Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee
It is often said that attaining the rank of 1st Dan black belt marks the beginning, not the end, of a martial artist’s training – that the years before are about creating the weapon, while the decades beyond are for learning to use it. In these last two years of training as a 1st Dan, I am beginning to understand this statement. My focus has shifted from building muscle and endurance and acquiring my JSD curriculum material to learning how to learn, how to adapt, how to create and experiment, and, perhaps most importantly, how to teach. As I prepare to test for my 2nd Dan black belt and to accept the title of Sabumnim, reflecting on what it means to teach others, and on the mentors I’ve been so privileged to have fills me with humility, extreme gratitude, and a desire to pay their investment in me forward.
It’s unsettling at first to put on a black uniform and belt after so many years of study as a color belt student. I remember catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wondering about this unfamiliar black belt at the dojang before I realized who it was. A black belt faces less scrutiny and feedback from the higher belts, but more responsibility as the lower belt students begin to ask for help and feedback themselves. My goal as a 1st Dan was to focus mainly on myself, taking this time to deepen my understanding of the curriculum, to fix the things that needed to be fixed, and to develop the confidence I needed to live up to my new role and the duties associated with it.
During these last two years, I have gradually accepted more responsibilities helping with the children’s program and with the adult color belt students. The experience of helping and teaching other students has been eye-opening in many ways. It is one thing to do a form or technique, while quite another to communicate it to someone else, or troubleshoot what might be going wrong. In some cases, I’ve been able to draw upon the memory of how the same item was taught to me, and I have had much success with that. (The fact that I made a lot of mistakes and needed a lot of correction myself gives me plenty of material to work with in this regard.) Other situations have been more challenging, and I have had to experiment, learning through trial and error what might resonate with a particular student. In either case, I’m learning that the act of breaking down and working through a technique with someone always teaches me something as well.
Another insight I’ve gained from this process of breaking down and experimenting with different techniques is that not every technique works for every person. While learning the standard curriculum was important to my development as a color belt student, in the last two years I have been increasingly focused on how I can modify those elements to make them work for me. I’m discovering my own favorites, and finding the tweaks I’ve needed to be not just correct, but also effective in the application of a technique. During this time, I have appreciated having had both a solid foundation in my teachers’ methods, and also the space and autonomy to modify and experiment and begin to discover a style and approach that is uniquely my own.
Part of finding my own path has involved moving out of my comfort zone to cross-train in Yoga, Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Exploring these interests and gaining the knowledge available from them has been extremely valuable to my development as a martial artist. Exposure to different methods, techniques, and philosophies has broadened my vision and given me a new context in which to see myself and my own strengths and weaknesses, as well as new examples of instructors and mentors to watch. As I shore up my weaker areas and become more proficient in these other pursuits, I will have a unique perspective and skill set to bring back to my own learning, teaching and mentoring at the Academy.
An additional important benefit of committing to learning something new is getting in touch with what it feels like to be a beginner at something. As a higher level student in one discipline, I have found that it is easier to identify with the confusions and frustrations beginners experience when that same feeling is fresh in my own mind as a beginner in a different pursuit. The establishment of that connection is important to the process of meeting a struggling student where he or she is, and developing rapport.
While establishing this connection with fellow students is, of course, important, in my mind, the mark of an excellent teacher / mentor is primarily the example he or she sets. The people who inspire me are the ones who work tirelessly at something to get it right. They put in the extra hours before and after and outside class, and are generous with their time and knowledge when asked for help. Their hard work shows in the execution of their forms and techniques, and observing them motivates me to work hard as well. This is the kind of example I hope to be as a Sabumnim at the Academy.
I am a very different person today than I was six years ago, when I began training. I am stronger, more confident, more resilient, more assertive, less anxious, and less prone to depression and worry. I am happier. I have a body I truly love that amazes me every day with what it can do. Training in the martial arts is more than a hobby or a workout; for me, it has become a way of life. When I consider the way this pursuit has transformed me, I am acutely aware of the power a skilled and caring mentor can have in changing someone’s life for the better. As I begin to find my identity as a Sabnumim, my goal is to combine the various experiences that have shaped, and continue to shape, my development as a martial artist into something that will benefit others as well. Taking this next step in my own journey marks the beginning of my opportunity to pay forward what has been generously given to me, for which I am infinitely grateful.