Saturday night October 3rd, 2015, Master Zach Whitson awarded me the first degree black belt in Counterpoint Tactical System at the the ninth annual Iron Mountain camp. That weekend was one of the best of 2015, and in terms of life events, it ranks up there with finishing both of my master’s degrees. I have a confession to make. I don’t feel like a black belt. I expected to feel different, to feel…I don’t know, like I’d arrived. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly proud of this honor. I am confident of my skills and satisfied with the work required to develop those skills. I’m honored to represent CTS in the St. Louis area, and I love teaching it. But I still don’t feel like a black belt.
I’ve started this entry about a dozen times, and, yet, it remained unwritten until now. How do I write a single essay about the completion of a five year task? Sometimes, writers are too close to their subject. One of my writing instructors talked about needing an emotional distance to properly dig into the topic. Maybe I’m not separated enough from the event yet to write about achieving my goal. Maybe I’m stuck in paralysis by analysis. Even this start isn’t correct. But it will have to do.
At the 2015 Iron Mountain camp, I passed my first degree black belt exam. In reality, this exam began five and a half years ago with a trip down to Springfield, MO to my first seminar with Master Zach Whitson. An excellent seminar that made me curious enough to visit the Iron Mountain camp later that fall. At the end of the 2010 camp, I set a goal to earn a black belt in CTS. An off-and-on hobby of mine throughout life, I didn’t stuck with any martial art for very long. Certainly not long enough for a black belt. Three years is the longest that I remember sticking with an art, and even then, it wasn’t a continuous three years. Between moving, philosophical differences, not liking the training environment, sheer laziness, and other distractions, training in the arts flitted in and out of my life. It never was a priority. Five and a half years ago, I met a martial art for me. Because of the CTS training model, because of the instructor and environment that he’s cultivated, and because of the people involved, I’ve made a commitment to CTS that I haven’t to other arts. This isn’t looking down on other arts; I’m just saying that CTS fits me and my martial philosophy.
Based on my history, sticking with CTS long enough to earn a black belt seemed unlikely, and it hasn’t been an easy journey. More than once, I wondered if I had it in me. Over the past five years, I learned a lot about myself and the martial arts. The struggles with ego have been numerous, almost continuous. When I started my journey in 2010, I had a teacher that I saw weekly, and I got used to that for three years. Starting in 2013, I switched to being a student directly under Master Whitson, and I became the STL Counterpoint club. While I saw Zach and Mike Miller on regular intervals, my interactions with an instructor went from weekly to, at most, once every two months. Instead of relying on someone else to teach others the basics, I had to become a leader.
But these challenges have been minor compared to all that I’ve gained on this journey. I’ve made great friends through this art. In fact, three of the groomsmen in my wedding earlier this year are friends because of CTS. My eating habits changed, and training showed me that I needed to get into better shape. CTS has changed my life for the better. So much that I have to say it again. CTS has improved my life, and I’ve spent the time since camp reflecting on those changes.
In Counterpoint Tactical System, the first degree black belt is the big one; it is the milestone where you’re added to the CTS family tree. As such an important moment in a student’s journey, it’s also an opportunity to review the trip so far. That’s what I’ve been doing, and it turns out that I expected the black belt to feel like a finish line. With my history of quitting martial arts, I thought my attention would wonder. That first weekend in October, I learned that I wasn’t done, that the black belt isn’t a destination. For me, it’s just another point on the map.
What happened? How did the concept of the black belt change from a destination to just another waypoint? The answers to these questions were immediately obvious. Master Zach Whitson, my instructor, continues to learn. The advanced CTS students are still learning. Their example has been that the martial arts are a lifetime pursuit of self-improvement. Because those examples have been actions instead of words, they’ve made subtle shifts in my own mindset. Observing the CTS leadership and students over the past five years has been an honor. It’s often talked about that the martial arts are more than just technique, more than just training, more than just in the dojo. In CTS, I’ve found this.
So, where do I go from here? At this point, I’m unsure. Since the goal of a first black belt is an easy one to make, I never set any goals past it. There was no thought given to an ultimate goal. What do I hope to accomplish by training martial arts? I don’t really know. Before now, the goal of first degree black belt was enough. Currently, I don’t have a new long term goal, but it’s in work. Lucky for me, my next short term goal started upon passing my first degree exam. Or, to be more explicit, the next milestone is the second degree black belt. This natural progression buys me some time to plan out a new long term goal. Maybe it’s time for a new white belt to go with a new CTS black belt. I don’t know. Where do I want to go in my study of the martial arts? Wherever I end up, I’m happy knowing that CTS is the main part of my journey, and that the skills I’ve learned are the basis for this next stage of learning.
After the pride of accomplishment, the joy of recognition, and the relief of self-inflicted pressure, a surprising feeling emerged. Gratitude. As my emotions settled and I returned to daily life, I felt thankful. Part of the review process has been looking at how much support I’ve had over the last few years to get to this goal. Having a team to help accomplish goals is an important part of success, and I am immensely grateful for the team that’s helped me accomplish my goal.
To Master Zach Whitson, thank you for your time, your teachings, and for all the conversations. It’s an honor to represent you and your system. I look forward to continuing this journey with your help.
Evan Ringle, thank you for starting me off in CTS and walking with me on the first half of this journey. You started off my basics and provided accountability in the beginning.
Mike Miller, thanks for taking over as my training partner. Thanks for all the beer, bruises, and laughter. And beer.
Thanks to Ryan Zimmerman and all the STL Counterpoint crew who helped me prepare.
Thanks to Josh Ryer, Kevin Wagner, Brian Brown, Russ Haas, David Curet, and Joel Daugherty for leading by example. Each of you has been a positive influence in the five years that I’ve known you.
Thanks, last but never least, to all the CTS practitioners. It’s amazing to be a part of this system.