“If your karate is good enough you do not need a black belt to prove it, and if it is not, then you should not wear one.
— Eiichi Miyazato
I think my driver changed. No longer am I motivated so much by belts. The strip of cloth we tie around our midsection. Sure they are a extremely helpful as goals and a visible result of our hard work and dedication that we actually can wear. What I’m finding though is that I am more driven by the prospect of an increase in skill, a better sense that I’m “gettin’ it”, and a more solid feeling that I can really use this stuff to protect myself if I ever need to.
Up until fairly recently, I have been focusing on the goal of being a Black Belt as my primary motivation. I have realized that this is all wrong, at least for me. With each new belt stripe and new belt color I get one step closer to Black Belt but I also get less and less jazzed about the belt itself and more excited about what the skills I’m obtaining. I wear mine every class despite the fact that few students at my school do not (except Black Belts). This is not done as a something that I hope triggers envy in White Belts but as a visible reminder to myself alone that I’ve made progress and should always strive to make progress. Every day, every class — without exception.
So why do we want to be Black Belts? That Final Destination. For some it’s a Bucket List item. In fact, I’ve seen a surprisingly high percentage of students bail within 6 months of getting said belt. For others a Black Belt is a personal challenge, like running a marathon. For some it’s to boast to everyone who’ll listen (the vast majority of people who do listen, by the way, will not give a rat’s ass, by the way). For others it might be a way to get recognition and respect (i.e., in a dojo) where they might not get it so easily outside in the real world. Maybe their spouse, boss, siblings, and co-workers think they’re a nicompooop but at the dojo, with a Black Belt, they are respected. Really though, who knows what drives someone else to do what they do?
In my school, and it is maybe the case in yours too, there are is an occasional junior belt who kicks butt. A lot of butt. So much butt, in fact, that you secretly admire their aggression and skill on the mat more than some students with years more experience. They could be better because they work harder, had prior experience in a martial art, are very athletic, learn quickly, or are just plain gifted. They have a lower belt. Someone has a higher belt. Could you make a case that the lower belt is….better? Well, for starters, they are certainly not as experienced. Having not trained for as long as an upper belt, no matter how gifted, dedicated, or athletic they are, they haven’t been exposed to as much training. Simple as that. They haven’t developed the reflexes, been exposed to training scenarios hundreds of times, been toughened up by years of painful routines and aggression drills with dogged determination. Their brains haven’t been conditioned through massive repetition to recognize what to do in high-stress self-defense situations. They haven’t been doing it long enough to establish muscle memory in hundreds of techniques. And so on and so on… So, I think it’d be a hard sell to pitch a junior belt as being ‘better’ than a Black Belt.
To me, more training equates to getting better and that’s what it’s all about. It was said in class this week, “If you do something — anything — for 4 years or more, how could you not get good at it?” What doesn’t resonate as much with me is an arbitrary belt color for the sake of that belt color. I am not about status in the school. I don’t get off strutting around with a higher belt than someone who’s just joined and is suffering through their first class. I don’t need that kind of validation. In fact, I still consider myself only intermediate level so what do I know? Instead, I need to know what I have to improve upon and have some personal reassurance that I am getting better. The belt helps, I suppose, but what’s better is finally getting the hang of a lead front kick or a whopping 180. The feeling of speed as I can throw in a double jab faster than a few months ago. The pride of feeling less fatigue after a long sparring match or prolonged pad work.
So, I’ll always keep my eyes on the prize. Each new successive belt is a proud, personal accomplishment that I wear with me every time I train. The Black Belt and each successive stripe that follows — same thing but, I suppose, on a whole new level of personal accomplishment. Like millionaire making their second million, right? But in the end, for me, it’s all about the skill and each time I strap that belt around my waist I try to reflect on what it means to me now and how I’ve grown and improved over last class, last month, last year. I expect to have the same introspection and appreciation for my training, dedication, and accomplishment at any belt and it increases with each new belt, culminating, of course, at the prized Black Belt.
For further reading on this topic, here’s a really interesting article on Black Belts and what they can mean: http://ymaa.com/articles/who-is-going-to-teach-me-your-teachers-qualifications