No one was tougher than a black belt in my small town youth. The phrase itself inspired awe, fear, and a little bit of jealousy. The only legitimate black belt in our tiny farming community ran the local shotokan school. Other than him, movies were our exposure to martial artists. The image of a trained black belt brought to mind not just scary physical skills but also someone who had an emotional control evidenced by a zen-like attitude. The violence portion was one aspect, but there was a touch of mysticism as well. In my youth, far East exoticism was a reality. I believed that the martial arts hid truths about life that could transcend the boring, dull reality of a Midwestern teen. Once in junior high, I met a kid who lied about having a black belt, and when I found out that little bit of untruth, I understood. That lie fed his ego. The black belt was to be admired. And let’s not forget the rumor that black belts had to register their hands with the police because those hands were deadly weapons.
As I grew up, I met a wide spectrum of martial artists. From the white belt who won MMA fights to the black belt who was just out to make money to the Filipino Martial Artist not concerned with rank, I realized that my concept of the martial arts was limited and wrong. Martial artists are as varied as all people. This seems obvious in hindsight, but when you’re from a small town and everyone looks and acts like you, you think that’s the way the world is. When the movies you see reflect the same themes – a white male taking lessons in self defense from a mysterious Asian man, you believe that’s the correct way of doing things. After leaving home for college, I was exposed to different peoples, lifestyles, sexualities, philosophies, religions, and martial arts. I learned that the belt around their waist had no more to say about them than the book in their hand. People are people are people. Exposure is the cure for myth and ignorance.
Counterpoint Tactical System has exposed me to more black belts than my previous stints in the martial arts. Not all of them are CTS black belts. The lesson still holds; no two black belts are alike. But I have learned from each of them in some way. It would be easy to say that a black belt means leadership or service or whatever, but I’ve seen these qualities in students at every rank along the spectrum. Being awarded a black belt does not flip a switch, and suddenly these attributes exist. It is the journey that instills – or brings outs – the values of leadership, etiquette, service, and humility. The instructors and mentors help the student discover these values in themselves.
I also can’t say that a black belt is just a belt. The celebrations after the black belt tests at Iron Mountain camp show that the belt has meaning. The joy and relief at passing that test is different from the ones that come before and the few that come after (as far as I’ve seen). Being awarded the first degree black belt has meaning. It is recognition of all the hard work, all the time and effort, that the student has put into the system. It is a physical symbol of accomplishing a goal. The first degree black belt is recognition of the journey by the founder/head of system/instructor that the student has made, but it is also the marker of the journey that lay ahead.
This year, I am training for my first degree black belt and am hoping to test at 2015 Iron Mountain camp. So, what exactly does the CTS black belt mean to me? It is the culmination of a goal that I set at my first Iron Mountain camp in 2010. This rank is a turning point. All of the foundation skills earned in the color belt spectrum are now brought together with a step up in complexity. The black belt is an acknowledgement of my effort from my instructor Master Zach Whitson and a challenge to be a leader. It is also joining a group of skilled individuals that I respect.
All of that is in the future, though. It’s worth thinking about but not dwelling upon. If I had to test today for black belt, I wouldn’t be ready. Each week, I get a step closer. Over the course of the year, I’ll have opportunities for Master Whitson and my friend, Mike Miller of Springfield FMA, to review my progress. They’ll let me know if I’m on track or not. If I’m not ready, I will not test this year. The belt, the rank, isn’t important without the skills that go with it. I’ve witnessed five first degree black belt tests over the course of my CTS tenure. I’ve watched everyone but Josh Ryer and Kevin Kilroe stand in front of Master Whitson and a testing board. The common denominator is skill. Each had their strengths and weaknesses. I could see the effort, the hours, put into training. It is inspiring to watch each and every time, and when I am training my curriculum, I think about all those tests. I think about what abilities I need. The bar has been set high. That brings a smile to my face and motivation to my soul. If I don’t get it this year, I will eventually. I’ll celebrate, and then the next day, I’ll set a new goal. Until then, I’ll keep training, continue learning, and trying to improve. My goal is to join this list.