached that recognition of proficiency I would be an amazing fighter and, I wanted to believe, ‘untouchable’. this perception is far from reality. When I finally achieved my first Dan I had my 5 mins of happiness and sense of accomplishment. But then I realized how much more there is to learn. And also how little I know in comparison to how much I want to know. 

 just as the belt transitioned from a pure empty white to an imperfect black to be distilled into pure white again. That leads me to a whole other discussion about krav maga as a system, not just my personal journey in it. but I will elaborate on that at a different time.

Many of the students reached out to Breo to give congratulations and ask how it felt.  Surprisingly, to what seems like a straightforward question, he couldn’t come up with a straightforward answer.  The simple and most obvious is that it is a huge honor and recognition of over 15 years devoted to the craft (plus many more before, and concurrently, to other martial arts). achievement of a certain level of proficiency in not only the “what” of the art, but the “how”, when”, “where”, and, more importantly, the “why”.  but there is more to it than that.  earning a black belt is not just a ribbon to be hung on the wall.  It is a humbling responsibility to carry on, maintain, and even improve the krav maga legacy.  it’s not the end of the road, (or even the beginning of a new one).  but a continuation of the same old one, except that now you are leading the way and serving as a reference point for all students that come after you.

If you think about it, a regular student only owes a responsibility to his/herself for the quality of their training.  if you fail, you are “only” failing yourself.  as a black belt (and as an instructor), you are not only responsible to yourself, but to everybody else that looks at you and says “ah, so that’s where I need to get to”. 

Handing the belt to Breo was exciting to me, just like it was for him. I am honored that a life-long martial artist is accepting this award from me. The teacher & student relationship is not a one-way street. the teacher (should) learn from the student just as much as the student learns from the teacher. If the student doesn’t acknowledge his teacher, the teacher won’t grow either. 

To conclude, becoming a black belt doesn’t start with a test, nor with a ceremony. It starts with a mindset of dedication to self, and once you learn something well, willingness and commitment to share it with others (“with great power comes great responsibility”).

so knowing more also means being able to give more to others.

There are always reasons to stop pursuing a hard-to-achieve goal. life gets in the way, injuries, other obligations like work and family and whatnot. The fact is that less than 1% of all students ever reach such a senior level (especially if you exclude from the stats the black belts that are given to people for political reasons, or because they paid enough money to purchase them).  but this is what makes it more special.  At the end of the day, a black belt is as much a testament of technical knowledge as it is of willpower, persistence, and resilience.  The only question remaining is “are you willing to put the time and effort into it?”

Everyone can get to that level with resilience.


Tsahi Shemesh