A few weeks ago my Grandmaster presented me with a small patch for my uniform. In bold yellow letters it read, “INSTRUCTOR.” Technically as a first dan black belt I’m an “assistant instructor,” but Grandmaster and the other instructors decided to give me a little promotion since I always helped out in my own classes and classes for lower ranking students. Or maybe they just figured they’d better give me something to do since I hang out at the dojang so much. Either way I was pleased and very humbled.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned a year into my black belt tenure is that learning has intensified in a way I didn’t experience as a color belt. Other than occasionally refereeing sparring matches and yelling at students to turn their hips more during kicking drills I was mostly focused on my own practice as I edged closer to testing for black belt. Things changed after I earned my new rank. While I have learned more advanced techniques as a black belt, just as much if not more of my time has been devoted to helping lower ranking students.
Teaching and practicing with color belt students as a black belt has given me a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the foundational techniques of taekwondo. It’s like when I took AP English as a senior in high school. As a native English speaker I considered myself fairly adept at the language and a pretty decent writer…but after ten months of analyzing and dissecting poetry and prose and writing essay after essay I realized how much I had grown. I was almost embarrassed to read the first essay I had written when the school year began.
I often find myself reminding color belt students that they can’t just learn something and then forget it after they pass their next belt test. Taekwondo like any other martial art is comprehensive. The same basic techniques we learned as white belts pop up in advanced self-defense, complicated forms, and sparring matches. We’re developing subconscious reactions and muscle memory. We never stop learning. Even my Grandmaster, a ninth degree black belt and very highly respected in the taekwondo community, often reminds us that he never stops learning.
I had a chance to pass along the importance of continuous learning and practice when I was tasked with teaching side kick to two freshly minted orange belts, which at our school is the rank just above white belt. Side kick, at least the way we do it, is surprisingly difficult to master. It requires precision, balance, and force. It has taken me years to improve my side kick, and I still have room to grow. Side kick is incredibly powerful but also so delicate in its mechanical intricacy that it’s easy to mess up.
“How long do we have to keep practicing this?” asked a tiny five-year-old orange belt. He and an older student were perched at the barre along the wall of the training room and had been painstakingly going through the individual pieces of a broken down side kick. I had bribed them to keep going with the promise that some day they would break a board with a side kick, but eventually they were getting bored.
“Well, class is almost over, but remember, you always have to practice side kick. Even black belts have to practice it,” I said, crouching down to his level. His eyes widened and he gaped in surprise.
“BLACK BELTS have to practice?” He shook his head in awe. Mind. Blown.
This past Friday I found myself once again teaching side kick to lower ranking students. This time I had the same ten-year-old girl orange belt, a different little five year old who quickly abandoned us to use the bathroom (you have to let them go at that age or you’ll be sorry), and a teenage yellow belt. I had been instructed to practice a low side kick so they’d get the hang of chambering their feet and shooting them out, heel pointed downward, into a strong kick.
“But I’ve been doing side kick at mid-level,” protested the teenager.
“I know, but now you’re the example. You have to help lower ranking students too. That’s why I put you in the middle so they can watch you,” I explained. “Now do it again, by my count.” I barked out a command and then glanced over at the girl and glared.
“Is this how we break a board with side kick?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and pointing my toes like a dancer. She smiled shyly, shook her head, and flexed her foot. I turned back to the teenager to continue my lecture.
“Low side kick can be just as powerful as a higher kick. If you break someone’s knee they’re done. That’s what I want you to work on–power and locking out the kick. Besides, when you’re a black belt you have to do a form that has double side kicks, and that’s not easy.” I demonstrated a low side kick immediately followed by a higher kick. He perked up at the prospect of becoming a black belt, nodded his head in understanding, and crouched into a back stance, ready to try the next low kick.
I learn something new in taekwondo class every day, whether it’s something I can improve in my own practice, or reminding myself I need to practice what I preach and do what I tell the students to do. I file away in my brain the tips I give for later use. There’s more pressure as an instructor now. The students’ eyes are on me, as well as those of my instructors and the students’ parents. I have to earn the trust of all of them. It’s not a bad pressure, though; it’s more of a healthy challenge. And what a wonderful opportunity this is–I get to share what I love doing with other people, and I get back what I give tenfold.