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Why do black belts quit?

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

Why do black belts give up Taekwon-do?

Humans are very complex creatures, and most individuals are not of the enlightened kind like the Lord Buddha. Consequently, most people will have no idea why they do most things. Humans are a complex mix of desires, memories, experiences, phycological triggers, political and tribal affinities, and a range of emotions. Most marketers will tell you that people do not buy things through logic they do so because of emotions. This is why the best marketing campaigns are those that trigger emotions in humans. Kittens, cuddly grandparents with Murray mints, cute children, or images that outrage you such as starving refugees trigger feelings that clever marketers can convert into actions. And though we would like to think otherwise, emotions like many of our decision-making processes often occur sub conscientiously.

So if the reasons for why people do things are often unknown even to themselves, why am I trying to determine why black belts would suddenly quit a pursuit that they had until recently professed a loyalty and love for?

Well the answer is quite simply I am not. I am merely trying to highlight that as instructors and blackbelts we may not be considering the real reason why people quit. Therefore, how can we mitigate it if we don’t fully understand it?

Many senior grades and instructors mistakenly attribute people quitting to a number of reasons:

1) They weren’t ready to be a black belt

2) They were weak because they quit. So they weren’t true blackbelts.

3) They saw black belt as a goal that once achieved was over and could be assigned to the past

4) They lacked loyalty

5) Etc…

This approach attributes the failing directly to the student and absolves the instructor of any blame. Losing black belts hurts! Nearly all instructors whatever their individual failings put a lot of time and energy into their students. Good instructors invest heavily, both temporally and emotionally in their potential blackbelts. So when these blackbelts leave, it feels like a personal betrayal. To assuage raw emotions, it is only natural that an instructor will seek to put the blame on the student for actions they see as disloyal and lacking gratitude. However, to do so fails to understand that there may be reasons why the student has left. These reasons may in some way be avoidable.

As previously stated, people’s motivations for doing things are often unfathomable. These, motivations may be completely unknown to the individuals themselves. However, two motivating factors that are often not considered are:

1) Emotional stimulation

2) Intellectual stimulation

Emotional stimulation

Gaining a black belt is a transformative experience. Like the journeys of discovery that guarantee viewing figures on most reality based TV programs, transformation is all encompassing and highly emotional. The sense of achievement one feels when one emerges from the phoenix’s fire is often overwhelming. The rollercoaster of preparation in the lead up a black belt exam encompasses that process of transformation perfectly and heightens emotions of all involved. These feelings become the normal and these sensations are psychologically addictive.

Furthermore, often a strong bond will develop between the instructor and the student. It is for this reason that many black belts I talk to feel very flat after achieving their goal. Suddenly all that attention and support that was being lavished upon them is cruelly withdrawn and a feeling not unlike depression emerges. Often the instructor has to switch his/her focus onto the next potential blackbelt who needs hot housing. This can cause a feeling of abandonment not unlike being dumped by a boy/girlfriend.

Most people will only continue to engage in a pursuit if they enjoy it. Therefore, even though, the student may not realise why they begin to have negative feelings about the art they love, the result can be the same. Often the new blackbelt may begin to feel less motivated and attend class less. Until one day they simply don’t come at all.

Intellectual stimulation

The second reason why blackbelts leave that is often overlooked is intellectual stimulation. Taekwon-do like many striking arts is very front loaded. When a student begins his/her TKD career the sheer volume of new things to learn is aften overwhelming. This is further compounded by a phenomenon known as deskilling. Deskilling is when one enters a new learning context and suddenly all the fundamental skills and knowledge one has acquired in their previous life do not serve them well in this new context. When a new student begins Taekwon-do the basics of: standing; walking; balancing; speaking and addressing others; wearing clothes; entering buildings and knowing the proper etiquette suddenly become alien to you. Nothing is like it was in your old context/life. This can be difficult for many but also exciting and challenging. This combined with the sheer volume of new techniques and their own idiosyncratic learning issues can offer the learner an exciting experience. However, as one begins to grasp the basics, the challenges become less, and the level of excitement flattens out. This is one reason why many students leave at blue belt.

Blue belt blues

The next super exciting stage of TKD is the preparation and momentum one experiences in the run up to their blackbelt exam. Unfortunately, the time between blue and black belt is quite long in coloured belt terms. Thus, many students quit around blue belt once the excitement begins to dip. There simply aren’t enough new learning experiences to keep them excited.

If the student can push through the blue belt blues, they can benefit from the renewed excitement of the preparation for blackbelt that acquiring a red belt gives you.

3 more patterns/forms

Once one gets to black belt, Taekwon-do suddenly becomes less about learning new things and more about perfecting things. This is illustrated by the diagram of the TKD learning pyramid. From quick glance at this concept one can see how the load of learning is heavy in the initial stages of learning i.e. the lower grades. However, once one gets to blackbelt the new material one is exposed too reduces dramatically until much of what separates one dan grade from another is simply 3 more patterns. The focus of TKD shifts dramatically from learning new things to perfecting what you have already learnt. This is in keeping with the introspective qualities promoted by the endless pursuit of perfection. Such a lifelong and ultimately never-ending struggle is said to create character in the individual and is the basis of the Tao or Do philosophy inherent in many South Asian arts. However, it does not suit all character types. Some people just need to keep learning new material and unless we (as instructors) give it to them they will look elsewhere.

Other forms of stimulation

Many individuals find ample stimulation from the adrenaline one experiences in the competitive nature of tournaments. However, most people do not want to become tournament fighters and even those who do, must one day hang up their gloves and retire.

Teaching is another way people can stay interested and deepen their understanding of the art. However, not everyone can become a teacher/instructor. Many people do not have lives that permit them to teach, whilst others are unsuitable for teaching despite good intentions. For such people there must be something else to keep them involved. After all it takes many years to develop a black belt so no instructor wants to lose one. So what is the answer? Well, it is simple! Develop a black belt program!

Develop a blackbelt program

If instructors want to keep more blackbelts, then blackbelts need to be: stimulated; rewarded; get due recognition; and have incremental and achievable learning goals. Developing a program where blackbelts are learning their own blackbelt specific material is key. Such an approach makes them feel valued and cared for, therefore it is crucial.

TKD Escape from a Bear hug - Old School Perspectives
YouTube Example of a Black Belt Application

Issues with developing a program

The difficulty instructors often experience when attempting to develop a program is deciding what material to select and use. If the blackbelt program is too focused on the sport side of TKD i.e., sparring this will alienate those who have no intertest in competing or those or a certain age where competitive sparring is not what drives them to attend. At 48 now myself I have to admit I feel less enthusiastic about attempting to keep up with high kicking teenagers than I used to.

New Material?

So where can we find new martial to teach that is stimulating and relevant to all learners? The answer is of course the patterns. The patterns contain a lifetime worth of applications and self-defence practices that are so often overlooked. Instead of spending more time making one’s forms/pattern look beautiful why not learn what they actually contain and how to use them to defend oneself. By approaching pattern study like this suddenly the value of each pattern/form increases exponentially. Suddenly the patterns take on a purpose much greater than simple performance but rather assume their original design of being a method of recording and remembering fantastic self-defence routines.

Black belt applications and drills course

I appreciate is may be tricky for instructors to decipher the code of the patterns in order to truly exploit their hidden qualities. It is for this reason that I created the first exclusively Taekwon-do based applications and drills course to help instructors who want to stimulate their black belts but don’t want to spend years researching and creating new material themselves. This course contains some of the most effective self-defence techniques one can find in any martial art. It also contains tips and drills to effectively train these hidden techniques. It can easily form the basis of any blackbelt program.

Check it out here:


Whatever one decides the need to keep blackbelts learning and engaged is not going to go away. Unless instructors address this issue blackbelts will continue to seek stimulation in other ways. This may cause them to leave and either take up other arts or indeed other sports. As instructors our blackbelts are often like family to us and their leaving can be painful. Black belt programs could just be a simple way of avoiding such pain. Remember keep the excitement of being a white belt and keep learning.


Ciaran McDonald M.A., M.Ed.

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