On the surface it might seem surprising that many people stop their martial arts training almost as soon as they get black belt. What could cause this high drop out rate amongst new black belts and what could be done to keep their interest and dedication? Why is it worth carrying on?
The colour belt system
Most martial arts can trace their routes back to China, or at least have had a Chinese influence. It was the Japanese however who introduced the colour belt system that is so popular in the West. First introduced into judo the colour belt ranking system was adopted in some shape or form by even the older Chinese arts, although here the belt was replaced by a silk sash.
To the goal orientated western mind successfully passing an exam every three to six months that allows you to wear the next darker colour belt up can unlock the motivation to train really hard. However there is no darker colour than black and for many reaching this long cherished goal is the end of the line.
I remember as a young teenager going to a martial arts club run in a basement that had many steel girders supporting the roof crossing the width of the room with a uniformed regularity. Each girder was painted in turn a darker colour from white above the door to black at the far end of the room and to me they looked like the steps up to heaven! What I failed to take in was that beyond that final black beam was a brick wall.
The strength of the colour belt system is also it’s weakness, bribing people with carrots only works till you run out of carrots. You can have all the dans or degrees in a style that you want but the deeper parts of us are driven not by intellect but subconscious symbols and here colour belts count.
A fitness level that is extreme.
For most styles of martial arts in order to reach the converted black belt you are going to have to be extremely fit. Being extremely fit along with a few well ingrained hard hitting techniques is a winning combination in most street fights. The brown belt that is only months away from a chance to reach the long cherished black belt goal is highly motivated to be as fit as he can be. If he gets the chance to test himself by sparring with a black belt he is fuelled with the determination of a challenger for the heavy weight boxing championship title of the world! The new black belt has probably lost that peak fitness and does not yet have the extra experience to make up for this. The pressure of what is expected of a black belt can become a pain when your fitness is ant what it was and you only have say a year more of experience under your belt than the guy that you are fighting.
The same old thing.
In most martial arts clubs the black belts are a small minority. The structure of the training is very likely to be aimed at the bulk of the students probably beginners up to green belt. The new black belt could well find that rather than all that hard work opening the door to a new level of knowledge, they are just back to doing the same old thing.
Teaching is not for everyone.
A new black belt may well be asked to help teach a class or even run it alone. Teaching others takes a lot of patients and good communication skills. People assume that wearing a black belt is a teaching qualification in itself but teaching is another art again. Being asked or even expected to teach can be an unfair pressure on a black belt and what was an enjoyable pastime away from work can start to seem more like work. Anyone who has tried to teach a family member or friend how to drive a car quickly realises that although you yourself can drive well teaching is not for everyone!
Martial arts for confidence and improved self esteem.
There are many reasons that people give for starting a martial art but behind them all learning self protection skills and the confidence that comes from this is going to be a factor. Learning to hit hard getting really fit and learning to fall without injury are all skills that will boost anyone’s confidence and greatly improve their image of themselves.
While I was sharing a house with medical students I was asked how it felt to be the only one of seven people not studying for a degree? I’ve already got my degree I instantly replied, a black belt in karate!
For some people having gained the confidence that achieving the rank of black belt undoubtably gives, studying the martial arts has achieved it’s purpose and it could be right for them to stop training and move on to other things.
The three to five year ceiling.
It could be martial arts wind surfing or learning French, people tend to stick at things for three to five years at the most why is this? If you take up a new activity or interest and consistently practice it say one or two times a week your going to learn a fair bit about your subject in the first three to five years. After this time you are likely to find that in order to significantly improve you are going to have to give your chosen subject far more commitment. When it starts to dawn on you that you have stopped improving in leaps and bounds you have probably hit this three to five year ceiling.
For most people with a demanding job and family commitments giving more time to developing martial arts skills is not an option. Becoming an expert in anything other than the work that you do to pay the bills is going to be unlikely without a rare level of determination. Does this mean a life of mediocracy is inevitable, that you can only be a jack of possibly a couple of trades but a master of none?
Depending on the style of martial art it will take you about three to five years to be ready to take black belt which coincides with the three to five year ceiling. Attending a class and training with a group increases motivation and focus. However few martial artists would even consider attending classes on more than two evenings a week with possibly an occasional four hour seminar fitted in once in a while. When you think that most people will think nothing of spending four hours a day watching television, or twenty eight hours a week, practicing a martial art for say four hours a week starts to look half hearted at best. Let’s face it your more of a hard core television addict than martial artist!
Learning at a university degree level.
The medical students that I shared a house with years ago worked incredibly hard. People doing a degree in any subject will spend as little as ten hours a week in actual lectures but will put in at far far more Hours working on their own. Only a full time student could hope to put in those sort of hours but that is ant the point. My point is that the time spent with a teacher is just the tip of the ice burg, to fully master a subject you have to do much of the work on your own.
There are now a wealth of good quality instructional D V Ds available that cover many martial arts styles. The forms patterns and katas in many martial arts are designed for solo practice. Occasionally you get a student who will do their forms every day and even with just half an hours daily practice, boy does it show. Even if your style has no katas or forms over time you could make a huge improvement simply by stretching twice a day for half an hour.
Little and often.
It’s what we do every day that quite quickly becomes a habit. With even a little daily practice done consistently over many years you can really make your martial art a part of you and not just a hobby or a phase that you went through. The years soon fly by and there is nothing worse than being a has been. If you can internalise your art and really make it your own culture it will be with you for life, you can break through the five year ceiling with some daily practice.
The apprenticeship is over.
As a new black belt your apprenticeship is out of the way and this ground work has given you a solid base from which you can compare and try out different styles. It was only when I had stopped doing my foundation style and was training in other arts that I started to see and understand it much more clearly. We only really know things through contrast, by having experience of at least one other style you can greatly enhance your knowledge and insight. It can be fun to be a beginner again but a beginner with an experienced eye, who learns quickly and has a few tricks up their sleeve if they are needed.
Grow old gracefully, adapt change and grow.
So say you do this and have successfully made some daily practice as natural as brushing your teeth or drinking tea the next apparent hurdle is we get old!
Lots of high kicks full contact sparring and the like are a young persons game. As a seasoned or veteran martial artist your priorities and capabilities will change. A quick warm up will probably become a long warm up but you enjoy it more, the kicks won’t be high but your understanding and appreciation of what you are doing will be higher than ever. As a youngster with energy to get rid of all you wanted was the physical, now you find yourself studying the history culture and philosophy behind the martial arts. You learn to relax even under pressure after all you don’t have the energy to waste by tensing up nowadays! Growing old gracefully is letting go of the young persons high energy games and you can do this effortlessly by whole heatedly doing them while you are young until you exhaust them.
Why do many Chinese kung fu masters end up doing Tai Chi?
So getting a black belt was not a five year fad that you look back on but only the start of a forty year adventure and education, where might it take you?
Many highly experienced Masters of a large number of styles in China when they reach middle age begin practicing Tai Chi. Hirokazu Kanazawa the famous Shotokan karate Master studies Tai Chi and teaches it to his older students. To study the subtle Yin Yang Fist, or Tai Chi in the West, will enrich all that decades of practice have taught you already.
In your old age.
Ever changing fads and fashions isolate age groups even when only ten years apart or less. If you stick to one path, any path with merit, for many many years you will without noticing become an expert on it. Being an authority on a worthwhile pursuit will gain respect from others and keep your self respect in your old age. Watching television for endless hours over the decades won’t make you become an interesting old person worth listening to will it!
The saying use it or loose it becomes even more true as you get old. Stretching every day will not keep you young, nothing will. What daily practice will do is slow down the speed at which your mobility declines. Over time by maintaining as much suppleness as possible you will have an above average range of movement for your age group. Being able to move like someone ten years younger than you would be a big bonus to anyone in their later years.
Many old folk do a crosswords each day to aid their memory and to stay as mentally agile as possible. If you keep your katas or forms up to scratch you will get the same benefits and be exercising at the same time.
I recently asked my first karate teacher to show me a kata that I had never learnt. He was able to run through the kata instantly without the slightest hesitation and I was quite rightly impressed.
In an ever changing world maintaining old skills and traditions that you put time and effort into when you were young is important. Getting to black belt in any martial art can be an education in its self, but black belt is only the beginning.