My stories as I remember them during my journey in the Martial Arts

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Everyone's Journey to Black Belt Has its Own Path

Recently a person who trains in one of Mr. Steve Lavallee’s USA Black Belt Champions Schools was asking a question in his blog about a teenager being informed of a need to wait to test for a Black Belt. Apparently the teenager had some maturity issues that needed work. The question is: should problems at home or in life be considered and is this too much to ask of the teenager at this point in their life. The answer to that question is difficult. Not knowing all the details makes answering it even more difficult. Each individual is different. The road to Black Belt is not always clear cut. Now I have seen some people denied black belt that should have achieved it. I have also been witness to people being awarded black belts that in, my opinion, did not deserve the promotion. In the end it is what is in your own heart as to whether you deserved your own promotion to black belt that really matters. The decision process is very subjective. I was on the inside track of this having been a staff member asking to grade people to determine their readiness to test. Of course the head instructors and/or senior black belts always gave the final “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. The only way for me to answer this question of readiness for black belt is to explain one person’s journey.

My friend John C. had started training just prior to when I had started. We became friends and enjoyed many good times training together. We sweated together and went through our third degree brown belt test together. We had both been promoted to that last level prior to Black Belt.

John was older than I was a being about 40, I believe, at that time. I was twenty-eight. The requirements in those days included running three miles in twenty-one minutes or less. John meet all the other requirements but being a former body builder he had a large frame and running did not match up with his body type. I would have called John very fit, especially for his age. He was told he needed to improve his running time to break the threshold to black belt.

In December of 1988 I was promoted to black belt. This had been my own second attempt. John was still not considered eligible for promotion. He had been side by side with me the whole way. He did have many good talents. He was an excellent fighter. He had very good timing with an awesome reverse punch. He was not a great kicker, but 40 year olds are not likely to be showing off ninety degree angle kicks. John also knew every kata and self defense move inside and out. The only thing holding him back was his running times.

John never gave up. He tried time and time again. He certainly displayed black belt indomitable spirit. My friend Al and I started training together. Al was also having trouble getting by the final barrier to black belt. Al had other issues working going to school and raising a family. He did not have the time necessary to devote to the training needed to break over that barrier. He watched John’s struggle and finally stopped training. Witnessing John’s struggle had discouraged Al and he felt the process had become unfair. Al dropped out from training.

It had been about two years since I had been promoted to black belt. Al had become discouraged and was no longer training. He had a meeting with Mr. Lavallee about his training. Mr. Lavallee allegedly suggested to Al to quit taking college courses so he could devote more time to training. Al never returned to training after that. I was training for my second degree at this time and again was training side by side with John. We both missed Al. The three of us had always been training partners and with one person missing it just was not the same anymore. I was having my own difficulties at this time. I no longer paid for lessons since I had been a staff member. I was however being asked to devote many hours to teaching. I was now married and working nights. I could not keep up with this. I eventually stopped training too. With me it was not a conscience decision. I jus t stopped going to class on consistent basis. I then began to feel guilty about not devoting time to teaching class since I no longer paid for my training. Finally I just never went back to Lavallee’s.

All this time John had continued. He would not give up. He had been through many life changes. He had a divorce, his daughter had become an unwed mother but John kept trying he kept training. He had proved he had more perseverance than either Al or me. Still Mr. Lavallee would not award John with a black belt. John succumbed. He stopped training. He told me his knees could not take running anymore his hips hurt his back hurt, his body was giving up on him.

I had stopped training although I still practiced all my Katas and material on a consistent basis. I missed the interaction of learning. I knew all the material for second degree since I had been almost ready to test when I left Lavallee’s. I had been working out at Rick I’s gym all along. Rick was now teaching Karate again. I decided to train with Rick. His teaching style was more like the “old days” at Lavallee’s. The reason the teaching style was like the old Lavallee’s was because Rick was the old Lavallee’s. I was on the road to second degree even if I was starting from scratch again. In December of 2000 I acheived my second degree black belt.

I ran into John from time to time and always encouraged him to start training again with Rick I. Finally between Rick and me we must have convinced John and he returned to the martial arts. I had been working at a job that prevented me from getting to class at times class was held. So my own training was on hold for awhile. While I was away John was training with Rick. Rick was about to promote John to black belt. His promotion was just on the horizon. John’s body however was giving him trouble. Keep in mind John was now about Sixty years old. Rick told me John came in just prior to his test he was almost in tears. John told Rick he could not do the test. His hips had given out and the doctor had informed him he needed a hip replacement. Rick said he had already ordered the belts with the names stitched in. Rick said “John you deserve this” and he handed him his black belt. Rick had been there for most of John’s prior attempts to make black belt. He knew John had never given up. He knew that no one had ever put more into trying to achieve this goal than John. John had always had the spirit of a black belt. No one but Rick had ever recognized it.

This does not directly answer the question about the teenager. What I was trying to convey is what goes into the decision to let someone be awarded this level of achievement. Each person is different each journey has its own life. Should this teenager wait? That is hard to say. Is Lavallee’s asking too much of this teenager? Only the teenager and his instructor can answer that for sure. Hopefully he has an instructor like Rick who recognizes the real meaning of this achievement.

Keep reading I will write about what it means, to me anyway, to be and achieve a black belt.

1 comment:

  1. Ron. This is a very interesting story. It raises questions that I care passionately about but which which are a little esoteric and which so far, I've failed and flailed at answering well.

    At the simplest level, the question is this.

    Who cares about the silly black belt?

    It's symbolic. It's arbitrarily decided my some external group. Why would any sane adult let some external body have any emotional power over them to judge their struggle or journey as adequate or not?

    Shouldn't the psychic awards of training and struggle be internally judged or maybe by our workout partners?

    In the vast majority of cases, kohai are highly motivated by these external definitions. While the struggle is important, it's the struggle towards some external validation that's such a big deal. I think I'm still struggling to figure out what I'm trying to say. Once I figure it out, I'll blog about it.

    I did have a post a year ago wrestling with questions of why struggle and play is so important.