Black Belt Testing Essays

In many martial arts styles, essays are part of the requirements for Dan (black belt level) examinations. At my dojo, I require Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) candidates to write a 500-word or more essay answering the question “What’s the most valuable thing you’ve gained from training in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu?”. For Nidan, they must write an essay of 1000 words or more, explaining one or more ways teaching Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu has changed their perspective. At the higher levels, these essays become more like a thesis on a topic that is specifically assigned to the candidate.

The purpose of writing these essays is not to test students’ writing skills. I personally don’t expect people to have the eloquence and grammar of someone who writes regularly. The idea is to give students an opportunity to reflect on what their martial arts training/teaching experiences has meant to them at the first Dan levels. That’s why the questions are quite open to different interpretations and can be looked at from a wide variety of angles. Chris Olson Sensei from our dojo wrote “How I Learned to Be a Student” for his Shodan essay, which gave insight to his perspective of coming to train in a different style of Jiu-jitsu after already having trained to brown belt in his original style (Shorinji Kan). It was actually quite a humbling essay in his journey to open his mind to accept and integrate teachings from a new style. I look forward to reading his Nidan essay (which is coming up pretty soon, I might add). By reflecting in this way, it helps students understand the human experience of martial arts training as a whole, albeit from their own perspective, which can help them better connect with other students as they take on more and more of a leadership role in the dojo.

At the higher levels, the purpose is to encourage them to explore a particular topic in detail that draws both on their experiences, as well as pushing them to look beyond what they have already learned for further insight. For my Yondan (4th Degree Black Belt), I wrote a thesis on A) the history of knives, types of knives and knife striking methods, and B) how I would prepare to teach defense against knife attacks. I called it On the Knife’s Edge: Exploring the History of Knives as Weapons and Defense Strategies against Them (click the link if you’re interested in reading it). I spent several months working on this paper, talking to instructors with far more experience than me in this particular topic, ordering books, doing research on the Internet, etc. I immersed myself in the topic, reading grizzly books like Contemporary Knife Targeting as my bedtime reading, which showed a variety of images of actual edged weapon wounds. I even play-tested one of the ideas I had about the psychology of knife defense on my blog, gaining insight on different perspectives on a very subjective topic. I wasn’t told how long my essay should be, just that it should be long enough to cover the topic I was given. It ended up being over 20,000 words, but I was happy with how it turned out. As for my Godan (5th Degree), I didn’t end up having to write a thesis this time. I think the essay requirement was likely waived, considering that I wrote an entire book/DVD, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-Jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense (coming out in February 2013), which was far more work than just a standard thesis would have been with all the photography and accompanying video.

Ultimately, the purpose of writing essays, theses, etc, as a part of Dan examinations is not the writing itself, but the thought that goes behind them. When one writes these papers, they can be an intimate exercise in self-examination or an extensive outreach that pushes the boundaries of what you think you know about the martial arts. Although I have a distinct advantage in that I enjoy writing, I think everyone can benefit from the thought exercise that goes into writing, whether the person is a writer or not.

Are essays a requirement for black belt gradings in your style? If so, what types of essay do people write? If not, what do you think of the concept? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂

Tags: Black Belt Tests

“What I have learned in Taekwondo”

by Harry Matthiasson

Age 14


One of the skills that I have been learning and developing during Tae kwon Do is leadership. During Tae Kwon Do I have practiced leadership in the following ways: while I led the warm ups; while I helped lower belts learn and practice their forms; helping run summer camp; judging and timing during tournaments. In Tae Kwon Do, as we become higher belts, we gradually get more and more leadership and we start by just being a good example for the lower belts. One of the most important things I have learned about leadership is to be confident. Typically, the higher belts are older than the rest of the students so they need to be confident in order to make the lower belts less timid and inspire a confident atmosphere, where no one is hesitant and everyone can do their best.

Tae Kwon Do has also taught me about three very important values, dignity, courtesy and integrity. Dignity means respecting yourself, and learning about dignity has helped me greatly in times when I have any doubts about myself. Courtesy means respecting others, and whenever I don’t agree with something someone says or does I remind myself I still need to be courteous. Integrity means doing what you think is right without anyone there to see and I think it is the most important out of the three. I think that dignity and courtesy both fit into integrity because while practicing them, you are doing what you think is right. It is always hard doing what you think is right, even if it is just picking up a piece of trash in a park or sticking up for a friend, but I always try my hardest.

In addition, Tae Kwon Do has taught me how to meditate. One thing meditating has taught me is to relax and clear my mind. Relaxing and clearing my mind helps me most when I am falling asleep. In Tae Kwon Do, after we warm up, we meditate. Meditating involves clearing your mind so you have no worries or anxieties and can relax completely. To clear your mind, you must think of nothing, a good way to start is to focus on a single noise but not think about it, or count, or focus on your breathing. Breathing is also very important in meditating. Breathing helps you relax your muscles, which is very important in “sticky situations.”

Tae Kwon Do has also taught me self-defense. Practicing self-defense in class has not only taught me to know how to get away when someone is grabbing me, but to have control when I am throwing someone or pretending to strike someone. Another area of self-defense is forms. Forms are just a series of blocks and strikes against an imaginary opponent. All forms start with a block and are to defend you. I really like doing forms, because it gives me a chance to try my best and always do better.

Another important thing I learned in Tae Kwon Do is sparring. There are two ways of sparring that we practice. There is self-defense sparring and tournament sparring. In self-defense sparring there are no rules because it is practice for just in case you need to defend yourself in an unexpected and unavoidable situation. In tournament sparring there are rules and it is practiced for sport. Both forms of sparring are incredibly important though because they create a connection between the opponents. You get to know your opponent better because, as you spar, their personality comes out in their style. Sparring has also taught me excellent footwork. Footwork is important in all sports and it is very helpful in situations where I need to watch my step. Obvious parts of sparring are the blocks and strikes. There are dozens of blocks and strikes in Tae Kwon Do and almost all of them are used in sparring.

Tae Kwon Do has also given me a place to take a break from the pressures of life. For instance when I am fed up with my family or friends, I go to Tae Kwon Do and I can forget about them and just focus on Tae Kwon Do. After Tae Kwon Do is over, I don’t worry about things as much, and I feel better.

The five tenets are also incredibly important in Tae Kwon Do. They are respect, humility, self-control, honesty and perseverance. Respect (treating others the way you want to be treated) is very important so that everyone knows they’re equals. Humility (not bragging) is important so that no one feels bad that they didn’t get to do what the bragger did. Self-control (thinking before your actions) is important so people don’t get hurt on the inside or the outside. Honesty (not lying/telling the truth) is important so people can be your friend without having to watch their back and to have someone able to watch your back for you. Last, but not least, is perseverance (never giving up), which is important so that you can finish what you start and succeed. I think perseverance is the most important because it really applies to me, for example Tae Kwon Do, my Bar Mitzvah and even simple things like finishing a day’s homework.

All in all, Tae Kwon Do has taught me to be a good person, in any situation.


“What I have learned in Taekwondo”

by Mariah Pfister

Age 8


I have learned a lot in Tae Kwon Do.  I have learned things like being respectful and kind to everybody and everything.  I have many friends who are rude to me, but I have learned that if I am nice even when others aren’t they will sometimes become nicer.  Also, when things don’t go my way I try not to get mad.  When I am entering the dojang I try to leave every bad thought at the door and let it go. If I do something wrong or break something I have to be honest and take responsibility for what I did.  If I don’t, I won’t learn from my mistakes.  Lying always makes things worse and people wouldn’t be able to trust me.

I have learned that even though I learning a lot, I shouldn’t brag.  More people will come to like me this way.  People who brag aren’t fun to be around.  Thinking before I act is very important to avoid getting into trouble, hurting someone, or even losing a friend or two.

I have also learned that some kicks are really hard, but I have to keep trying and just do my best.  If I keep trying, I will get better and better.  Doing things on my own, without being told, makes me feel good even if there is no other reward.

It is also important to learn to take care of myself because my parents won’t always be able to take care of me and someday I will be a parent and need to teach my children to take care of themselves.  It is good to pay attention to what I am being taught.

Taekwondo has taught me a lot to make my life better and more positive.  I want to teach other kids what I have learned and continue to practice the kicks. Blocks, punches, and attitude that I have been learning myself to get better.


“What I have learned in Taekwondo”

by Nick Perkins

Age 9


When I first started Tae Kwon Do I thought I wasn’t very good. My Mom and dad told me that I have only started and that I would get better at it. From then on I just kept on trying hard, until I got better. Since then I have achieved a lot and I keep on trying. At tournaments I try to relax and I let them do all the mistakes that is how I sometimes get high points.

Tae Kwon Do means a lot to me. Tae Kwon Do means that I will be expected to make good choices. People will not expect me to get into more fights, but instead to get into less. I will be expected to have better self-control and self-discipline. I also will be expected to have courtesy, integrity and dignity. A Black Belt means a lot to me. A Black Belt means that I have achieved in four and a half years. I will have reached my goals and I will need to make more goals. A Black Belt means that I will be expected to set an example for my fellow students. Also I will be expected to be at class on time, not goof off and be respectful to everyone.

I have learned a lot in Tae Kwon Do. I have learned that a reputation can really affect your future. For example if you get into a fight and you get into fights a lot and always start them but this time you didn’t start it someone will think that you did because you have a bad reputation. I have learned that you have to think and use your mouth before you use your Tae Kwon Do. Another thing that I learned is that you have to have trust in someone for them to be your friend. I have been to a lot of tournaments. I have met a lot of nice people and they have been nice to me. I always go back and have fun. Besides going to have fun, I have a chance to compete against new competitors and to have good sportsmanship, regardless of whether I win or lose. I always try to do my best and not give up. When I do my best I feel proud. I have a lot of fun and I learn a lot in Tae Kwon Do. Tae Kwon Do is one of my best hobbies. I enjoy going to Tae Kwon Do and learning.


“What I have learned in Taekwondo”

by Alena Nelson

Age 12


Sweat trickled down my hairline as once more I went over the mind-grasping forms. I trembled, but NO! I had to maintain full control over my body. Tae Kwon Do is more than just a sport: it is a philosophy of life I’ve bowed into. Ever since I’ve started this sport, Tae Kwon Do has demanded my fullest physical and mental attention. Each day confidence has grown within me, as self-motivation to meet my goals in skill and physical discipline has slowly increased. From Tae Kwon Do I’ve also learned first hand the meaning of perseverance.

Being self-confident matters. My first day of Tae Kwon Do class I was eight, nervous and tiny; but after almost five years of studying, I have more self-confidence. A few years ago, I almost refused to take part in my first all-school competition. I was worried about being in the ring with an opponent I didn’t know and feeling alone. I now see competitions as a challenge, fun, and a way to prove myself. In a few weeks, I’ll attend a meet in San Francisco. I’m no longer afraid of testing myself. It is something I look forward to. By practicing focus and other basic materials, my increasing abilities have shone through. In the Tae Kwon Do hall, confidence to do well comes together piece by piece. So now, being confident, I strive to reach high goals.

The work it took to test for my red belt took self-motivation. It meant constant practice and vigorous attention to detail To test for my red belt I need to know ten different forms. The purple belt was constantly morphing into the purple-stripe form; my double blocks were supposed to be out instead of in, and I had to spend many hours practicing the complex movements of each form. Self-motivation to me is my hand stretching for my goal, a black belt. By watching higher belts, I think of how they achieved their goals and know that I must do the same things to move forward: come to class, pay attention, and practice at home. For me, every time my opponent steps backwards, I step forward, because now I am self-motivated, unblinking and disciplined to reach my dreams in life.

The blank computer screen stared at me, accusing. Wanting to, but at the same time not wanting to, I laced up my tennis shoes. “Mom, I’m going for a jog!” Self-discipline is what I have been taught from my experience in Tae Kwon Do. I’ve learned to take care of my body’s needs, to pay attention to my surrounding community, and even the importance of doing my home chores without being asked. I’ve also learned to kick hard and powerfully, stopping only half an inch away from my target, all of which takes self-discipline. The Point is to be in control of my actions. T.K.D. has taught me to be confidant, to find self-motivation and physically discipline my body.

Perseverance is always finding a way though obstacles and difficult situations. It is the most important skill I’ve learned in Tae Kwon Do. To me, Tae Kwon Do is a “yes” philosophy of life and a continuing way to prove to myself that I am capable of achieving any goal I choose. Not only have I learned difficult kicks and forms, but my studies have helped me gain self-confidence, learn self-motivation, and become disciplined. Without Tae Kwon Do, I would have a completely different way of thinking, and doubt I would be as successful as I am today.


“What I have learned in Taekwondo”

by Kirsten Pfister

Age 39


I was first introduced to Tae Kwon Do in June of 2001.  I didn’t know anything about this art.  I had only heard of Karate and my knowledge of that was limited to what I had seen inHollywood’s creations of martial arts movies.  I remember having the desire to learn Karate when I was young.  I wanted to be able to protect myself and the people I cared about.  I didn’t know how to go about getting the training and I wasn’t one to let my dreams be known.  It has just been in recent years that I discovered my dreams are worth pursuing and as long as I am alive, it is never too late.  I can’t go back and change the past, but I can create a better future.

Since I began this journey, I have gained much knowledge, but have yet to become wise.  I have realized that wisdom comes, not just from the accumulation of knowledge, but more from the appropriate application of knowledge to life.  Tae Kwon Do has come to mean more to me than I ever imagined it could.  I enjoy the physical activity involved, but value the philosophy behind this art.  Though I have yet to achieve harmony with the universe, I am gaining a better understanding of what that means.  The combination of the linear movements of Japan’s Karate and the circular movements of China’s Kung Fu creates a beautiful flow of motion that, when performed with the mastery of mental focus and spiritual expression, is awe-inspiring to watch.  It is an incredible challenge to learn.  Physically, Tae kwon Do means a development of strength, grace, balance, coordination, speed, reaction, flexibility, endurance, and cardiovascular conditioning.  Mentally, Tae Kwon Do means perseverance, never giving up.  It means an unrelenting pursuit of my personal best as well as the development of a positive mental attitude, self control, and clarity of thought.  I have found that my mind must, not only be connected to what my body is doing, but must also be focused.  Spiritually, this art encourages peace and contentment.   It is important to appreciate each present moment and experience it to its fullest.  The pursuit of goals is great and necessary, but not at the expense of what is here and now.  I cannot focus on what is behind me or too far ahead without missing what is right in front of me.  I have taken a great interest in meditation.  I have a strong desire to be able to remain calm within, no matter what is happening around me.  The meditation helps tremendously with stress, slowing my pulse, controlling my breathing, and overcoming a variety of physical and mental obstacles.  I have heard it said by doctors and psychologists that a person’s character is built between the ages of one and six.  That may be true to an extent, but I believe character can be improved later in life with spiritual enlightenment. All in all, to me, Tae Kwon Do means a continuous effort to become better, today, than I was yesterday.  It offers me a constant challenge to focus on.  It is a very personal journey that I feel blessed to have had the honor of sharing with some of the most amazing people I have ever met.

I appreciate every belt level that I have accomplished and believe each step toward my black belt has been full of valuable lessons in life.  As I progressed in my journey, I learned patience by being given opportunities where it was needed. That is also the way I have been developing my self-discipline and perseverance.  Everyone has challenges in life. Everyone has pain to overcome.  Everyone has weaknesses and points of vulnerability.  I believe this art is teaching me how to rise above circumstances of life and get the most out of opportunities presented to me.  I ran into some difficult hurdles and suffered a multitude of minor setbacks.  I developed a daily routine of attitude checks and meditations that help me in my efforts to keep things in perspective.  I have kept an exercise schedule at home as well as in the dojang.    I train harder at home.  There were times when my body screamed at me to just stop.  The physical conditioning is demanding on ones body and, at times, I wondered just how much pain, fatigue, and discomfort I could tolerate.  I felt, and feel, that I must train harder than most to make the same gains in training.  I did face some challenges that may have gotten the best of me had it not been for the support from my family at home and my family of friends at Napa Tae Kwon Do Academy.  With their help and a continued effort to make better choices, I was able to overcome a self-defeating attitude, thoughts and behaviors.  I got to a point where I realized I had to acknowledge the negatives, but must focus on the positives.  I made myself a promise that I would never fail by giving up.  I never thought of myself as one with an indomitable spirit, but looking back on the road I traveled to get here and how hard I fight to overcome my own weaknesses, I can see I am developing it.

Some people might see a black belt as the end result, a goal achieved, or a journey completed.  I see a black belt as a major accomplishment, but instead of it being the end of a journey, this is just the beginning for me.  On a very personal level, earning my black belt means that I have effectively learned the basics of this art and I am ready to begin the greater journey.  I can only be limited by my own beliefs and I have learned to believe in myself more.  When I think of the black belt and what it represents, I think of perseverance, discipline, and an indomitable spirit (not to mention a little blood, sweat, and tears) because it takes that and more to overcome the challenges of such a mentally and physically demanding sport.  I have the utmost respect for everyone who has gone before me and achieved their black belt.  I have a great admiration for those who have continued on in their own training and dedicated themselves to teaching others to do the same.

I thought the achievement of black belt would provoke a feeling of pride in myself, yet I find that the closer I have gotten to it, the more I am humbled by a continued discovery of things I need to improve in myself.  Unlike when I began this journey, I now have a peace and confidence that I will.  Life is a never ending learning experience.

Over the past three and a half years, I have had opportunities to learn about Korea and the origin of Tae Kwon Do as well as the philosophies.  I have enjoyed learning the Korean terminology for movements executed in the dojang, and I am currently having fun with learning the basics of the written language.  Learning the history is important to really understand the art of this style of self defense.

Beyond the fundamentals of the history of Korea and Tae Kwon Do, a whole new world has opened up for me.  I have learned the importance of balancing complimentary opposites.  Just as fire opposes water and heaven opposes earth, rest opposes activity.  It is easy for me to get so focused on working hard to achieve a goal that I, sometimes, forget to give my body the proper rest.  I have also learned the importance of the mind working with the body.  I used to think kicking and punching were just physical motions.  Now I know to imagine an opponent and practice with my brain engaged so if the time ever comes when I need to defend myself against a real opponent, I will be more prepared.

Some of the most important things I have learned are mental strengths.  I now measure my success against my own past performances rather than against that of others, striving to be “my best” not “the best”.  I have a new outlook on how the past relates to the future.  The past is useful as a learning tool to make the future better.  Accepting others has never been a problem for me.  Accepting myself has often been a challenge.  There are attributes and shortcomings in all of us.  I am learning to appreciate the strengths I have built on to get to this point, and am continuously learning to improve on my weaknesses.  I have been heard stating that I have the heart and soul of an athlete stuck in the body of a couch potato.  Not a day goes by that I don’t evaluate what more I can do to get the full potential out of what I have to work with.  I am always finding ways I can become better.  I am learning the difference between pain and injury.  Pain, I know all too well, can be overcome.  Injury must heal.  I have developed a mental toughness that helps me deal with pain in and out of Tae Kwon Do.  I am still learning to embrace new things that are useful and discard what is useless to me.

Another very important thing I have learned has been to finish what I start.  I can’t count how many times my life has changed direction due to a fear of, not only failure, but also success.  I have come to realize that most fear is irrational and often time based on things of the past that no longer apply.  I am learning to make the best of what is in front of me and let go of expectations.  Having no expectations allows me to just respond to what is, without interpretation or bias.  Developing an un-relenting focus on the here and now allows me to enjoy the process and allows the results to take care of themselves.  Often times the greatest rewards are in the “doing” and being able to enjoy that itself.  When I am involved in one of my workouts I cannot see what the results will be.  I have to trust that there will be positive results and just focus on getting the most out of the workout.  One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Hebrews 11:1, which states: “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.”  Having faith allows me to relax enough to enjoy things along the way.  If I am always looking for the end results, I will fail to see and appreciate the immediate benefits in the progress.

I could not have dedicated the time and energy needed to achieve this goal without the full support of my husband and two daughters.  I have learned a new level of appreciation for my family and the sacrifices they have made for me.  It is my hope that they directly benefit from what Tae Kwon Do has done for me.  My hard headed strong will has matured into a perseverant heart and I strive every day to be a better wife, mother, and all around person.

I have come to believe that there is no such thing as coincidence.  I was drawn to Napa Tae Kwon Do Academy for a purpose.  I needed to gain confidence in myself and develop a sense of self-worth.  I needed to discover a peaceful way of life.  Much healing has taken place to bring me to a point where I feel strong and whole.  I have gone from having a fearful and guarded heart to having a heart of gratitude.  I have developed a passion for this art as well as a new passion for life and an appreciation for the people in mine.  I have been blessed far beyond my hopes and dreams.  It is now my turn to give back, and to pay it forward by helping others the way I have been helped.  It is time for me to set some new and specific goals.  I will plan ahead for each training session and how I want to perform and I will look for constant improvement rather than perfection.  While in class, I will not think of things outside.  My goal will be to leave anything that is not useful for class at the door, and decide on the way out whether or not to pick it back up.

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