I tested for first degree black belt on October 24, 2015. It was quite a trying month in more ways than one. By the time I tested I’d driven through enough torrential Texas downpours (of course this year it’s nearly 90 degrees and sunny) and gritted my teeth through enough hamstring and hip pain that I wasn’t nervous at all. I was definitely excited, but I wasn’t nervous. A few days later on October 28, 2015, I was officially awarded my black belt. It was one of my proudest moments and signified a beginning rather than an end.
“Now what?” Many people asked me this right after I tested. Those unfamiliar with martial arts may assume that a black belt is IT. It’s the pinnacle of your training, and you don’t need to do anything else. Of course that is the furthest thing from reality. Some may have expected me to move onto another hobby or to take a break for a while. No way. Black belt wasn’t even my goal when I started taekwondo lessons at age thirty-three. I needed something positive in my life, and I wouldn’t trade what I found for anything. I keep coming back to class because of how it makes me feel, not because of the belt around my waist. Besides, there’s quite a learning curve as a new black belt! In fact, much of my first year of being a black belt has been spent figuring out what I don’t know and then finding a solution. So my answer to the question my friends asked was, “Go to class on Monday!”
It seemed fitting that the one year anniversary of my black belt fell at a very busy time for our dojang. Lately I’ve spent much of my time teaching, coaching, and refereeing other students. Last weekend we hosted a large tournament, and I spent 14 hours running around coaching (including other people’s students who were in a pinch), giving pep talks, drying tears, and even dabbing up a little blood. This past week I helped prepare two students to test for first degree black belt on Saturday, and of course I attended the test and ended up being a sparring partner and board holder like a good black belt (and I only got kicked in the hand once).
“Jyo kyo neem,” the Korean term for first dan black belt, roughly translates to “assistant instructor,” so I suppose I was living up to my title. I take that role seriously, and I enjoy it very much. It’s fun, and I seem to have a natural calling towards coaching and guiding whether it is at work or in the dojang…But there’s a surprising downside. While it’s true that teaching and explaining techniques helps me improve my own skills, I think I’ve been hiding behind it for the past several weeks. If I’m focusing on another student I don’t have to focus on myself and continue to chip away at my own technique. I’ve spent more time working with color belts on their own technique than I have working on my own black belt stuff like advanced self-defense techniques and my two forms Koryo and Keumgang. It feels like a very loving form of procrastination. If I get too comfortable being in teacher mode then my own fitness level, drive, and desire to improve might start to slip.
This weekend’s black belt test seemed to recharge my desire to learn and deepen my own practice. As I watched a young man testing for second degree black belt suddenly a thought boomed from deep within me: “I WANT THIS.” I WANT to move to the next level. I truly love being an assistant instructor, but I also want to improve my own intellectual and physical black belt skills. I want to be a faster, stronger, and smarter martial arts practitioner. I have a lot of work ahead of me.
At the end of the test our Grandmaster made some very poignant remarks about the significance of being a black belt. I’d once heard a master say that you don’t really earn your next belt at the test. You do the requirements and might be awarded the belt of course, but your really earn it afterwards. Grandmaster’s words had a similar sentiment.
“If you just get your first dan black belt and quit,” he said to the exhausted and excited bo dans,”then you’re still a color belt. Wait another two years to second dan–then you’re a black belt. You should always be learning. I’m still learning.”
If a ninth dan Grandmaster who has practiced taekwondo for over sixty years realizes he still has room to learn and improve, then the rest of us certainly do. I feel like I have been earning my black belt every single day for the last year. Each time I go to class I discover something new, try to do something in a different way, and make mental notes of what worked well for me and what didn’t. Black belt, especially first degree black belt, is far from IT. There is so much to learn, so many mistakes to make, so much to improve, and so many opportunities to take.
I’m ready to go back to class on Monday and continue earning my black belt. Getting a black belt, as in, going through the requirements and being awarded the belt, is a one time thing. Being a black belt is a lifelong process, and for me, that is a life well spent.