Monday, June 16, 2014

The First-Degree Black Belt: Obtaining The Holy Grail Of The Martial Arts

Unfortunately, I must take a break from martial arts blogging until late August due to circumstances beyond my control.  However, before I do that, I will cover the steps necessary to reach the most important rank in the martial arts: the first-degree black belt.

When you become a black belt, you've proven that you have mastered the basics of your system and developed the necessary foundation for expert-level training.  For those two reasons, the first-degree black belt is the most important milestone in the martial arts and can be considered the holy grail of self-defense.  Even if you choose not to pursue expert-level training, going to the gym/dojo a couple times a week to practice your techniques will ensure that you keep the ability to make it home safely every night.  However, to reach this milestone, you have to overcome certain obstacles, which you typically face at four stages of training.  These four stages are beginner (typically white belt), intermediate (usually green belt), advanced (normally brown belt) and the honeymoon period right after you first earn your black belt.  In order to help you succeed, here are the major obstacles you will face, as well as tips on how to overcome them.

White Belt Obstacle: Unrealistic Expectations.

Many white belts watch too many Jet Li movies or episodes of "Xena: Warrior Princess" on Netflix and believe that THAT is self-defense.  Or they see a UFC PPV with their friends and believe that they can become the next Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey with 45 minutes of training.  When white belts discover that realistic self-defense techniques are a lot simpler and less entertaining than what they stream on their tablet, they get turned off and quit.  Or, when they realize that the techniques take intensity and hard work to master, they wimp out and go back to watching Netflix on their couch.

Overcome this obstacle with:  Research!

Find out what true self-defense and set realistic goals BEFORE you start taking classes.  Accept the fact that life will never be as spectacular as the movies because movies are FAKE.  Trust me, this will save you a lot of grief in all areas of your life.  Realize that it takes UFC stars like Jones and Rousey YEARS of insanely hard work to get to that level.  As a beginner, you will have to fight your heart out to even win a club tournament, much less win a title in an organization where multi-time NATIONAL and WORLD champions routinely get their butts kicked.

If you do your due diligence and set realistic goals, you will overcome this obstacle. 

Green Belt Obstacle:  Discouragement

When a student becomes a green belt, they are put through the grinder.  Because they have a fairly good grip of the basics, the master pushes them to their physical and mental limits by teaching them increasingly difficult and complex moves.  The master also makes green belts spar more with each other and advanced students, so things can get cutthroat pretty quickly.  When this occurs, one of two things happens:

A) The green belt gets injured and becomes too scared to resume training
B) Due to the increase in competition, techniques which used to work for the green belt stop being effective, which means that the green belt starts losing, which in turn means that they get frustrated and give up. 

From personal experience, this is the rank at which most students quit. 

Overcome this obstacle with: Perseverance!

Even if it seems like you aren't making any progress, keep practicing.  Don't give up on the new techniques just because they have a few extra steps: drill them until you finally succeed.  If you are injured, continue to observe classes (or read martial arts magazines/watch instructional DVDs if you can't leave your hospital bed) to remind yourself why you decided to train in the first place.  If you are on a losing streak, ask your master and more advanced students to help you find your Achilles' heel and to show you how to fix it.  

Remembering that hard work pays off (and doing that hard work) will keep you motivated when the going gets tough.

Brown Belt Obstacle: Burnout

The best part about being a brown belt is that you've learned most of the essential techniques of your system.  Unfortunately, that is also the worst part.  Unlike green belts, brown belts don't learn very many new techniques (if they are taught any at all).  Most of their training revolves around refining what they already know, and that gets very boring, very quickly.  Not to mention that masters tend to make brown belts wait a long time before they test for black in order to observe their character and test their patience.  This is why some brown belts become impatient, burn out, and quit the martial arts entirely at the eleventh hour.  Or they see a new and shiny martial art on Youtube and jump ship to pursue that one, only to quit again when that new style gets boring, too.   It's the martial arts equivalent of dumping your fiancee for that hot new girl (or guy if you're female) at college or work.

Overcome this obstacle with:  Patience!

The night is always darkest before the dawn.  Even if it seems like your master will never let you test, keep practicing and, if you are not already doing it, help out around the gym/dojo.

Sooner or later, your dedication will pay off and you will be allowed to test for the holy grail of the martial arts: the first-degree black belt.

Black Belt Obstacle: Overconfidence.

From personal experience, most people quit the martial arts at green belt.  However, I've observed that first-degree black belts have the second-highest attrition rate.  Many people believe that once they've become a first-degree black belt that they are invincible.  Even worse, they believe that they will be able to remember every technique and do it effectively even if they never study or practice again.  This is a tragedy because a black belt who quits basically spent all of their time learning their system only to throw it (and years of their life) into the trashcan.

Overcoming this obstacle with:  Discipline!

Try out advanced training to find what you are giving up if you decide to stay an "expert beginner" the rest of your life.  If it truly isn't for you, still go to the gym/dojo a couple times a week to keep your skills sharp.  That way you won't find yourself completely screwed if you are attacked on the street and can't remember that rear naked choke defense which you learned 20 years ago. 

Keep your techniques sharp and you will keep making it home safely every night.  

  
 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Choose Your Destination: Picking A Rank In The Martial Arts

Imagine that you had a GPS, but didn't know where you were going.  So you just typed "anywhere" into the address field.  What would happen?  You would probably get some variation of "address not valid."  In the same way, you must have a destination for your martial arts journey.  Otherwise, you are no better than a car that is burning gas and wasting time searching for an invalid address.  

In the martial arts, your destination is the rank which you want to earn.  This will vary significantly based on what you want out of your system, so to help you, here are the key milestones in self-defense training.  While each system has its own ranking system, the most important ranks typically fall into these four categories:

Instructor: You have internalized the basic techniques of your system to the point where you can do them instinctively.  Not only that, but you have adapted these techniques to your body type and personality.  You should have enough focus, discipline and integrity that your master can trust you to lead a class of beginner, intermediate, and advanced students without their help. 

In most systems, an instructor is a first-degree black belt.

If your primary goal is self-defense, make this your destination.

Chief Instructor:  Through constant study, you have gained a thorough understanding of the principles of self-defense.  In other words, you don't just know how the techniques work: you know why they work.   You should know your system well enough to independently train a student from beginner to instructor level. 

In most systems, a chief instructor is a fourth-degree black belt.

If you do the martial arts as a fun hobby, make this your destination.  

Master:  To become a master, you must be able to consistently apply the principles of self-defense in new and innovative ways.  A chief instructor can get away with being book smart, but you must be street smart.  This is probably the most fun rank because you get to constantly experiment to discover which techniques work (or don't work) in the modern world.  It's also the stage where you can do research to rediscover "forgotten" techniques and decide whether or not to reintegrate them into the system.  Additionally, a good master will cross-train in other systems to keep their skills sharp and to "borrow" effective techniques to refine their own style.  At this stage, you should be able to run and manage your own martial arts school. 

In most systems, a master is a fifth-degree black belt.   

If you want to teach the martial arts, or self-defense is an integral part of your career (i.e. you're a cop), this should be your destination. 

Grandmaster:  The rank of grandmaster cannot be earned.  It must be given.  Some systems don't even have an official exam for the rank of grandmaster; it is awarded as an honorary title.  To receive this rank, you must have dedicated your life to the improvement and spread of the martial arts.  You must also have demonstrated the inner principles of the martial arts (i.e. integrity, respect, discipline, selflessness, etc.) through improving your community.  As a grandmaster, you understand that your martial arts journey never truly ends.  Not only do you continually refine your body and mind, but your heart and spirit as well.  When masters of other schools and systems are coming to you for instruction, then you are probably a grandmaster.

In most systems, a grandmaster is a tenth-degree black belt.       

If you are so passionate about self-defense that you are willing to dedicate your life to ensuring that your fellow man experiences the benefits of the martial arts, then you will become a grandmaster.  Eventually.

It should be noted that, no matter which rank you get, you will still need to practice to keep your skills sharp.  This is especially important at the instructor-level/first-degree black belt rank, because you'll be tempted to believe that you know everything and simply quit.  However, self-defense is like any other skill: if you don't use it, you lose it.  So even if you become a grandmaster, always remember to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
    

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Your Master: The GPS Of Your Martial Arts Journey

As discussed in my previous post, the most important person in your martial arts training is you.  However, your master is a close second.  While your warrior spirit is like the driver on a road trip, your master is like a GPS.  An excellent one will get you to your destination in the quickest and most efficient way possible.  A lousy one will cause you to wind up lost, frustrated, cost you valuable time, and is ultimately a waste of money.  Here are seven tips for finding an excellent master to guide you on your martial arts journey:

1) Your Master Should Be Someone You Like

In many cultures, the master is more than just a teacher.  Over time, they become a trusted mentor and eventually, a surrogate father/mother.  Obviously, you shouldn't make parent-shopping your chief goal in looking for a master.  However, your master should be someone who you admire and respect. 

2) Your Master Should Have Received Advanced Training In Their System

In other words, their training should consist of more than a six-hour seminar from Angry Bob's Fighting Shack.  They should have received expert training themselves from a reputable master.  Most masters who run their own schools are fifth-degree black belts or higher.  I personally don't recommend training under someone who is less than their system's equivalent of a third-degree black belt.  That being said, quality of instruction is more important than rank.   

Note: If your master has studied multiple systems, give them one dan ranking for every instructor-level rank that they have received (i.e. five different first-degree black belts=5th dan).  

3) Your Master Should Be Able To Properly Explain Their System

In addition to showing you how to properly execute a technique, your master should be able to explain CLEARLY why it works.  This should go hand-in-hand with the previous point, but that's not always the case.  I once had a language teacher who couldn't teach me their native tongue.  Likewise, some masters are able to perform techniques from their "native system."  However, they lack the communication skills, self-awareness and patience to pass the moves on to others.  If your master makes you flail around for an hour without telling you what you are doing, or speaks in pseudo-zen gibberish that would leave a Shaolin monk scratching their head, ditch them for someone who is actually willing (and able) to teach you something.

4) Your Master Should Have Integrity

The world is full of people who want to cheat you out of money, manipulate you into giving them sexual favors, or even worse, abuse your kids.  Do a background check on your master before you start training to make sure that they aren't one of these people.  This background check is EXTRA important if they are going to be teaching your kids.  If your "scumbag alarm" is still going off after you do a background check on your master, trust your gut and train somewhere else. 

5) Your Master Should Be Affordable

What is affordable will vary significantly depending upon which country you live in.  Regardless of where you live, make sure that your training costs are low enough for you to still provide yourself with the bare essentials (i.e. food, clothing, rent, etc.).

In the United States, $90-$140 a month will usually get you a reputable master.  That's roughly the same amount as a car insurance payment.  Since your body is worth infinitely more than a car, it's definitely worth the investment to protect it.  If you are getting charged more than that, there better be a good reason (i.e. you're receiving private lessons or getting a package deal at an MMA gym).  If the only reason is the master's name and ego, then it's time to find a different school.  As previously stated, the world is full of people who want to cheat you out of money.  You don't need your master to be one of them.   

6) Your Master Should Care About The Well-Being Of Their Students

Some masters routinely injure their students just to show how big and bad they are.  Additionally, some of them allow (and even encourage) their more advanced students to haze the rookies.  One of the reasons why you are taking martial arts lessons in the first place is because there are numerous people in the world who are willing to hurt you for FREE.  Why should you pay someone to do it?

If your prospective school has the social vibe of sharks during a feeding frenzy, don't even think about training there.  Find a place where the master and their students are willing to help you and each other grow as martial artists

Note: Speaking of well-being, make sure that your master is willing to provide a safe training environment.  For example, if they are teaching you throws, they should have some mats handy.   
 
7) Your Master Should Make Your Development As A Martial Artist Their Priority

If you are a 45-year-old businessman or career woman, your master shouldn't be training you to step into a cage with Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey.  Nor should they try to make you into a clone of themselves or their star pupil.  If you are gifted, they shouldn't tear you down to appease the envy of your peers, either.  You and your fellow students should work together as a team.  That being said, what works for you may not necessarily work for the 18-year-old male Olympian or the 50-year-old single mom with two kids.  Your master should understand that you have your own unique personality and body type.  They should be willing to do anything within reason to help you excel in your personal martial arts journey.  If they aren't willing to do that, they aren't even worth your time, much less your money.

Remember, the average black belt takes at LEAST 3-4 years to earn.  In some systems (such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) it can take 8-10 years!  For that reason, you want to make sure that you pick the right master to guide you.  Having an awesome master is like having a excellent GPS on a road trip: it will allow you to focus completely on enjoying your journey.        


 





Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Most Essential Element Of Your Martial Arts Training

Once you have a firm spiritual, social, financial, and intellectual foundation, you are ready to begin your martial arts training.  That being said, there is one important thing which you need to understand before you start.  The most essential element of your martial arts training is not your athletic ability, your style, or your master.

The most essential element of your martial arts training is YOU!

Your determination, your heart, and your fighting spirit will determine whether or not you will succeed in your martial arts journey.  You can have a potbelly and study Angry Bob's Couch Potato Drunken Fist under Sensei Moron, but if you are truly determined to become a warrior, you will succeed.  Likewise, you can have an Olympian physique, have a membership to Greg Jackson's gym, and train under Bruce Lee's best successors.  However, if you don't have the passion or the drive, you won't be able to fight your way out of a petting zoo.

Katas, drills, mat time, and sparring don't create martial artists.  They reveal them.  Whether or not you become a martial artist is decided before you step into the dojo.  And the person who makes that decision is you.

If your heart isn't in it, you won't make it past white belt.  If you are wishy-washy, you won't make it past the intermediate ranks.  You will only become a black belt if you are truly determined and put your heart and soul into it.  To survive, much less thrive, in the shark tank known as the advanced black belt ranks, you will have to make an even deeper commitment.

If you are truly committed to becoming a martial artist, then nothing will stop you from achieving your goal.  If you are not, all of the talent and instruction in the world won't help you, so you may as well stay home.  

   


Friday, March 28, 2014

Four Things Which Are More Important Than The Martial Arts

Why aren't the martial arts the most important thing in the world?

1) God's decision to let you into heaven (or send you to hell) is not going to be based upon your belt rank.
2) It's very difficult to build deep, meaningful relationships with people who you only meet up with twice a week to fight.
3) Showing off the latest technique that you mastered may impress the cute female cashier at the grocery store (or, if you are a female martial artist, the hours spent practicing that technique may get you into good enough shape to convince the hot male cashier to ask you out). However, that cashier will still expect you to pay for your food, and for that, you need money.
4) Most employers won't accept a national or world championship in lieu of a college degree.

For those four reasons, the martial arts should only be priority number five. Your eternal destiny, healthy relationships with your family and friends, your career, and your education are all more important. If you find that your training is causing you to neglect those areas, take a break from practicing the martial arts and fix your life. True excellence in the martial arts can only come if you have a strong spiritual, social, financial, and intellectual foundation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lessons Learned The Hard Way: Pick A Style That Is The Right Fit For You

MMA has proven the value of amateur wrestling as a martial art. The overwhelming majority of American UFC contenders and champions have an amateur wrestling background, including Chuck Liddell, Rashad Evans, Cain Velasquez, and Chris Weidman. That being said, there is one person for whom amateur wrestling will never work: me.

It is not uncommon to spend your first year in a martial art getting your butt kicked. However, after that, you should be able to win consistently. If you have been doing it for two years or longer and you're still getting crushed, it's probably time to try something else. If you have been doing it for over three years and you're still getting dominated, then you shouldn't go anywhere near that particular style anymore. I know this because that was my experience in amateur wrestling. Even though I made the varsity team during my final three years of school, it was only because I was slightly better than the two guys I had to beat to get the spot (and one of those wins was by forfeit). My record was 0-11, 4-22, and eventually, 1-5. Finally, two-thirds of the way through my final season, I had enough and threw in the towel. Even then, I had overstayed my welcome. Too stubborn to quit, I took out my frustration on my coaches, my managers, and my teammates. In the process, I alienated a lot of people who wanted to be my friends. If I had simply accepted that amateur wrestling was not my thing early on and moved on to judo or Greco-Roman, that probably would not have happened.

Martial arts styles are like members of the opposite sex: you're not going to be compatible with all of them. Forcing yourself to stick with one that you are not a good fit for will just cause you to become frustrated, bitter, and resentful. If you stay too long, you will eventually take it out on your teacher and fellow students. That may lead to you getting kicked out of that school and getting blackballed in the local martial arts community. Why put yourself through that when you can find a style that is great for your body and personality? Perseverance is important. However, it is also important to know when to cut your losses and move on. I didn't do that with amateur wrestling until it was too late. Hopefully, you will learn from my mistake so that you don't have to figure it out the hard way.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What A Martial Artist's Belt Really Means

It's a common misconception that everyone who has a black belt is an unstoppable force of martial nature. The fact of the matter is that this is rarely the case. First off, most martial artists quit when they reach 1st-degree black belt. Many of them don't even continue to practice the fundamentals to keep their skills sharp. Second, many martial arts schools are "McDojos." In other words, if you pay the instructor money, you get a belt, regardless of how good you are (or how much you suck). Third, when a legitimate instructor awards a belt, they look at more than just fighting prowess. They also consider the student's teaching ability, how much they care about others, their work ethic, and dedication to the art. While the best instructors consider all five factors, most will be biased towards one area. A master who promotes based on technique will be biased towards fighting prowess; a master who promotes based on understanding and application of martial theory will be biased towards teaching ability, and so forth. So at the end of the day, all that someone's belt tells you is how long that they have been training under a particular instructor. It tells you nothing about how good their technique is, the quality of the instruction which they have received, or if they could actually survive a common street attack.

So how do you know if Mr. Tough Guy (or Mrs. Tough Girl) is really as big and bad as they say they are? The best way is to spar with them at either their dojo or yours. If they kick your butt, they are obviously legit. If they don't beat you, but come at you with everything they have and the kitchen sink, that's a good sign as well. If they cower under your gaze (or simply wimp out of sparring with you completely), then their belt is not worth the cloth that it is made out of.

That being said, it is not always practical to challenge everyone you meet. Here are some other ways to find out if they can smoke the bad guys with their skills or are simply blowing smoke up your rear.

-Find out who they got their belt from. They should be able to trace their lineage back to either the founder of the art or, at the very least, to the culture where it came from. Obviously, if they got their belt from one of Bruce Lee's top protégé's or a member of the Gracie family, then they are probably legit. If it is from Angry Bob's Fighting Shack, you should be skeptical.

-Find out how long it took them to get their belt. While it is possible to earn a black belt in two years, it normally takes three to four to get it from a reputable master. If you are training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it usually takes 8-10 years. For each additional degree (a.k.a. "dan") ranking that they claim to have, it should have taken them at least an additional one or two years, if not longer.

-Look at how old they are. While the key milestones in the martial arts vary from system to system, the typical ones are instructor (first dan), expert instructor (fourth dan), master (fifth dan), and grandmaster (ninth or tenth dan). In academic terms, they would be the high school diploma, bachelor's degree, master's degree, and PhD., respectively. Someone claiming to be a first-degree black belt should at LEAST be in their mid-to-late teens. Someone claiming to be a fourth-degree black belt should be in their early-to-mid twenties. A YOUNG fifth-degree black belt will be in their thirties. Realistically, you are unlikely to encounter a legitimate ninth or tenth-degree black belt. If you do, they will probably be in their late sixties (or older).

I once met a seventeen-year-old who claimed to be a seventh-degree black belt. Since I trained for a year at the school that he went to, I found this highly dubious. You should be equally suspicious of anyone who makes such grandiose claims.

-Do a background check on the person by speaking with their master and fellow students. Most masters won't criticize a student to an outsider (unless that student did something truly disgraceful). However, a master will usually praise an exceptional pupil. If the master acknowledges that they trained that person and says nothing else, then that student is probably average or sub-par. If the master has never heard of that person before, than you've been lied to. The person's training partners will usually be more forthright about how good (or lousy) that student is. However, you want to talk to at least three or four of them to account for personal biases. After all, the training partner who gushes about them might be their best friend. The one who trashes them might be doing it out of jealousy or because of a grudge.

The key thing is to remember that someone's belt only tells you how long that they have been training under a particular master. What's far more important than the color of the belt is the person who's wearing it, which is why you must find out as much as you can about that person before you allow them to impress you.