My boyfriend, a former collegiate wrestler, took taekwondo many years ago to add some striking training to his repertoire; this was in the days pre-dating the prevalence of MMA gyms. He claimed that as a green belt he once received a kick to the face from a black belt that resulted in a nasty gash above his eye. Accidents happen during sparring, and I’ve had a few near-misses on the giving and receiving end. This black belt, however, was not exercising the restraint expected of higher-ranking belts when sparring with someone of a lower rank. He was going all out. As I’ve moved up in the ranks an interesting aspect of training has been a shift in mindset from being solely focused on my own training to a sense of responsibility for the rest of my little dojang community.
I never thought I’d use the phrase “getting too big for your britches,” but I feel like saying that to a young red belt who is getting just a little too arrogant and forceful during sparring. On one hand I want to encourage her to use all the scrappy girl power she has to be a strong fighter. I wish I were as aggressive as she is, and I’m proud of her for her strength and courage. On the other hand I’m concerned about her lack of humility and respect for lower ranking students.
More than once I when I have refereed her and a partner I’ve had to yell at her to stop the head shots (she’s WAY too young to do them, and her partners are too young to receive them, even if she has the capability) and quit making provoking comments to her sparring partners. After she knocked her partner, a blue belt boy, to the ground twice, I told her to back off on her impressive but a little too aggressive front-foot side kicks and explained that it was OK to be tough, especially in competition, but part of her job in class was to help lower ranking belts learn, not try to kill them. I had stopped the fight to give her partner some pointers about how to keep his balance so he wouldn’t be knocked down again when she suddenly reached over and shoved him in the center of his chest gear while I was talking. “Don’t do that again,” I growled firmly, and by the look on her face she knew that I wasn’t just her buddy in class anymore.
Meanwhile as I kept my eye on little miss red belt I quietly praised a serious young preteen who is normally a tough fighter but was extremely gentle and sweet with a tiny girl who barely stood taller than his waist. Every kid has a different level of emotional and intellectual maturity. If I were a grade school teacher I would jump out the window.
That same evening my instructor asked the young girl to referee a match. Usually he reserves that for the high-ranking adults and teens. I was curious about his motivation. Was it because there were only two other adults in the room and we were outnumbered by the kids we could supervise? Was it because he wanted to give her some exposure to the responsibilities of a higher-ranking belt during sparring class? Or was it because he wanted to put her in a slightly uncomfortable position where she actually had to use her higher ranking intellect, not just rely on brute force and bravado? She suddenly turned quiet and hesitant. He firmly commanded her to pay attention when she fumbled and was slow to follow his instructions. He shined the spotlight on her hidden insecurities and weaknesses without belittling her. Coaching and refereeing requires a completely different mindset than individual training does, including being able to apply the knowledge of technique, the ability to quickly provide constructive feedback, and having a bit of emotional intelligence when working with timid, frustrated children and self-conscious adults. That’s a lot to ask of a kid, but she signed up to learn taekwondo, and helping other students is part of the deal.
But in the end…she’s a child. While I could say she needs to recognize that the responsibilities of higher-ranking students go beyond focusing only their own technique by helping other students, the lesson was not lost on me about MY responsibilities as a high-ranking student and one of the adults. Like it or not, I am a role model to the young girls in my dojang. My responsibility is not just to help her walk through our forms together before class, but to set an example for her of how a black belt candidate is supposed to behave. My responsibility is to follow the lead of my instructors in the way I treat my classmates and to remember that ultimately I am there to lift my classmates up and help them learn in addition to my own practice. One of these days that young girl will figure that out on her own, but until then it’s my duty to be her guide.