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How to be a Martial Arts Leader Without a Black Belt

by Melanie Gibson

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Did you know you become a leader the first time you wrap a white belt around your waist? Black belts are usually seen as the leaders in their respective martial arts schools or dojos. However, it’s important to note that other students, regardless of age or rank, can begin working on their influential leadership skills long before they reach advanced levels. 

While it is the responsibility of the instructor to provide martial arts training and mentor his or her lower ranking students so they are ready to lead when they reach black belt, it is just as much the student’s responsibility to actively develop their leadership skills along the way.

Working on your leadership skills now not only prepares you to transition into a black belt and instructor role more easily, but it also enhances your own training and allows you to give back to the tight-knit community you care about. You can begin contributing now to your martial arts school by showing a positive attitude, supporting your fellow students along their own journeys, and making your instructor’s job just a little bit easier. Below are some of my tips that will help you begin your leadership journey. 


Be a Role Model


Lead by example

 Image credit: Taegukmusa.com


Similar to the old adage, “Dress for the job you want,” you can behave for the rank you want. Of course, there are basic ways to be a role model: show up to class on time, be attentive to instructions, and answer your instructors respectfully, to name a few. That’s something every student should be doing anyway, and it’s helpful for others to see that behavior consistently, especially when that behavior is seen in a lower ranking or new student.

Another way to be a role model is to practice before class. This demonstrates your dedication to continually improving your skills, plus it helps strengthen your memory and knowledge of technique that you will be expected to share as a future black belt and instructor. Work hard in class. Put forth the effort every time. Be as powerful, fluid, and precise as you can, and you might just get a better workout too! If other students see you pushing yourself and taking your training seriously, they’ll be influenced to follow suit.


Be a Good Partner


Partners help each other become better

 Image credit: Blogs.callutheran.edu


Even if the main focus of your training is improving your own skills, you don’t train in a vacuum. Just about every martial arts discipline involve training with partners, and training as a partner has different nuances than when you’re practicing your skills on your own. When you are partnering, whether it’s for a sparring match, self-defense, or other types of work involving more than one person, you are in a relationship, and it is your responsibility to maintain that relationship. While one of the most important aspects of partner work is being mindful of safety, there are more subtle ways to be a good partner and help your fellow student have a positive experience.

Be present. Pay attention to your partner’s movements so you can respond accurately to them. Give them your full attention so you both get the benefits of the practice. If it’s your job to get thrown on the floor, do it. No one wants a sloppy, inattentive, or unnecessarily combative partner.

Be aware of your partner’s age, rank, and physical abilities. Training with a more advanced partner can challenge you, but training with a younger or less advanced partner can be equally advantageous. It gives you the opportunity to demonstrate control and give lower ranking students ample opportunity to practice. If you do this continuously, by the time you are a black belt you can easily offer tips for improvement while you’re partnering with another student. I love sparring with lower ranking students, and not because I can show off my black belt skills. Rather, I use it as a chance to work on my teaching skills and give my partners a positive learning experience. On more than one occasion I have stood in place and ordered a child to side kick me directly in the ribs so they would learn how to use their front foot during a sparring match. As strange as it sounds, it’s quite rewarding.


Keep Growing


Never stop learning and improving your skills

 Image credit: Martialinfo.com


I once asked my Chief Instructor what he looked for when he developed new black belts to become assistant instructors. His first response was that he wanted people who were willing to work on themselves. Continuous growth was important. He began giving me more responsibility and set higher expectations several months before I even tested for black belt. That made my transition from “just a student” to “assistant instructor” much smoother. As a black belt, I include learning how to teach as part of my regular Taekwondo training. While I continue to work on my conditioning, sparring, forms, and self-defense skills I put in equal time practicing my coaching and teaching skills. At this point, those leadership behaviors are just as much expected from me as are my other physical and mental taekwondo capabilities.

As you advance in rank and improve your martial arts skills, be mindful of how your leadership skills are developing as well. Be curious and fascinated by your practice. Find a way to gain a fresh perspective. Try out a new technique or a new way of doing something you’ve already learned. Apply that same approach to your growth as a martial arts leader. Observe how your instructor teaches, how they answer questions, and how they adapt to the different personalities, ages, and capabilities of their students. With your instructor’s permission, attend or at least observe lower ranking classes so you build a rapport with the students and have a chance to help them learn. Volunteer for tournaments, demonstrations, or charity events. You’ll find that teaching the skills you’ve already learned not only helps other students, but you will likely also see your own technique improve.

The martial arts are ingrained with honor, respect, and integrity. They also come with a responsibility to supporting one’s community. Consider your development as a leader as integral to your own training as any other technique. Being a leader is incredibly fulfilling and helps continue the traditions and camaraderie of the discipline you love to practice. Don’t wait until you are a black belt to see yourself as a leader. Your leadership training begins now!


Curious to find out how you can develop and sharpen your leadership skills through martial arts training? Why not spend a summer at a martial arts camp where you’ll gain insights as to how you can become a great leader in martial arts and beyond!

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