Friday, January 11, 2008

All In Good Time

Recently an adult student at our school announced at the end of his very first class he wouldn't quit until he received a black belt. Immediately, the chief instructor removed his tattered obi and handed it to him. "Here you go, it was nice knowing you", he chided. I think the new guy got the point.

I was always leery of bringing up my specific goals in my first dojo. For example, you just don't ask when you're going to test. It's really bad etiquette, to say nothing of a possible reprisal in the form of some austere training session (shugyo) that might come your way. Supposedly in Japan they use premature rank promotions as a way to deflate those who are bent on flaunting their laurels. The idea behind this is to cause the aspirant to realize the folly to all this and to just get on with the business of training. As the Japanese have a decidedly different worldview than Westerners, such a practice would not have the desired effect on this side of the pond. As it is the art of self promotion among American sensei is not uncommon. Patience is a virtue. One of my instructors waited twelve years for his next dan (black belt grade). I was ikkyu (brown belt) nineteen months before I tested for my black belt. These days, McDojos dole out black belts to beginners in less time than that, and this only hurts the credibility of the school as well as the development of the student.

In truth, some students move up quickly for good reason. Joe Lewis, the kickboxing great from the 70s earned his black belt on Okinawa after only seven months of training in shobayashi-ryu karate. Don Nagle, the first karateka to teach Isshinryu in the US, left Okinawa after a fourteen month stay with a yondan (4th degree black belt) certificate hand written by his teacher Tatsuo Shimabuku. Shimabuku knew it would be years before he saw his charge again, and he wanted him to have credentials upon his return to the States. Nagle and Lewis were extraordinary karatemen in their day, but they still had to pay their dues with relentless training regimens, although in a short time to accommodate their brief military hitches.

There's an old story about a martial arts apprentice who desires mastery. "How long does it take to become an expert?" he asks. "Ten years", replies the master. "What if I train extra hard everyday, then how long?"

"Twenty years!"

Even at the age of eighty, Chosin Chibana, a shorin-ryu grandmaster, felt that he still had a "long way to go" in his perfection of karate. As the 17th century poet John Dryden once wrote, "Beware the fury of a patient man."

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Blogger Rick Matz said...

My plan is to practice diligently on my own, and show up for class as often as I can. Over time, I should accomplish something.

The time is going to pass anyway; I may as well practice and go to class.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Savage Baptist said...

As a rule, we don't wear any sign of rank. Certainly not at associational seminars. It's considered that one's ability or lack thereof should speak for itself.

6:48 AM  
Blogger frotoe said...

I have come across a couple students (both adult male)who truely believed that they would get promoted earlier if they train more. One is a black belt now. He never did promote early despite his delusions and I think he "gets it" now. The other is currently a 3rd kyu and is at class almost too much. And he thinks that if he learns higher level stuff faster that he will promote faster. Its really irritating, but they have to realize on their own that it doesn't work that way. Its not a race.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Blackbeltmama said...

I love that, "I won't quit UNTIL. . ." That's the sad thing. So many people quit when they reach shodan. It's really just the beginning. I have been a brown belt since Sept. 2006 and shodan won't be for a while, considering my current condition. I admit that I used to be the student who wanted to learn more and learn it now. I've since learned that I could spend a lifetime studying one kata and still not get everything out of it that the creators intended. Those who are in it for the race to shodan are missing so much. I'm not that student any more and I'm glad I'm not.

I just had an interesting conversation this weekend with my teacher, Hanshi Heilman. He said that often times, Okinawan instructors gave higher rank under the assumption that those they gave rank to would come back and train to get to that point. They would "grow into" their rank. Some continued to go back; others got their paper rank and never went back. This led to watered down training which was missing so many important aspects.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Hack Shaft said...

I have two vastly different experiences with martial arts and its promotion systems.

My earliest experience was in traditional TKD as a teenager. At that time, it was a grind just to show up at class, and I never worried about when the next test was or when I was up for promotion. Being a new branch school, however, I did earn the distinction of being the first student to test and receive a belt of any rank!

Oddly enough, I never invited my parents to promotion tests or tournaments. It just didn't seem that significant.

I also never quite "got" the adults in class, how they could be so incredibly focused.

As an adult returning to martial arts, I can honestly say that the difference between my earlier experience and now can be summed up in one word:


When I throw a punch or kick at you, I MEAN IT.

11:33 PM  
Blogger somaserious said...

I find that the more you want to rush into a new belt the more you leave behind. I've seen it so many times in our dojo and I have to admit that when I first began getting higher ranks was very appealing. That all changed once I got to purple belt in our system that all changed. The goal is to have no goal, not even worry about one. I'm finding that to be even more important now that I'm at shodan. Never before have I wanted to slow down and just soak in everything that I've wanted to learn and just focus on one thing at a time. Luckily our dojo does not push belts. We learn slowly, as it should be.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Miss Chris said...

I used to get angry at how hard my then 9 year old daughter was pushed at karate and especially training for her black belt. But now I know from the bottom of my heart that she earned that black belt and it wasn't given to her like is done at so many schools.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

after 12? years in various martial arts, I still feel I don't know much about punching straight and I still have to correct that movement from time to time.

I still feel that I don't know much and I certainly don't feel like I could teach anyone.

Sure, I can punch hard. But my brother who doesn't know git about martial arts can punch harder and sometimes (though not that often) when were wrestling for fun, he takes me down.

10 years? That's nothing.
Brown belt? I'm at least a year from it.
Black belt? I'm at least 3 years from it (if I train right)

18 months for a black belt when training 3 times a week?

Give me a break

10:47 AM  

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