In my twenty years of training in various martial arts, I’ve seen and learned a lot which shouldn’t be very surprising to anyone reading this article. Do anything for twenty years and you’re bound to learn quite a bit about the subject. What may surprise you however, is the fact that I’ve learned much more about life outside of martial arts while training IN martial arts.
What in the world is this guy talking about, you may be asking. Allow me to explain through a brief comparison of the belt ranks in my Taekwondo organization and how it ties into your own life starting as a newborn baby.
You’ve just stepped into your new martial arts school for the first time. Everything is new and confounding and you may struggle just to perform some of the most basic stances or techniques without falling on your ass.
What’s the difference between a front snap kick and an axe kick? Hell if you know.
This phase in your martial arts life is a lot like you as a newborn infant. You stumble around in the dark trying to make sense of what all is going on around you. You may have no idea what you’re supposed to be learning or even if you’re learning anything at all. Bit by bit, you’ll be able to force some of the pieces of the puzzle into place, but you’ll still be heavily reliant on your instructor to guide you and provide you with what you will need (much like a parent).
This stage is similar to your toddler years. You’re moving and grooving, but are still struggling to get a solid grasp of many of the basic things that seem to come naturally to the more senior students. You’ll likely still feel rather clumsy performing most of your techniques as they aren’t ingrained in your muscle memory yet.
Whereas your instructor needed to hold your hand through every aspect before, now they should giving you a bit less direct supervision and primarily interjecting when they see something wrong or if you’re doing something that might get you hurt.
Green & Blue Belt
As we say in our school, green is
the color of growth. In this stage of your (martial arts) life, you’ll be
bombarded with a ton of information and it can seem overwhelming trying to keep
up with it all. You might get frustrated with everything getting thrown
at you and that’s okay.
I liken the green belt rank to around middle school when classes begin to really start throwing a bunch of things at you and it’s a struggle to keep up with it all.
Blue belt is similar in that you will still be receiving a large amount of stuff that you are expected to learn, but by then you have grown more accustomed to the process and are able to approach it with a more calm, methodical mind. Whereas green belt can represent a seedling just starting to sprout from the earth, blue denotes the water that will allow it to grow and set deep roots.
Red, the color of passion and intensity. This is often the time where things begin to click and the student’s progress really starts to ignite. I liken it to a young adult. They see their life ahead of them and all the possibilities on the horizon with an eager zeal that we often lose as we get older.
We believe we can become anything, can do everything. That is the power of the red belt. It is a blazing fire. It is a deep desire to take on any challenges presented to us and then ask for more.
Like a teenager, our initial reaction to guiding red belts is to try and restrain them a bit, lest they take on more than they can handle or risk hurting themselves. Like a parent, I would advise instructors to be mindful in how you manage these passions. You don’t want to put the fire out, but you also don’t want it to burn out of control. You want to teach them how to harness that fire and set it deep within their soul so that it always burns hot, but is also contained. As we like to say in the FOE, “Iron sharpens iron.” Where does that iron come from? A forge! Teach the red belts how to keep their forge hot and ready for the future.
I’ve lost count on how many people I’ve talked to who told me that they would like to make it to black belt and then they’d be fine quitting. It’s a peeve of mine, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a statement born primarily out of ignorance. They see the rank of black belt as the end of the journey when in fact, it’s just the beginning.
Becoming a black belt is a lot like hitting your 18th birthday. You made it. You’re an adult.
What are you going to do with what you’ve learned up to this point? Are you going to continue refining your techniques? Will you begin studying a second martial art to gain a new perspective? Do you want to become an instructor of your own school one day?
Many practitioners upon reaching black belt realize that they’ve essentially reached White Belt v2.0. Up until now, you’ve been engaged in learning a ton of techniques and forms, but now it is up to you to learn how to both refine those skills as well as how to best apply them. Think of it like graduating school and entering the workforce. Your training/learning doesn’t end, it shifts.
I mean, sure, you can reach your black belt and quit. Many people do just that. You can also graduate high school and not learn anything else for the rest of your life. Does that sound like a good idea? Definitely not!
We have a joke in our Taekwondo organization that 1st Degree black belts is the worst position to be in. You’re viewed as a senior belt, but you have no idea what that means or what you should be doing. By now, I’m sure you can spot the parallel to every day life and chuckle at the comparison.
As they grow into their rank over the years, they become more confident in their own abilities. Whenever someone comes up to them asking for advice, they will be more assured in their own answers and less flustered about what they should be doing.
There are many life lessons one can learn while training in traditional martial arts. Those who start young enough will experience a somewhat condensed analogy for life as a whole before they actually reach those stages. A good instructor will be sure to teach these parallels in their classes so that their students will learn more than just kicks, punches, and katas. They will gain a greater understanding of the world around them and how to establish their place in it.
A big thanks to Nathan for asking me to write on Barbarian Rhetoric. I look forward to adding more installments into this series.