The Black Belt Problem

If you haven’t had the chance yet, I recommend you take a minute to read my post on “The Importance of the Black Belt.” Go ahead; I’ll wait here.

The Importance of the Black Belt

Okay, now that we’ve discussed a few of the reasons that earning your Black Belt is important, I’d like to talk about “The Black Belt Problem.”

Goals can be fantastic tools for helping us achieve things in our lives. Setting a goal weight helps people stay on track with their health and fitness when tempted by delicious foods and laziness. Setting a financial goal helps people stay on track with their budget when tempted by the latest gadget or desire to go out to eat. Setting your sights on Black Belt helps people keep showing up class after class when laziness, doubt, fear, and frustration start to creep into our training. And if those things haven’t crept into your training yet, just wait. They will.

Goals can be incredibly useful. Many times the temptations and distractions listed above will take us off course when it comes to our goals, but the desire to reach that goal will help us get back on track.

But what happens when you reach your goal?

Many people that use dieting or fitness plans to reach a goal weight end up back where they started a few months later.

Many people that reach a savings goal end up back in debt and spending out of control briefly after reaching their goals.

Many people that achieve their Black Belt will not be consistently training a few years after they’ve arrived at this significant milestone.

Spending some time thinking on this is maybe one of the most important things you can do to improve your quality of life in all areas. Let’s ditch those other two examples and focus on the Black Belt example for the rest of this post, but just fill in the blank, and you may find that understanding “The Black Belt Problem” can help you understand other areas of difficulty in your life also.

Why does this happen? Well for starters, one of the things that keeps you coming back is that feeling that you get every time you receive a promotion. We don’t want to fall behind, we are eager to earn our next rank, and this keeps us motivated to get to class. When this goes away, feelings of laziness, doubt, and frustration are much harder to overcome because there is less incentive to be in class now. 

The training isn’t any different after you reach your Black Belt. You continue to learn new material, you continue to be pushed physically, and there is still massive room for improvement. My father always said that your martial arts training was analogous to building a house. The training from white to black belt is the process of gathering all of the tools and supplies that you are going to need to build the house and getting all of the preparatory work done. Once you receive your Black Belt, the house still needs to be built and then maintained and lived in!

You know a good majority of the “how” to do things and are now learning the “why” and what makes the techniques work. You now learn the little nuances and learn to teach others which deepens your knowledge of the art (more on this later). You now begin to personalize your training or as Bruce Lee stated:

Research your own experiences for the truth.
Absorb what is useful.
Reject what is useless.
Add that which is specifically your own.

Because the truth in combat is different for each individual.

I can’t even express the difference in myself, or some of the other Black Belts that I know have maintained consistent training after Black Belt between when we received our Black Belts and now. In comparison, I feel as if the amount of growth between White and Black Belt may be smaller than the amount of growth between when I received my Black Belt and now. I am learning new things every day both in training with my teachers and in teaching my students.

So if learning and growth are still happening, why do so many stop training?

This is not the case for every Black Belt that falls off along the way, but for many, it could simply be because the physical sign of progress (a new belt or rank) is not present.

Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition calls this phase in his nutrition and lifestyle coaching program, “The Grind.” It’s the place we reach when maybe the number on the scale doesn’t quite move as quickly as we’d like. We are still eating the right foods, doing the right exercises, and becoming healthier individuals or maintaining a level of health previously achieved but we don’t have that physical proof of the number on the scale showing us how good we are doing.

Let’s say you reach your goal weight. Congratulations, now just keep doing what you are doing over and over again for the rest of your life. It’s not super exciting. That’s why it’s so important that you reach your goal by doing things that you are comfortable with doing forever.

So you’ve made it to Black Belt? Congratulations, now just keep training forever. While this isn’t the most exciting thing to hear, it is a magnificent thing. It is a very healthy thing.You are now working towards becoming a master at a skill that is treasured and respected. You are maintaining all of the skills that you’ve acquired along the way in case you ever need them. And you are continuing to receive the multitude of benefits that martial arts provide for the rest of your life: stress relief, focus, fun, exercise, peace of mind, humility, respect, discipline, camaraderie, I could keep this going all day.

So how do you combat “The Black Belt Problem” or “The Grind”?

I’ll give you a couple of ideas, but mostly you just need to embrace it. This is a good place to be, so enjoy it!

Find your “why.” Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why - which became a best-selling book in the business world, writes about business and great leaders inspiring action in others by focusing on the why of what they are doing. 

Most businesses and people can quickly answer the question of “what” they are doing or even “how” they are doing it. But the ones that know “why” they are doing it can speak to their audience in a way that sparks action and loyalty.

You need to know why you are training. It may have changed since you began your martial arts journey. The most common answers on our students’ applications when they start training are things like "get in shape" or "learn to defend myself." Those may be part of the reason they continue training, but by the time they make it to Black Belt the answer usually evolves into something like:

“Training martial arts helps me to know more fully who I am.” 

“Training helps me reach my potential and be the best version of myself.”

“When I’m on the mat, I'm where I belong. It makes me happy and brings joy to the other areas of my life.”

“Training martial arts helps bring clarity and perspective to my personal life and my career.”

So dig a little deeper than those surface answers and get down to the bottom of your why. Check out Simon’s TED talk if you haven’t seen it before (which has now been viewed over 30 million times).

You also cannot ignore the evidence that the martial artists with the most success when it comes to longevity and continuous training throughout their life are usually teaching martial arts in some way. For some, it has become their full-time occupation as it is for me. For others, it may be something they do a few hours per week. Some may just teach a friend or family member one day or assist in classes at their dojo. Regardless, the value added to your life by passing on this gift to others is one of the most inspiring things you may ever do. That alone can keep you on track with your journey.

It doesn’t matter so much where you find your motivation. Whether it’s from within because you know your why, or you are externally motivated by inspiring and guiding others, just keep training. Build a habit of getting up and getting on the mat no matter what life throws at you; it will always be worth it. 

If you are a Black Belt, but something has been getting in the way of your training, I encourage you just to take that step to get back on the mat. Forget about how out of shape you are or how much you have forgotten, don’t let doubt, fear, or frustration ruin one of the greatest treasures in your life. 

Remember “to fall seven times, to rise eight times; life begins now.” We have a clean slate policy and know that these things burden every martial artist. You aren’t the first and definitely won’t be the last (though I hope this post helps decrease that number), so don’t stress about it. You are the only one stopping you. You just have to decide to do it. Ready, go!

If you are on the path to Black Belt, don’t be afraid to set that goal, just remember what comes later. Don’t be in a rush to get there. Enjoy the process and all of the benefits of training. Let that be what keeps you coming back, instead of the excitement of promotions. 

Enjoy the promotions as they are a fantastic sign of your progress, just don’t let them be your sole motivation. I can’t wait for you to get your Black Belt and experience that joy, but more importantly to keep training and to live the Martial Arts Way of Life for the long haul. 

When you reach the stage that training is just part of what you do every day for no other reason than it is a part of you, it is incredible.