Training without limitations

Students’ sacrifices rewarded with black belts

Sensei Kueter is a Sandan (3rd dan) black belt and is the Chief Instructor of the Queanbeyan branch of the Peter Morton Academy of Judo Jujitsu Karate.

How long does it take to get a black belt?“, “When can I grade?” and “When will I get my yellow belt?” are the most common questions instructors hear. It is an easy thing to say that gradings and belts don’t matter. I replied to one student, “It’s up to you, you can set the grading date.” The message was not received as I intended and the student jumped up in excitement wanting to set a grading for the following week, even though we both knew she was not ready.

When I first started my journey into the martial arts I focused on my yellow belt. When I received my yellow belt, I focused on my orange belt, when I got that, I focused on my green belt, and I continued to motivate myself this way through to black belt. It is only when you receive your black belt that you seem to hit a dead-end and you start to question your motives for training. This is the very reason that half of the students that receive their black belt quit. In our club, when you receive your black belt, there are no subsequent gradings for the following Dan grades, as they are awarded on merit, personal development and spirit. It can feel like peering into a big dark pit of hopelessness, what do I do now?

Don’t get me wrong, It is a good idea to focus on small goals. But that is all they should be – small goals, not the main driving force behind your training. All students can probably identify the starting point of their training but I can say for certainty that all students of martial arts will never reach the end of their learning.

Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), the founder of Judo illustrated this nicely. The 10th Dan (Degree) black belt is considered the highest range attainable in the martial arts. When he was promoted to 10th Dan, he created an 11th Dan and said that if he were ever promoted again he would instantly create a 12th Dan because you can never stop learning.

Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), the founder of Aikido wore a white belt to the end of his days and always said that he was still a student. Everyone must realise that when you receive a black belt you have only reached a stage when you can begin to really learn. All the training beforehand is a conditioning process, for not only the body, but also the mind.

The common saying “a black belt means nothing” is not entirely correct. It doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things of colours and rankings, but it’s part of a conditioning process, which is extremely important. If your primary focus is a belt, you won’t reach your full potential because you’ve already placed limitations on yourself. The level of your skill can’t be measured in dollars or kilograms – only blood and sweat through hard work.

After you receive your black belt, you have been conditioned to accept principles and ideas that most would consider impossible and hard to comprehend. So don’t be surprised that when you ask a black belt, “Why do you practice martial arts?” he/she won’t be able to answer you in one sitting. “Why do I train?” could be placed in the same category as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” to most martial artists. Most martial artists, especially black belts, will call their art a “lifestyle” rather than a sport or activity, because it becomes part of your life in everything you do. Even if they have retired from active training, they are still practicing. In essence, we train to fight in the hope that we will never have to use it.

For this reason we must always continue to challenge ourselves, both mentally and physically. I was curious when someone commented to me that I was “into the fitness thing” and purposefully tuned up to training late. I certainly don’t consider myself a fitness junkie, but try to make the classes interesting and challenging. If we always practice the same things all the time, we become too comfortable and lazy in what we do. I don’t only mean physically, but mentally. Continually challenging ourselves is a humbling experience that not everyone is comfortable with. The ego is our worst enemy because it constantly tells us we are “hot-stuff”, and when you place this into a context of a life and death situation, you are your own enemy. Complicating our training sessions with new and challenging exercises brings us down to earth so we can start to learn again with an open mind. It is all about bringing down barriers.

There was a time when we could judge a person on the colour of his belt, but in this commercial world you can just about buy one off the shelf. It is true that fees must be charged to cover the running costs of the club, but you have to question yourself when the drive to instruct is replaced by commercial targets and values. It is sad to say, but some students judge the quality of instruction and effectiveness of a club by how much it charges. Instead, look how worn the collar of the person’s judogi is, or if his belt is worn through from hours of training. A black belt is not as important as practice itself. Perhaps we should return to the old ways of “instruction by invitation only”.

An instructor’s most important role is as a guide. In this material world students think of themselves as Customers and instructors are treated as Suppliers. This attitude creates all sorts of problems in the development of the student. Students sometimes expect instructors to teach as if they are “shovelling-coal”. We must all realise that it is a privilege to be taught martial arts, not a right.

Students also need to realise that instructors are also students, and we don’t have all the answers. The term “sensei” does not mean expert, but teacher. Even the term “coach” is inaccurate. Perhaps the term “guide” is more appropriate. As guides we are travelling the same road as the students we are leading, but perhaps a bit further along. Instructors can only relay their experiences back to the students and hope they don’t stumble. Some parts of the journey can be difficult and the student may “set up camp”, sometimes the student catches up to the instructor and sometimes the student gives the guide some direction.

If you start to ask yourself “What am I doing this for?” don’t get discouraged. You are challenging the limitations you have built up over the years and are on the way to become Master of Yourself. Perhaps this is something we should all meditate on once in a while.