A few weeks ago I earned my Brown Belt. I’ve written about belts at my school before, of course. It’s a natural thing to fixate on and, particularly to younger or newer students, is a very important aspect of training initially. I say ‘initially’ because in many cases (definitely for me) the whole concept wears off and you’re not quite as enamored with them after several months. Yes, they are great milestones and goals, don’t get me wrong. Getting a new belt is a huge achievement and something that everyone at my school earns with a lot of extremely hard work. It’s just that, as a student, the training itself becomes the obsession rather than the long strip of cloth you’ve got strapped around your midsection.
White Belt was, for lack of a better word, humbling. Or was it embarrassing? Depressing? Maybe a little of each. I couldn’t wait for that next belt! More than any belt, that was the hardest to wear. I have a vivid memory of a fellow student who was probably 18 or so. Despite the fact that the nobody really wears belts in class except for Red belts and higher, he would slowly and almost reverently take his Yellow Belt out of his bag and slowly wrap it around his waist, hoping that the bunch of nervous White belts would see his status. You could tell he thought he was the next Jet Li. He gave off a vibe that he was a very experienced student with so much behind him. He wore that Belt as often as he could and wanted the world to know his rank. I remember seeing this and, despite thinking the guy was a bit of a dink, wanting that Yellow Belt. I wanted to get out of the White Belt Ghetto. Now, several belts and many months ahead, that student is long, long gone from the school (I don’t think he even got his next belt, in fact). I am also looking back with a whole new perspective. Belt are goals and achievements but ultimately it’s all about the training in the day to day that counts.
At that time for me though, that next belt, Yellow, felt to me like I could finally exhale. I was no longer the new guy. I demonstrated to myself and the instructors that I could, in fact, do this. This was big for me. Everyone has their self-doubt going into things like this, particularly if you aren’t a young kid full of piss and vinegar. I was in my early 40’s and a part of me was asking myself, “What the hell are you doing?” Was I crazy? Was this some kind of early stage Midlife Crisis? Was it this or a motorcycle for me?! I thankfully didn’t put on my Belt in class or strut around like our friend I mentioned earlier but had a growing sense of pride and accomplishment from all my hard work — and also a bright yellow belt to stuff in my bag to prove it.
My personal experience of Orange, the next belt, was really nice at the time because I was on the top rung of the ladder in Basic Training. In a perverse way, almost a kind of Black Belt in that situation, if you get my drift. I didn’t walk with swagger and never let it go to my head — I was a newbie still to be sure and I knew it! But everything’s relative, right? In that class I had achieved the highest rank and earned those few months in Basic to feel that sense of accomplishment.
Further along, after Basic graduation, I found myself now a Purple belt, the first ranking of the Advanced Class. This was exciting to be training with the advanced students of the school. The training became even more difficult, the partners more intense, and the training material more varied. It was at this point where I became far less concerned with the Belt as a “status symbol”, a mark of experience, tenure, and skill among the fellow students. It became even more apparent that this was a very long haul, that students (including myself) weren’t interested in belt color on fellow students — with the exception of maybe Black, everyone’s ultimate goal. As a result, Blue and Green belts came and went without much fanfare. I worked my tail off for those belts. Believe me. It was grueling, hard, sweaty, exhausting, and often very painful. I am tremendously proud to have made it out the other side but the belts themselves were only milestones along the way.
So now, as a Brown Belt, I reflect back on my past perceptions and thoughts about those belts. It’s really funny how you change. Brown means a lot more to me than the previous few belts because, at my school, it is the first belt that takes 6 months to earn your way out to the next belt (instead of the typical 3 or so months of all previous belts). It is the first belt where you are considered an advanced student in the Advanced Class. It’s not an ego thing but rather an opportunity to learn more advanced material when the Advanced students are broken out into groups for focused techniques — “Purple through Green form up over there, Brown through Red-Black over here, Black Belts over there!” kind of deal.
It’s an exciting time and I look forward to future belts as further marks of achievements and portals into more intense training and responsibility in the dojo. However, although I’m a couple steps closer to the next milestone belt, I won’t be looking up so long to get distracted from my training right in front of me. After all, in Krav Maga training, that’s a great way to get yourself kicked in the nuts.