Monday, November 14, 2011

There is no Karate Season (or, My Goal is NOT Black Belt)

On several occasions now, I have had youth students, and even the occasional parent, ask me, "When is karate over?"   With this question they are not asking me when an individual class ends, or even when tuition comes due again, but rather, they are legitimately asking how long they will be with me, and when in fact their training will come to an end.  The answer, of course is a simple one: Never.  Karate does not end, and martial arts training is, or should be, a life long pursuit.  This answer, though, is often met by wide eyes and an uncomprehending look of disbelief.  "How can something never end?" they seem to wonder.  I am no less shocked by their response than they are by mine, but perhaps I shouldn't be.

To most children today, everything has a set beginning and a set ending: their favorite TV shows, the seasons for their other activities and sports, and even the school year.  There seems to be an unhealthy obsession with reaching some arbitrary point and declaring with satisfaction:  "I did it!  I'm done!"  This attitude misses the most important question though: "What's next?"  By constantly reinforcing the idea that reaching a goal equates with something ending, we do a disservice to everyone. 

I often see martial arts studios in which the slogan "My Goal is Black Belt" is prominently displayed.  Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with this.  Black Belt is a worthy goal.  It is not the slogan itself that perpetuates the problem.  It is our students' (and their parents') perceptions of this slogan that causes problems.  The perception is, all too often, that "My ONLY goal is black belt."  Many students who reach this goal fail ask and answer the important question: "What's next?"  In so doing, they have decided that their goals are achieved, that they are done, and they choose to quit, in order to find and conquer another goal or pursue a different activity.

Some of the blame, then, does fall on those of us who are instructors.  At some point, we have failed to instill in our students that the true goal of martial arts is an ongoing perfection of oneself: physically, mentally, and spiritually. As true perfection can never be attained, the goal is unreachable, and therefore must be pursued over an entire lifetime. This is hard concept for many students to grasp, though, so instead we place much focus on the attaining of intermediary belt ranks, and, unintentionally, an over-importance on the far too-coveted rank of black belt.  We inadvertently imply that there is an arbitrary finish line; that there is an end in sight to our students' training. If this were the biggest problem, it might not be so hard to address, but the real problem, as I see it, goes even deeper.

By setting our students' sights on the finish line we have constructed for them, we allow them to decide that they can create their own finish lines when things begin to get "too hard."  Make no mistake, at some point most students will decide in their own minds that their training has reached a point at which it is "too hard."  Some of these students will continue to push themselves, work through their problems, and continue forward on their own martial paths.  Some, however, will decide that if one goal can be set as an ending point, then there is no reason why that ending point can't be adjusted to fit their own needs.  They begin to decide that they will stop after reaching red belt, or after brown belt, or orange belt.  After all, they have achieved their goals, so it is fine.  They "did it."  They're done.

Only by establishing our true expectations up front can we expect students to understand our overall message.  We do have intermediate goals, and each of these goals is marked by an advancement in rank.  These goals are intermediate goals, though, and must be reinforced as such.  None of them represents an ending point.  There is no finish line; not even at black belt.  When our students reach black belt, this should be celebrated.  It is a great accomplishment.  It is not an end, though.  Our black belts need to be reminded to look up from their waists and see that others are still running the race.  Are they?

So, as it often does, our subject returns to the beginning.  My expectations are clear. My answers are simple. There is no Karate Season.  Taking extended breaks from training simply because you feel the need to take a break is not "okay" in my eyes.  My goal is not black belt.  It reaches far beyond that intermediate goal.

When does karate end?   Never.
When will I stop training?  Never.
When will I stop asking "What's next?"  Never.

I will almost certainly experience failures along the way.  I will always attempt to make my successes outweigh these failures though, and I will never give up.

How long will I keep it up?  Always.

Why?  Because there is no Karate Season.  All the seasons, all the days, all the weeks, all the months, and all the years of my life will be in some way affected by my martial arts training.  The least I can to is give some of that time right back to my chosen martial art, on a consistent and ongoing basis.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.