It is a well-known fact that many shodan practitioners quit because they believe they have accomplished their goal of attaining the coveted black belt in karate, assuming there is nothing more to achieve. In this article, we discuss the many potentials beyond shodan and why shodan is merely the beginning of your martial arts journey.

Table of Contents

1. Gain a Deeper Understanding

Earning your first black belt is a significant achievement, but it is merely the beginning of a lifelong quest to gain a profound understanding of the art of empty-hand fighting.

At the shodan level, you are expected to have a foundational knowledge of basic techniques, kata, and essential fighting skills, albeit at a somewhat superficial level. However, the path doesn’t end there. Beyond this point, your journey involves delving deeper into these fundamental techniques, with an emphasis on refining and perfecting them.

Your progression will shift from understanding “what” techniques entail to uncovering the “why” behind each movement. You’ll explore the underlying principles and discover why the techniques are performed in a particular manner and what you can do to better use your body to maximize the potential power of your techniques.

A look at the four stages of learning will help you understand where your skill level is on your karate journey.

The four stages of learning, often referred to as the “four stages of competence,” describe the process of acquiring and mastering new skills or knowledge. These stages are a model for understanding how individuals progress from being unaware of their incompetence to becoming highly skilled and competent. The four levels are as follows:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: In this stage, individuals are unaware of their lack of skill or knowledge in a particular area. They may not recognize the need to learn or improve because they don’t know what they don’t know. This is a state of blissful ignorance
  2. Conscious Incompetence: At this stage, individuals become aware of their lack of skill or knowledge. They recognize that there is room for improvement and that they have much to learn. This awareness often arises when they encounter a challenge or realize that others possess the skills they lack
  3. Conscious Competence: In this stage, individuals have acquired the necessary skills or knowledge, but they must consciously think and practice to apply them effectively. They are competent, but their actions require effort and concentration. Mastery hasn’t yet been achieved
  4. Unconscious Competence: At this final stage, individuals have mastered the skill or knowledge to the point where it becomes second nature. They can perform the task or demonstrate the knowledge without conscious effort or thought. It has become a natural part of their skill set.

A shodan is likely at the early stage of “conscious competence”, they know the necessary techniques and can apply with conscious effort and concentration but this is a long way from mastery. Progressing from competent execution of techniques at a conscious level to performing them effortlessly at an unconscious level in dynamic and unpredictable fighting scenarios requires years and years of consistent and devoted practice.

Some people have aptly made the following comparisons dan rankings and academic qualifications:

  • Earning the first-degree black belt is akin to achieving your high school diploma
  • Second dan is analogous to earning an associate degree from a junior college
  • Third dan is comparable to obtaining a bachelor’s degree
  • Fourth dan equates to achieving a master’s degree
  • A fifth-degree black belt is regarded as a master of their art and can be likened to earning a doctorate degree
  • Sixth dan and beyond are awarded honorably and could be compared to post-doc or honorary qualifications.

In short, getting the first-degree black belt is a significant achievement that you should be proud of, but it merely marks the beginning of a lifelong quest for martial mastery.

2. Learn Advanced Techniques

Black belts often start learning more advanced techniques which can include specialized and intricate movements. The nature of these advanced techniques may differ depending on the specific karate style or dojos.

In some dojos, advanced techniques like takedowns, strangulations, joint manipulations, and lethal techniques targeting vital pressure points are only taught to black belts.

Additionally, some karate training camps and seminars are only available to black belts, providing them with opportunities to partake in specialized training sessions and workshops led by renowned karate instructors with decades of experience, thus enabling them to acquire further insights, deepen their knowledge, and refine their techniques.

3. Learn Advanced Kata

Advanced kata represents a higher level of technical skill and expertise in karate. As a shodan, you’ve gained a strong foundation in the basics, you now have the chance to learn more advanced kata and challenge yourself further.

Advanced kata sequences often involve longer sequences and more complex movements that require a greater degree of control, balance, and understanding of body mechanic principles. As a result, you have more opportunities to grow your technical skills as well as mental and physical capabilities.

If you are keen on competing, this is also the opportunity to pick a few advanced kata to devote your time to and work toward your competition. In karate competitions, points are awarded for both technical and athletic performances so a more advanced kata which showcases your diverse range of skills likely to score higher. You could also even pick the most challenging kata to push yourself further.

4. Start Weapons Training

In some karate schools, black belts have the opportunity to advance their training by learning traditional weapons, known as “kobudo.”

Weapon training involves the practice of traditional martial arts weapons, such as the bo staff, sai, tonfa, kama, eku, or nunchaku, or knife defense depending on the specific style.

While it might seem contradictory to karate being an art of the empty hand, weapon training is very useful in street self-defense situations in today’s world where you may need to utilize ordinary objects around you to better protect yourself and your loved ones.

Weapons, in this context, serve as extensions of the body, changing the concepts of safe distance and striking range compared to empty-handed combat. Like empty-hand techniques, mastery of weapon techniques requires dedicated training to effectively employ them in self-defense scenarios.

5. Cross-Train in Other Martial Arts

Some black belts also begin to explore other martial arts to broaden their skill set, such as incorporating elements of Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, or even wrestling into their training.

Cross training exposes you to a wider range of techniques, strategies, fighting styles, and training philosophies. By learning techniques from multiple martial arts, you can develop a broader skill set, which can help make you a more versatile and well-rounded fighter.

Furthermore, different martial arts emphasize different aspects of physical fitness, such as strength, flexibility, endurance, and agility, hence cross training can help enhance your overall physical conditioning.

6. Become an Instructor

Many black belts take on teaching roles, helping to guide and mentor lower-ranked students. Teaching not only benefits those you instruct but also significantly improves your own karate. By breaking down techniques, concepts, and principles and explaining them to others, you deepen your own understanding of karate.

As an instructor, you would need to demonstrate and repeat techniques repeatedly to help your students learn. This repetition reinforces your muscle memory and perfects your own execution of these techniques.

Furthermore, instructing others helps build your communication and leadership skills and self-confidence. Confidence in your ability to teach and guide others often translates to confidence in your own karate abilities and other endeavors outside martial arts.

Teaching also provides a unique opportunity to make a positive impact beyond the world of karate, bringing deep satisfaction and fulfillment to your life by leaving a positive mark on those around you.

7. Compete at High Levels

Some black belts opt to pursue competitive opportunities by participating in tournaments and competitions at various levels.

For many black belts, competition serves as a powerful motivation to maintain their training and progress in martial arts. Prior to getting their shodan, there are clear and tangible goals linked to advancing through the colored belts, which offer a sense of tangible progression. However, once one reaches the black belt level, it’s just black belt afterward, the path may appear less clear, and progress can feel slower and abstract. In such cases, competition can become a driving force. Preparing for competitions and setting specific goals, whether at regional, national, or international levels, can serve as a compelling incentive to persist in their training.

It’s worth noting that in Japan and Okinawa, you’ll often find seasoned karate instructors continuing to compete well into their middle age. This serves as a means to continually challenge themselves, refine their skills, and remain competitive in the martial arts community.

8. Maintain Your Fitness

Quitting after black belt and engaging in other martial arts or rigorous physical activities can help you maintain your fitness. However, some just simply quit after getting their shodan and gradually become unfit as a result.

Karate offers a range of fitness benefits, including improved strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, stress reduction, and mental well-being, contributing to a holistic approach to overall health and fitness. Therefore, continuing your karate training after achieving a black belt provides a structured and enjoyable way to maintain your physical fitness for a lifetime.

9. Open Your Own Dojo

Some black belts open their own dojo to pass on what they learn to others. Although running a dojo is a big commitment and a big challenge, it is also a very rewarding side hustle.

If you have a deep passion for karate, opening a dojo allows you to share your knowledge and skills with others while doing something you love. As mentioned above, teaching not only benefits others but also enhances your own understanding of the art.

Managing a dojo involves various responsibilities, from administration to teaching and leadership. These responsibilities can help you develop new skills and grow as an individual. It can also teach you entrepreneurial skills, such as marketing, financial management, and customer service, which can be valuable in other aspects of your life.

Your dojo can also become focal point for your local community. You can create a positive and inclusive space, bringing families together to learn and grow. This community-building aspect can be personally very rewarding.

Lastly, a karate dojo can generate supplementary income which is especially beneficial as a backup or a way to increase your earnings without switching job.

10. Publishing and Leaving a Legacy

Some black belts decide to publish books on karate at a later stage of their karate journey which enable them to share their passion, knowledge, and experiences with a broader audience, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of martial arts.

Writing a book allows you to share your knowledge and expertise in karate with a broader audience, contributing to the preservation and dissemination of the martial art’s traditions, techniques, and principles.

Writing a book is also a way to immortalize your knowledge, experiences, and insights, ensuring that they are accessible to future generations of martial artists, thereby creating a lasting legacy.

The completion of a book project is a significant accomplishment, bringing personal satisfaction and a boost to one’s self-esteem and sense of achievement.

While relatively uncommon, successful books can also provide a continuous source of income through book royalties, teaching tours and related products.

Earning your shodan is a significant achievement, but it marks just the beginning of your martial arts journey. There are countless things to learn and discover, offering opportunities for you to make a lasting impact on others and lead a more fulfilling life.

What Is Mushin and How to Achieve It?

What Is Kiai and How Should You Do It?

Practical Tips for Effective Self Defense on the Streets

How to Find More Time for Your Karate Training

Best Fighting Stance: Going Beyond Physical Form

How Competing Can Make Your Karate Better

Ten Benefits of Kata Practice


Karate: The Mental Edge by Rod Kuratomi

What comes after black belt in karate?

10 Reasons You Should Open a Dojo

The Advantages of Cross-Training Martial Arts

Understanding the 4 stages of learning

3 Unexpected Benefits of Writing a Book