Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Black Belt Bound: Never Fight Alone

"Don’t Break the New Sempai!"

© 2009 Leighann Lord

When I began consistently studying martial arts, I was in awe of the higher belt women, not necessarily the Black Belts. They seemed like exotic unapproachable Ninja’s from another planet. I was more fascinated by the belt just under Black – The Brown Belts. They were higher than moi on the martial art’s food chain but it was easier to imagine that I could possibly someday be one of them.

I remember asking a million questions: "How long have you been training? Do you plan to go for your Black Belt; if so, when? How do you know when you’re ready?" It was a pleasant bit of turnabout when I eventually became a Brown Belt and was asked the same questions. I then realized there are no easy answers.

Being "ready" is different for everybody. Knowing your stuff is, of course, important but so is your discipline, commitment, and physical conditioning. The other not so small hurtle is the judgement of your Sensei. Testing for your Black Belt is by invitation only. This is a lot to explain to a wide eyed new student. Sometimes a simple "I don’t know" or a "Soon, I hope" is all I could say.

When the planets aligned and I was invited to test for my 1st Degree, the excitement and genuine pride expressed to me from my fellow students was startling. I had more than one person tell me – without a shade of pretense – that they had no doubt I would pass the test and get my belt. Their rock solid confidence in me should have been encouraging, but I was bewildered.

I was training harder than ever and all I could see were the mistakes I was making, and all the things that needed fixing before an swiftly approaching deadline. Going for it sounded good in theory, but the reality was terrifying.

As the test date drew near, I increased my hours of training and the rest of my life was put largely on auto pilot. I began asking myself, "What the hell am I doing?" Between the:

- neck and shoulder muscle spasms,
- sore right calf and in-step,
- sprained left and right big toes,
- simultaneously stiff and rickety left pinky, and
- elbows that cracked as loud as low caliber gun shots

I certainly didn’t feel like a Black Belt candidate. I felt like hell. That’s usually about the time when someone would give me some unexpected words of encouragement, tell me how proud or inspired they were, and insist – once again – that they knew I was going to get my Black Belt. Apparently everybody "knew" but me.

"Are you nervous?" was a question I was asked all to frequently. At first the answer in my heart was a big loud, "Hell, yes!" There were moments when I was scared out of mind that I was doing all this work for nothing; that I’d go to the test, do my best and it wouldn’t be good enough. Out loud I just said a simple, "Yes," so as not to scare myself more or the person asking the question. Truthfully though, the real possibility of failure was never too far from my mind.

The Black Belt test is difficult. Many people don’t pass it on the first try. A low and ever so reasonably sounding Whisper in the back of my mind would say, "It’s an accomplishment in and of itself just to be invited to test at all. There’s no shame in having to take it more than once." True, but then The Whisper would go on to remind me that I wasn’t a good test taker. It reminded me of my SAT, Trigonometry Regents and the FOUR times I took my driver’s test.

With much effort, I pushed aside that Whisper of Worry with the voices of the people who missed no opportunity to wish me well. I fastened onto the surety of their words, and the conviction in the eyes until the inner whisper of doubt and fear was beaten back. I borrowed their confidence until mine could stand on it’s own.

When the day of the test finally came I was honestly too tired to be nervous. I just wanted to get it over with. I wanted to bring home that damn belt or know the reason why. I felt freakishly focused and ready. They put me through my paces – a story for another time; I promise – and I earned my 1st Degree Black Belt on the first try. This is a major accomplishment that I worked very hard for, but I did not earn it alone.

Whenever I had class my Parents never failed to dog sit with my neurotic Cocker Spaniel, Rolie. My Husband supported my quest one thousand percent. He dragged me to the gym in the morning with him to work on my cardio, and he put up with the not so sexy smell of Icy Hot® that I wore so often it became my personal fragrance.

Many of my Classmates and Instructors who helped get me ready were there the day of test, standing on the sidelines shouting instructions and encouragement as I fought (and fight I did – a story for another time; I promise). My Husband was in the stands, camera rolling. When I heard the magic words, "You passed!" from the Senseis who judged my test I was both overjoyed and relieved. When they went on to congratulate me on a job well done I didn’t think it could get any better than that, until I turned to see the expectant faces of my friends.

Before I could get the words "I passed" fully out of my mouth, I was mobbed. It was the group hug to end all group hugs. It was amazing to have so many people genuinely sharing in my happiness. The joy of achievement and gratitude washed over all the pain, doubt, fear and sacrifice. It was suddenly all worth it. It sounds eerily like having a baby. I certainly cried like one.

I heard someone in the crowd say, "Don’t break the new Sempai!" Sempai is the title given to all 1st Degree Black Belts. It’s a Japanese word meaning big brother or sister. Irrespective of age you become a mentor to other students; an example of what is possible.

That little Whisper in the back of mind said, "I never want to do this again!" But a more confident inner voice said, "Next stop, 2nd Degree." But that’ll be a story for another time; I promise.

Thank you for reading The Urban Erma.

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