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The Ultimate Black Belt Test

by Ross Robertson

At a time when the gospel of self-acceptance is leading to ever-lowering expectations, an audacious martial arts training program strives to replace mediocrity with mastery.

All too often in our postmodern world, traditional character virtues like humility, integrity, and self-discipline have given way to self-acceptance, self-importance, and self-indulgence. In some quarters, where judgment is a sin and personal affirmation is a human right, many find even the idea of seeking victory over mediocrity (our own) to be not merely antiquated but emotionally hurtful and maybe even psychologically dangerous.

Not Tom Callos, sixth-degree black belt and creator of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. Not the ninety-odd men and women, from fourteen-year-old Joel Snyder to sixty-five-year-old Dave McNeill, who have signed up for this grueling two-year teacher- training program designed to revitalize and revolutionize the martial arts world. For Callos and his students, all of whom are already black belts and most of whom own their own schools across the country, complacency is the enemy of excellence, and life is a relentless call to go beyond limits. “Learning from masters and striving to master ourselves . . .” muses Gary Khoury, of Khoury's Karate Academy in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. “This is not a test. This is my opportunity to be fully integrated, fully alive.”

The UBBT is not for the faint of heart. Minimum requirements include 52,000 push-ups, 52,000 crunches, 1,000 rounds of sparring, 1,000 repetitions of a chosen form (kata), 1,000 miles of walking or running, 150 hours of jiu-jitsu mat time, a weeklong eco-adventure course, and proficiency in multiple arts, including boxing, Filipino “stick-fighting,” and reality-based self-defense. But the test doesn't stop with physical skills. Students are also expected to mend three relationships gone bad; right three wrongs; practice meditation daily; seek out a master in or outside the martial arts; name and profile ten living heroes; perform 1,000 acts of kindness and respect and catalyze 50,000 acts through their students and community; keep a weekly journal chronicling gains and losses, frustrations and victories; spend an entire day blind, one day mute, and one day living in a wheelchair; read twelve books on management, philosophy, motivation, or enlightenment; complete an Anthony Robbins motivational course and Bill Phillips' Body for Life program (or equivalent); and participate in or spearhead an environmental cleanup project.

“With the Ultimate Black Belt Test,” says Callos, forty-six, of Placerville, California, “I thought we could mobilize a small army”—an integral army of modern-day warriors equipped with a modern-day warrior code for transforming not only themselves but also their schools, students, and communities. “What if we collectively did a billion acts of kindness over the next ten years?” Callos asks. “What if a million martial arts students and instructors became their own Desmond Tutus, Nelson Mandelas, or Martin Luther Kings?” For the UBBT's growing cadre of leaders, that is a vision that inspires personal confrontation with the demons of weakness, inertia, and normality, because it's a vision that demands living examples in order to make it real.

What Is Enlightenment: What is the Ultimate Black Belt Test?

Tom Callos: The Ultimate Black Belt Test is a hero's journey—exodus, epiphany, and return—and passing it requires a physical, mental, and spiritual transformation that will make people stand up and take notice. Preparing for and taking a black belt test should be like preparing for the Olympic Games: win or lose, you are shaped by it. You go for it, full out. You hold yourself to the highest standards. You step out on the line and reach for a sliver of perfection.

In modern times, the standards for black belt testing are all over the board, so I decided to establish a universal standard that would make the black belt mean something again. It has little to do with physical technique, because it embraces all styles from Japanese to Okinawan to Korean to Brazilian. To me, being a black belt is more than a physical experience. Yes, a black belt should be able to execute precise, effective, beautiful, and technically proficient martial arts techniques, whatever the style. But just as importantly, a black belt should be able to execute precise and beautiful ideas, equal to or better than their physical techniques. A black belt should have an attitude equal in its brilliance to his or her physical skills. What makes a master is not physical skill alone but mental clarity, emotional maturity, and spiritual awareness.

WIE: You quote Master Gichin Funakoshi, who created Shotokan karate close to a hundred years ago, as saying, “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

Callos: Yes. There's a lot of philosophy in the tradition, but the concepts have no power unless you practice them. There's a famous story where a woman came up to Gandhi and asked him to talk to her son about eating sugar. “Okay,” Gandhi said, “let me talk to him next week.” So she brings him back the next week, and Gandhi explains that sugar isn't good for him and asks him to cut back. Afterwards, the mom asks Gandhi, “Why couldn't you have told him that last week?” And he says, “Well, I had to stop eating sugar.”

So it's all about walking the talk. Respect, for example, which we often teach kids, is something that's intangible. It has no meaning as a concept. Until it's turned into action, it's not real. The same thing goes for teachers. If you're walking the talk and seeking mastery and living the spiritual life, you'll attract students. One of my favorite sayings is “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And when the teacher is ready, the students appear.

WIE: Why do you feel that it's so important to consistently go beyond limits?

Callos: The essence of the martial arts is about applying yourself at a very high level, very efficiently, with maximum results. So when we talk about limits, I automatically say, “Well, whose limits?” We arbitrarily set limits for ourselves—mentally, physically, and emotionally—based on who we're hanging out with and who we're comparing ourselves to. When I think of Rosa Parks or Julia Butterfly Hill or anybody who's out there pushing the envelope a little bit, I think, “What about their limits? Am I comparing myself to the wrong people?” We're all capable of so much more than we apply ourselves to, but in order to actualize that potential, we have to constantly test our limits. Testing your limits is like a muscle—if you don't use it, it atrophies.

WIE: In the Ultimate Black Belt Test, you elevate this principle to the level of an unbreakable law by stating, “This test is about overcoming obstacles, not giving in to them. There are no refunds . . . so see it through or don't enroll.”

Callos: I think it was Henry Firestone who said, “Give me one person with commitment versus a thousand with just an interest.” So when you sign up for the test, you make a public commitment. You go to all your students and say, “I'm getting involved in this program, and at some point, I'm going to completely hit the wall. I'm going to break my leg; someone's going to die; I'm going to have a birth. God knows what it is, but I know that something bad is going to happen. It always does. And when that happens, watch what I do.”

Your job as a teacher is to show your students, through this journey you're taking yourself, how to be the ultimate student. Typically, people don't set good goals for themselves that are challenging but obtainable, that excite them, and that are about things that they're interested in. They don't surround themselves with people who are motivated and support them in a positive way.

The martial arts dojo provides a positive environment where we can practice those things that we want to be good at—where we can turn them into action. When you bow, it's a physical manifestation of respect. It's not just the idea. When you use control, you're actually practicing self-discipline through action. Unfortunately, they don't teach these kinds of things outside the martial arts, unless you've got an incredible coach like John Wooden or Vince Lombardi, who were masters in their own right. We don't take the opportunity to teach about perseverance and honor and respect. They're not talking about it in the classroom at school. How many times on TV do you hear the word “self-discipline” or “respect” or “honor”? And parents—who listens to their parents?

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