Be Like a Child

Young children crack me up. They are curious, joyful, exuberant, and playful; their youthful vigor provides them the spirit and energy to conquer the world. All of that is combined with inexperience, and zero impulse control, rendering them irrational, foolhardy, and short-sighted. Add to this the ability to externalize pretty much everything, and you’re left with a boat-load of random, all day long. For adults accustomed to a more organized, methodical approach to their day, this kid energy can be disconcerting. I find it refreshing, and quite amusing.

All of that curiosity and vigor are advantageous to their ever-growing understanding of the world around them. The more they experience, the more they learn. As they learn to recognize cause and effect, the less irrational and short-sighted they become. Provided their random actions don’t lead to great bodily harm or death, they are surely making progress. As parents and teachers, we need to allow them the space to make mistakes and learn, while guiding them to avoid those which would be catastrophic.

Come to think of it, this is also a pretty accurate description of new white belts, regardless the age. They come in with the enthusiasm of trying something new, but their unfamiliarity with the art leads them to make mistakes. As instructors and upper belts, it is our responsibility to provide them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, while guiding them to avoid those that are detrimental to their training. (Being sidelined because of injury doesn’t help anybody) Of course, as their mat time increases, their experiences will be the most powerful teacher of all.

This is part of the beauty of life on the mat: it is a direct reflection of life in general. The lessons we learn in the finite sphere of our dojo, or training hall, correlate to the bigger world of our daily lives. These ultimate “truths,” if you will, cut across all boundaries, whether one is an athlete, CEO, or parent.

“A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves – our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world. The conflicts that take place inside the dojo help us handle conflicts that take place outside.”

Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts. 1979.

We’ll cover a number of these truths over the next few weeks.

See you on the mat.

Martial Arts Belts

Who remembers this iconic scene from the movie Karate Kid (1984)? After the fight in which Miyagi saves Daniel San’s butt, demonstrating some old-school martial skills, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) inquires, “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?” Miyagi replies,

“Canvas. You like? JC Penney, $3.98. <laughs>. In Okinawa belt mean no need rope hold up pants! <laughs>”

Miyagi then goes on to clarify that karate (and by extension, martial arts in general) is about what’s in one’s head and heart, not about the belt somebody wears. I have yet to meet a long-time practitioner, whether in Aikido, Karate, Taekwondo, or Brazilian Jiujitsu, who wouldn’t agree with this sentiment. Training in the martial arts is just as much about who we are mentally and spiritually, as much as how capable we are physically. We want to develop the mind and spirit of a warrior, by conditioning them along with our bodies to be tough, resilient, and ever-improving.

While it isn’t about the belts,  all martial art schools have some sort of belt system, with any number of various color belts incrementally dividing up the years prior to black belt. As tools, these belts can serve a few purposes. They provide a framework for instructors to work within, developing expectations and curriculum appropriate for the different levels, as well as helping track students’ progress. They can also be used to create more equitable divisions in competition. Finally, belts can help students’ motivation by providing shorter-term goals to work toward.

At Werneck Family Jiu Jitsu, we utilize the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation belt system.

BJJ belts 4-15

The above colors are further divided into approximately quarterly stripe tests. Stripes are awarded after a student has attended the required number of classes, maintained a respectful, hardworking attitude in class, and demonstrated the appropriate techniques at a satisfactory level. After enough stripes are attained the student can promote to the next belt.

At the age of 16, and at the instructors discretion, a student that holds a Grey, Yellow, or Orange belt would transition to a Blue belt, and those who have a Green belt would transition into Blue or Purple.

Adult belts

The biggest pitfall of belt systems, as Karate Kid’s Miyagi-San reminds us, is the tendency for students to focus on the belts as opposed to the learning. Students can get caught up in achieving the next belt rather than being a martial artist; they can worry too much about the destination, instead of enjoying the trip. When somebody tells me that “after getting their black belt they were ready to move on to the next thing,” I realize they missed the entire point of the martial arts. Getting a belt isn’t a box on a checklist. It signifies a step up in training; it represents increased responsibility to one’s self and their commitment to excellence.

At the end of the day it should truly be all about living the BJJ lifestyle.

See you on the mat.