Monday, July 28, 2014

Black Belts and Egos

The shortest joke ever goes something like this; “Pretentious? Moi?” I bring this up because just about every martial artist I know has complained at one time or another about the inflated egos of black belts. The two seem to go together; black belts and “exaggerated self esteem.” So, when any given martial artist, like um, er, me – starts to pontificate on the egos of his fellow artists, a certain degree of skepticism should be applied.

If you have spent any time around black belts, you’ve likely been witness to some of the less enjoyable personality peculiarities. They (we?) seem to travel in cliques; of which you are either ‘in’ or definitely ‘not in’. Some of our school’s senior belts are completely unapproachable – for any reason. Ever.

Conversely, two of the nicest individuals I know are my Master, and his Master. These gentle men gentlemen are the personification of the philosophies embedded in martial arts. They could kill you in an instant; i.e. their skills are impeccable. And yet, they are the most approachable genuinely nice, helpful, friendly men you could ever meet.

Are you one of the cold, hard, ego-driven untouchable black belts? Or are you a skilled practitioner who is open to any student at any time for questions, assistance, and encouragement? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to see which you are:
  • When you are at the school, before or after class do you congregate with other black belts, or do you look for, seek out, and openly engage in conversation with students of all ranks?

  • Do you establish a physical and emotional barrier between yourself and junior belts so as to maintain a chain-of-command hierarchy, or do you speak, touch, and communicate with junior belts as human equals?

  • Do you smile?

  • Are you kind in your critique of junior belt techniques, attitude, effort, and progress? It is one thing to occasionally use aggressive motivational vocabulary, such as “You think your stance is as low as it can go, but I’m telling you it is not. Now bend your knees more, and stay there.” That is very different than humiliating and belittling a student. I like to say, don’t push your students to greatness; pull them.

  • Do you ever let your junior belts see you struggle? Are they ever witness to your fallibility, humanness, or personal journey. There is nothing that will bond two practitioners faster and stronger than shared suffering. Let them see you sweat at the end of a hard class – just like them. Smile with them. Commiserate.

  • Do you say thank you, and shut up? Junior belts will compliment you from time to time. “Student: Nice class tonight Master, thank you.” “You: Thank you ‘John’, I’m glad you enjoyed it.” They don’t need to hear how the class you took two nights ago was much harder, or that you disagree and thought tonight’s class was boring, unfulfilling, or too easy. If a student says “You have a nice side-kick”, you don’t need to recount the time your Grand Master complimented you in front of the United Nations, simulcast via satellite to 113 countries. Just say “Thanks.”

  • Do you ever discuss your tournament victories? Ever? If you have a number of victories in forms, patterns, hyung, kata, or sparring; your junior belts will find out on their own over time just how well recognized you are. Every time you bring up the issue – you diminish your accomplishment and slip lower in their opinion. My Master won 17 consecutive first place trophies in tournament competition. I only know because I read it in a magazine article after studying under him for nine years.

Well, there you have it. The quintessential guide to being the perfect black belt from a clearly humble, yet highly intelligent instructor. I have to go now – it seems I have to go buy new hats as all of mine have shrunk.

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