“Black Belt: What It Is and What It Takes” by Ryan

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Bojanim Ryan working with youth students.

Ryan is a provisional black belt candidate for 1st degree. Here is his essay about what it means and what it takes to be a black belt.

Ryan is an adult student. In this essay, he tackles some issues that will be familiar to adult martial artists: how humbling it is to start something new,  how tough it can be to make time for training outside of class, how difficult change can be, and how much there is to remember! What I love is how Ryan talks about his own strategies for overcoming these difficulties, while also recognizing that the very act of overcoming them is a key part of being and becoming a black belt.

Check it out after the jump!

“What a Black Belt is and What it Takes” by Ryan

Black Belt in Life

I started my journey to black belt on the sidelines, watching my kids with their own Taekwondo experience. I didn’t just watch, but I really paid attention. It didn’t take me long to realize that Instructor Chris wasn’t just teaching these kids how to punch and kick. He was teaching them so much more, and more about life. One thing he always said to the kids, and it has stuck with me, is that he didn’t just want them to just be a black belt at the school, but that he wanted to teach them to “be a Black Belt in life.” This is powerful, and its essence is exactly what a black belt is and what it should take.

There was a lot stopping me from stepping into the Taekwondo arena for myself. Maybe money was a factor. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was just more comfortable sitting on the bench and watching… it wasn’t, those benches are not comfortable. Maybe the real excuse was that I didn’t have the self-confidence to take the first step, because, after all, I knew I’d look a fool and just fail anyway. After some nudges, and let’s face it, a really good family deal, I wandered into class, ready to just do my best, and prepared to be done with it soon enough.

Perseverance

White belt was pretty easy. After that, things got complicated, even the stuff that I thought had looked easy from the bench. Early on, I discovered a couple things about Taekwondo. The first was that I really enjoyed it. I thought I would like it enough, especially going to class with my family, but this was different. I enjoyed this like I enjoy comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Wars. The second thing was that it took perseverance to get anywhere with it. As each belt rank came, I learned, more than anything, that I am not going to get it right after the first, second, tenth, hundredth time, nor am I going to get it right every time. But, with each first, second, tenth, hundredth time, I became a little more controlled, a little more precise, and a little more confident that I could get the technique correct. I kept at it, and began to realize that failure was an opportunity to learn, and learning was my opportunity to advance. The final discovery was that white belt wasn’t easy, because at each rank I needed to go back and refine all the previous skills that I thought I had perfected.

So, I couldn’t get it right the first time, and when I thought I had it right, there was always more I could do to hone the technique. Pro-tip: at Provisional Black Belt, there are still things I know I need to refine about all my techniques. This can sound discouraging, but black belts in life don’t shy away from chances to improve themselves, though it may take great effort and repetition. And repetition.

Humility

Maybe my head was getting big. I transferred to a new school, and was welcomed warmly by my new Instructors Doris and Caitlin. Also at this new school were several other Black Belts, in numbers I had never really encountered before. On day 1, we got to spar, and these new opponents were significantly more skilled than I was. In the weeks and months that followed, I saw these black belts performing the techniques that I thought I was doing well, with skill that made me re-evaluate exactly where I thought my own skills were at.

It was a tough move, and I had to figure out the new culture at the new school. I had to see where and how I fit… or even if I would fit at the school. At times I was confused on what seemed to others simple instructions, and I often had to ask what I thought were silly questions on how to complete those instructions correctly. Techniques between the schools were sometimes subtly different, and I had to figure out how to relearn these techniques. Mostly, I had to learn how to accept that I was being corrected on things I felt I was doing right, and change how I was doing those things. Accepting correction and initiating change, I found, is another part of the black belt definition.

Discipline

My first belt rank test at Northwest School of Martial Arts about killed me. I was physically underprepared for the endurance and stamina it took to complete the test. I passed, but afterwards I was wiped. Done. I went home and soaked in a hot bath for what seemed weeks. It was during this time of meditation… or unconsciousness… that I realized that I really needed to take time outside of class for physical exercise. I ain’t never done no exercise on my own ever in my life, and suddenly I was faced with the very real need to figure out how and what exercise was going to work for me. Then I’d have to actually stick to it. The next couple tests, even the Provisional Black Belt test, went much better for me. All were difficult, and taxing, but I had decided I was going to be ready, and took the steps to be there.

There is also the memorization. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t always help entirely, and can’t be relied upon solely. The struggle is real here, though reviewing my materials often is the key. This doesn’t mean as often as I feel like it, or as often as I need to because I am testing in two days. This means a regular review, both for the mind and body, of the techniques and belt rank requirements. This isn’t done in class, but on my own time instead. Yes, I’d probably rather be playing Skyrim, but there are no Black Belts in Skyrim.

Application

So, what is the application for this technique? A question my instructors always know is coming from me. What does this all mean? If these are the qualities I’ve learned that build the foundation for Black Belt, how have those qualities translated to my real life outside the school? After all, the goal, from white belt, is to “be a Black Belt in life.” I can’t practice these skills only in the confines of the school without any application outside the school. If I do, then I have learned nothing on my journey. Nothing.

I can say I am much more patient with others and with myself now. I am less liable to try to control things beyond my sphere; instead, I try to find a path through them. I am less likely to feel the need to defend my mistakes or opinions, while still being able to learn from them and adapt them to new information. A cynic at heart, I’ve been able to evaluate things through a positive lens, finding something good or progressive more and more often.

I’ve got a ways to go though. I’m not perfect, but this journey to Black Belt has taught me so much more than punching and kicking. I believe I am a better person now, for those around me and for myself, than when I started this journey nearly 6 years ago.

Thankfulness

I have not made this journey alone, unguided, and without support. I’ve got to thank so many that have inspired and encouraged me along the way. I’d like to begin by thanking God first; through Him all things are possible. Second I’d like to thank my family. My wife, Brandy, who shared part of my journey with me, and continues to support me relentlessly. My children, Angel and Sarah Fey, who were my initial spark of inspiration. My dad, who shares with me his own journey to Black Belt, and inspires me to be better in the dojo and in my life.

I’d like to thank my instructors, Chris Aprecio, Doris Eastbury, Caitlin Pratt. All of whom have shown me, by application, what Black Belt is and what it takes. They have been patient with my questions and frustrations when I don’t get it right. Their knowledge of Taekwondo and ability to pass on that knowledge has been some of the best instruction I’ve ever received in any field. Know I appreciate it.

To the school, and all of the students, I learn just as much from you, whether I am teaching or watching you perform. Every last one of you has taught me some lesson at some point, and I love our time together. Remember, a Black Belt is a white belt that didn’t quit. You can get there. Thank you.

About Sensei/YDN Caitlin

Sensei Yudanjanim Caitlin is a 2nd degree black belt, senior instructor, administrative assistant, and student of Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Arnis at Northwest School of Martial Arts.
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