Life Lessons of the Martial Arts

Last week I mentioned how I apply a tenet I learned in the martial arts to my everyday life, and since it’s about time I branched away from writing/publishing to show my other categories some love, I think that’s a topic deserving of elaboration. What I’m about to say won’t be news to any of you that have trained, but to those of you unfamiliar with the martial arts, it may be enlightening.

There are three reasons that automatically come to mind when someone says they want to start training:

  • Discipline
  • Fighting/Self-Defense
  • Exercise

And for the most part, that sums up 90% of anyone’s motivation for enrolling. But there’s a lot more to the martial arts than that. Yes, it will help your unruly child learn to respect their elders and shut their mouth without the aid of duct tape. Yes, you will learn self-defense and how to fight. And yes, you will lose weight and tone muscle from all the exercise. But you’ll also miss the much richer elements of personal growth that society never glorifies if you only focus on those three things.

I learned a long time ago that you can easily spot someone who’s made it to black belt. Partly because all martial artists have a certain way of moving; a certain poise and grounded familiarity with their body that screams “black belt” a mile away. And partly because of the way they conduct themselves. There’s a reason they say martial arts is a way of life. It’s because, by the time you reach black belt, your training has gone beyond the physical techniques and has become an ingrained part of your outlook on the world.

Every style has their own philosophies and tenets, but I think there are several that are universal. Not because they’re part of an unwritten code of martial arts brethren, but because they’re the principles that make someone a better person. Things that should be common sense but that have been lost over the years to the majority of society. What are they? Let’s take a look and find out.

Integrity:

In a world where selfishness reigns, it’s refreshing to find someone that actually understands this word. And I would bet that 9 times out of 10, that person is/was a martial artist. Why? Because this is one of the core principles instilled by training. It’s also one of the first that spills over into everyday life. Integrity can be anything from keeping your word, to doing what’s right even when it’s not easy or for your own benefit, to taking responsibility for your actions. This is an attitude that translates to success in everything from school, to personal relationships, to career. A person with integrity is someone that can be counted on, and that’s a sure-fire way to the top of any pack.

Humility:

The second tell-tale sign of someone who’s spent time in the martial arts is humility. People who have learned this have an easier time connecting with others. Nobody likes a braggart, and arrogance is a one-way ticket to alienating all your potential allies. Martial artists learn the fine line of being confident in their abilities without the need to brag. (Well, most do anyway.) And that translates into things like leadership roles, community involvement, and personal satisfaction. Just like integrity, humility is a trait that instantly earns you respect and appreciation, without having to demand it.

Perseverance:

News-flash: life’s hard. It’s all too easy to throw in the towel and just give up, becoming complacent with whatever hand you’ve been dealt. Getting a black belt isn’t easy, either. It involves dedicating yourself to intense workouts, potential injuries and having to hit the floor hard. A lot. You will get knocked down, and you will get hurt. But you also learn how to get back up, how to roll with the punches, and how to achieve any goal you put your mind to, one step at a time. I think the parallel should be obvious. You can apply that same philosophy to anything in life, be that earning a college degree, starting a successful business, or just being present for your family. With a little perseverance, anything is possible.

Situational Awareness:

Self-defense is becoming more and more important, especially for women and young people. So many horrible acts of violence could have been averted if the victim had been more aware of their surroundings, or had avoided putting themselves in danger in the first place. Yes, the martial arts are about fighting, but more importantly, they’re about learning how not to fight. They teach you the self-control to walk away from situations that are turning ugly, and they teach you not to do so many of the stupid things that get people in trouble, like going places alone in the middle of the night, taking drinks from strangers that you didn’t see mixed, or getting in random cars with people you don’t know. The first act of self-defense is knowing how to assess the risks around you; a lesson I wish we taught in schools.

Altruism:

This one may come as a little bit of a surprise to those outside of the martial arts family, but it’s actually a pretty big element in our training, especially the higher ranks. Most styles promote giving back to the community, whether that be the studio itself or the community at large. Some even use it as a criteria for advancement. Which is why you’ll find a lot of black belts volunteering in their communities. The idea of paying forward the time and effort that was given to you, of showing pride and commitment to the people and places around you, is one that translates well into other aspects of life. You don’t have to join the Red Cross, or Habitats for Humanity, or some other grand organization of do-gooders to make a difference. Simply volunteering in your child’s classroom, helping a coworker with a hefty project, or donating your time at a library/care facility will make the world a better place. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all learned that a few moments of selflessness can make all the difference to someone in need? Maybe we wouldn’t see so much violence then.

Those are just a few of the positive affects I’ve seen the martial arts have. Every student will choose the lessons that resonate most sincerely with their own lives, and may not need every one, but you can guarantee they’ll be given the tools just the same. Whether you’re thinking of enrolling your child in the local studio, or whether you’re considering it for yourself, take a moment to think about what I’ve said here. Remember that it’s not just about learning to punch, kick, yell and break things. It’s about learning to be the best version of yourself. If that doesn’t convince you the martial arts are worthwhile, then I’m not sure what will.

And to my fellow martial artists out there, what lessons have you learned in your training? Share the ones I missed in the comments below. 😉

Choreographing Realistic Fight Scenes

Recently, I was asked how to choreograph realistic fight scenes for demo teams. While I usually don’t get this technical on a specific type of choreography, preferring to focus on the concepts of story instead, I can’t deny that fight scenes are a staple of the genre. It is Martial Arts, after all. I don’t believe that they are required for every demo, (in fact, it’s a lot more challenging to create one without them), but they are a large part of most. So I’m going to answer that reader request and break down my five key ingredients for a successful fight scene.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, I’d like to note that I will not be discussing which individual techniques to use. Fight scenes are organic, or at least, they should feel that way. So the choreography will vary depending on your particular demo. If I gave you a blow-by-blow transcript, then I’d be stripping all the creativity out of it, and what’s the fun in that? Instead, we’re going to look at the principles that take a fight scene from cheesy, B-rated Martial Arts film to something gripping that has a shred of believability.

You might be surprised to learn that creating that effect has very little to do with you, the choreographer. A fight scene is only one part choreography, and two parts the people performing it. So let’s get to it.

Trust

If I had to boil it down to one element, it’d be this. Trust is the thing that will most often make or break a fight scene. I’m not referring to the trust you put in your team to bring your vision to life. No, I’m talking about the trust between the partners in the fight. Unfortunately, that kind of trust pretty much relies solely on chemistry.

We’ve all heard dating sites talk about chemistry, that magical connection between two people that makes them move and breathe in sync. Well, it exists even outside the romantic realm. And you’ll have to learn how to watch for it. You will probably have to try a few combinations of partners before you see it spark, so don’t be afraid to shuffle your team around like cards in a deck.

A lot of choreographers try to partner people based on size, automatically shoving people of similar heights or builds together. But those kinds of partnerships rarely contain the chemistry required to really pull off a fight scene. Instead, you want to look for the following when you partner people:

  • Comfortability: What do the new partners do when you announce they’ve been paired? Do they bounce up to each other laughing and smiling, or do they stand stiffly side by side without looking at each other? Does one person look scared while the other looks irritated? These are instant indicators of how comfortable they are with each other. The more comfortable people are, the more easily they’ll naturally trust each other. So avoid any combinations where you know personalities will clash, or where there is an emotional distance between them.
  • Similar Styles: Even within an overall style of martial arts, there are differences between the way people do things. Pay attention to that and try to pair people who move similarly. They’ll have the same rhythm and flow to their techniques. They’ll think similarly. Just like you don’t put oil and water together and expect them to mix seamlessly, you can’t put different stylistic approaches together and expect a smooth outcome without a ton of work.
  • Technical Ability: Obviously, you don’t want a fight scene that’s extremely unfair, so generally avoid pairing an advanced student with a white belt. Ideally, you want people that can perform to the same caliber technique-wise. Not only will they be more comfortable working with someone on the same level, it’ll also allow you to maximize the choreography’s awesomeness.
  • Strength: Yes, I do mean brute muscle. The best fight scenes contain an acrobatic element, so this is an important thing to assess. Not everyone is strong enough to lift another, and on the flip side, not everyone is comfortable being lifted. A lack of confidence in this area can shatter the trust in a partnership quicker than dropping glass on cement. So if you’re planning on throwing in some crazy moves, make sure you have partners that can handle it physically and are emotionally ready.

All of those things can help you figure out which teammates are likely to have the most natural, built-in trust. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are situations where you won’t be able to rely on that natural chemistry to build trust in a partnership. To some extent, you can get around that simply through practice. Over time, teammates will become more comfortable with one another, will learn the way the other moves and thinks and will learn to trust. But it takes time. Lots of time. So if you have to bow to story constraints or other requirements that prevent you from partnering those with natural trust together, be prepared to invest a lot into practice.

Distance

This is probably the scariest ingredient for the people performing, and is heavily reliant on the trust we just worked so hard to establish in the previous section.

Which do you think is better for a demo, a fight scene where all the techniques end miles away from their intended target, so the “victim’s” reactions look ridiculous, or one where the techniques end mere centimeters from their partner’s body? (Hint: Option 2 is the correct answer. 😉 ) You chose Option 2, right? Good! You’re absolutely correct. That’s what distance does; it takes an otherwise cheeseball fight and gives it a realistic edge.

Anyone who has been in a fight scene knows how hard it is to get to that level, to stop your techniques just short of clocking your partner in the head. So again, trust is absolutely crucial. As is practice. Lots of practice. Until your team gets the feel for the choreography, let them work up to the realism, shrinking the distance as the comfort level grows. Otherwise, I suggest having a lot of gauze and ice handy. You’re about to have a lot of black eyes and bloody noses.

Reactions

Similar to distance, reactions will enhance that essence of realism. But unlike distance, it doesn’t require so much faith in your partner as it does the ability to act.

Let’s face it, most martial artists will never win an Oscar. But that doesn’t mean we have to play into the stereotype with overly dramatic, delayed reactions that happen well after the attacking technique ended. A good reaction is simple, logical. All you have to do is portray what would have happened if you’d actually been hit. If you get hit from the front, you’re not going to fall forward, are you? But you see that a lot.

Understanding the logistics of the fight is critical to creating the appropriate reactions. The worst combination in a fight scene is to have a bad actor and poor distance. Unless you’re intentionally trying to look idiotic, don’t do it. Put the effort in to get it right. Please.

Timing/Duration

Everything in a fight revolves around timing, especially reactions and distance. You want everything to flow as naturally as it would if the fight were real. So if the timing is even a little off… hello injury central, or bad martial arts film. This one is pretty easy, since there’s really only one way to ensure the timing is right– practice. Are you noticing a theme yet? 😉

The second half of this section is duration. By this, I mean how long the fight actually lasts. We’re not video game characters with a billion power-ups and infinite health. We’re people. And people are, admittedly, rather weak in the stamina department. Most real fights are short bursts of rage that quickly end with someone in a bloody mess. Choreographed fights should reflect that. Keep it short, as in, within the normal range of human possibilities, and vary the heat of the battle accordingly. People get tired. Let that show. People get desperate when they start to lose. Let that show too. Adding these real life aspects will help beef up your fight scene and move it a little closer toward realistic.

Musicality

Everyone who’s been following me already knows how important I view music when it comes to demos. And fight scenes are no exception. They are, however, a slightly different creature than other forms of choreography. Unlike the main part of the demo, you won’t choreograph every technique to the music. Instead, you’ll look for musical elements that you can use to highlight certain moments in your fight. For example, the most spectacular move is on the largest beat, the moment where the main character starts to lose matches the desperation in the music, or the final blow happens on the last musical crescendo. I spoke about this before in Musicality, under Musical Emphasis. Same idea.

And that’s all there is to it. Ok, maybe not all. You do still need inspired choreography and the people to pull it off. But these are the principles I’ve found most helpful in creating believable and entertaining fight scenes. Give them a try and see if they’re as successful for you as they’ve been for me. Like most things in demo team, it’s the stuff behind the scenes that really makes the difference between an average demo and a spectacular declaration of professionalism. You only get what you give, as they say.

So You Think You Want a Demo Team

After listening to me extoll the merits of demo teams in previous weeks, you’ve decided you’d like to create one of your own. Great! Fantastic. Nothing to it, right? Wrong. See that aptly worded title up there? Yes, it’s a pun on the name of my favorite show– So You Think You Can Dance– but it’s also alluding to the fact that a demo team is a lot more work than most people expect. It takes a significant investment of time, dedication on the part of everyone involved, and no small amount of talent. And not every school wants to go through the hassle of maintaining one. So before you decide whether or not you’re ready to form a team, let me walk you through the process.

There are three main ingredients you’ll need:

  1. A Captain
  2. Talented Students
  3. A Contract & Detailed Rehearsal/Performance Schedule

You’ll notice that creativity isn’t listed. That’s because at this stage, a demo team is more administrative than creative. Creativity comes after you’ve formed your curriculum, found your student-elite, and roped everyone into developing your vision. It’s good to have an idea or two in mind, but you have a lot to decide on before you ever reach that first practice.

The Captain:

This is the corner-stone ingredient. A demo team shouldn’t be a democracy. Let me rephrase that– a successful demo team is NOT a democracy. When you allow too many people to have creative input, you end up with a disjointed demo suffering from the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem. Without a single leader, it will fall apart. Trust me. I tried the democratic approach a couple times to disastrous effect.

The captain is the person who holds the whole thing together– they’re the creative mastermind, as it were. They’re in charge of choreography, music selection, brainstorming demo concepts, costuming & props, all of it! So make sure you choose them wisely. They should be talented at musicality, storytelling, and theatrical principles as well as above average in the technique department. And above all, they should be dedicated to the team’s success. Whether it’s yourself, or a high-ranking student you trust with the hefty responsibility, you’ll need that sole person at the helm of the ship. Otherwise, expect to never graduate from amateur-hour style demos, where no one knows what they’re supposed to do, the music has absolutely nothing to do with the action, and the whole thing feels like a bad martial arts film.

Talented Students:

Obviously, a demo team is nothing without the students performing on it. There are many different approaches to choosing them, and I highly encourage you to discover your own strategy.

I held auditions once a year. The culmination of our performance season was the Regional Tournament at the end of May, so it always made sense to hold auditions in June. That gave the veterans a month off, as the regularly scheduled practices were taken up with potential recruits trying out. It may seem intense to require an audition. But remember when I said they should be the elite of your student body? Well, how else to make something seem elite than to make it an exclusive privilege you have to earn? If just anyone could join, then it wouldn’t be much different than the blah, uninspired teams I mentioned in earlier posts.

Besides, I had strict guidelines for what I would accept in terms of age, rank, physical ability, etc. Cruel, maybe, but effective.

I don’t work well with young children, so I set the age cap at 13. Occasionally I would accept an exceptionally strong individual below that age, but not often. And they were never given any special treatment. If they wanted to be on the team, they had to rise to the level of the adults, not the other way around. I’ve found, through experience, that ideally you want your team to be predominantly adults. A team of children sounds like it would dripping in cute-factor, right? But it’s actually a nightmare to pull off. A team of this caliber requires more focus than most kids have, as well as massive amounts of endurance and ability. So I always advise against stacking the deck with those in the single-digit age range. Listen to my advice, and you’ll thank me later. Ignore it, and well, let’s just say I’ll get to shout, “Told you so!” at the end of the most painful year of your life, when you’ve got about three strands of hair left and no desire to ever touch a demo team ever again.

I  also don’t find white through green belts, (students with under a year’s worth of training), especially impressive, so I preferred to take people ranked brown and up. That way they had at least a little experience and range of technique to work with. And I had a contract every student had to sign detailing exactly what was expected of them. By signing the contract, they agreed to commit to the entire “season,” as I called it– basically, a year.

Sound brutal? It was. But it also worked.

The Contract & Other Paperwork:

This is everyone’s least favorite section. (Unless you’re like me and have a sick love of paperwork.) But it is crucial to establish clear expectations and ensure that everyone is on the same page. It doesn’t have to be fancy; I created mine with a simple Word .doc. It just needs to communicate your requirements for being on the team, what’s expected of the members, and what the repercussions are for breaking the rules.

Why all the seriousness?  Because although people are enthusiastic when they first try out, they often flake out on you halfway through. Or fail to make the performances. Or spend the whole practice goofing off. All of which is detrimental to your demo’s success. If someone misses the practices, they miss the choreography, compromising the ability to create seamless synchronization. If they bail on a performance, their teammates are left compensating for the hole and your storyline suffers. And if they goof off the whole time, they’ll disrupt the cohesive sense of team, damaging everyone’s focus.

The contract prevents that. Think of it as a way to weed out those who are serious from those who aren’t. Anyone unwilling to agree to the terms is not someone you want on the team. It’s a strategy specifically designed to instill fear. Commitment is scary for a lot of people. So play into that; scare the crap out of them. List as specifically as possible every detail you expect from them and what happens if they don’t live up to those expectations. Go over it point by point with the potential candidates to make sure they understand everything before signing. (Most people will sign without even reading if given the opportunity!) And most of all, take a page from college professors and be serious about it. It’s a lot scarier that way, even if you have no intention of upholding any of the rules. Professionalism breeds professionalism, and you’re creating the equivalent of a professional dance troupe or theater company. What happens when a member of those communities misbehaves? They get fired. The same should be true for your demo team. And yes, that threat works.

Along with the contract, you should supply a list of all the practices and performances scheduled for the season. Word and Excel offer handy calendar templates you can download for free. Obviously things can change over the course of a year, but having the expected list ready at the time of recruitment will also help you weed out any potential weak links. You’d be surprised how many times just seeing the schedule deterred someone from signing up, keeping me from the ever-irritating task of rearranging the entire performance when they suddenly drop out halfway through the season. A situation that’s stressful for everyone involved and should be avoided like the plague if you can.

Have I scared you off yet? No? Good.

All of this, from designating a captain, to recruiting only the elite of your school, to the commitment imparted by a contract is meant to serve one purpose– scare anyone out of ever wanting to form a team so I can be the top dog forever!

Just kidding.

It’s about creating a professional grade, performance-worthy team that will leave fellow martial artists and non-martial artists alike in awe. Not quite as simple as you first thought, is it? But once you get through all this you get to the fun part– the creativity. With the nitty-gritty out of the way, we can move on to the more enjoyable elements that make every performance a masterpiece. I must warn you that the secrets to the creativity side are just as intense, if not more so, than what we’ve covered today. But they are extremely rewarding when you see them all come together in the final result.

Coming up next in the Demo Team Series: All About Staging, tips and tricks for getting your viewers to see what you want them to see without stopping the action.

Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction

I’ll be the first to admit that my views on the martial arts– especially demo teams– are a bit progressive. And as such, probably rankle the feathers of the traditionalists out there. For the record, let me just state that I’m not devaluing traditionalism. Quite the opposite actually. There’s something powerful about being a part of something that’s steeped in the history of thousands of years, having been passed down for generations upon generations. That said, I also think that tradition without innovation can cause a style to stagnate and eventually disappear into the dust of ages. So, yes, I’m a progressive martial artist, but it’s not meant to offend.

When you reach Sam Dan (3rd Degree) in Tang Soo Do, there’s an underlying expectation that you begin to specialize in something. You’ve already semi-mastered the basics (no one’s ever perfect, after all), you can competently defend yourself and can adequately pass your knowledge on to others. Now it’s time to find your niche, to declare your martial arts identity, if you will. Some specialize in self-defense techniques, some in empty hand forms, some in specific weapons. Others choose to extensively research the history behind their art, and still others focus simply on the intricacies of instructing.

My specialty is demo teams.

What is a demo team? At their heart, demo teams, short for demonstration team, are a marketing tool. Anytime you give a performance geared toward attracting new students, you’re essentially using a demo team in its most basic form. The vernacular may vary from school to school (I’ve heard them referred to as Performance Team, Demonstration Squad, Creativity Team, etc) but the principle is always the same. And they’re very poorly utilized by the vast majority of schools out there.

Usually, they are thrown together last minute with volunteer students. They’re rarely given much rehearsal, and there’s usually even less thought behind the organization or presentation of the performance. Which gives you, not surprisingly, a highly disorganized group of students milling around looking lost, boring displays of generic techniques, and absolutely no originality. Some of you may be shaking your heads right now, thinking I’m being overly judgmental, but admit it, we’ve all seen these types of demos. Performances comprised of kids in rumpled uniforms who can barely form a straight line, displays of adequate-at-best techniques, poorly practiced routines where students end up flinging their weapons all over the place, absolutely no music except for the chaotic ki-haps of the students or maybe the counting of the instructor, and my favorite– people breaking boards any civilian could flick in half with a couple fingers, they’re so thin. There may be one or two high-ranking students that really dazzle, but overall, I think we can all agree that these types of demos are, in a word, uninspired.

Every audience is comprised of only a few things– the family of the students, who will cheer no matter how bad their person does; fellow martial artists vaguely curious how your style differs from theirs; the hecklers who think it’s amusing to shout horrible impressions of the Karate Kid at you; and potential students. That’s it. Really. So in any given audience, you maybe have 25% that can be enticed into enrolling. That’s a pretty small window in a lot of venues. How do you reach this small minority of potential customers? By entertaining them.

We live in a society flooded by the martial arts. It’s included in every action-oriented movie or TV show. It’s in nearly every video game on the market; it’s even crept it’s way into literature. So the mystique is gone, folks. It’s no longer enough to show the world what your classes look like on a daily basis. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. We’re not impressed. Doesn’t matter if we train in the martial arts or not.

Give us something original, something flashy, something that makes us pause in that parking lot or mall, or gets us in the door to your studio’s open-house. In short, give us a performance. None of this last minute, non-rehearsed, reliant-on-cute-factor, traditional uniforms stuff. What you need is a dedicated Demo Team– the elite of your student body, trained to perform, proficient in things like musicality, synchronization, advanced techniques, and storytelling/acting. These are the people who impress. They’re the ones who will entice new students to walk in the door, who will make the hecklers shut up, get the other martial artists to nod in appreciation and floor their family with their abilities. They are your secret weapon. And every studio has them. Unless you just opened your doors yesterday. In which case you have white belts. And white belts are never impressive. Sorry.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting what I’d call a master class in demo teams à la me. I’ll go over every aspect involved in my style of “professional” grade teams, including how to create your team, the principles of musicality, staging, and storytelling, and the intricacies of performing– all in regards to martial arts demonstrations. For those of you more interested in my advice/opinions on writing, don’t worry, those posts will be mixed in too. I even have one dedicated to art, (The Genesis of a Logo Design), upcoming on the schedule, for any who were starting to doubt whether I’d actually tackle that subject. 😉

For now, I will leave you with this video of my most popular demo, “The Dream Sequence.” As with all recordings, there’s something lost in the translation that would have been better experienced in person. But it will still illustrate my particular demo team style, and what I hope to impart to you in following posts. Is it the most brilliant thing ever? I wouldn’t say so. It’s actually rather slow, and I was shocked by the acclaim it received. Is it entertaining? Hopefully. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To entertain.

The Definition of Black Belt

I promised there would be posts about martial arts. And so far, I haven’t delivered. So in honor of the annual WTSDA Region 1 Championship, (which I’m not attending for the first time in, well, ever!), I present my first post dedicated to the martial arts. But be warned, my opinions on this topic can be either melodramatic and preachy, or poetically accurate, depending on whether or not you agree with me.

Regardless of which side of the fence you land on after reading this, here’s my interpretation of…


What it means to be a black belt
;

A black belt is more than the strip of fabric around your waist.

It’s helping those close to you because they need it,
not because it boosts your ego.

It’s knowing when to pick your battles and when to walk away.

It’s the dignity you have in the face of adversity,
and the grace with which you take criticism.

It’s the humility you show others,
and the respect you give to the people and
places that offered you this gift.

It’s the wisdom to realize that it’s better to be selfless,
but the strength to stand up for your convictions.

It’s the integrity you put behind your promises,
and the obligation to teach those that follow in
your footsteps these same lessons.

It is an achievement to be worn proudly,
but it’s not the color of the fabric that makes you a black belt;
it’s the attitude you present to the world.

–Kisa Whipkey
(Originally Posted to Facebook on May 17, 2011)

Shame so many forget that, or never bothered to learn it at all. So often, you will run into martial artists whose sole reason for training seems to be bragging rights; they’ve taken all these different styles (and mastered none of them); they’ve beaten X number of opponents to a bloody pulp in cage fights (proving their ability to brawl like a school-yard bully); they’ve won X amount of awards and trophies (Fantastic! So they’re basically a mockingbird attracted by shinies?); and they’ve done absolutely nothing of value to anyone but themselves.

Does the definition of black belt really have to be limited to the physical ability to kick ass? I don’t think so. True, you should be able to defend yourself effectively–why else did you learn to fight? But that’s not the main definition of the rank. You don’t need skill to be a good fighter. Luck, maybe, but not skill. Some people are simply born with natural ability, and the advent of technology has ensured that the rest of us can survive with little to no physical skill involved. So why go through the process of earning a black belt? Investing 2-4 years of your life, sweating and screaming in some archaic form of military practice? Because there’s more to it than that.

Being a black belt is a lifestyle choice, like choosing to eat healthy and exercise, or choosing to believe in the power of religious faith. It’s not about bragging at all. It’s about honor, dignity, respect, discipline and integrity. No one said that being a black belt was easy. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The martial arts were originally intended for the elite, for the warriors who protected their country (like our soldiers today), and was not offered to anyone and everyone. Attaining black belt was a grueling process that required dedication, physical prowess, and spiritual development. Something that’s been sadly watered down over the centuries. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it slip away into the forgotten realms of ancient history. We can still embody everything the martial arts was supposed to represent, whether we’re training or not.

I’ve learned that people who take the philosophical meaning behind the martial arts seriously, exhibit subtle traits you learn to notice– it’s the way they walk or stand, the way they present themselves to the world, the way they interact with others. All those things are the marks of a true black belt. And they are only gained if  the student is willing to pay attention. Each belt color represents a new set of techniques to be memorized, yes, but it also represents a new challenge that will refine their character if they let it. There are so many out there who only care about the fighting portion and completely look past the rest of it; becoming the black belts who puff themselves up with glorified victories, leaving nothing but an impression of arrogance and brutality as their legacy. Personally, I prefer meeting martial artists who are quietly proud, and let their actions speak for themselves. Poise, respectfulness and integrity are always more pleasant to encounter than arrogance, inflated egos, and superiority complexes. Don’t you think?

Simply put, the goal of the martial arts was (and is) to be the best person you could (can) be. Which is why the black belt spirit can be found even in those who have never trained. It’s in those who volunteer to help the homeless/disabled/elderly/anyone-who-needs-help. It’s in those that donate their fortunes to charities, enriching the lives of others while living modestly themselves. It’s in the teacher that goes above and beyond to help a troubled student reach graduation. And it’s in you whenever you choose to do the right thing instead of the easy one. Being a black belt is a commitment to values, whether you gained them from religion, martial arts, or simply had them imparted by your parents. You don’t have to wear a strip of fabric around your waist to be a black belt, you just have to be a good person who cares more for their family, community, or world than themselves. In my eyes, anyone fighting for a noble cause, who earns accolades with dignity and humility, or who presents themselves to their daily tasks of school, work, and socialization with integrity and respect is a black belt. An honorary one, anyway.

So the next time you run into a black belt/instructor who seems intent only on wowing you with their peacock display of achievements, smile and respectfully give them the ego-boost they’re really seeking. Then walk away, safe in the comfort of knowing something they missed. That respect is never taken, it’s earned. And that strip of fabric around their waste doesn’t entitle them to it anymore than if they didn’t have it.

And to my fellow martial artists, please remember that being a black belt doesn’t end when you walk out the door of the studio. It’s a commitment that should reflect in every aspect of your life. Decide for yourself what black belt means and then embody that to the best of your ability. If you want respect, earn it. Don’t just do things to bask in the glory of a good deed.

That’s what it really means to be a black belt.