Curse of the Yellow Belt !

It’s a hard road being an instructor sometimes. In some ways….akin to being a parent. You spend many a formative year with a student… teach them basics as a white belt, watching them slowly progress through the novice ranks, and then just as they start to make sense of everything…something changes. Sometimes, they casually challenge you in class….ask those “what if” questions, or perhaps even start to roll their eyes in class over a basic technique or skill being explained…or on being corrected on a technique they clearly thought they had nailed.  The awful part comes when this student thinks they know enough to make it on their own and so leave home and venture out into the wide world of other activities.

I have noticed that in junior ages, this tends to happen at around Yellow belt which is what this post is speaking predominately about today, and of course, I am also referring to Kyokushin Karate wherein this colour belt is ranked 6th Kyu, and not a starting rank which it can be in other styles. For a junior in a Kyokushin club with a strict syllabus, reaching this level could take about on average 2.5 years depending on training commitment etc. Now I understand that for a kid…..2 years can feel like an eternity. They feel like at this point they have been training for sooooo long and as they kind of know what they are doing in the dojo now…’s easy to lose focus. As instructors, we try our hardest to push our students to compete, to continue to aspire towards grading’s and attend dojo events etc to maintain training goals and also the social enthusiasm which seems to be very important for the kids.

But this is where the critical time for parents comes in. I’m not trying to tell any parent what to do……as I know how I would feel if someone tried to do that with me, but my advice from both sides of the coin is this : Find a way to encourage them to stay. If not for the karate (or any sport or matial art really) but for the extremely valuable and underrated skill of “sticking it out” and “seeing it through”. I can’t stress enough to read up about Grit in Angela Duckworths book with the same title…..and how this mental toughness to follow things through plays a most vital role in determining a child’s (any person’s) future success.

When we think about it….who starts Karate or traditional Martial Arts and doesn’t dream of that black belt ?! So to put that goal aside when it becomes hard…or get’s boring means that any time in life something becomes hard or tedious …then we just give in ? Move on to something new ? I mean, we can’t do that with school can we ? We can’t do that with brushing our teeth, with tidying our room, with study, with family etc.

As instructors it’s also a critical time for us to identify the needs of the yellow belt- and do what we can to continue to help them advance to the next level.  We need to recognise their level of success  and place within the dojo heirarchy, But we need to also remind them gently of what they don’t know. We need to dangle the carrot and keep them striving for more.

Early on in my Karate journey , I purchased my copy of the now rare and coveted hard cover book by Shihan Cameron Quinn, “The Budo Karate of Mas Oyama”. This book was snapped up quickly at the dojo when it first arrived and my training friends and I read ours excitedly. It held the answers to the stuff we weren’t being told in class. The “More” That we were looking for and it became like our bible. For many of us it was our first glimpse into the writings and philosophies of Sosai Oyama and back then there was no google to look up any of this stuff. If there was…I certainly didn’t know about it till years later ! But anyway…..In this book Shihan Quinn breaks down the belt colours and the corresponding qualities which the karateka should be developing at each level. He also talks about the colours and where they align with Chakra colours and energy centres of the body. It’s quite fascinating to think that Yellow is often considered the colour of self confidence, which would coincide nicely with the idea that at this level the student has moved from the novice to intermediate ranks and therefore we would assume would have a certain level of confidence in their abilities. But that’s just it……it’s only a start…perhaps even a false confidence.

To quote from Shihan Quinn directly from his book, “ Until Yellow belt, the student concentrated on purely physical skills – balance, stability, hand-eye co-ordination, and general technical ability. The yellow belt requires the student to now give serious consideration not only to physical training, dynamic balance and co-ordination, but also to the psychological aspects of training – perception, awareness, assertion, and other manifestations of will power”.  Will power ! Yes……will power is sticking with things. About pushing when it’s difficult and moving up divisions, about more responsibility in the dojo, about learning more kata and being in that weird middle place where you aren’t low enough rank to get away with everything…but not the big fish in the ocean just yet.

I know I take it personally each time I get that email from a parent, or have to have that conversation about the student leaving and it’s awful every time. After 2o something years of teaching….you never get used to it. After years, you know the student well and have spent hours upon hours with them and helping them learn , pushing them through tough times in the dojo and then here they are leaving you !  I take it to heart because I question myself then…have I been a good enough instructor…or how can I motivate my students more …am I not doing enough etc ? But then I realise it’s more than me….and it’s parents, and students, it’s everyone and we need to work as a team.  I can say for sure though how many times I have also had the conversation with a returning student about how difficult it is to get back into training. How frustrating to re-learn so much, and to train and think…I could do this before…and also to look back and think where would they be if they just didn’t quit ?!

Getting the black belt is not for everyone , and I guess if everyone had one then we wouldn’t want one anyway as perahps then it wouldn’t be quite as special, however it is surely an achievement to be proud of. It is a sign of courage and commitment and of a no quit atttidude that serves us in every facet of our lives. Let us encourage our kids to perhaps not quit – to maybe reduce training to try a new interest….or to cross train to maintain enthusiasm….but to keep one foot in the door and advance continuously towards a once held desire no matter how slowly. It is not how quickly we get there…but only that we do and to be so close…to have dedicated so much time already only to put it aside is a huge shame and one that I think has ramifications outside of just the dojo.


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