I once witnessed a sparring session that taught me a lot about perseverance, confidence, humility, and what it means to have an indomitable spirit.
There are a lot of possible explanations for the behavior of the student that you will read about below (we can’t read his mind), but I honestly believe it was an amazing example of the aforementioned qualities.
Here’s what happened:
Two of our most advanced students were sparring; one male, and one female. They are roughly 8-10 years of age. The female student was able to take the male student down and control him throughout the round. The male student worked hard to get back up, but the girl clearly held the advantage throughout the round.
I was impressed with how he kept his composure throughout the round, working hard to get back up, and never giving up. However, I expected to see some visible signs of distress on his face when the round was over. After all, if I had been out-sparred by a girl when I was that age, excuse, when I was out-sparred by a girl, I used to through a fit, cry, or at least feel very embarrassed. If I were this student, I probably would have claimed she poked me in the eye, which would explain why I had been taken down, and why my eyes were now watering.
To my amazement, this young man popped right back up at the end of the round as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t read his mind, but I am almost certain there was no change in the way he felt about himself after this sparring session, and he would have been happy to do another round with her or anyone else.
Of course, we could say that perhaps times are changing and it is no longer as big of a deal for a boy to lose to a girl as it was when I was growing up, which is probably true and I for one think that is a good thing. After all, in jiu-jitsu especially, it is not unusual to see a female student overcome a male opponent or training partner, but as I said before, BOTH of these children were among our top students. Learning that someone is ahead of us in any activity in which we excel can be a blow to the ego.
I would invite you to take what you want from this anecdote. Perhaps you think it is no big deal. However, I was deeply moved by this student’s character. It was as if he had the perfect balance of humility and confidence to say, “I was beaten in sparring, and that is OK, I’m still happy with who I am.” Talk about being comfortable with who you are.
We’ve all heard about the importance of getting up when we get knocked down in life, but rarely have I seen it exemplified so clearly. It made me realize that if we can be graceful in the face of defeat, then we really haven’t been defeated. This is as true in our day-to-day lives as it is in sparring.
Imagine if every time we get knocked down, or someone does something which might be perceived as an insult, we get up or kept our head up as if nothing happened. This is easier said than done, and we will be discussing some strategies for developing this kind of confidence, attitude, and spirit in class this week, as well as in next week’s blog.
For myself, I find it a little bit easier now that I have a role-model to follow in this young student; a walking personification of the great Eleanor Roosevelt quote, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
I don’t know how many times he will get knocked down in life. What I do know is that he will eventually achieve whatever he chooses to in life, because he will always get back up.
This weekend, with Saturday being St. Patrick’s day, our discussions with our younger students centered around making responsible, healthy decisions, and taking care of one’s body and mind.
We all know that the martial arts teach wonderful, potentially life-saving self-defense skills. For most of our students, these skills are (thankfully) rarely (if ever) required in our day-to-day lives. However, that knowledge is still invaluable, as it can have a profound impact on the way we feel about ourselves and approach life. I believe it is much more common, and probable, for the martial arts to help keep students safe by empowering them to make the right choices and helping them to avoid drugs, alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, or becoming a “couch potato.”
How can the martial arts help cultivate a healthy lifestyle? Well, for starters, our students work so hard to build up their bodies and minds in class, that I believe that constant reminders that eating healthy at the table can aid their efforts to become their absolute best (and unhealthy eating habits can hinder those efforts) can go a long way. “Eat this because I said so,” or “Eat this and then you can have some junk food,” become “If you eat this you will grow stronger and continue to become even better at kicking/sparring/kata etc.” Why would they throw away all their hard work in the dojo by eating tons of junk food at home?
For our younger students, now is the time to lay the foundations of the healthy, “Black Belt,” lifestyle.
For our teen and adult students, I feel this lesson is just as important, since their decisions regarding what to eat or drink can have an even larger impact on their health and ability to perform in the dojo. For our Little Ninjas, we hope to teach them to drink juice rather than soda. For one of our teen students, we hope to teach them that they do not need drugs or alcohol.
Furthermore, the martial arts provide us with exciting challenges. We don’t need drugs or excessive electronics to make life exciting. Our goal as martial artists is to cultivate a life that we do not want to escape or make ourselves numb to, we want to enjoy every moment.
By training alongside a group of hard-working, like-minded individuals, our students learn that they don’t need drugs or alcohol to be cool, or have a good time, and are better able to handle peer-pressure.
Black Belt instructors such as Sensei Ines (who, as you may recall from a recent blog, has recently earned her Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, is working toward her second degree Black Belt in San Shou, and is finishing up her final year of law school) provide male and female students with positive role models that demonstrate what is possible with hard work (and what would be impossible with an unhealthy lifestyle).
I wish that I could tell you that by enrolling in martial arts, I can 100% guarantee that you or your child will never do drugs. However, that would not be very true, or responsible of me to claim. What I can say with absolute confidence, is that the martial arts, as we practice them here, are an excellent form of self-defense, be it from a physical attack or the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
What does a Black Belt mean? Ask 10 martial arts instructors and you’re bound to get 10 different answers. A better question might be, “What does a Black Belt mean to you?” I don’t think that there is an objective, universal answer, so I challenge you to ponder this question for yourself.
It might help to start by thinking about what a Black Belt is not. In my opinion, a Black Belt does not necessarily mean that person is the toughest person around, and someone who abuses their body with drugs or an unhealthy lifestyle is certainly not practicing Black Belt excellence. They may have a belt around their waist that happens to be black, but until they make the adjustments and work to get back on track they are not truly a Black Belt. I believe that such a person could become a Black Belt once more, but again, these are my beliefs, and I challenge you to think about this for yourself.
I wish that I could tell you that once you become a Black Belt life is perfect and all your worries are over! However, that is not the case, and actually I am glad it isn’t; how boring would life be without any challenges? In many ways, life may actually be harder for a Black Belt, since they weigh the impact of all of their actions. They would not allow themselves to overindulge in their favorite food or video game, but instead strive to make each day productive.
While the Black Belt lifestyle may present as many (if not more) challenges than the average lifestyle, the Black Belt is well equipped to deal with such challenges when they do occur. The Black Belt has learned that with hard work and persistence they can overcome obstacles and achieve goals.
As an instructor, I believe one of the most important aspects of teaching is challenging our students to think about the impact of their actions. I want them asking questions like, “Should I eat this, or that?” “No one saw me break the lamp, should I blame it on the dog? Why or why not?” “There is a student at school sitting alone at the lunch table, should I ask him or her to join us? Why?”
The Black Belt does not wander through life being led solely by base desire and instinct. The Black Belt constantly asks him or herself how his or her actions will affect their own lives, as well as those of others.
I look at our students and see the epitome of what a Black Belt means to me. Our Black Belts that are working toward their Second Degree Black Belts exemplify the characteristics I’ve mentioned above in their words and deeds. Even many of our students that are working towards their first Black Belt are already demonstrating Black Belt excellence in their techniques and interactions with others. Of course, each one is different, but each one now sees life through “Black Belt eyes,” with a deep belief in their own ability to achieve their goals.
When Sempai Greg asked me to consider writing a guest blog I immediately said “Yes.” Not only was it
a complement to me, I saw it as a “duty” because my teacher had asked me to do something. I guess
that’s just the Navy Chief in me…always do what is asked of you to the best of your ability. In the Navy,
we had “Core Values” which we strived to live by…”Honor, Courage, and Commitment.” I tried to live by
them every day and to teach them to those that were junior to me. You see, as a Chief, I was responsible
to train, motivate, and care for those of lower rank than me. I see a similar pattern in martial arts and
especially at our dojo.
Anyone entering the dojo can’t help but see the Maryland Martial Arts sign which in essence
incorporates our “Core Values”…”Focus, Discipline, and Respect.” Sempai Greg discussed them in his
recent blog as well. In our world today, maybe more than ever before, it’s important to know what
you’re about, and what those that are around you are about as well. As students at the dojo we become
a type of family. We have trusted leaders who teach and mentor us, and who truly care about what
is best for us. We also have a fabulous student fellowship who also cares about one-another and who
supports each other as we train, progress, and grow.
Focus, discipline, and respect are so much more than words. They are a code to live by that improves
the lives of individuals and the group as a whole. By focusing on these values, we grow into the type
of person that we would like to be. We learn to set goals, we live up to the high standards that are set
by ourselves, our parents or partners, and by our trusted instructors. We also learn that “With privilege
comes responsibility.” Advancing in our belts is a privilege, and we must be ready to accept not only
increased status or prestige, we must also maintain a posture of modesty and humility. Our dojo honors
the respect of all towards one-another. With the PRIVILEGE of advancing to a new belt rank, comes the
RESPONSIBILITY to help others learn and grow as well. As we grow in our own skills and confidence,
we must pass on our knowledge to those of lower rank. The concept is one of unity, of caring for each
other, and for the group as a whole.
Accepting and embracing our core values gives us a code to live by. We learn that our privilege and
responsibility span much farther than our friends, classmates, and our school. For example, having
the privilege to own a pet means having the responsibility to care for the pet. Having the privilege
of taking karate lessons means having the responsibility to work hard and try our best in every class
that we participate in. And much more than this, we begin to see that the concept of “privilege and
responsibility” expands far beyond our immediate lives. Having the privilege of living in the freedom
of our country means having the responsibility to live the best lives that we can. We learn to care for
others less fortunate than ourselves, to have concern for our community, our nation, and our world. We
are martial artists, and we are so much more! When we take a moment to reflect on all that we are and
that we have, we see that we are privileged people and thus, we have much responsibility for ourselves,
our family, our community, and our world!