What Black Belt Means To Me

This is a much longer version of the essay I submitted with my recent grading.

Just as the gold standard was once the international backing for currency, the black belt standard is the closest thing karate has to a global, understood standard. Even those who don’t do karate know what it is, even if they’ve never stepped in a dojo. Between movies and TV, the coveted black belt is world famous. Thanks to Cobra Kai, we’re seeing a resurgence in karate interest and sign-ups.

Cobra Kai - Rotten Tomatoes
The karate is so terrible, but I love this show

But what it means to others, and to me, and its value, often don’t have much overlap.

I have been a black belt since 2014, about half of my karate career so far. But what has changed from grading to grading is where I find myself; not only as a martial artist, but as a junior instructor, and a mother. When I last graded, I was (unknowingly!) a few weeks pregnant, with no idea how much my life would change, and how much my karate would be affected. (Oh, how naïve.) The ink still fresh on on my second dan certificate, I threw myself back into training, still working towards finishing up for my instructor’s license.

And then, trying to do karate while pregnant. (More on that here). When everything else was so difficult – the heartburn, the fatigue, the anxiety of impending motherhood, foolishly trying to move house in the last trimester – I still had my kata. I still had the dojo, and the students. I didn’t let pregnancy take away my karate, even though it would have been so much easier to hang up my gi for a few months. I finally understood why so many women do.

While I haven’t been able to train at nearly the same level as I did in my late twenties (with plenty of karate, no children, and marathon running to turn me into a stamina monster), I have genuinely tried to juggle full-time childcare, running a business, starting a Youtube channel (not just for the dojo, but to ensure Che’s amazing knowledge doesn’t get lost before we can write it down) and the demands of family and marriage on top of my karate. It hasn’t been easy, but I have tried my best.

Sally Ride: The celebrity-shy, first US woman in space - CSMonitor.com
Sally Ride, 1951 – 2012

Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, said once in an interview with Harvard Business Review:

I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.

I started karate entirely for myself, a long time ago in a very small dojo. But over the years, as I have advanced and outlasted many more who are far more talented, I have found myself becoming a little bit of a role model that I never set out to be. When little girls look up in the dojo, and look up at the nafudakake boards, they should see women there. Not just boys, not just men. They should see that there is space up at the top of the mountain, and at the table. Their path will be beset by challenges that no male practitioner will face (menstruation, childbearing, menopause, the list goes on), but they need to know that they are more than equal to those challenges. And yes, sometimes, they’ll have to fight harder to be taken seriously, but as Shirley Chisholm once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

So what makes a good black belt? Talent? Time? Effort? The ability to fight off multiple attackers while wearing sunglasses? Spinning jump kicks? There should absolutely be a level of technical ability, and especially maturity. The black belt is cheapened when it is given to seven year olds in American dojos.

But black belts aren’t always given fairly, or on time, or to good people – there are enough egomaniacs with self-given titles who should have been kicked out of karate by the rest of us a long time ago. There are some who have been waiting patiently while less talented, less driven people grade past them. Karate, like life, isn’t always fair.

But perhaps character still counts for something. It should count for something, because plenty of sociopaths, bullies, charlatans and narcissists bring shame to the black belts we wear. Self-appointed shihans and owners of McDojos have tarnished the meaning of the belt. Everyone knows an asshole with a black belt.

But even though we can’t control what other dojos and federations do, we can at least account for our own members. Good character is the prerequisite to grading, and technical ability confers value on the black belt. Good people, and good karate – this is all that should truly matter. Not wealth, not shining and wasted talent, not influence: just the quality of our character, and our karate.

My black belt represents much more than just my work, more than the years and years of effort, of sacrifice and sweat and patience. It represents the time that others have invested in me – my instructors, past and present, my federation, my students, my training partners. It represents my capability in an area still very much dominated by men. It represents a path forward for the girls who walk behind me, just as I have walked behind other women more senior than me.1 We each carve a path forward, to make it better for those who come after us.

Karate Halloween Costumes | Boy costumes, Halloween costumes for kids,  Themed halloween costumes
I mean…

Yes, anyone can have a black belt. Anyone can literally just buy one and wear it – there’s no karate police to stop that. (When I was a kid, I thought one had to present a certificate to get a black belt, at a special store. It just seemed so magical.) People wear them for Halloween. Any dojo can hand them out as they wish. There are dojos and federations that do – to children, to rich people who buy their way into the black belt club, to administrators that have never stepped on the mat.

But not everyone can be a black belt, a real yudansha, who gives back as much, if not more than, they are given. Time to your dojo, mentorship to juniors, dedication to the craft. Exemplifying the best qualities of a martial artist and representing the art well to the outside world. To give the black belt the credibility and weight it deserves. To try and restore some honest value to the idea of the belt and the milestone it represents.

Just as quacks do harm to the medical profession, McDojos do real harm to serious dojos. They undermine our work by handing out ranks like candy to those willing to pay instead of working for it. They give people a false sense of their ability, which is as dangerous as it is foolish. They think they can handle themselves, but under pressure we fall to the level of our training, not our expectations.

It takes years to get a serious black belt. It’s dozens of weekends spent at gashuku (seminars) instead of birthday parties, and missing family events. It’s week after week of studious application, month after month of showing up and putting in the time. And not just the bare minimum of classes, but every opportunity to train is taken. It’s an achievement measured in years. There is a price for a black belt: one that cannot be measured in currency, but in spirit and character, time and effort.

It should be hard to get. To steal a cheesy quote, hard is what makes it great. Whether it is marathon running, or parenting, or karate, it is the difficulty that yields such beautiful rewards. Easy is for instant noodles and Netflix. Easy is for weekend warriors. Real karate, and real progress and rewards, is like chipping jewels out of a mountain using a butter knife. (Or at least, it feels that way.)

There are hundreds of thousands of people wearing black belts all over the world. It’s not exactly rare. And sometimes, a belt is just something that holds your gi jacket together. But to me, it represents a decade and a half of karate, and I value it as much as my two degrees, which usually impress people more than my black belt does (even though they took half the time it took me to get to Shodan, and were much easier to accomplish). It is the symbol of my sweat, my sacrifice, the work of my teachers and my peers and my juniors, and what I have to offer others.

I am grateful that I have been considered worthy, and that the path was not easy. I know that it was not given lightly, and I hope to live up to the expectations of my instructors, as well as my students, and the parents that entrust their children’s karate journey to me (and my husband, obviously). Hopefully, I can help more girls, and young women, stay on this path and not give up. And with time, I hope to be able to give back more to the art that has given me so much.

  1. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you to Sensei Lillian, Sensei Davina, Sensei Mutsuko Minegishi and Sensei Mary, and even though I’ve never met her but I’m inspired still, Sensei AND Doctor Mary Roe, of Jundokan International.

Video: Shuhari in Goju Ryu Karate

1 move, 8 applications – arm bar, scarf choke, strikes, blocks: all of these moves are hidden in a simple age uke (rising block). Sensei Jagger explores all these composite movements hidden in plain sight within this simple block.

Karate is never boring, especially when you know what can be found with just a little digging and knowledge. We use this basic block to explain the concept of Shuhari, or mastery.

Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT! We would love to hear in the comments about your favourite underrated applications for basic moves.

Video: Sanchin Kata Sequence, Detail and Breathing

Sanchin kata is famous for the demands it makes on the body, as well as its ability to help karate practitioners develop better lung capacity. In this step-by-step video, we go over the sequence of the kata, break down some of the moves and common technical issues, look at the correct and safest way to do the kata, and build on the anatomy discussion from our previous video.

Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT, and tell us in the comments about your relationship with Sanchin kata. Visit our Teespring store for great karate merchandise: https://teespring.com/stores/grkc

Video: Seiyunchin Part 3

Some tips and finer detail to follow on from the previous two videos, with some help from a particular South African snake to illustrate some of the finer points of Seiyunchin kata. We look at common mistakes in the kata, the different types of breathing, as well as improving hip vibration and hand placement.

Video: Warm ups and Exercises for Goju Ryu

Warm ups, or jumbi undo, are an essential part of karate. Proper warm ups improve our flexibility, strength and agility, and help reduce injuries. This is just a small snippet to help instructors and students improve their warm ups. Includes exercises to improve your stances, hip flexibility and vibration to improve power.

Video: Corridor Karate and how to train in small spaces

Nothing beats the wide open dojo floor, but sometimes we have to train where we can until we can get back into the dojo. If you’re stuck at home in lockdown, and/or waiting for your dojo to reopen, we’ve come up with ways to train in a narrow space.

Test your kata, work on your kicks, stretch and strengthen your legs AND improve your kumite, all in a corridor in your home or apartment. If you enjoyed this, please leave a comment and let us know what you think! Every time someone subscribes, a white belt somewhere smiles.

Video: Saifa Bunkai

Filmed during lockdown on FB Live, this is an introduction to the more severe bunkai hidden within Saifa, and recommended for more senior practitioners.
Also filmed with our toddler rampaging in the dojo – karate family life!

Instructor: Ché Jagger 5th Dan, OGKK, Goju Ryu
Dojo: Goju Ryu Karate Centre

Find us online!
@GojuRyuKarateCentre on Instagram

Video: Geki Sai Dai Ni Bunkai

Take-downs, chokes and grabs – all hidden (in plain sight!) in Geki Sai Dai Ni.

This kata is often overlooked due to its status as a beginner kata, but for the curious practitioner, Geki Sai Dai Ni holds many fascinating bunkai.

Featuring: slides from Bubishi! A toddler performing a Naruto run! A husband and wife doing karate!

Instructor: Che Jagger, 5th Dan Goju Ryu
Filmed at Goju Ryu Karate Centre

It’s not us, it’s Zoom: How To Teach Karate Online

Last night, I taught four classes on Zoom, back to back.

By the time I finished and hit that ‘leave meeting’ button, I felt like my brain was pouring out of my ears. I’ve taught for hours before, but why is it that Zoom feels so, so much harder?

Turns out that I’m not the only instructor that feels this way. Chatting to other instructors, there’s the same frustration and exhaustion. Producing a short video is one thing – trying to teach karate across time and space is another. Teaching to a bunch of little squares on a screen compared to teaching in a dojo is like comparing tinned tuna to fresh blue fin tuna. It’ll get you by, but it’ll never be as good as the real deal.

What we’ve taken for granted before is the complexity of human interaction that allows us to teach so many at once, and to make those vital connections with our students so that they are receptive to what we have to teach.

Cognitive Resources

The reason I felt like I’d just written final exams after teaching Zoom is because of the sheer cognitive drain of online meetings. Gone is the dojo structure of demonstrating and then letting the students practice on their own and with each other. Everything has to be explained in the finest detail on top of physical demonstration, because we can’t assume that everyone has a high-quality connection and a clear view of the nuances that make up a kata or technique. Plus trying to watch all those little boxes at once, and correcting that kid for playing with their dog, or another one for making faces at the camera instead of training. And because, for now, I have to look at my face all the time (eew) while teaching, there’s a new level of self-consciousness that adds that little extra weight. Have I always bent my one finger just so? Is that really how my mawashi-uke looks?

Trying to teach and look at the projector screen with all the students on it is a challenge!

Rituals and Space

Karate is made up of rituals – rituals are the building blocks of habits and self-improvement. The rituals of entering the dojo, wearing a gi, bowing to classmates, removing shoes; these are all the building blocks on which we balance self-respect, discipline, integrity and thoughtfulness. Doing karate in the lounge undoes all of that. It is easy to mute Sensei when bored, or wander off to the bathroom, or (as we found out later) play Fortnite while Sensei talks. As instructors, we have to work ten times harder to keep their attention, and we don’t have our usual scaffolding of the dojo and its routines and peer behaviour to keep students focused.

Sensei Che Jagger (my hubby) doing a Facebook Live video. The ring light really helps with the dojo’s lighting and helps students see you better. Having a tripod is an essential investment for your digital dojo.

Micro-Expressions and Lag

When we communicate, our bodies and faces provide dozens of cues to support what we are saying (or not, when we lie), and our brains largely process this subconsciously. In a normal meeting, we can see these micro-expressions in real-time and spend less time concentrating on looking at people to understand them. Online, though? We have to really focus to catch all those expressions over spotty connections, and with bad lighting (especially those of you who have a window behind you! Move!)

It is much harder to tell if someone is listening when eye contact isn’t clear. Are they looking at you? Their block on the screen? Are they looking at the gallery of viewers? It’s like when you video call someone who isn’t au fait with technology and you end up talking to their forehead.

And when do you chime in? Pauses are artificially lengthened, and the number of times I waited for an answer, then assumed none were forthcoming, and just as I started to speak, then someone speaks over me. and then its the dance of “no, you go,” and “sorry, sorry, I was just going to say” and then we all want to go burn our modems.

How To Make It Better: Instructors

For now, it looks like this is the best option we have to maintain contact with our students until we can open our doors again. Lockdown is affecting dojos all over the world, and I hope that, whoever is reading this, that your dojo survives. Whether you own one or attend one, I truly hope that. A dojo only deserves to close down when the instructor is a fraud; I would hate to see great dojos sunk by something way beyond the instructor’s control.

Here are some ideas on how to make Zoom classes better, and to maintain that vital connection between you and your students.

Our movie night projector, laptop and ring light set-up for digital classes. Re-purposing existing tech to make classes happen. Adapt, improvise, overcome!
  • Don’t talk about the pandemic. Karate needs to be a break from the heaviness of what is going on. It is time for Sensei to be a source of energy. The kids are stressed enough.
  • Get creative! Tell your students to fetch soft toys to train with. Do broom karate. Add some stretches. Do a trivia quiz. Tell them a funny gashuku story. Yes, there is time for syllabus, but karate is long, life is short. Right now, you are trying to make Zoom classes worth attending, not creating the next black belt. There will be time for that later.
  • Lean on other forms of contact outside of Zoom. Whether you keep in touch via Whatsapp, Telegram, email or Facebook, let your students know you are thinking of them. Remember, they’re also going through their own troubles off-screen. Your care still matters. It matters more than you think.
  • Do some trial runs to find the right spot with the best light, least echo and strongest wifi signal. Here are some tips on online teaching and set-up.
  • Say thank you when they do make the effort to attend Zoom classes. Those students are making a bigger effort than many others. It is still a privilege to teach, even when it is in a crappy format.
  • Shorter is better. The sheer cognitive load of something as difficult as karate over a medium like Zoom makes it a double-whammy. And if your students are also doing Zoom for school, they are going to be exhausted by the time they do karate. Max 45 minute classes for your seniors. Also, some students don’t have wifi- they might be spending a lot of data to attend your Zoom class.
  • If you can, investing in some equipment will make your life easier. Get a good tripod, and haul your laptop in so that you can see multiple students at once. We use a phone for the good-quality front camera, and a laptop to see all the students at once.
  • Come up with a specific sign language so that students can catch your attention. I like to use jazz hands right up against the screen – they don’t turn on mics without permission, and it catches my attention much faster. Make this something fun and specific to your dojo.
  • Replicate some dojo routine. Still do your warm-ups. Still insist on bowing. They must still excuse themselves to go to the bathroom. Encourage them to wear a gi. It goes without saying, but wear your full gi as well. Yes, your pants too. Don’t be that guy.
  • Take 5 or so minutes at the beginning and end of class to leave the mics on and chat with the kids who arrive early. Ask about their pets, ask if they’ve had a heavy school load today. Let them see their dojo friends, and then focus them all together for the class.
  • Make use of the Spotlight video option when teaching on Zoom. I haven’t used any other platforms, so I can’t speak about any other features.
  • Be patient as people drop in and out because of their connections. Some kids tune in late because we are competing with online classes at the same time. Try to be grateful that they are trying, rather than frustrated when they’re not attending perfectly. Yes, I know, it is irritating to have to stop what you are doing to let kids into the meeting room, but it’s not being done on purpose.
  • This is not the time to be a hard-ass. Be kind.

How To Make It Better: Parents and Students

  • If you can, please pay your fees. This is really the only way to make sure there’s a physical dojo to return to. If you have lost your job, your Sensei understands. Let us know! It’s the ghosting that kills us. We can pause accounts, and wait for your return one day.
  • Try to treat Zoom like the dojo – dress in gi, listen as you normally would, try your best.
  • Drop your Sensei a message excusing yourself if you can’t make Zoom for whatever reason. It helps us to know why we don’t see you – is it data? No internet at home? Time clash? Not enough devices? We understand.
  • Parents, we know that there has been a massive change in routine for the kids. Part of the fun of the dojo is seeing their friends. Try remind them that their friends are training too. Dangle an extra reward. Chat to Sensei about your troubles and see how you can reach out to your little one. Offer to train with them – Sensei will be delighted to see it.

Every day, I think about how great it will be to see my students again. I miss them so much. I even miss the farting and the giggling that results. I miss hanging out with the adults for those extra minutes after class. I can’t wait until we reopen. I am sure that you feel that way too – that karate was never meant for this. But karate has survived wars – it will survive this. Now we must use that line from the dojo kun: practice earnestly with creativity. Keep training, take care of your students, and be a source of strength. Yes, it will be hard: that which gives light must endure burning. Right now, instructors must work hard to maintain their students and keep up with the changes thrust upon us. We have to be more creative, more disciplined, more patient than ever before. But if you can survive this, you will come out of it with a newfound appreciation for teaching, for students, and for the dojo.

How have you been coping with Zoom? Share your stories below – we would love to hear your thoughts.

Lessons From My Students

There’s a lot to be said for the wise Sensei motif, but any teacher worth their classroom will tell you that the exchange of knowledge goes both ways. I have heard wisdom from the mouths of toddlers, and utter tedium from boring-ass grown-ups. This list is open to future edits as my teaching career continues.

Still knowing what’s cool (without even trying)

How do I even know what a dab is? After all, Vine is dead, I deleted instagram off my phone and Snapchat is just a charming waste of time. (Also, I get it – people are really into filters, but not even anime girls look cute with dog ears.)

People who pay taxes and recycle tend not to be up to date on the memes and fads that have all the use and lifespan of a mayfly. All I know, usually, is that once a meme makes it onto a t-shirt you can buy at Mr Price, it has completed its life cycle. Man-child t-shirts are the graveyard of funny ideas.

But when you’re trying to demonstrate a move and one of the kids shrieks “Oh my god, that’s like a dab!” and then proceeds to ruin a kata with it, it becomes unforgettable.

Homework can wait – there’s a world out there to explore

As a child, I was the polar opposite of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame. I was Suzie – dutiful, patient and mostly indoors and clean. And despite the fact that the schools are trying to crush the kids with hours and hours of homework, they are still rebellious. Sure, homework has its place, but why do third graders have several hours of homework now? Of course they should be angry that they’re being kept indoors on a beautiful day to do unnecessary work that should have been covered in class. (Sorry, school teachers – I know it’s not your fault, the system is broken and we are all suffering for it.)

I may have been one of those kids that always did my homework, and always got my work in on time, but you know, I wish I had maybe had more adventures along the way, especially in high school and university.

This is why we don’t assign homework in the dojo. The kids get plenty of that at school, and when they’re older, they’ll want to do that little bit extra. But until then, we’ll train outside and take group pictures under the dojo’s cherry blossoms.

How to make and keep friends

I feel like adults are really, really shitty about friendships in a way that kids just aren’t. Kids don’t bail on each other at the last minute with the tired old phrase “Hey, something’s come up, can I take a rain check?” Or that most bullshit of excuses “I’m tired.”



I get it – I’m tired, you’re tired, we’re all tired, but as adults, it’s the equivalent of saying “the dog ate my homework.” 

Kids will nag their parents for sleepovers. They’ll want to spend all their time with their new friends. They will do the randomest shit together, and be happy to muck around doing nothing. But trying to get some grown-ups to sit around a table for coffee? It’s like herding cats on meth. Kids are so, so excited to see their friends. and to spend time with them. When did we lose that? As adults, we have our own transport, and money, and maybe time. And we are the first to complain that “we never see each other” but no one makes the damned effort. “It’s been so long!” we cry, when we finally, finally grab lunch with someone, but kids? Seeing each other at school every day isn’t enough. They need weekends and holidays too.

When did we stop being happy to see our friends? Is it because we’re jealous when their lives hit a great trajectory? Is it because it’s so easy not to make the effort? Is it because real friendship requires vulnerability and investment? And then when the midden hits the windmill, we realise that we haven’t got the same connections we used to have.

Kids live for friendship, and once upon a time, we did too. If that’s one thing I take from them and implement into my life, then I consider it a beautiful lesson.