While I no longer look the part, I used to be an avid martial artist. I often practiced multiple times each week – in addition to several normal workouts in the gym! While several injuries and responsibilities now keep me away from my passion, the people I met and tradition’s I studied are a formative part of who I am today.
My experience studying martial arts showed me that there are both healthy and unhealthy parts of martial arts cultures. At its best, a martial arts tradition instills respect, confidence, humility, and responsibility in its followers. At its worst, a martial arts schools produces arrogant, cocky, immature students.
What makes the difference?
As a child, I was shaped by my earliest dojo with the latter attitude. The importance of hard work and respect were overshadowed by the goal of achieving the ultimate reward: the black belt. Obtaining your black belt was the destination; each belt was one rung on the latter toward becoming someone of importance. It was not the character of the student that mattered, but the belt around her waist. Once you obtained your black belt, you had finally arrived; there was little else to learn. It was now your turn to tell those lesser than you what to do.
After stepping away from the sport for a few years, I returned as a young adult. I was shaped in two schools and traditions which taught me the importance of respect, leading by example, and humility. In these schools, the character of the student mattered as much as their skill. The black belt was not a destination but the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning and growth. It signified that you had mastered enough of the basics to learn from and incorporate other techniques and traditions. To use a religious term, obtaining your black belt encouraged catholicity with other martial artists through relationships built on trust, hard work, and humble submission to each other.