I’m training to be a white belt.
At the end of the 19th Century, Jigoro Kano helped to create the kyudan ranking system for Judo. Adopted by most every Japanese martial art, the kyudan system is assigning colored belts for the lower ranks (the Kyu ranks) and degrees of black belts for the upper ranks (the Dan ranks). This practice would spread across the world (even the modern US Marine MCMAP system would adopt a colored belt ranking system) and across the culture (‘black belt’ erroneously came to mean master).
Tangentially, if you’d like to hear more about this, you can come and listen to me talk about how the Meiji Era Helped to Define the Modern World at Anime USA October 22nd in Washington DC. But I digress.
Having recently tested for the fifth of eight ranks in my system, Kajukenbo, I’ve been pondering life as a black belt. Under the current schedule, I plan to test for my black belt in 2019. I’ve been considering, not to put too fine of a point on it, what to do from there. There are seminars and ways to learn truly high level skills, but they aren’t nearly as convenient or available as one might hope (especially when one works 60-70 hours a week).
A reminder of my lack of knowledge came yesterday when the upper ranks of my school were gathered together to review techniques so as to provide uniform teaching. As a self-defense and pragmatic martial art and school, we welcome instructors from other styles and systems to swing back and work with us, and have developed a relationship with quite a few of them. On this occasion, a friend of the school who is not only familiar with our system but quite decorated in several others sat in on our review. As we worked through some mid-level techniques, we were collectively delighted when said high-ranking guest offered us a few pointers and insights into the techniques we were reviewing.
See, all martial arts masters suffer from the same one or two problems: either they become too skilled or they become too capable. By too skilled, I mean, they develop such a high level of finesse and coordination, that they are to achieve a result with their wrist that just about anyone else would require their shoulder or even whole body. It’s not that the technique doesn’t work except for them; merely that they possess a level of skill that borders on superhuman. To draw a parallel, imagine a person who can do complex math calculations (I’m talking trigonometric or more advanced) in their head. That’s great, but even most engineers still consult their calculators.
The other problem is that they become too capable, meaning they develop physical traits above and beyond what most people, even most serious athletes, cultivate. These are the martial arts masters with flexibility that seems to defy human anatomy or physical strength, endurance, or speed, that is the result of literally decades of dedicated training.
This is a testament to these masters, but it also challenges the techniques that they teach. Yes, the technique might TECHNICALLY work for anyone, but in order to be reliable, it requires phenomenal skill or phenomenal capabilities or both. Noble goals to strive for, but what about the interim?
Working together with those within and outside of our system, the staff of my school was able to identify that the techniques are not wrong; merely taught at a high level. By dissecting them and understanding not the end result but the objective of the technique, we were able to see what worked, why, and why what we taught was taught and why it was taught that way.
To illustrate, imagine being told that to achieve a rank, a practitioner must be able to perform a one-arm, one-leg push-up. If you were to drop to the ground and attempt one, ninety-nine out of a hundred people – even great athletes – would falter and fall. But if you understand to start with wall push-ups, then incline push-ups, then push-ups, then incline one-arm push-ups, etc, you build up to this highly advanced technique, it becomes a lot more reasonable.
My takeaway from this experience was not frustration but eagerness. I didn’t look at our curriculum and body of techniques and think ‘what else needs to be changed’ but instead ‘what else is there for me to learn’. It made me hungry to better understand the nuance of the techniques, to dive in the developmental elements of each and every tactic and technique. To try and experiment, not just myself but with others whom I can teach and instruct, using their status and skill level and fitness level as a way to improve my own grasp of the technique.
In short, it made me hungry to learn more.
I was approaching the concept of the black belt as many mistakenly do: as the end of a journey. I was conceiving of it as an achievement upon which I would have to find a new endeavor to work towards. In reality, the opposite is the case. Black belt would mean I was now ready to begin training for real, to truly understand the techniques being laid before me. I would be able to discard everything I’d learned and rebuild it all again from the beginning, as a white belt, filling in the gaps and perfecting what was already adequate.
So I’ve begun to embrace that moniker: I’m training to be a white belt.
I don’t want to master; I want to learn.
I don’t want to complete; I want explore.
I don’t want to achieve a black belt; I want to strive to be a white belt.